Songs become a part of the story of our lives. Their lyrics linger inside of us. We recall those words, but what we remember isn’t what they meant to the person who wrote them. It’s what they mean to us. We relate their lyrics back to the events that have happened in our lives. We interject our personal narrative into their songs, and it feels as though they mirror our own memories and emotions.
Some songs make us happy, while others bring sadness. Some songs connect with our present, and others bring us back to the past. They help us recall memories we’ve forgotten. Some songs are tied to our personal identities and to particular moments in our lives. Playing the song in later years helps us to recall an earlier event as well as the way we felt about it. This is what music does for us. It connects with the story of our lives. It creates meaning. It helps us understand ourselves.
We build a history of music throughout our lives that is unique to us, shaped by our tastes and life experiences. For many of us, it is the closest thing we have to the journal we never wrote or the diary that has long been packed away.
The soundtrack of our lives is an ongoing playlist that we add to with each new experience. Each song holds a different significance, one that evolves as we change and grow as individuals. Unlike old journals and diaries, this soundtrack does not collect dust on a nightstand or in the bottom of a box but is stored on a smartphone that we take everywhere and hold tightly in our hands.
The time had come to collect and share these stories to create a people’s history of music. What you’ll read in Song Stories: Music That Shaped Our Identities and Changed Our Lives are personal accounts of how people’s lives have been impacted by specific songs. Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars” set Cortney Harding’s romantic notions of adulthood, The Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” played one night at a friend’s place and changed Marc Ruxin’s musical tastes, and Coldplay’s “Lovers in Japan” reminds Caitlin Teibloom of a college breakup and who she became through that experience.
This alternate history, composed of shared song stories, will deepen your understanding of music. It’ll extend your interpretation of a song beyond what it means to you to how the song has been experienced by another and the meaning it has created in his or her life. Reading each story and playing the song will allow you to hear what music sounds like through ears other than your own.
I hope reading this book will inspire you to share your own song story.
Oasis — “Don’t Look Back in Anger”
By Emily White
When I was 13 years old, my neighborhood girlfriend and I used to watch MTV every morning until we had to walk to school. For whatever reason, the channel seemed to play Oasis at 7:25 AM every morning, right before we had to leave the house. I have vivid memories of the video being played at this time — it was “Don’t Look Back in Anger.”
Now, at 32, when I saw that Noel Gallagher — who penned and sings the song — was playing at my favorite venue in the world, The Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, I knew I had to be there with my middle school friends. When I went to buy tickets to the show, I was stunned to find out that it was not sold out! I believe it sold out eventually, but to me, a living legend was gracing Wisconsin with his presence, and we should all be so grateful.
Once the show began, the audience became a family — of Brits, of Milwaukeeans, of fans from Japan who were attending every show on the global tour. Noel ended the show with the song that generates such profound memories of time spent with my girlfriends in 8th grade, the song that took on the same meaning 20 years later as I saw it being performed with people that I still — and will always — feel a deep-rooted connection with.
Noel’s lyrics are generally quite simple. After all, he has often said that writing lyrics is not the part of songwriting he feels he is best at. Yet the idea of getting out of his tough part of town, his broken home, and his abusive childhood resonates on a unified front as many of us wish of faraway places as teenagers.
I didn’t grow up in a tough part of town or in a broken and abusive home, but I certainly wanted to start a revolution from my bed. I wanted to get out of my town, to never stop seeking or creating, and to never look back. Or at least to look back on my life in a peaceful manner.
Noel Gallagher is possibly rock’s last great rock star, at least in the classic rock realm. He is the musical son of the ‘60s and his music is admittedly derivative. At his shows now, I see sons and fathers who are trying to pass the music on, and who knows how long that will last as genres continue to evolve and change.
One of my favorite things about traveling the world is that pop music can be a grounding and uniting force no matter where you are. I have heard “Don’t Look Back in Anger” played in many settings throughout the years, from airports to restaurants abroad. Yet the simple melody and lyrics will always bring me back to my friends in middle school and the importance that Noel’s music and this song played in our lives. The simple yet powerful lyrics are strikingly memorable on multiple levels. Which was extra powerful considering Oasis was and still is my favorite modern band. The Beatles are ultimately my favorite artist ever, yet amazingly I still don’t hear the musical comparison between the two, despite Noel admitting that he stole songwriting elements from his beloved ultimate band.
People always say, “Don’t meet your heroes.” I feel forever fortunate for that statement to be wrong in my case. When I did finally meet Noel, over a decade after his music influenced me to pursue a career in the music industry, he was incredibly kind. He was so kind that after his set, he said, “Did you hear me dedicate ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ to you?” I actually didn’t, as I had been enjoying the show at the side of the stage with friends at that time despite the muddy side-stage sound. But luckily, with the magic of the YouTube, I can rekindle the memories of the power of this song as well as the songwriter’s kindness at a moment’s notice.
