Teenage Music Memories: Embedded in Our Brains

Between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains undergo rapid neurological development—and the music we love during that decade seems to get wired into our lobes for good. When we make neural connections to a song, we also create a strong memory trace that becomes laden with heightened emotion, thanks partly to a surfeit of pubertal growth hormones. These hormones tell our brains that everything is incredibly important—especially the songs that form the soundtrack to our teenage dreams (and embarrassments). Mark Joseph Stern, Slate, on info pertaining to teenage music memories

Sometimes things happen in threes, sometimes it just seems that way. The latter is how I view the recent near-enough co-occurrence of the release of Judy Collins‘s new duets album (which reprises some of her old familiar stuff), a superb performance of “To Love Somebody” by contestants on The Voice, and the death of Cory Wells, a founding member of Three Dog Night.

What could these three music-related events have so in common? They represent three of the earliest record purchases of my youth—my teenage music. My first-ever album, in fact, was Three Dog Night’s debut (1968). I’d loved their current radio hit.

One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do (“One“)

My (older) brother: “You don’t buy a whole album based on one song, Ros.”

Maybe. But soon I also loved another. Two songs, bro! Two!

Oh, she may be weary
Young girls they do get weary
Wearing that same old shaggy dress, yeah yeah (“Try a Little Tenderness“)

And I liked other songs as well, enough so that I eventually also got their second album (1969), with the plaintive “Easy to Be Hard” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Especially people who care about strangers
Who care about evil and social injustice
Do you only care about the bleeding crowd
How about a needy friend
We all need a friend (“Easy to Be Hard”)

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will (“A Change…”)

(Who knew at 16-ish that so many of these, the world’s best songs, had been already been around? that they’d been previously recorded—written, even—by such greats as Sam Cooke?)

Another “first” album was Judy Collins’s Wildflowers (1967), which featured, among other tracks, “Both Sides Now” and “Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” (written, respectively, by Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen).

You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away (“Both Sides Now“)

You know my love goes with you as your love stays with me,
It’s just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea… (“That’s No Way…”)

The Bee Gees‘s “To Love Somebody” (1967), on the other hand, was one of my first singles. It and “The Worst That Could Happen” (1968) by Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge were my fave 45’s—songs I crooned, in the case of the former, and belted out, in the latter, over and over again alone in my room.

You don’t know what it’s like
To love somebody
To love somebody
The way I love you (“To Love Somebody”)

Girl, I’m never, never gonna marry, no no (“The Worst…“)

Of all the tons of music I’ve known over the years, what I chose for my teenage music is among the most special of my lifetime. Those songs were part of my emerging identity, after all: my angsty adolescent personal and private struggles.

In Stern’s above-cited and well-researched article about our teenage music he concludes, “The nostalgia that accompanies our favorite songs isn’t just a fleeting recollection of earlier times; it’s a neurological wormhole that gives us a glimpse into the years when our brains leapt with joy at the music that’s come to define us. Those years may have passed. But each time we hear the songs we loved, the joy they once brought surges anew.”

So, no surprise here: thinking about all these songs makes me want to hear them again. The twist? I’m going for covers by newer artists. Jennifer Hudson doing “Easy to Be Hard“, for example, from the Actors Fund of America Benefit Recording of Hair, from which the tune originated, and Lianne La Havas‘s rendition of “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.”

What about you? What songs most dramatize your adolescent essence and development? Care to share?

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