My husband likes to make fun of me because I still listen to my trusty old 120GB iPod (or, ChaiPod, as I affectionately named it), and also because about 99% of the music on said ChaiPod came out at least a decade ago. But as the saying goes, you can’t help who you love. You also can’t help the music you loved when you were a teenager.
Back then, music meant more to me than anything else. As I entered high school and my shifting interests and desires began separating me from my middle school friends, music made me feel like I belonged somewhere. It validated the experiences I had and emotions I felt. It was almost magical, the way these bands seemed to see straight into my chest, as though transcribing the particular fractures of my heart. They were strangers, and yet somehow they knew me intimately.
But that’s the beauty of music, isn’t it? As a teen, I felt like so many songs existed solely for me. Now, I know many others probably felt the same way.
I still genuinely love all—okay, most of—the songs crowding my ChaiPod, because they helped me learn how to survive heartbreak and sadness. They assured me I wasn’t alone. They taught me to tell my own stories. And for that, I will always be grateful.
Here’s a list of four songs (and then some) from my teenage years that still totally get me in the gut, and also helped inspire my debut novel, The Midnights.
- Taking Back Sunday – You Know How I Do
I’m opening my list with an opening track. Turns out many of my favorite songs are opening tracks, and I think that’s because of how important they are to an album. If opening tracks set the musical and emotional tone, then “You Know How I Do” is a force to be reckoned with. It’s everything I want an opening track to be: addictive, emotionally resonant, totally sing along-able, and propelled by a surprising tonal arc of its own.
Something else I particularly love about this song, and early Taking Back Sunday in general, is the playfulness of the lyrics. I remember obsessing over the liner notes for Tell All Your Friends because the lyrics printed were slightly different from the lyrics sung, and this fascinated me. In my own songwriting, I spent days obsessing over word choice, line breaks, and inflections.
As far as my word obsession goes, I guess not much has changed.
See also: “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” by Brand New; “Another Word for Desperate” by Straylight Run; “The Best Deceptions” by Dashboard Confessional.
- Saves the Day – Firefly
I first heard Through Being Cool, Saves the Day’s second album, when I was thirteen, about to start high school, and it totally changed my life. They were the first band I discovered all on my own in the wilderness of the still-early internet. They were the band that led me to all the others, and inspired me to pick back up the guitar. Freshman year was a rough, lonely place in general, but thanks to Saves the Day and my newfound devotion to music, I got through it. I found my people. And, most importantly, I discovered a creative outlet for myself.
At their best (the Through Being Cool to Stay What You Are years, IMO), Saves the Day had this bloody, ripped open emo heart that skipped along with pop punk flourishes—a combination that suited me perfectly. But “Firefly,” the final track on SWYA, also had this wild tinge of excitement and hope. This song felt like the spark of new love, when you’re giddy and existing outside yourself and you know it might end terribly, but you want it bad enough to try.
See also: “Hurricane” by Something Corporate; “The Drama Summer” by The Starting Line; “Valentine” by The Get Up Kids.
- Rilo Kiley – With Arms Outstretched
As a young female musician wading through the dark waters of a world that seemed to consist entirely of boys, Jenny Lewis was my lighthouse. She was a talented musician, and an imaginative songwriter. She was messy but unapologetic, sad and honest. She was the antihero that teenage me needed. And The Execution of All Things, Rilo Kiley’s second album, is the epitome of this.
With catchy upbeat melodies, strangely dark and poetic lyrics, and an almost haunting refrain that flits in and out between songs, Execution was more than a collection of songs about doomed love (aka the soundtrack of my life). Lewis seemed to examine herself through her music—often critically. And that raw, unbridled truth enthralled me.
So why “With Arms Outstretched”? Sentimental reasons, mostly. Particular memories, and the distinct California feeling I always assigned to the song. It sounds like my youth. It sounds like home. It was also one of the first songs I ever learned to play on guitar.
See also: “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl” by Broken Social Scene; “Cigarette” by Yellowcard; “Nights of the Living Dead” by Tilly and the Wall.
- Jimmy Eat World – A Praise Chorus
If I’m being perfectly honest, my love of this song might have something to do with the fact that certain boys I had crushes on played it at a school assembly once. (Yes, multiple boys. Multiple crushes. No, it didn’t work out… with any of them.)
But more than that, “A Praise Chorus” has always seemed to me like the perfect encapsulation of teenage-hood. It’s a song about taking chances, even when it terrifies you. It’s a song about music, and how the right combination of melody and lyric can make you feel virtually invincible. “I want to fall in love tonight,” the singer repeats again and again, and yes, that’s all I wanted, the feeling I spent so many years chasing. I was ready for love, for adventure, for whatever the world had to offer. Ready, always, for the rest of my life to finally begin.
See also: “The New Year” by Death Cab for Cutie; “At Nature’s Mercy” by Hot Rod Circuit; “Date With The Night” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Want to check out these songs and see what else inspired The Midnights? Head over to Spotify, where the full book playlist can be streamed.
Sarah Nicole Smetana is the author of The Midnights. Learn more about her on her website.