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5 Songs for the Broken Hearted '90s Teen

Songs that helped me wade through love and heartbreak in the 1990s

By Eryn MillikenPublished 3 years ago 8 min read
5 Songs for the Broken Hearted '90s Teen
Photo by Isi Parente on Unsplash

Oh, the days of being a teenager, when we thought we were so grown up but didn’t really know anything. When our hormones were stronger than our brains, and everything felt like a life or death situation, at least when it came to romance. We were trying to figure out our place in the world, who we liked - and who we didn’t, what we wanted to be “when we grow up,” and started testing the concept of independence.

The one constant through it all? Music.

I don’t know about you, but I listened to music pretty much every possible second. Getting ready in the morning, when relaxing, and when I did my homework. My parents were even subjected to my singing out from under headphones on road trips (sorry!).

There were songs for hanging out with friends, and songs for parties (not that I went to any really). There was music to help us relax or fall asleep, and, of course, music for movies. But the music we’ll all remember the most as we grow older and further away from those years, are the songs we listened to when it was just us, trying to work through or celebrate something by ourselves.

I had a pretty good group of friends, a number of whom I’m still friends with to this day. I remember listening to some of these songs with them, because of them, and away from them because I didn’t really want to share my thoughts associated with the songs.

The Songs that Opened Our Eyes, Soothed Our Broken Hearts, and Helped Us Push Through

Sometimes you just need to know that you aren’t alone in feeling like the world (or your heart) is crushing you under the weight of the moment. We needed the emotional outlet of curling up in bed, headphones securely in place, and crying our eyes out as our hearts broke - usually over a guy (or girl). At other times, we needed the reminder to keep our heads held high as the source of our heartbreak walked past us and we refused to let them know how much they had affected us.

Ace of Base “Don’t Turn Around” (1993)

Let’s jump right into a song both loved and hidden all at the same time. Ace of Base had two major hits in the early ‘90s: “The Sign” and “All That She Wants.” Like so many others, I owned the CD and listened to it so much I’m surprised it didn’t break, but they were always a little bit of a guilty pleasure, were they not? Everyone listened to them, but most of us rarely admitted to it.

Like so many other songs we latched onto during these years, “Don’t Turn Around” was a song about a relationship and, unsurprisingly, unrequited love. Who didn’t end up in this situation at least once in high school? If you say you didn’t, I’ll likely call you a liar. What I liked about this song over a number of others, besides the catchy beat and the visuals of the band members, was the message. She told him to not turn around as he’s leaving because she’s not going to break. As someone whose emotions were always on 11, it could be hard to employ this in my own life, but in listening to the song, watching the guy I liked walking around with another girl, it reminded me to keep my own head high and not let him see how upset I was. It taught me a measure of both self-respect and “fake it ‘til you make it” in being ok with the guy not liking me back.

Natalie Imbruglia “Torn” (1997)

Even though it took somewhere around two decades for me to learn this song was a cover, it still didn’t matter in terms of the connection we all had to it in the moment. How many times did we hear the chorus:

I'm all out of faith, this is how I feel

I'm cold and I am shamed

Lying naked on the floor

Illusion never changed

Into something real

As far as I know, we were all able to empathize with those lines, especially when she got to the point of “bound and broken on the floor.” I myself was in the middle of some complicated crap relationship-wise during that time period, and the song rang so true in so many ways it felt like she had snuck inside my head to pull the song out of it. I absolutely made the right choice back then, and still stand by it 100%, but, in the moment, I was absolutely torn over what I should do as I realized the illusion of my relationship, heartache, and true desire.

Sarah McLachlan “Angel” (1997)

These days this song is synonymous with the ads for the ASPCA, and, personally, I think it has stolen a lot of the emotional punch it had back when it came out. All the people who feel terrible about the plight of these animals already do, and now we skip the song, and the ads because it just feels like a guilt trip.

However, it didn’t used to be the case. As I said for the song above, this was a somewhat volatile time for me in terms of relationships, and as much as “Torn” fit the end of one relationship, “Angel” (among others) was somewhat instrumental in the one that came next. We were both in rough shape when we found each other and worked together to pull ourselves out of the wreckage of where we were when we met. It might not be the happiest song, but it pulls both the good and sad out in me and I remember laying in the dark listening to this song just letting the emotions run through me instead of fighting them. It was painful and soothing all at once.

