Photographer Sherry Rayn Barnett Shot Music History As It Happened

All photos © Copyright by Sherry Rayn Barnett; Author photo courtesy of Adam Michaels

Having spent over half a century working as a photographer, you’re sure to have seen Sherry Rayn Barnett’s work at some point. Maybe on such album covers as Nina Simone’s Let It Be Me, Toni Basil’s Best of Mickey & Other Love Songs, or What’s That I Hear? The Songs of Phil Ochs. Maybe in books like The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, or the documentary Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind. Sherry began taking pictures at the time rock ‘n’ roll was becoming rock, and rock was becoming art, and legendary careers were just getting off the ground. Her new book, Eye of the Music: The Photography of Sherry Rayn Barnett: New York to LA 1969-1989, offers an engrossing look through her personal archives, charting the career development of a professional photographer and the heady musical atmosphere of times.

Ironically, the COVID pandemic gave Sherry the time to complete the project, which had long been in the making. At the beginning of 2020, she was preparing for the release of a new album by her band, Mustangs of the West, set to be followed by a tour. The album, Time, came out as scheduled in March, but the tour ended up getting cancelled. The unexpected downtime allowed Sherry to focus on Eye of the Music and get it published by last December, making 2020 a busy year after all. “The fact that I was able to have an album release, and a book release, during the pandemic — it’s just absolutely amazing,” Sherry says, still in disbelief. “I doubt it will happen again.”

Music and photography were linked at a young age for Sherry. Her mother was an aspiring songwriter, living in Queens, New York, who would take Sherry with her when she went to pitch her songs at the Brill Building, home to numerous music publishers. “We got on the subway, we went to Manhattan, and would go to this building where I would get either a 45 record from the secretaries or an autographed picture of the artist,” Sherry recalls. “Those pictures really stuck in my mind; it was kind of the full spectrum of, here’s the music and here’s the person, or the group, who’s singing it. And I was fascinated by that. And when I got into my teens, it was like, ‘I want to take those pictures. I want to see these artists in person and I want to photograph them, the same way.’”

By then, Sherry was attending the High School of Performing Arts — the “Fame” school — studying classical guitar. But when she realized she had no interest in becoming a solo performer, she began to focus more on her photography. Soon, she was living something of a double life, attending school during the day, and photographing music performers in the evening: a mini-skirted Linda Ronstadt at Town Hall, backed by musicians who would later form the Eagles; Joni Mitchell, John Denver, and Miles Davis at the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park; Janis Joplin at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, just two months before her death. And the rise of underground rock publications provided a ready outlet for her work. Her first gig was a plum assignment to shoot Ike and Tina Turner for a short-lived magazine called CORPUS. Sherry rose to the challenge, capturing the two in concert, then giving an up-close-and-personal look at the couple offstage, lounging on their beds at the Chelsea Hotel.

Emmylou Harris

Sherry credits being a self-taught photographer with giving her a sense of freedom. “I think the advantage of being self-taught is that you’re not regimented,” she says. “Thinking photographically, it’s not like you are told ‘This is how you need to look at something’ or ‘This is how you need to compose a shot.’ So for me it was better. On the other hand, the advantage of being schooled in photography is that you can probably breeze through a lot of technical mistakes. I thought that the way to crop a photograph was to cut the negative. Which of course is absolutely ridiculous! I ruined some of my early shots.”

She was also drawn to acts that tended to play smaller venues, enabling her to get the intimacy so evident in her photographs. “I think that most of the guy photographers went to photograph these guy rock bands: the Who, and Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones,” she says. “And I was more eclectic. I was really drawn to the singer-songwriters that were starting to emerge. I just loved vocal harmony, I loved the songs, I loved the playing. I don’t think as many photographers were driven to go to, say, Bonnie Raitt early on, at the Gaslight Café [in New York], because they didn’t really know of her yet. But I was always listening to stuff that was a little outside the mainstream.

“I’m grateful that I didn’t shoot as many loud rock bands as your typical rock photographer. Looking back, I realize that I’m a music photographer; I’m not as much a rock photographer. If you look through the book, you’ll see, of course, I photograph bands. But the emphasis really is on the individual performers, whether it’s somebody like a Chuck Berry or a Bette Midler. It’s a lot of solo artists, because I was really drawn to the different personalities.”