I will forever look back on my youth, my career in music, my friendships, and my life experiences with peace thanks to this song. It’s meaning ties together memories of Noel’s storied childhood intertwined with my own memories as a young person. I always have Noel to remind me not to look back in anger, no matter the circumstances.
Emily White is the co-founder of the New York and Los Angeles management and consulting firm Whitesmith Entertainment. Through White’s varied background in the music industry, Whitesmith’s approach in their work with musicians, comedians, and athletes has always been to take the artists’ perspective while simultaneously taking care of the fans. She also co-founded Dreamfuel with Justin Kalifowitz, bringing her modern music work to the sports industry and beyond.
David Gray — “Shine”
By Brendan O’Connell
Songs have a unique ability to speak to us in a way that no other artistic medium can. Lyrics, melodies, and even beats can magnify our feelings of love or loss, infatuation or heartbreak, elation or depression. As life moves on songs move with us, transporting us back to different moments and experiences. Feelings come rushing back, and the memory of those feelings come bubbling to the surface. It may not make you fall in love again with a lost love or wish to be a 16-year-old blasting Zeppelin late at night, but hearing songs again — no matter how many years later — brings those memories to the forefront of consciousness.
David Gray’s “Shine” is one of those songs for me. I first heard it on a mix CD a college girlfriend made for me during the height of our relationship. Our situation was pretty typical for young adults about to graduate college. We found each other near the end of senior year and started an intense relationship, an unconsciously defensive maneuver against the impending changes that were coming upon graduation. I remember getting the mix CD and relishing the gift and the thought behind it. Kids today can’t appreciate the fine art of the mixtape or CD. Each one I made for a girlfriend or girl I wanted to date was finely crafted and painstakingly ordered: nothing too strong in the beginning, with just the right amount of romance and affection. I took this gift of a mix CD as much more than just a collection of songs. To me, it was a testament to her feelings for me and a musical love letter.
I probably skipped over “Shine” the first few times I listened to the CD. There were other love songs in the collection that I enjoyed more, and although I’d heard some David Gray before, I hadn’t paid close attention to his lyrics. But as graduation (and the end of our relationship) approached, I intently listened to every track again in search of a hidden meaning in her song selection that hinted at a possible future together. She was wiser than I was and saw the relationship more clearly — merely a fling at the end of college. Gray says as much in the opening lines of the song. Being the hopeless romantic that I was, I willfully ignored the opening stanza and chose to cling to hope offered in a single lyric. If David Gray didn’t know what waited in the wings of time, then neither did we!
Her words and the surface meaning of the song did not seem to match up with our reality, however. Predictably, the closer our graduation date got, the more time we spent together and the more intense the relationship became. Even as I drove her to the airport after graduation, we listened to the mix CD together, holding hands and crying our eyes out (what a scene that must have been for airport security to behold). I played the song on repeat as I drove from college back home to Chicago the next day, waiting for that “who knows” lyric toward the end of the first verse. I wore the damn thing out every night that summer, reliving the last few weeks of college and that teary ride to the airport every time.
There was no future for us. I moved to South Korea toward the end of the summer, and she went home to pay off college loans. It was painful to hear “Shine” for a few years since it reminded me of her, but mostly because I came to realize how foolish my hopes — and my reading of the song — had been. Like most lost love, eventually the pain subsided, and I could look back on those days with a clearer mind. When I hear “Shine” these days, I place emphasis on different lyrics and hear the tune with a new perspective. The chorus, sung so intensely by David Gray, resonates deeply. Gray didn’t write a song about making a dying relationship last at any cost. His song is about building a life without the person for whom you had such intense feelings. It’s about learning to let go of your past love and refusing to let it hinder your future. We can’t compromise ourselves or force love that isn’t meant to be.
In that sense, “Shine” has a new and deeper meaning in my life. I have found love and built a family and home with someone else. I am pursuing a career in music and love what I do. I have been able to shine.
Brendan O’Connell is a musician based in Chicago. He is the songwriter and keyboardist for pop/soul band The Right Now and produces his own music as Sidepart. Follow him on twitter at @therightnow.
This excerpt is from Song Stories: Music That Shaped Our Identities and Changed Our Lives. It’s a collection of essays written by music professionals and indie artists about specific songs that have impacted their lives. The book showcases the powerful memories and emotions that arise when each individual hears a song from their past. This is the experience of music that we all have with music, but we rarely share with one another.