The Music That Made Me

Rolling Stone magazine recently asked a bunch of famous musicians about the songs that made them who they are today, and some of my writer friends and I thought that would be a great thing to ask ourselves. Even if you’re not a music person (but seriously, aren’t we all music people?), there are few things that evoke such visceral memory sensations: that song at your first middle school dance, you’re first cassette, what was on the radio the day you got your driver’s license.  Those old emotions are new again each time you hear those songs: they are the music that makes you.

As I created this list, I became self-conscious.  The list isn’t cool. Some of these songs I don’t listen to now and some of these songs I will never listen to again, but at these particular times in my life, they were hugely important to me.  These are the songs that made me:

1. “Help!” – The Beatles – 1965

Along with the Beach Boys, my father played The Beatles all the time, and if any band defines the music of my childhood, this is it. It’s next to impossible trying to choose the one song that impacted me the most, but I’ve got to go with early Beatles. “Help!” was the song I sang at the top of my lungs in elementary school, dancing around the living room – upbeat! fun! – but it was also the song I sang in the bathroom at the Guest Quarters hotel in Bethesda, Maryland, where I lived for months on end when Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait. My mom had just survived a brain tumor and Gulf War I was just beginning. “Help!” was John Lennon singing for help and I could relate.

2. “Moon Shadow” – Cat Stevens – 1971

Cat Stevens’ album, Teaser and the Firecat, was played a lot in my house. It was folk and rock, fast and slow, really singable. I loved all the songs, but “Moon Shadow” was the tops. So basically he talks about being followed by a moon shadow and losing all of his body parts and being fine with it – hey “if I ever lose my eyes, I won’t have to cry no more.” Listen, people, don’t judge. This song works in all the right ways.

3. “Time After Time” – Cyndi Lauper – 1983

Sure, girls just want to have fun, but “Time After Time,” COME ON. I was on the verge of choosing the album “She’s So Unusual” to write about for Nancy Davis Kho’s classic “Still In Rotation” series (I went with Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”), as music from then that I still play now. I found the melody of “Time After Time” so lovely, so haunting, and because this was the song that we sang in concert for a middle school choir performance, it also reminds me not to stand with my knees locked. And have you guys heard Miles Davis play his version of this song? Wow.

4. “My Prerogative” – Bobby Brown – 1988

I was 11 years old when this song came out and yes, it was the first cassette I owned. I was moving on up to that deluxe apartment in the sky: MY OWN ROOM. It had a pink telephone that played “Fur Elise” when I put people on hold, a lock on the door, and a boom box. I needed tapes to play on that boom box and went immediately to the music store in the mall.  I should tell you that the mall in Saudi Arabia at that time was a poorly lit, smoke-filled place, for young and old men to hang out and the “music store” was crammed with whatever black market tapes they could sneak past customs. How I chose Bobby Brown that day I can’t remember, but sitting in my own little room listening to “My Prerogative” helped me find my own pre-teen prerogative.

5. “Have You Seen Me Lately?” – Carly Simon – 1990

We had just returned home to my father and Saudi Arabia from a year of living in Maryland. The Gulf War was over but the Eastern Province was packed with American military and every weekend, we would invite a different group of soldiers for dinner – soldiers we met at Baskin & Robbins or the grocery store, soldiers to whom my dad would say, “Come on over!” They would kiss our grass and then kiss the glass of home-made, illegal wine my parents would pour for them. It was a strange, emotionally-charged time and this song, rich and evocative, Carly’s voice almost too much, was at the center. It’s a gem of a song and a gem of an album.

6. “Possession” – Sarah McLachlan – 1994

My high school years were filled with some pretty great female artists and joke all you want about Lilith Fair, those women made amazing music. When Sarah McLachlan came on the scene with her album “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy,” I was spellbound. I couldn’t hit the high notes but that didn’t stop me from belting this out while driving to school in the mini-van.  Also, I may or may not have performed and recorded a dance number to this for a school project with Anne Gourley in her living room.  Anne, tell me that video is in high school performance art heaven.