Bonnie Raitt, 1981

But the most important factor, she says, is the access she was able to secure for what she wanted to photograph. “I just walked up to the front of the stage, and there was no one to stop me,” she says. “I was pretty bold; I just did what I wanted to do. It’s nothing like today. Now there’s this whole glut of photographers at every show, and to get in to shoot is a whole other thing, and then there are all the restrictions of how long you can shoot for; shooting three songs is a lot now. I heard for some artist it was like 30 seconds — it’s crazy!”

In the early 1970s, Sherry relocated to Los Angeles. “Really, because of the music,” she explains. “I just heard all this music I loved coming out of LA, and I had a friend who was a session singer. She said, ‘Hey, if you want to come to LA, I’ll show you around.’ She took me to all these sessions she was doing and set me up in Beachwood Canyon. And I fell in love with the canyons. It was such a far cry from the way I had been living. And I think I was just done with Manhattan; having to carry my gear on the subway all the time, and the crowds in the streets. I loved the openness, at the time, of LA, where you had some greenery, and you could get in your car and be by yourself. You didn’t have to be in a crowd all the time.

“I started going to the Troubadour and the Ash Grove and McCabe’s, and the Bla Bla Café, where Al Jarreau got his start. A lot of great performers were still playing those small to mid-sized clubs, and you could go out and see them and not have to pay a fortune and be hundreds of feet back. It was growing, but it was still at a level that you could experience and capture a performance in a very intimate way. The intimacy of it was really important to me.”

Linda Ronstadt, The Troubador

It’s not surprising to find that many of the photos in Eye of the Music were taken in small venues. “I’m sure that was deliberate, but it wasn’t conscious. It was just what I was attracted to. After I was able to afford bigger lenses, I could be further back [in a venue]. But I was really passionate about being up front and center as much as I was allowed to be.” Her picture of Little Richard, at the Felt Forum (the smaller room at Madison Square Garden), is a case in point. Sherry’s positioned right at Richard’s feet, her camera looking up, close enough to capture the beads of sweat on his bare chest. “That was not a telephoto lens, that was right there,” Sherry notes with pride. “He looks like a prizefighter. Looking back, it’s an amazing shot, and I don’t say that from an ego standpoint. It’s just like, wow!”

The majority of photos are live shots, each conveying the excitement of a performance: Bette Midler letting loose, Carly Simon looking particularly joyful. There’s a nattily-attired B.B. King, and Phil Ochs in the gold suit he patterned after the same costume Elvis wore on the cover of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. And there’s a rare shot of Karen Carpenter behind a drum set, drums being her original instrument.

“I was always drawn to the live moment and that’s what really connected me to the music,” Sherry says. “It’s really the nature of my work. And when you do a portrait, it’s a whole different element. It’s pretty much staged, with the exception of candid portraits; it’s a whole other environment. I would say 90 percent of great studio photographers are educated; they’ve gone to school for it and are technically excellent. I’ve shot album covers, and I’ve done portrait photography, but I’m never as relaxed, I guess, doing a fabricated shot. I leave great portraiture to the people that really do that well. So yeah, I’ve always been drawn to the live aspect of these performers, because that’s exactly what they are. They’re performers.”

Nonetheless, Eye of the Music does contain some offstage, and even “staged” material. Most notable is the picture Sherry surreptitiously snapped while attending a recording session for Joni Mitchell’s classic album Court and Spark at the A&M Records studio in LA. “There was nobody with cameras. And I could tell this was not going to be a photo shoot day. But I did have my camera, and I did get it out for literally just a handful of quick shots.” Joni is seen playing her guitar, lost in thought, the boom mic looming in the foreground.

There’s also an outtake from a memorable session Sherry did with Nina Simone. Sherry had previously photographed the music legend at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village. In 1987, she was hired to shoot the cover shot for Simone’s Let It Be Me album. “I had a home studio, and I had a piano there. We sat around waiting for Nina for, oh, I think close to four hours before she arrived. And she was not in a good mood. I can’t really say what she said about the makeup person, but it was not very kind. She had said when she called in that she wanted a white sheet, so I had gotten her a white sheet. I gave it to her when she got there, and she literally stood there and disrobed in front of the window, in front of everybody. We all just kind of turned our backs. She completely disrobed and put the white sheet on.

