With just ten months left on the clock ticking off my teenage years, and with another meaningless Valentine’s Day rapidly approaching, I thought it would be a fun idea to celebrate the special awkward affections that constitute the “love” that teens everywhere feel. It all starts the second that switch gets flipped, and you realize the other gender isn’t all that icky. Really, it ends the same for everyone–in heartbreak. Can one really evolve their idea of love into one compatible with an adult’s world without at some point having that idea broken or tarnished? I don’t think so. It’s part of growing up. Part of learning to be less selfish. Everyone must love and lose before they can love, in my young, naive opinion. These songs countdown the best of that ‘love’, the awkwardness, the selfishness, and when it comes to kissing, the regular substitution of enthusiasm for accuracy.
10. I Saw You Standing There (The Beatles) – The Beatles were to evolve into the most artistically complex and musically diverse band in pop music history, but not before churning out chart-topping pop gems like this. The first song off the Fab Four’s first album, this song introduced the world to a band that was light, airy; young gentlemen that mothers would approve of. It’s all jangly riffs and handclaps, punctuated by swooping, smitten lyrics that center on promises of fidelity and innocuous dancing. It validates the nervousness and subsequent uplifting payoff that that first attraction between two brings.
9. Anyone Else But You (The Moldy Beaches) – A cover of this cut by Michael Cera and Ellen Page anchored the movie Juno, but it was always a teenage love song classic. Sweet and goofy and never taking itself seriously. THAT’S teenage love. Or at least, teenage love at its best. Musically the song couldn’t be any simpler. The lyrics couldn’t be any plainer, any more direct. There’s no mind games here. The two voices connectat the ends of verses, leading up to one of the sweetest and most heartfelt choruses in indie rock. Even the Konami Code makes an appearance!
8. Scenes From an Italian Restaurant (Billy Joel) – Joel’s sprawling epic spans seven minutes in length, ten years in story, and teenage love gained and lost by its subjects. “Brenda and Eddie were the popular steadies, and the king and the queen of the prom / Riding around with the car top down and the radio on / Nobody looked any finer, or was more of a hit at the Parkway Diner / We never knew we could want more than that out of life / Surely Brenda and Eddie would always know how to survive.” That, in a nutshell, is what it’s like to be a teenager in love. Everything your life is ahead of you and what you want is completely attainable. And yet, Joel acknowledges and even romanticizes the other shoe falling: Brenda and Eddie started to fight when the money got tight, and they just didn’t count on the tears. A lesson that Joel doesn’t try to teach us, as he knows we must all learn it on our own, but it’s how he finds common ground. Place that story inside a larger one centering on two old classmates meeting and catching up, and you have a frame story that’s poignant and perfect.
7. Jack and Diane (John Mellancamp) – By now the little ditty about Jack and Diane isn’t so little. It launched Mellancamp’s career into the stratosphere and made him an unintentional proponent of terrible 80’s hair styles. In the same vein as other Mellancamp hits, this one is drenched in teenage nostalgia (hold that thought for a second, as we’re zeroing in on the king of that particular sub-genre). It’s a simple song about the impermanence of those first thrilling relationships. It’s never easy coming to terms with the fact that you were wrong about who you were certain was the one, especially when there’s no previous experience to draw from. Mellancamp’s quick to remind us, however, that life goes on, and that we need to “hold on to 16 as long as you can / Changes come around real soon, make us women and men.” Thanks, John. Now we’re heartbroken and we’re reminded of our own crushing mortality.
6. Leader of the Pack (The Shangri-Las) – Classic. The first truly great teenage tragedy song. Betty is forced by her parents to dump Jimmy after they chide her that he hails from “the wrong side of the tracks.” Jimmy, in true James Dean bad-assery takes off on his motorcycle in the rain, and inevitably crashes and dies. That’s when Betty vows to never forget the Leader of the Pack. It’s a pretty stereotypical teenage pop song, as it came out in 1964, but that doesn’t negate its greatness. The back-ups croon their ooh-wahs beautifully, and the whole thing is punctuated by Jimmy’s motorcycle revving between verses and choruses. Billy Joel’s homage in “You May Be Right” (“Even rode my motorcycle in the raaaayyyyn”) may carry more weight when you consider that Joel once claimed to play piano on this track despite nearly everyone else involved asserting that it was some other guy named Roger. Weird.