7. “All I Really Want” – Alanis Morissette – 1995

This is the song that sent me off to college. Kind of. I actually started college in January 1996, but “Jagged Little Pill” was the album I listened to that summer and fall, while all my friends started college and I worked my butt off to save money. By this time, I was listening to Tori Amos, Julianna Hatfield, Natalie Merchant and in the near future, Liz Phair and Fiona Apple, but Alanis Morissette’s debut album was a revelation. Remember how big this album was? There was nothing like it. Morissette would be fodder for SNL and male comedians, but this woman had something to say. She was fucking pissed and I loved it. “All I Really Want” was my favorite song on the album.

8. “Little Girl Blue” – Nina Simone – 1958

I re-discovered Nina Simone and the ladies of jazz during college and promptly stole all of my father’s CDs and raided the music section of the campus store.  I loved them all – Sarah Vaughan, Dina Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday – but Nina’s voice is what did it for me. It wasn’t pretty in the classical sense, it was full and deep and raw. “Little Girl Blue,” with it’s simple “Good King Wenceslas” piano tune, is so heartbreaking. It kills me every time.

9. “Lake of Fire” – Nirvana – 1994

Even though I owned Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album along with every other kid, I didn’t come to fully appreciate their artistry until my semester abroad in Paris, 1998, when my roommate loaned me the “Unplugged In New York” album. That spring, I wrote a lot of really dark poetry, ate my weight in croissants, and fell asleep every night listening to this album. I was lonely and Kurt Cobain knew lonely. Stripping away the screaming and noise and guitars and drums made Nirvana even more powerful and “Lake of Fire” hit that black note for me. “Where do bad folks go when they die?” To a place with no music, that much I know.


Creating this list was hard, full of memories, and the realization that I have a deep appreciation for the melancholy. Or, as my therapist would say, a deep appreciation for artists who can express my emotion for me! When my husband read this list, he said, “This list sucks. My list is way better, it starts with MC Hammer and then Duran Duran and Rush” and that’s when I decided to run the garbage disposal for five minutes.

This is part of blog hop full of ridiculous talented writers talking about the songs that made them. Start your weekend off right – click over and read!

Elizabeth McGuire

Elleroy Was Here

Midlife Mixtape

Up Popped a Fox

When Did I Get Like This?

I Miss You When I Blink

My Blog Can Beat Up Your Blog

Butterfly Confessions

Good Day, Regular People



13 thoughts on “The Music That Made Me

  1. Fantastic list. Carly. Oh yes. “Time After Time” -I love that song so much. I have to hear Miles Davis do it. Loved reading about your family and your travels. xo

  2. I recently downloaded a whole bunch of Cyndi Lauper…I loved her so much when She’s So Unusual came out and then had to music-snob-distance myself when everyone else got on the bandwagon. Now I’m listening again and she’s so…unusually good.

    I love how we see behind the Saudi expat lifestyle in this.

    Thanks again for joining in!

  3. Oh, I’ll ABSOLUTELY be playing along. But, before I figure these things out: 1) My list is going to be the un-hippest collection of music you’ll ever see. 2) It’s been YEARS since I’ve heard My Perogative — yet, well, it was among my favorite songs at the time. 3) Sarah McLachlan is my first cousin, once removed. She’s nice, though I only met her, once, when I was about 5 years old.

  4. Hoping my comment comes through. Want to say that you did right with this list. What made us versus what we like. Because, like me, you probably like all the things!! *love you, T.

  5. “Time After Time” made me cry when I was a kid. Still can’t listen to that song. :`( I have a few somber tracks on my list…but nothing like that one I don’t think!

    “Lake Of Fire”…good one! Huge Nirvana fan here, Unplugged was amazing. I still listen to “All Apologies”, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, and “The Man Who Sold The World”

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