Last week, Marty and I stole ourselves a slow weekday afternoon and lay on the bed together, listening to music like we were 19 and had nowhere else to be. One by one, I played her the songs that had shaped me back when I was that aimless teenager. The music slammed me into the frantic and utter love I’d felt for those melodies, those words, those iconic chords. I loved them with every cell in my body. I loved them like they were cells in my body.
Spoiler alert: they were Ani songs. They were always Ani songs.
Indie alt-folk-rock sensation Ani DiFranco was my hero and my guide as I lived out my own little coming of age story. Fiercely feminist and outspoken, Ani is usually referred to whenever some rock journalist decides to write another tired piece about so-called “angry woman music.”
It’s been years since I reconnected with a lot of this music—the stuff I listened to in my earliest emerging adulthood. These songs were the maps for the person I believed I was becoming. I fell SO HARD for Ani: besotted with her intellect, her politics, the richness of her lyrics, her unabashed bisexuality. Above all, I fell in love with her courage. She modeled a take-no-shit attitude that I desperately wanted for myself, and so her songs became my anthems as I took my first awkward steps into this big old world.
This is the kind of attitude I’m talking about. Ani wrote these words when she nineteen, the age I was when I first heard it:
he said ani, you've gotten tough 'cause my tone was curt yeah, and when i'm approached in a dark alley i don't lift my skirt - Ani DiFranco, "Talk to Me Now"
Last Tuesday afternoon I found myself wormholed right back to that time of my life via the muscle memory of this song and its sisters. With the soundtrack of my youth blasting out of my laptop, I moshed and air-guitared around the room, singing along to every word—much to the surprise of my bemused and delighted wife.
I was channeling the shiniest and most energetic moments of being nineteen: dancing, joyful, so alive. Built of courage and certainty.
It was a shock to realize how much time I’d let pass since I last last connected with this brave young self. I decided to play my way through Ani’s back catalogue as a way to spend some quality time with that younger me. To be honest, I wanted to see if I could add a little of that old rock n roll vibe into my softer and far less certain 42-year-old self.
So this week as I’ve gone about my days, I’ve been visiting with Ani. I started with her self-titled album from 1990 and as of right now (give or take a few detours), I’m four records in.
It didn’t take long to recognize the mistake I’d made with Marty. When I selected the shiniest, most rock n roll songs to play her, I’d totally misrepresented my own young years. Listening to the albums in their long form reminded me how the arc of a record gives context to the songs. These are historical records after all, and these were made before the days of shuffle and playlists. In choosing some of my favorite songs to play for Marty, I’d unintentionally curated them to tell a story that didn’t actually represent the stories Ani was telling. I took out all the downbeats, removing the context that evokes what it’s like to live through a time as chaotic as our youth.
Among the brash and fiesty numbers that had me headbanging in my bedroom are songs that I hadn’t remembered as vividly. As I listened, I noticed an anxiety creeping into my body, a little low-key depression. And then I actually remembered.
Oh yeah. Youth.
I remembered this: to be young is to be raw. Alongside the fire comes all that confusion and heartbreak, the incoherence that laps at the ankles of our certainty. Our total freaking inexperience of people, situations, risk, physics. All those nights spent crying ourselves to sleep over something (or someone) that didn’t warrant it. I was talking to someone about the intensity of those feelings, and she told me about walking barefoot through New York City in her early 20s. She said, “It’s like you can’t feel enough at that age.”
Ani describes the intensity this way:
I'll see how close I can get to it Without giving in Then I get to rub up against it Till I break the skin - Ani DiFranco, "Shameless"
I always seemed to want to break the skin by pushing myself too hard into every experience. But living that hard, so close to the edge, has another side. Put your mind to it and I bet you can remember it as clearly as I can:
i've worn down the treads on all of my tires i've worn through the elbows and the knees of my clothing and i'm stumbling down the gravel driveway of desire trying not to wake up my sleeping self loathing (...) i am spinning with longing faster then a roulette wheel this is not who i meant to be this is not how i meant to feel - Ani DiFranco, "Wish I May"
Remembering ALL the colors of the heady days instead of just the brightest ones has been a good exercise for me. It’s made me grateful for my middle-aged insulation from that saturated intensity; grateful for the measure of emotional steadiness I’m now gifted with on most days. And especially grateful not to be constantly riding those ferocious emotional highs and lows.
People say “youth is wasted on the young.” I couldn’t disagree more. After the little sensory journey I’ve been on this week, I’d suggest instead that maybe the young are the only ones among us who could POSSIBLY withstand the onslaught of those years. I’ve decided that, for me, youth is a really nice place to visit on a stray Tuesday afternoon… but this softer, older self I now inhabit is happy not to live there anymore.
How about you? What songs or artists are wormholes back to the good ol’ bad ol’ days for you?
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