“And you can tell [in the final shot], she’s just bare shouldered. You don’t know what she’s wearing, but she’s wearing a white sheet. And I actually had her autograph an album cover for me while she was there; I didn’t usually do that, but she was just so legendary. It wasn’t the most pleasant shoot, but we got a great, great shot of her that she used up until she finally passed as her promo shot. So that was really complimentary.”

Nina Simone, Village Gate, NYC 1970

There’s also a spread devoted to the all-female bands Birtha and Fanny, acts Sherry felt never got the acclaim they deserved. It’s made her consider her own role in music history. “I’m paying more attention now, because people have asked me along the way, ‘Hey, have you felt any prejudice as a female photographer?’ or ‘Did you get fewer jobs?’ I never really thought about it. I didn’t bulldoze my way through anything, but I really didn’t let anything stop me if it was accessible to me, if it was a possibility. But looking back — or even looking now, and at a number of the rock galleries and photographers who are really successful, there is such a small percentage [of women] that I’ve actually sat down and gone, okay, you’ve got a hundred rock photographers here, and truly, it’s lucky if there are 10 percent that are women.”

Sherry ended up in an all-female band herself, when she joined the Mustangs on lead guitar in the late 1980s. “I realized I could be in a band and not have all the focus on me,” she says. Sherry had developed a growing appreciation for new country performers like Roseanne Cash, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dwight Yoakum, and Randy Travis, and the Mustangs became part of LA’s country-rock “cowpunk” scene. “After I joined, they put me onstage with them the next night, which was completely unnerving, because we were opening for Lucinda Williams! So that was my start with the band.”

The Mustangs split in the mid-1990s, and Sherry went back to photography full-time. By 2017, she felt the time was right to put the group back together, reuniting with two other original members and adding two new ones, becoming the Mustangs of the West “because there were so many more bands named ‘the Mustangs.’” Making Time brought Sherry full circle; it was recorded at the site of the same A&M Records complex — now Henson Studios — where she once photographed Joni Mitchell. She also ran into Wendy & Lisa, the duo known for their time in Prince’s band the Revolution, as well as their own work, at the studio. Wendy ended up loaning Sherry one her vintage Fender Mustang guitars to play on the album.

Eye of the Music has photos of a somewhat scrawny 21-year-old Prince at the Roxy, as well as shots after his fame exploded, from the Purple Rain premiere, and Sherry’s book was originally going to cover the years up to 1999 in another nod to the Purple One. “We thought 1999 was a great year,” she says. “It just sounded good, and the Prince connection and everything. But we ended up spending so much time on the ’70s, we barely got to the ’80s!” Sherry spent the ’80s photographing the likes of Go-Go’s, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, the Eurythmics, Cyndi Lauper, Lionel Richie, and the sole US season of Top of the Pops. But you definitely get the sense that there are more photos, and stories, to share.

Cyndi Lauper, Beverly Theatre, 1984

“I’ve been shooting for a very long time. Doing this book, going back, it was almost like telling somebody else’s story, because some of the pictures were taken that long ago. I uncovered things that I had forgotten existed. So revisiting them and revisiting that part of my life was a very interesting process. It’s hard when one picture gets used in a documentary, one picture gets used in a book, one picture gets used in a CD reissue, and there’s no story to tell about that. And I didn’t realize, once the book came out, how people really connected and related to the stories. So I might do a book of the 2000s, because I’ve been shooting another 20 years. Or I’ve also considered doing another book on the same eras that I just covered, but digging a little deeper into each shoot.

“But I’m very grateful to have been in the places where I was at the time. Because I got the unique photos. Because I got the ones that nobody else had.”

Follow Sherry Rayn Barnett on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates, and purchase the book via her website.

ONLY NOISE: Playlist for a Schoolgirl Crush

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Erin Lyndal Martin shares a selection of songs that bring back the rush of a schoolgirl crush.

No matter how old you get, there’s something that stays dreamy about teenaged crushes. I call these my schoolgirl crushes, remembering the flush of excitement every time my crush asked to borrow a pencil. As we get older, schoolgirl crushes seem so much more innocent. We never worried about the bad things our crushes had done or why they’d been divorced twice or if their time management skills were lacking. We just wanted to lie on our beds and listen to songs that reminded us of their dimples.

