Why are we so nostalgic for music we loved as teenagers?

What Songs Make You Nostalgic? A Slate Staffer Roundup.

What Songs Make You Nostalgic? A Slate Staffer Roundup.

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Aug. 13 2014 7:31 AM

Songs That Make Slate Nostalgic

A roundup of the music from high school that staffers still love.

Nostalgic Tracks.

Photo illustration by James Emmerman. Images courtesy of Shutterstock.

In “Neural Nostalgia,” published today in Slate, Mark Stern wonders: “Why do the songs I heard when I was a teenager sound sweeter than anything I listen to as an adult?” Science may have an answer, as Mark’s piece explains. New research suggests that our brains may predispose our attachment to the music we listened to as adolescents.

We asked Slate staffers about how this research applies to their own experience. What music do they still love from their years of teen glory (or angst)? Here’s what they had to say, starting with Mark.

Mark Stern remembers “Roll Out (My Business)” by Ludacris (Download)

That “Roll Out” joke in the piece isn’t just a punch line. I seriously love that song. So sardonic, so wry, so trenchant—it's surely one of the most jubilant and incisive takedowns of consumerist culture ... ever. It’s my go-to karaoke song; my whole family sings it together whenever we’re reunited. “What you got in that bag?” is a family catchphrase. It really just fills me with all kinds of joy. What a marvelous pop culture moment.

Dahlia Lithwick remembers “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” by Deniece Williams, from the soundtrack to Footloose. (Download)

Just about my happiest high school memory? Belting that one out with my girlfriends and dancing like we might just have made the cut for Footloose extras. Just pure happy. Vaguely crush-ey. It was meant to be about some boy. But it was really all about us.

Rebecca Onion remembers “Range Life” by Pavement (Download)

What songs do I still cling to? LOL. The answer is “all of them.” But I guess I could specifically name “Range Life,” by Pavement—it reminds me of summer, going to the beach or the arcade with my sister and our friends, and meeting random ne’er-do-well teenage boys. Any given day could turn out in any number of ways ... that was the fun of it. But seriously there are 40 more. Liz Phair’s “Divorce Song,” Superchunk’s “Driveway to Driveway,” Mary Lou Lord’s “Speeding Motorcycle,” etc.

Eliza Berman remembers “Always Be My Baby” by Mariah Carey (Download)

This song actually came out when I was 11, but I remember singing it throughout my teenage years, and I pretty much never stopped. Mariah Carey was my third musical love, after Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. It’s painfully catchy and carefree, from the prime Mariah years, and it also has a key change, which pretty much always guarantees my love for a song.

Dee Lockett remembers “Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don't” by Brand New (Download)

Brand New’s sophomore album Deja Entendu came out when I was 13, right at the start of summer. It was one of those albums that defined my teenage years, and I connected with this track the most. In its second verse, Jesse Lacey sings, “I hope this song starts a craze/ The kind of song that ignites the airwaves/ The kind of song that makes people glad to be where they are/ With whomever they're there with.” That’s exactly how I felt when I listened to the song then, and it's a feeling I’m reminded of when I listen to it today, more than a decade later.

Rachael Larimore remembers “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses  (Download)

That riff! Just hearing the first half-dozen or so notes of Slash’s legendary intro immediately reminds me of a warm safe place where as a child I’d hide … Oh wait, sorry. Appetite for Destruction will forever be my all-time favorite album, and “Sweet Child o’ Mine” encompasses everything that made GNR, well, GNR. It starts off sweet and earnest, and we hear Axl at his most vulnerable. But you know that can’t last, and so about halfway through the song transforms into something more urgent and powerful. Sure, maybe the song resonates for me because I was a teenager and vacillating sometimes hourly between vulnerable then empowered then sweet then demanding. Or maybe it’s because it’s just really good freaking song.

June Thomas remembers The Roches’ self-titled debut album. (Download)

There's a ton of stuff from my teenage years on my iPod, and I'm always astounded when I remember the lyrics to a song I haven't heard in years. Most recently I’ve been singing along with The Roches’ self-titled debut album after seeing Suzzy Roche in concert with her daughter, Lucy Wainwright Roche. More than 30 years ago, I went to a Roches concert when Suzzy was heavily pregnant with Lucy. Listening now, I remembered their albums being in constant rotation in my college flats, going to that concert, and all kinds of things I hadn't thought about in years.

