Music isn’t just something I hear in the background while I’m busy doing other stuff. For me, as for many people, it’s the cement that adheres memories to my brain, a time machine that’s capable of launching me backwards five, ten, thirty years with just a few notes. In recognition of music’s emotional power, Philippa (my writing partner, podcast cohost and all around accomplice) and I decided to compile a list of the songs that make up the soundtrack of our lives. I’m limiting myself to 15, and I present the first seven today. Don’t judge me.
- “Copacabana” by Barry Manilow. I hold my mother completely responsible for this. I grew up hearing Barry croon from the console stereo while Mom cleaned the house. Long before I had any idea what the Merengue or the Cha-Cha cha was, I was well aware of a showgirl named Lola’s ability to do them and the fact that those skills somehow got her boyfriend shot. (From this song I inferred that dancing was a life-threatening pursuit, which I think explains my utter failure at ballet as a child. Adult, too, come to think of it. But that’s another story.) Though only “Copacabana” rates a berth on my list, I picked up Barry’s entire repertoire by osmosis, as did my siblings. My brother and I figured this out as teenagers when we happened to be out somewhere together and “Mandy” began to play. The lyrics came flying out of the two of us automatically and completely by rote, sort of like the Nicene Creed during Sunday Mass.
- “What a Fool Believes,” by the Doobie Brothers. This was one of the first singles I purchased, if not the very first. “What a Fool Believes” was a radio staple in 1980, which means I heard it several times a week as various swimming moms drove our carpool to and from practice in the mornings. (Same with “My Baby Takes the Morning Train” –officially known as “9 to 5” –by Sheena Easton, but that song just didn’t stick with me the same way.) Never mind that I could barely decipher a single word Michael McDonald sang and had no idea what the song was about.
- “Through the Years,” by Kenny Rogers. It just now occurs to me that, given my affinity for Barry Manilow, the Doobie Brothers, and Kenny Rogers, even as a child I must have known I was destined to spend large chunks of my life in a dentist’s chair. Anyway, when I was ten or eleven, my best friend Liz and I became die-hard Kenny Rogers fans. Do not ask me how or why, because I really have no idea. Liz and I also thought we wanted to become architects, so we would sit in her room, reading Home magazine and drawing elaborate floor plans on graph paper while belting out Kenny’s greatest hits. “Through the Years” was our piece de resistance and we sang it with gusto even though the combined total of years Liz and I had gone through was 22. Our biggest trial and tribulation at that time was probably the fact that we were listening to Kenny Rogers instead of cultivating a taste for Ozzy Osbourne, like most normal kids our age.
- “Take On Me” by A-ha. The opening riff of this song hooked me the first time I heard it. It earned a permanent spot on my life’s soundtrack because of the role it played at a pool party one night during the summer after eighth grade. Earlier in the school year, I had developed a major crush on a very cute drummer named Dave. At the pool party, the gods of adolescent love granted me the favor of plopping Dave on the lounge chair next to me, and we talked for most of the night. He seemed Interested in me, a development I regarded as a near-miracle because my head was encased in a full suite of orthodontic armor. The day after that pool party, Dave rode his bike to my parents’ house, a distance of five or six miles one way, to ask me out on a date. I was stunned, but somehow managed to say “yes.” We went on only one date, Dave and I, and it was a double date with my sister and her boyfriend (someone had to drive, after all). He then moved on to someone else. If love were a bullpen, I had been a mere setup pitcher, but I still claim that episode as a minor triumph. And the braces are off now. Just sayin’.
- “1999” by Prince. As much as I love nearly all of Prince’s music, only this song makes the list for two reasons. First, I distinctly remember hearing it at the first dance I ever went to, held in the cafeteria of Lake Braddock Secondary School. It was the fall of 1983, and when “1999” came on, I wanted desperately to dance to it. But, like many eighth graders, my dancing shoes were weighed down by a total lack of self-confidence. Instead of dancing, I clung to the cafeteria wall like mold. Sixteen years later, dancing redemption arrived. It was December 31, 1999, and I was ringing in the landmark year at a hotel party in Richmond featuring my favorite band at the time—Pat McGee– and my favorite people both then and now: My best friend and my siblings. Nothing could have kept me off the floor that night.
- “Sweet Child of Mine,” by Guns N’ Roses. In August of 1999, we celebrated my sister Lynne’s 30th birthday at a sports bar in Reston that happened to feature karaoke on certain nights. My closest friend, Michelle, and my sister’s then-boyfriend, now husband, Paul, were also in attendance. The two of them got along okay but weren’t each other’s preferred company. Yet, after Lynne and I got booed off the stage for our joint rendition of “I Can’t Smile Without You” (by, who else, Barry Manilow), the unlikely duo of Michelle and Paul took the stage and delivered a surprisingly respectable rendition of “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns ‘N’ Roses. And just last summer, when Michelle was visiting from Seattle, she and Paul reprised their classic and performed it for my birthday, only this time with customized lyrics and a title– “Wheat Child of Mine”–that honored my longstanding nickname. Weird Al would have been proud. Axl Rose, perhaps not.
- “Hey Nineteen,” by Steely Dan. This song evokes the best date of my entire life. The date took place in the summer of 2000, not in a fancy restaurant or exotic locale, but on the front porch of my then-boyfriend’s house in a small, coastal North Carolina town. The whole thing was completely unplanned. It was late afternoon and he had just opened a bottle of red for us to enjoy on the porch. For background, he put on a mix that skewed heavily towards classic rock. It cycled to “Hey, Nineteen,” a song I’d heard a few times but paid little attention to beyond bobbing my head to the beat. For whatever reason, I listened closely to the lyrics that time. I had gotten caught up in the singer’s lament about having nothing in common with his nineteen year-old girlfriend—she didn’t even know who Aretha Franklin was, which is grounds for dumping all by itself if you ask me– when the instrumental kicked in. It would have been a very generic and thoroughly uneventful instrumental, except that the lead singer busted in and said, with no trace of humor whatsoever, “Skate a little lower now,” causing me and my boyfriend to split our sides laughing. We spent the rest of the evening picking through our music, finding lesser-known songs we wanted the other person to hear and delighting in explaining why. I don’t remember what we had for dinner, if we even had dinner. I just know it was, and still is, the best date I ever had.
Tune back in tomorrow for the rest of the list, and start building your own in the meantime!