It started with a mix tape...
(and probably ended in tears)
Because of my age, I have bragging rights when it comes to the variety of formats in which I’ve immortalised musical compilations, mixes on: tape, CD, mini-disc, digital and video playlists. To craft the mixes, I’ve studiously waited for ‘the’ song to come on the radio and then pressed record on the tape deck, I’ve illegally downloaded on Napster, copied from physical purchases and now, I pay for Spotify Premium. I’ve both handwritten and typed the sleeve notes.
I’ve received mixes with carefully folded notes, in-joke doodles, the track names scrawled on the CD, which required a specific pen so the words didn’t blur or rub off entirely, and I even have one that was painted in many shades of pink. Many were muted love letters. Some became cornerstones of friendship. A few are bittersweet reminders of a happiness I can’t hold in any tangible way now, they are ghosts I move from house to house with me.
Teen Angst Highlights all on a playlist for you to enjoy:
Korn - All in the Family
My friend Michelle and I were embracing our, “we are the weirdos” phase, when we first heard this song. We printed out the lyrics, imagining ourselves performing it as a duet for the school talent show.
Korn’s tuned down guitars hit big in the intro and then It’s just one petty line after another, and it’s brilliant. I wish there were recording sessions for them laying this track, surely they just fell about laughing the whole time? Can you imagine them singing these lines with any sincerity? While looking at each other?
“Come on hillbilly, can your horse do a fucking wheelie?”
“You look like one of those dancers from the Hanson video”
“You best step back, Korn on the cob”
My parents found our printout and it was ‘tense’ to put it mildly, I was accused of bringing filth into the house. Needless to say, we didn’t perform it together, Michelle actually ended up dressing as Britney and singing ‘Hit Me Baby (One More Time)’ which I’d argue is probably even less appropriate to this day, as the message is a more insidiously sexual one. But to be fair to Brit, she didn’t mention butt-fucking anyone, so...
Radiohead - Creep
My first proper boyfriend used to play this on his acoustic guitar, and being drawn to the tortured, misunderstood type is apparently a rite of passage for teenage girls. The first time he met my parents, he sat on the kitchen floor and played this, it made my mother so uncomfortable she actually took her dinner upstairs and ate it. It was too raw. I should have taken her bad feeling about him as a sign, his love transpired to be a black hole that I was lost in for nearly four years…
None of us have ever been able to stop relating the song to him, but my dad still stubbornly insists he wants it played at his funeral, so it looks like I’m going to be haunted by it, and the boy who insisted I had to be his blood brother to prove he could always have me with him. Ugh.
Pearl Jam - Black
That same first boyfriend introduced me to Pearl Jam. It was a few months prior to us becoming a couple, we were on an outdoor pursuits week with school, and he gave me his copy of Ten to listen to on his Walkman. We had an earphone in each when Black came on, and we were walking through the woods on some midnight orienteering activity, it is still achingly beautiful to recall how awed I was by it.
A lifetime later, on my honeymoon, I saw Pearl Jam for the first time live. In Lima, Peru. And when they played Black, I was transported back to those woods until I noticed the peruvians sounded like they were singing, “all the bitches have all been washed in black” because of the way pictures sounds in a Spanish accent, and to this day I can’t listen to the song without cracking wide open in fizzing happiness at the bizarre moment of two such contrasting emotions colliding.
P J Harvey - This is Love
“I can’t believe that life is so complex, when I just wanna sit here and watch you undress''
What an opening line. When Polly Jean Harvey decided P J Harvey suited her better, I imagine she assumed a swagger and bought a leather jacket that very same day. Listening to the track at 17 I could see why Polly might not fit her anymore, because Polly put the kettle on, or was a friendly parrot; she wasn’t spreading her legs and asserting her sexual desires. This track spelled it out for me, the heady lust I felt was normal, but the fear I had of being discovered was also not completely unfounded, embracing sexuality would mark a permanent turning point for being sexualised by others. The reckless desire to abandon the fear was tempered by this knowledge. For me the later lines still ring true and capture the dizzying shifting power dynamics of sexual liberation, a consuming loss of self required to simultaneously find out who you are.
“You're the only story that has never been told. You're my dirty little secret, wanna keep you so. Come on out, come on over, help me forget. Keep the walls from falling as they're tumbling in”
RATM - Know Your Enemy
I started college on the day that the Twin Towers came down, we had our lectures interrupted by someone coming to tell us the news. My mum picked me up later and we listened to the reporting, both uncomfortable we’d been to the top of a building nobody else ever would now. We got in and watched the footage of the carnage, it was a continuous loop with endless speculations. It hadn’t been immediately clear it was a terrorist attack, although picturing those planes now, it seems impossible for it not to have been obvious.