5. You Belong With Me (Taylor Swift) – Aw, the girl/guy-next-door syndrome. Who hasn’t felt THAT at one time or another? It takes a lot to cope with one’s own limitations in the romantic field. The frustration, the longing, the almost inexpressible desire to be with someone who, naturally, doesn’t want to be with you goes hand-in-hand with teenage love. Unrequited love is at its most romantic when teenagers are involved, after all. Swift’s lyrics nail this feeling perfectly. Add a catchy banjo line and some slick production, and you have another Top 10 smash for the rising princess of country music. My only knocks on this song comes from the video. The singer/narrator inexplicably changes everything she’s about in order finally get the guy at the video’s climactic Prom sequence! Leaving her lonely but hopeful at the end of the song would’ve carried some much more gravity and made the entire message of the song so much more meaningful. And the whole T. Swift playing both girls in the video is a great idea–that Avril Lavigne had three years ago. Oh well. (Proud I didn’t mention Kanye? I am.)
4. Night Moves (Bob Seger) – Ladies and gentlemen, the King of Teenage Nostalgia, classic rock style. Listening to his greatest hits makes me wonder how old he is. Perhaps he’s been roaming the earth looking for diners and dive bars since the beginning of time. This cut is one of his best; a celebration of awkward, confusing and thrilling teenage sexual escapades. “I used her, she used me, but neither one cared–we were gettin’ our share.” Throw in his references to her breasts (“way up firm and high”), and every location the two of them ever had sex (“backrooms, alleys, trusty woods, out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy, out in the back seat of my ’60 Chevy”) and it’s actually a little too honest. A gentleman never kisses and tells, Bob. Even one “young and restless and bored.”
3. She’s In Love With the Boy (Trisha Yearwood) – Don’t stop reading! Please! Gimme a chance to defend this! …. Still there? Ok, good. My older sister Jen made sure to pump my early formative years full of pop country songs, so occasionally I will hear a song that I’m sure I’ve never heard before, usually a country song from the 90’s, and for reasons I can’t understand I will be able to sing every lyric. This is one of those songs, and maybe that’s why I feel so attached to it. It picks up right where “Jack and Diane” left off, even including a throwback to the Tastee Freeze from Mellancamp’s own cut! The down-home story of Katie and Tommy (Two incredibly stereotypical 90’s names, by the way. See Power Rangers for more: Jason? Kimberly??) is twisted a little by Yearwood in the last verse, as so many country songs are apt to doing, when the listener learns that even though Tommy isn’t looked upon highly by Katie’s father, said father was just like Tommy back in the day. When the mom defends her daughter, “Katie looks at Tommy like I still look at you!” the admittedly predictable a-ha gotcha moment sinks in. The music video is soul-crushingly depressing though. Maybe that’s because it hits a little too close to home, literally. Watch at your own risk. [sidenote: Chuck Klosterman, struggling to explain this song’s incredible popularity, concludes that this reference, “cuts an amazingly wide swath. […] There are thousands of people in this country who still can’t believe Trisha Yearwood perfectly described the teenage experience of someone they know in real life. And the amazing thing is that they’re all correct.” His argument is that the lyrics are highly specific, yet secretly universal. While that’s true, the fact to a sometimes lesser-degree is what makes all of these teenage love songs so great.]
2. Hands Down (Dashboard Confessional) – A lyrical triumph centered around Dashboard frontman Chris Carrabba’s self-proclaimed greatest date ever. Specificities and inside jokes and the meaningful little things are the building blocks of all relationships, and I’ve never heard a song so accurately understand the importance of those things. The song also nails the frantic pacing, the risk of running off the tracks that teenage love routinely presents. It holds great personal meaning for me, and again the highly specific/secretly universal law comes into play because everyone who hears this can apply it so well to one relationship or another. Most importantly, the track captures the soaring invincibility that’s so easily accessible if we can just find the other person to give it to us. Gah, it gives me goosebumps just listening to it. Lyrically, the best song on the list.
1. Paradise By the Dashboard Lights (Meatloaf) – Meatloaf gives us the gold standard by which all other teenage love songs are judged in this 8 minute plus epic. Great lyrics are highlighted by the duet going on between a teenage guy just looking to get some and his date, hellbent on commitment and marriage. The arguing and haggling between two lust-driven kids is so relatable and funny and in the end, predictable. Props for the hilarious Phil Rizzuto announcing the boys’ advances as a baseball game. “Here he comes rounding third base, squeeze play, it’s gonna be close, here’s the throw, the play at the plate, I think he’s gonna make it! Holy Cow!” Inevitably, the boy caves and promises his life to the girl for that one single night, setting him up for commitments he immediately regrets. The music tempo changes are overly dramatic (clever, right?) and gives the idea that nothing else matters outside these eight minutes. Which, to everyone, is an all-too-familiar feeling. Just be glad I didn’t put up the music video. How Meatloaf got any girl into that car with him is unfathomable.