The Verve Pipe “The Freshman” (1996)

This alt-rock song took the world by storm in 1996, bringing everyone to tears right along with the band. Whenever we needed a good cry, to know we weren’t the only person in the world with the feeling of a great gaping hole in our chests of emotion that was crushing us, we just needed to hear the line "guilt-stricken, sobbin' with his head on the floor" and, even though we might not necessarily connect with singer/guitarist Brian Vander Ark’s experiences when he wrote it (I’ve seen multiple claims to the meaning behind the song, and they’re all heartbreaking), we can connect to the crushing emotions running through this song.

I remember heading into freshman year of college, and “the powers that be” of our freshman orientation pulled out this song and played it, for the entirety of the incoming class, in the lecture hall. We were all freshly away from home, many of us had relationships back home being strained by our new physical separation, and we were all emotionally raw. I don’t think whoever picked it listened to it before adding it to the intinerary, instead apparently thinking, “Hey! It’s titled The Freshman, how bad can it be?” They probably weren’t entirely prepared for the emotional gut-punch we all received as a result of hearing it played loudly through the sound system of the theater. Many of us, myself included, left the gathering in tears, passing confused and pained staff as we went back to the dorms that night.

Jewel “Foolish Games” (1995)

It’s a little hard for me to pick between “The Freshman” and “Foolish Games” as my personal biggest emotional angsty song of my teenage years but, if I really let myself stew in it, Jewel wins. As the very first song I thought of for this list, it should have been telling enough. This entire album was gold to an emotional teenager, but this song, which didn’t even get much play when the CD first released, held the record as the one I put on repeat the most.

Released in February 1995, Pieces of You (the album the song is from) came out at a very transitional time for me. I was in high school, had recently given up on ever dating a guy I had had a crush on for years, and I had also recently started dating my first boyfriend. In reality, that particular time wasn’t too bad, and my life held a lot of promise of excitement. However, months later, that relationship crashed and burned in a most spectacular way, and I was crushed (before the anger kicked in). That summer at camp the guy I was crushing on hard professed his interest in someone else, and I felt like a romantic reject. I very clearly remember a day where I spent the afternoon curled up on my bed in the camp cabin with this song on repeat, crying my eyes out over everything. At that age, everything is the end of the world, but the buildup for this one was a while in the making.

To this day I absolutely love this song, but it’s still hard to listen to it without getting choked up even now. The pain Jewel emotes while she’s singing cuts straight to the heart and you feel it right along with her.

Honorable Mentions

These songs might not make my Top 5 List, but they absolutely hit home and hold a special place in my memory and heart.

Candlebox “Far Behind” (1993)

Live “Lightning Crashes” (1994)

Soul Asylum “Runaway Train” (1993)

Seven Mary Three “Cumbersome” (1996)

Guns N’ Roses “November Rain” (1992)

Counting Crows “Round Here” (1994)

Sinead O’Connor “Nothing Compares to You” (1991)

Jewel "You Were Meant for Me" (1996)

To Each Their Own

I remember at the time thinking “Don’t Turn Around” was a fairly slow song, and I guess it was compared to the rest of the album, but listening to it now as I write this made me smile because it really isn’t slow. However, at their own time, they were songs I lived and breathed for, I have shed tears to each and every one of them. Hearing them now takes me right back to the time when they were the most important, the most impactful, to me. I remember the emotion each time had, the individualized and separate feel of the moment of my life where these songs had the most impact and connection.

When I started making this list, I hadn’t intended to make this list go from the lightest to most angsty of all, but it’s fitting to have them in that order. I remember in high school a good friend of mine handed me a mixed tape (yes, a tape) of songs he said were “guaranteed to make [me] cry.” To be honest, I only remember one or two of his selections now, but I do remember not one of them made me cry, and I was shocked that while we loved so much of the same music, we had such different lists of what we listened to when we were emotionally gutted. I know my list won’t match someone else’s, but I DO know that we all have one of these lists, even if we never share them with the world.

Here's a link to the whole playlist, starting with the honorable mentions first.


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