The one thing we all undergo at some point or another is a childhood. And after that, every belt-notch year leading up to a fully-realized adulthood. As an adult, we often think of nothing but our youth; what we did right or wrong, or might have done differently. In youth, we didn’t cherish time as we do now because we had no concept of it. This is a trope deeply imbedded in humanity and a facet of the human condition. Many an author has written a novel or poem about it. And many a musician, as well, has written a song about it.
Here are the top ten songs about being young:
Note: “We Are Young” by fun was originally going to be on this list, but a) there wasn’t enough room, b) the lyrical content is obnoxiously trite and beer-soaked (and thematically all over this list), and c) the song totally doesn’t need any more praise or promotion than it already receives in sickening excess. Feel free to pretend it is on the list, though.
10. You Make Me Feel So Young
A song about being and feeling young, it is the oldest entry on the list (Sinatra first recorded it in 1956). While written in 1946 by Josef Myrow and Mack Gordon, no one could’ve supplied the youthful charm and vocal poise Ol’ Blue Eyes could. And while the world was his oyster (or perhaps more accurately, his clams casino), not a single second of his youth was wasted on anything other than the high life. Of course as he reached and surpassed his peak, and big bands started becoming a thing of the past, singing this song for aging lovers in smoky Vegas lounges might’ve been his only means to relive his glory days.
Paul McCartney sings, “Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far way.” These days Paul, exactly one half of the remaining Beatles, must feel that the day he wrote this song seems so far away as well. It is interesting that by their fifth album Help! (1965), Paul McCartney was around 23 years old, and already reflecting on his youth. Apparently being part of the biggest band in the world can age you rapidly. In his words: “Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be. There’s a shadow hanging over me.”
This song from 1967’s Something Else by the Kinks sounds as innocent as pre-adolescence. With some playground-evoking “la-la-la”’s and playful piano-and-harpsichord-led melody, this song sounds as carefree as the scene songwriter Ray Davies’ lyrics depict: “Wonderboy, life’s just begun. Turn your sorrow into wonder. Dream alone, don’t sigh don’t groan. Life is only what you wonder.” The past is romanticized to no end, as Davies conveys a firm belief that anything is possible when time is on your side. These days, Davies sits on the other side of the playground, where detached parents sit waiting for their kids to finish being imaginative.
7. Forever Young
Middle-aged cougars with martini glass-tattoos on their porridge-textured hips sing this song with desperate forcefulness whenever they hear it on the radio, or at a concert both they and Stewart have no business making it to. These life-long panty-tossers share not only the lyrical sentiments of the charisma-dripping singer, but probably a plastic surgeon or two. The song was inspiring and truthful in its day, but now it feels like a tagline flaunted ironically by those too reticent to relinquish their youths.
6. Die Young, Stay Pretty
This song mirrors the kind of ideals you’d expect from a band partaking in all the indulgences of the eighties. Debbie Harry sings, “Are you living alone or with your family? A dried up twig on your family tree? Are you waiting for the reaper to arrive? Or just to die by the hand of love?” Her message is that life spent doing anything other than what you absolutely love, is life wasted, and needlessly prolonged. The song is set to a very optimistic reggae beat, even as she sings, “Live fast ’cause it won’t last.” And while she may have felt that way in her youth, she didn’t die fast; in fact she still tours with Blondie and even released a new album last year.
5. Fight for Your Right
The Beastie Boys
This song is just like every other Beastie Boys song; to some far-from-virtuosic rock instrumentation, the boys rap like some inner-city high-school drop-outs that got hold of a rhyming dictionary. The subject of their rhyming is usually something irresponsible and rebellious and surprisingly well-compensated. This song in particular, however, is an anthem for any high school kid feeling held-back by super-controlling, sadistic parents…or just normal ones: “Your pops caught you smoking and he said, ‘No way!’ That hypocrite smokes two packs a day. Man, living at home is such a drag. Now your mom threw away your best porno mag.” As rap music, this would be utterly embarrassing and completely old-school; as a Beastie Boys song, however, it’s as good as it gets.
4. We’re Going to be Friends
The White Stripes
This song from White Blood Cells represents the very spirit of the band: a longing for simplicity and simpler times with the music to match. Chord progressions are completely non-complex (usually just major chords that can be played in the open position, and by anyone whose played the guitar for longer than a week). This song is mostly, as it turns out, just a basic G, C, D triad. And over those lightly plucked-chords, a narrative is offered from the perspective of a schoolboy with no purpose bigger than what goes on at recess: “Well here we are, no one else. We walked to school all by ourselves. There’s dirt on our uniforms from chasing all the ants and worms. We clean up and now it’s time to learn.” If we didn’t know Jack White was well into his thirties, the lyrics could easily be mistaken for a 1st grade term paper.
On JET’s third album Shaka Rock, the album looks back at life at the age of seventeen, which sounds a lot like the kind of life a band like JET still maintains. Nic Cester sings, “I burnt my bridges and I burned my friends. If I had my time, I’d do it again. Don’t care what faithless people say. I don’t care.” It’s this self-serving mentality that seems to be exactly what keeps the rock band persevering through the 00’s, a deceased father, and all sorts of negative reviews from heavily rap-minded critics (e.g. Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone). The band, while heavily inspired by AC/DC and the Beatles, shows a desire and capacity for growth, and this album (when compared to their debut) is full proof. Led by a tapping piano riff and intersecting guitar lines, before an epic, cathartic chorus (“Seventeen! Don’t change a thing…”) kicks into gear, these guys sound as youthful as ever (maybe even more so, if their wide eyes are any indicator).
2. When You Were Young
On the band’s sophomore album Sam’s Tow,n Bruce Springsteen received more than a couple nods; this song is their biggest. The reference is surprising considering the age of the band members, but then again good music refuses to age (especially when it can be preserved digitally). It could be inferred that a fixation on themes of “youth” is frontman Brandon Flowers’ personal contribution (he also has a song on his solo album called “Only the Young”). Youth, as it turns out, appears to be the source of the creative fire lit inside Flowers’ heart, as well as that of the rest of the band (“We’re burning down the highway skyline on the back of a hurricane that started turning when you were young.”). The song is utterly anthemic and contains enough guitar riffing and tastefully concise soloing to intoxicate a stadium full of successful yuppies on a night on the town.
This song, and the video especially, imagines the horror that a newborn baby experiences when it starts to make sense of a world full of strange and disturbing stimuli. The lyrics however, resting on a pulsing electronic wave of white noise and squiggly keyboard notes, provide striking imagery that makes the world seem like a carnival funhouse, or at least a room full of clowns: “We like to watch you laughing. You pick the insects off plants. No time to think of consequences.” This songs depicts the earliest possible stages of youth, the times before we could even weigh morality and consciously opt for its antithesis. The time when we were too preoccupied with our ids to even fathom anything more than our rawest of visceral impulses.
Music is something that we carry with us at every age. Our tastes may change, and the cultural status quo may call our tastes “outdated” or “irrelevant,” but the songs that follow us through different stages in our lives will always be personally relevant. And those songs that provided a soundtrack to our youth–the songs which add lucid streaks of color to mostly black-and-white memories–will always serve as a portal of sorts through which we can revisit our formative years, in roughly 3-minute intervals.