These songs go back to those dreamy crushes. They all have an element of escape to them — slipping away from parents, from responsibility, from a place that holds you back, from anything that isn’t basking in your lover’s presence.

“The Ghost In You” by The Psychedelic Furs (Mirror Moves)
Formed in 1977, the Psychedelic Furs have explored a number of rock genres, including post-punk and New Wave.

“Ghost In You” could well be the theme song of this whole collection. “Inside you the time moves/She don’t fade,” Richard Butler sings, his thick British accent making the song all the more charming. And he’s right. When I remember my high school crush, the boy with the beautiful dimples, I remember him not as a teenager but as a man, the two of us always on the brink of a great romance.

“ocean eyes” by Billie Eilish (don’t smile at me)
Billie Eilish is a 17 year-old singer/model/dancer from Los Angeles.

The power in this song is its slow, sensual flow. Listening to it brings back how mind-blowing it was when making out was new, when every breath on your neck made you tremble on the brink of a new world. Eilish’s soprano mimics the intoxication of touching someone for the first time.

“Anthems For A Seventeen Year-Old Girl” by Broken Social Scene (You Forgot It In People)
Broken Social Scene is a Canadian musical collective comprised of members of other bands, mostly based in Toronto.

This song balances innocence and obsession in a perfectly winsome way. Emily Haines’s vocals are breathless, smeared slightly with distortion, and stay quiet even as the song intensifies. Every lyric in the song is repeated several times, building up to a single line (“Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me”) being repeated 13 times. Meanwhile, the instrumentation builds from sparse banjo strummed to an ecstatic violin and percussion. While the song is more about nostalgia than love, its giddy take on fixation speaks to the 17 year-old girl in all of us.

“I Know Places” by Lykke Li (Wounded Rhymes)
Lykke Li is a Swedish singer, songwriter, and model who blends folk and electropop.

This is a song for the schoolgirl crushes I feel as an adult. For the rush of first getting intimate with someone and wanting only to be together, to ignore the world. “The high won’t fade here, babe,” she promises. Ambiguity is part of why the song is so captivating. Maybe they’re seeking literal places to escape, or maybe getting intoxicated on one another in bed, or off in a forest or on a beach.

“Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen (Born to Run)
Bruce Springsteen is a legendary singer-songwriter from New Jersey known for writing about working class struggles.

“Thunder Road” has to be a contender for one of the best songs ever written, and it’s all in the incredible imagery, the swell of the music, and even in the way Springsteen mumbles divine lyrics. However old you are, whatever your situation was growing up, he brings to life the glory of a brief escape from town where Mary’s past lovers haunt her from “the skeleton frames of burnt-out Chevrolets,” her graduation gown long tossed to these boys. The narrator sings about putting out to win from a town full of losers, and you get the sense there’s really no hope of it, but in the moment, you believe in that love, and any young love that’s made it seem possible to escape the limitations of your current life.

“XO” by Beyoncé (Beyoncé)
Beyoncé Knowles is one of the most acclaimed singers and performers of the day, and was ranked most powerful female in entertainment by Forbes in 2015 and 2017.

“XO” manages to be both intimate and urgent, full of both love and lust. The song takes place in a crowded room where the lights will be turned out soon. The driving beat reinforces the urgency of finding each other in the impending darkness, but the soaring chorus and backing vocals create atmosphere. The lights going out take on different meanings, mostly with Beyoncé begging “baby love me lights out.” The immediacy of the song brings back the thirsty makeout sessions of adolescence, all the more urgent because a curfew was usually involved.

“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” by The Smiths (The Queen is Dead)
The Smiths are a Britpop band known for melodramatic but highly melodic songs.

For me, and for many of my friends, this song inspires the same feeling in us now as when we were 16 and first listening to it. The synthesizers swirl like ribbons, and lead singer Morrissey pouts in his falsetto, and it’s so triumphant. Like “Thunder Road,” this song celebrates an escape from real life (“Take me out tonight/I need to see people and I need to see light”) and the magic of finding escape velocity with a lover. So much magic that it becomes romantic to think about dying in a crash with a ten-ton truck. That’s some seriously potent escapism.

“All Through the Night” by Cyndi Lauper (She’s So Unusual)
Cyndi Lauper is best known as a pop singer who rose to fame in the 1980’s.