It was a moment of cultural impact like nothing I’d previously known. But, when some months later the British government wanted to send troops to Iraq, off the back of a dodgy dossier that said weapons of mass destruction were being developed, it didn’t feel right. It was wrong. All of it, it was like a groundswell beneath us at my college, tipping us precariously close to a crisis of faith in ‘Cool Britannia’. Courting and even cow-towing to a ‘special’ relationship with the USA was an obvious power-play, and repulsed us. I took part in the protests, along with every single friend I had at college. I had never, and haven’t since, seen a cause unite every single friend I have enough for them to shrug off any other commitments and turn up, unprompted. It was a rage that fuelled us. As we marched, I couldn’t get ‘Fight the war, fuck the norm’ out of my head.
We participated in the UK’s largest ever protests, but little over a month later, the war commenced anyway. Dr David Kelly, who had been pressured to sign the dossier alleging the threat of weapons of mass destruction, was found dead in woodlands shortly after that. It still leaves a bitterness that time hasn’t softened, and when I hear this track now, I am reminded that “Yes, I know my enemies, They're the teachers who taught me to fight me, Compromise, Conformity, Assimilation, Submission, Ignorance, Hypocrisy, Brutality, the Elite” and when the Black Lives Matter marches broke out during lockdown, I felt like the next generation had understood the truth in the words and were going to succeed where mine had faltered. But maybe, just maybe, we helped lead the way too...
Elliott Smith - Needle in the Hay (The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack)
Smith had a way of making his tracks oppressive, this one is smothering in its intensity, it’s the undertow of the wave without the break of it hitting the shore. Completely consuming.
The first time I heard it was when I watched The Royal Tenenbaums, which was my introduction to Wes Anderson. And I had a real thing for bald guys, a lifelong crush on Michael Stipe has always astounded anyone I tell, and so, as Richie started shaving his head I was briefly in my element as the character got more attractive before my eyes and there was this great song playing… I hadn’t guessed what was coming.
My best friend is called Kate, but after seeing the Royal Tenenbaums I nicknamed her Margot. It was the aloof demeanour and unnerving intelligence that reminded me of the character. Both Kate and Margot have a steely determination I admire.
Margot was a good match for my frenetic energy when we were teens, she could read all day and sometimes had 4 books on the go at the same time, but I couldn’t be alone with my own thoughts. I’d get restless, uncomfortable about the course my thinking took. Margot never said no to my projects. The lyric T-Shirt idea was no exception. We bought one each from H&M, mine black and hers white, and then went through my CD sleeves to pick the perfect lines to immortalise with paint. (As I didn’t drink, I spent an alarming chunk of my first year student loan on CDs, adding 100 to my collection, from hours of Ebay scouring and idling in indie record shops and reading handwritten recommendations by staff)
I went with: Counting Crows - Mrs Potter’s Lullaby
“If dreams are like movies, then memories are films about ghosts” painted through a stencil on contrasting magenta fabric that I stitched on with black thread, so as not to betray my goth girl heart.
She settled on: The Eels - Electro Shock Blues
“I am okay, I am okay, I am okay” on the front and “I’m not okay” on the back of the T-Shirt. According to the sleeve notes, these lyrics came from Elizabeth Everett’s diaries (sister of the lead singer). She had undergone electroconvulsive therapy while in a mental hospital, and part of her ‘recovery’ was meant to involve her writing out repeatedly that she was okay, but eventually she just reverted to writing down the truth, that she wasn’t.
This one rankles a little now, I can see how glib we must have looked to anyone who actually struggled. I’d like to say we were ahead of the curve, producing affirmation T-shirts to end the mental health stigma, but we probably just thought we actually understood what depression was. But we didn’t, we were just the same average outcast as every other kid in a rock club with a fake ID. Plus, we had each other. Still do. She’s my anchor, I’m her kite, our tattoos prove it.
We can, and do, laugh at the angst of teenage lives, but that's because at a safe distance they seem so hyperbolic, but at the time they didn't feel that way. Life, when it's a series of firsts, is all in technicolour. While the clothes that defined me than are long forsaken and forgotten, I still have all the mixes, the sleeve notes, and many of the wrist bands, programmes and ticket stubs. Sometimes in those tracks, we are the motes of dust of our former selves dancing in the light.
About the author
I'm a freelance writer with a specialism in cultural criticism. Passionate about global citizenship, social justice and inclusion, I'm a card-carrying intersectional feminist and can be mostly found outside, walking and daydreaming.