L.V. Anderson remembers “Waltz #2” by Elliot Smith (Download)

XO was the first album I bought that felt like it belonged to me, instead of being a hand-me-down from my older sister, and I cherished listening to it over and over again during my alienated adolescent angst phase. But it also so happens to be a really good album, and I have zero regrets about liking Elliott Smith as a kid (as opposed to the conflicted way I feel about, say, Ben Folds). I loved all the songs on that album, but “Waltz #2” has a particularly accessible sound and touches on themes of rejection and insecurity, which I could relate to then and still relate to, although those feelings are less scary than they were when I was 13.

Vivian Selbo remembers “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder (Download)

The funk is so danceable, the lyrics beam intelligence, and knowing that he played all the instruments never ceases to amaze.

Jamelle Bouie remembers Beck, “Hollywood Freaks” (Download)

Midnite Vultures is something of a novelty record—“Beck does trashy 70s disco”—and “Hollywood Freaks” is something of a novelty song, in which Beck raps nonsense over a ridiculous, outsized beat. And as a 13-year-old with an odd sense of humor (I watched a lot of classic TV), I loved it. It also helped that a couple of my neighborhood friends were fans of Midnite Vultures, and that we listened to the whole record, constantly. These days, I’m much more of a sad Beck fan, but I still listen to “Hollywood Freaks.” Yes, it’s silly (“Hot like a cheetah/ neon mamacita/ eat at tacqueria/ pop lockin’ beats from Korea”), but that’s what makes it great.

Jane Hu remembers “Anthems for a 17-Year-Old Girl” by Broken Social Scene (Download)

The title says it all—it’s a song about all the things teenage girls are supposed to care about (“park that car/ drop that phone/ sleep on the floor/ dream about me”). I grew up a child of the Internet, so it was an added bonus that this song’s lyrics were perfect for cryptic away messages on AIM that I thought made me sound really deep.

Lindsey Underwood remembers “Cause=Time” by Broken Social Scene (Download)

I listened to Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People pretty constantly in high school, and it has remained in heavy rotation to this day. I grew up in suburban Chicagoland where we spent a lot of time in cars. This album reminds me of being in cars.

Dan Kois remembers “I Believe” by R.E.M. (Download)

Sometimes in high school you have a girlfriend, and sometimes the two of you decide that your relationship has its own song, and so even when you haven’t talked to or even thought about the girlfriend in years the song sometimes gives you a little thrill of delight and pain at the same time.

Aisha Harris remembers “Great Indoors” by John Mayer (Download)

In high school, I loved John Mayer because he appealed directly to my highly emotional adolescent self. And whenever I was feeling like an outcast amongst my peers, this song was perfect. “Scared of a world outside, you should go explore/ Pull all the shades and wander the great indoors.” I thought I was so deep. I still love this song.

Derreck Johnson remembers “Electric Relaxation” by A Tribe Called Quest (Download)

This is my favorite A Tribe Called Quest song of all time and the theme song for my sophomore year of high school. In my mind, the beat is the musical representation of my personality—upbeat, yet very laid back and easy-going.

David Haglund remembers “Alive” by Pearl Jam (Download)

I started high school at the height of Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam, and while I knew even at the time that the former was the cooler camp to be in, I was emphatically with the latter. I don't listen to Pearl Jam often anymore (well, except for “Come Back,” but that's entirely because of Friday Night Lights). Whenever I do, though, I feel a pleasurable flush of teen angst—and nothing provides that charge like “Alive,” the first of their songs I heard, back in the days of flannel and shaggy hair.

Julia Turner remembers “Tomboy” by Bettie Serveert (Download)

This was a Scandinavian pop track that seemed, in high school, like an anthemic rejection of all things predictably girlie, and thus was the soundtrack to more than one high school road trip. If I heard it cold today I am not sure what I would make of it, but instead I hear it threaded through with the voices of my high school crew singing along. It makes me happy.

Laura Helmuth remembers “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin (Download)

I was a teenager in the 1980s, which was a lousy time for music if you care about lyrics, don’t dance, and despise synthesizers and drum machines. I mostly listened to classic rock radio stations and wore the grooves out on a Janis Joplin greatest hits album. The song that makes me most nostalgic is “Me and Bobby McGee.” It became my constant earworm when I had my first journalism internship, at the Salinas Californian newspaper. (“One day up near Salinas, Lord, I let him slip away/ He's looking for that home and I hope he finds it.”) So I’m nostalgic for a song about nostalgia (“I’d trade all of my tomorrows for one single yesterday”).

Katy Waldman remembers “Green and Gray” by Nickel Creek (Download)

This is a beautiful amazing song and it makes me feel like I'm floating in the air and I love it so much. GREEN AND GRAY FOREVER.