Originally a folksy song by Jules Shear, Cyndi Lauper’s twinkly synthesizer and sweetly pouting voice made it her own song. She includes details from the real world, like stray cats crying, but the real world is irrelevant. “We have no past/We won’t reach back,” she sings in the chorus as the music swells. “Keep with me forward all through the night,” she sings, another way of saying “We’re in this together. It’s only us now.”

8 Songs Celebrating Female Masturbation, for Better or Worse

NYC electronic artist Von not only writes about female masturbation, she literally creates songs from her orgasms.

Over the past few years, female masturbation has gone from a total taboo to a popular topic among those looking to add a little ~edge~ to their art. We haven’t made it all the way to normalizing the act, but we have reached this weird middle stage where singing or writing about it is deemed a bold, avant-garde choice. That’s a far cry from the casual way we depict male masturbation, which is just assumed to happen rather than made into some sort of statement, but it’s a step above not talking about it at all.

Now that references to flicking the bean, jllling off, klittra, or whatever you want to call it are seeing the light of day, artists are scandalizing everyone’s pants off with music about female masturbation. Here are some songs that tackle the topic head-on without beating around the bush (sorry, I had to).

“Love Myself” by Hailee Steinfeld

At first listen, then-18-year-old Steinfeld’s first single sounds like a self-love anthem… until you listen closely and realize it’s a self-love anthem. Really, it’s both. “Gonna love myself, no, I don’t need anybody else,” she sings. What’s cool about the song and surprisingly G-rated video is that Steinfeld isn’t portraying herself as dirty, “slutty,” or sexy. Her innocent image conveys that masturbation isn’t just for “bad girls” – it’s for girls working toward loving and taking care of themselves… so, all girls. It’s admittedly a bit cheesy with her “self-service” shirt and lines like “I know how to scream my own name,” which don’t exactly portray female masturbation accurately (unless anyone does that? I’m willing to be proven wrong), but her decoupling of female masturbation from the male gaze makes me forgive her.

“Solo” by Clean Bandit Feat. Demi Lovato

This annoyingly catchy song exemplifies the biggest problems with the ways we talk (and, now, sing) about female masturbation. “I do it solo” is supposed to be some sort of scandalous revelation on Lovato’s part: OMG, she does what solo?! Not to mention, she presents masturbation as a mere consolation for when her ex is not around. We don’t get the impression that her sexuality exists independently of men; we learn that she’s sexual in response to them and uses her hand/vibrator/whatever as a less-than-ideal penis substitute. But truthfully, I lost all hope for this song the moment she started singing “whoop whoop” instead of “fuck.”

“Action” by Von

“Sex-positive synth pop” artist Von took the act of turning female masturbation into music to the next level by making a song out of her orgasm. I mean this literally: She used an app called Lioness to measure her orgasmic contractions, displayed them on a graph, and then used the wave pattern as the basis for the bass beat. The result is a song about sexual independence, with lyrics like “don’t need you to make it happen / one-woman show with the action.” By turning female pleasure into something as accessible as a song, Von aims to give people an easy avenue to talk about it. And by portraying female masturbation based on its internal motions and sensations, rather than its appearance, she presents it in a way that can’t be objectified.

“I Don’t Need a Man” by The Pussycat Dolls

In a similar vein, The Pussycat Dolls declare in this track that they “don’t need a man to make it happen” and “get off on being free.” Even better, they use these lines to shut down guys who think their dicks are God’s gift to womankind. If those lyrics don’t make that crystal clear, “I can get off when you ain’t around” should do it.

“I Touch Myself” by Divinyls

The OG of female masturbation anthems was progressive during its 1990 release for acknowledging that female masturbation is a thing, though it’s expectedly not the most progressive on the list today. Like Demi Lovato, Chrissy Amphlett sings about self-love sessions inspired by a particular love interest — and not only that, but she will fantasize about him and him only, playing into the stereotype that sexual desire is deeply intertwined with love for women. Even in her solo sex life, the man she’s singing about has a monopoly on her mind. The lyrics aren’t the most empowering either; the opening line “I love myself” is undermined by the subsequent “When I feel down, I want you above me / I search myself, I want you to find me / I forget myself, I want you to remind me.”

“She Bop” by Cyndi Lauper

Another classic entry on the list, Cyndi Lauper’s third single from 1983 debut She’s So Unusual was partially responsible for the creation of the Parental Advisory Sticker. The song never makes outward mention of its true subject matter; Lauper said she wanted to maintain the illusion that it was just about dancing for younger listeners. But she also claimed in an interview with Howard Stern that she recorded its vocals in the buff.

“Hump Day” by Miss Eaves

This infectious track is notable not just for confident lyrics like “I know best. I know better / I’m killing this, a real go-getter” but also for a video where Miss Eaves sings in a suggestive cat hoodie while several other women mimic their masturbation faces. They weren’t actually pleasuring themselves in the video, but as Miss Eaves has said, it’s “really good method acting.” With a diversity of women and explicit lyrics, it’s a refreshing break from songs like “Solo” and “I Touch Myself” that make masturbation either a substitute for men or a performance for them.

“Feelin’ Myself” by Nicki Minaj Feat. Beyonce

“Feelin’ Myself” takes on a double meaning here, with masturbation a metaphor for Queen Bey and Nicki Minaj owning their power and being proudly “masculine.” As an astute user has pointed out, it may be inspired by Minaj’s “Come on a Cone” line, “I’m not masturbatin’, but I’m feelin’ myself / Paparazzis is waiting, ’cause them pictures will sell.” Whether it’s taken literally or metaphorically, the song gives women permission to be bossy, loud-mouthed, and a bit full of themselves. And, of course, to masturbate.

MIXES: With A Little Help From My Bands


Whatever it is about the change of seasons in New York City from summer to fall that makes me feel especially nostalgic is something I hope I never lose. Maybe its the crunching leaves underneath my foot as I rush from my apartment to the subway and onward to class every day. Or maybe I’ve already consumed more pumpkin-flavored food and drink than one person should in such a short period of time.

Because of this overwhelming sense of nostalgia, when I’m presented with the idea of sharing the songs that have gotten me through tough moments in my life, I had the problem of having one too many songs to choose from. Music has always been a fluid element in my life; it weaves through the moments and people and feelings I encounter. The most meaningful musical moments weren’t always the ones that let me wallow or the ones that incited me towards action; they were the ones that allowed me to just exist in a singular moment and reflect. The songs that feel like a warm blanket on a cold day are always been the most comforting.
This collection I curated is ten songs that have done, and still do, just that.


“With a Little Help From My Friends” – Joe Cocker

I could’ve very easily gone with an Elvis Presley tune in place of this one. I wanted a song that reminded me of my grandpa, and Elvis had been a constant presence in our relationship. However, even more constant in hazy childhood memories from the dusty basement he spent all of his time in and the rickety blue pick-up truck that took me to and from elementary school is the sound of my grandpa mimicking Joe Cocker’s voice. It would echo through our house on Saturday afternoons while accompanied by the blaring noise of his stereo. When my grandpa passed, I listened to this song on repeat because it felt like I could still hear his voice. The soulful rasp of Cocker’s belt is warm and inviting as he wistfully answers the questions posed by the gospel choir backing him. His uncertainty comforts and eases to the point where I feel like I should respond, too.


“Silent All These Years” – Tori Amos

My mom played this song for me when I was still in the single-digit age bracket. I remember she played the track on our relic of a computer for me while my grandma cooked dinner in the kitchen. My mom was only 21 when I was born, so her taste consisted of 80s pop hits and angry 90s alt-girl singer-songwriters. I didn’t understand a single line of the song then, but I would put the track on repeat every time we were in her car before flipping to RadioDisney after the tenth, twentieth, thirtieth play. I’d spend my time dissecting the lyrics and wondering if she was saying “mermaid” or “moment.” But the title and chorus resonated with me outside of the mysteriousness of the context. Shy and always too scared to speak up, I knew what it was like to be silent for too long. And I was glad Tori Amos understood.


“True Colors” – Cyndi Lauper

Senior year of high school was filled with change and small steps towards maturation and growth. As we all prepared to move away from home and dive into adulthood, the most meaningful gift graduation gave me was the strengthening of important friendships in my life. Throughout the stress and anxiety of leaving my Midwestern hometown to live a big city life on the East coast, I learned to survive with and from my best friend Jonathan. I dedicated this song to him after he came out to me that year, and since then, we’ve adopted it as our theme song. Lauper’s vulnerable vocals are such a beautiful reflection of what it means to truly love another person for all that they are. Everyone should listen to this song when they’re feeling a bit lonely or missing a close friend; nothing serves as a better reminder of what it feels like to be loved by another.


“Hallelujah” – Jeff Buckley

Buckley’s cover of the Leonard Cohen hymnal sounds deceptively melancholy. The first time I heard it, the song drifted through the speakers in my mom’s car about a month into my freshmen year of high school. It was the first song to elicit tears from me. After repeated listens over the past six years, I’ve begun to better understand the underlying glory rather than the sadness. For some reason, I feel like I turn to this song during some of the most painful portions of my life — death, fights, stress, etc. Buckley’s range and the ease of his emotive capabilities have been able to express my sadness and recovery from all different kinds of pain better than I ever could.


“The Resolution” – Jack’s Mannequin

Andrew McMahon will always top my list of inspiring musicians. His battle with leukemia, subsequent recovery, and lyrical reflection of this battle have been moving to me since I first started listening to his band Jack’s Mannequin. Another song that defined Senior year of high school, “The Resolution” became my personal anthem to make it through the seemingly endless obstacles that separated me from having a sane year. What makes this song lack the cliche of other “inspirational” jams is its honest search for answers and clarity. It’s not about what happens when you’ve reached the end of the tunnel; it’s about figuring out the most effective way to navigate the tunnel first.


“Wicked Little Town” – Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig and the Angry Inch happens to be one of my favorite films, so the soundtrack holds a special place in my heart. The summer between senior year of high school and freshmen year of college, I watched the film at least once a week with my best friend and listened to the soundtrack almost every night. The chorus’ repeated message of “and if you’ve got no other choice/you know you can follow my voice/through the dark turns and noise/of this wicked little town” resonated at a time when I felt desperate to escape the confines of my small, directionless suburb. It was my own wicked little town, and the omnious lyrics of the song felt like a glimpse into my future if I stayed there.

“Landslide” – Fleetwood Mac

The perfection of this hit record lies in its universal appeal. My mom would sing along to the lyrics in her car whenever it played on the radio. I remember her always directing the lyrics of the chorus to me (“Well I’ve been afraid of changing/‘Cause I’ve built my life around you/But time makes you bolder/Children get older/I’m getting older too”). It felt like a lullaby when I was younger, but as I’ve grown up, the song has transformed into a musical embodiment of my growth into adulthood as I continuously speculate “can the child within my heart rise above?” My mom still sings that chorus to me.

“Chicago” – Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens’ outstanding track from the incredible album Illinois literally hits close to home. After moving to New York from the Chicago suburbs, I’ve adopted this track as my official homesickness jam. When Chicago and the people I love who are still there feel especially distant, I listen and remind myself just how much “all things grow, all things grow.” The idea of being in love with New York “in my mind, in my mind” feels especially pertinent in those moments when I just want to curl up on an old friend’s couch and be reminded of those high school inside jokes and all the mistakes we thought we had made.

“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” – Elton John

Not many singer-songwriters can pluck at my heartstrings the way Elton John can. I had never heard this song until the spring semester of my freshmen year in college, and if there’s ever a situation when a song fell into my lap at the right time, it was this one. “My own seeds shall be sown in New York City” felt like a beckoning to me to never give up on what I came to the city to do. If the subtle inspiration wasn’t enough, Elton reminded me of the wonderful friendships I had formed in this city with his line “I thank the Lord for the people I have found. While “Chicago” draws me back to the past, “Mona Lisas and Matt Hatters” makes homesickness feel like a silly idea in the first place.

“Don’t Rain On My Parade” – Barbra Streisand

With all the stress, anxiety, and whirlwind of emotions life can throw at you, sometimes it’s worthwhile to remind yourself that you actually are the baddest bitch on your block and quite possibly the universe. My ever-growing adoration towards all things Streisand makes me incredibly biased towards any of the tunes she sings. However, this particular track from the classic film Funny Girl keeps me from forgetting during my more anxious moments that it’s never worthwhile to let the world get me down when life is just waiting for me to take a bite out of it.

Content by Brittany Spanos for AudioFemme

audiofemme//mix 1 from ohheybrittany on 8tracks Radio.