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.”

ONLY NOISE: Welcome to the Workless Week

Rihanna is doing everything I am not.

“Work, work, work, work, work, work/You see me I be work, work, work, work, work, work,” she barks through the café sound system – as if she knows.

Another sunny day in the neighborhood. It is loping along at a drowsy pace. Parks are barren – full of empty benches. There is no line at the post office, and my favorite corner in the local coffee shop is dutifully awaiting me. I’m not dreaming. I’m not lucky. I am unemployed. And it’s just a weekday.

As luck would have it, I’ve been laid off three times in the past three years. Downsizing, outsourcing, budget cuts, project fulfillment – I’ve seen it all, and yet each time it hits me like an uppercut…like getting dumped when you thought everything was going awesome. And everything was going awesome…until it wasn’t anymore.

Another song comes on: Elvis Costello’s embittered “Welcome To The Working Week” off 1977’s My Aim Is True. I envision Costello back in the early ‘70s, working as a data entry clerk for Elizabeth Arden and hating every minute of it. “Welcome to the working week,” he sneers. “Oh, I know it don’t thrill you, I hope it don’t kill you/Welcome to the working week/You gotta do it till you’re through it, so you better get to it.” The irony of course being that it is the workless week(s) I have to get through now.

But this time ‘round I am not alone. It wasn’t long ago when I told my friend M that everything was “going to be ok!” M had recently been laid off from her job of five years, and I assured her that she needn’t self-flagellate for collecting unemployment.

“The idea that going through a period of unemployment is being lazy or counterproductive to society is bullshit,” I argued. “That’s just a false, capitalistic construct that a lot of developed countries don’t abide by. Look at Sweden! They get artist grants on the regular! Paternity leave! No one calls the Swedish lazy!” I consoled M with fervor, hoping to empower my hardworking pal who’d fallen on hard times. “You’re going to LOVE unemployment! Hell, I wish I had been on it longer!”

Somewhere in the distance, Riri sang and wagged a finger, “When you a gon’ learn, learn, learn, learn, learn, learn”? Before I could answer, I was plunged into joblessness. Again. I turned to find that ardent part of myself, the one that I’d dispatched to boost M’s confidence. She was nowhere to be found.

On Monday, in broad daylight, M and I sat on her couch; updating resumes, drafting emails, and calling the New York State Department of Unemployment Services, which has constructed a densely layered multiverse of automated menu options, dead-end key commands, and spontaneous call terminations. Dante himself could not have imagined this many circles of hell. The Specials’ bristling cover of “Maggie’s Farm” bleated from M’s tablet. I repeatedly punched zero in the hopes of being delivered to a real-time human, but was escorted back to the beginning of the menu options instead.

Veterans of creative industries get it. Writers, actors, magicians, poets, clowns, and yes, musicians; it’s a hard life making a living. Like Rihanna and Elvis Costello, Dolly Parton knew all about werk when she wrote “9 to 5,” singing the sour truth in that sweet, sweet voice: “Workin’ 9 to 5, whoa what a way to make a livin’/Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’/They just use your mind and they never give you credit/It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”

In this time of uncertainty, I tell myself that it’s important to have historical perspective. It’s crucial to remember that bitching about work (or lack thereof), is as human as bipedalism, and has likely occurred since the dawn of occupation. While Rihanna today sings, “You see me do me dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt,” a 12th century blacksmith has surely larked, “You see me do me smelt, smelt, smelt, smelt, smelt, smelt,” and so on and so forth. Throughout history, where there has been work, there has been animosity; where there has been unemployment, there has been languor.

Hating your job is a time-honored tradition. So too is fearing eternal joblessness, and, as Bill Callahan sang in the ‘90s, longing “to be of use.” But why are we reduced to this? Why is our identity plastered slapdash around a core of employment? They don’t live like this is in Italy, right?

Perhaps philosopher Henri Lefebvre explained it best in his 1968 page-turner, The Sociology of Marx: “– man loses himself in his works. He loses his way among the products of his own effort, which turn against him and weight him down, become a burden.” Or, as Morrissey sang, “Frankly, Mr. Shankly, this position I’ve held/It pays my way, and it corrodes my soul/I want to leave, you will not miss me/I want to go down in musical history.”

I think about how Morrissey once worked as a hospital porter, and, perhaps annoyed that everyone around him was more miserable than he, quit and went on the dole. The Smiths frontman then used the bulk of his unemployment benefits to buy concert tickets. Morrissey sings about jobs more than most pop stars, and has certainly had them, making his claim in 1984’s “You’ve Got Everything Now” that he’s “Never had a job/Because I’ve never wanted one,” only half true.

Jeff Buckley was a Hotel Receptionist. Alanis Morissette was an Envelope Stuffer. Looking through a list of “51 Jobs Musicians Had Before They Were Famous” makes me feel better for some reason. Ian Curtis worked as a Welfare Officer. Chuck Berry (RIP), a Beautician. Rod Stewart dug graves. Henry Rollins managed a Häagen-Dazs ice cream shop in DC.

I wonder if, while scooping equal portions of Rocky Road and Butter Pecan into a waffle cone, Henry Rollins was thinking of a passage from The Communist Manifesto: “…labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce…” “Much like this sugary, frozen treat,” mumbled the pre-Black Flag muscle man. While dipping the high-piled scoops into a vat of rainbow sprinkles, Häagen-Dazs Rollins must have pondered Marx and Engels further, noting that, “…the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine…”

But let’s face it, ice cream Henry – we’re all appendages of the machine with or without those pesky day jobs – no matter how you scoop, sprinkle, or dip it. If you look to The Jam’s lay-off-themed “Smithers-Jones,” you’ll hear the tale of an obedient, white-collar worker who gets the axe. The suit-wearing title character arrives at his long-term office job one Monday only to be told, “There’s no longer a position for you/Sorry Smithers-Jones.”

And then there’s good ‘ol Morrissey again, who famously sang, “I was looking for a job, and then I found a job/And heaven knows I’m miserable now.”

Oh, c’mon Moz, it ain’t alllll that bad. When talking to my sister about my recent loafer status, she assures me that things could be much worse. At least I don’t have to dig graves like Rod Stewart. At least I don’t have to work in a slaughterhouse like Ozzy Ozborne. I have friends and family who love me, an awesome part-time writing gig, and, unlike my sister’s new puppy, Darwin: at least I don’t have eczema on my butthole.

So I got that going for me, which is nice.

ONLY NOISE: Shiny Happy Pop Songs Holding Hands


One side effect of obsessing over music for a living is the ability to compartmentalize your own tastes into pre-measured doses of sonic mood modifiers. Saying “music is my drug” is irrevocably corny and should be left to the bumper sticker manufacturers of the world, but it’s not an erroneous statement. I’ve written about music and mood before, and it is a subject I find endlessly fascinating. There have been numerous studies analyzing music’s influence on brain chemistry – studies that will teach you far more than I can by relaying personal, uncontrolled experiences. I am no neuroscientist, but I’ll do my best to discuss the subject in my own, pop-culturally referential way.

But this is more a gander at the inverse; not how music dictates your mood, but how your mood dictates what you decide to listen to. Mood doesn’t always consciously affect my listening choices. Sometimes when I select a specific record to put on, it is purely because that’s the album I’ve been spinning relentlessly. Last Thursday I listened to Smog’s Red Apple Falls four times in a row, and that would have been five or six if I didn’t have to run errands.

Sometimes the decision to listen to Prefab Sprout is rooted in a logic no more complex than: I’m just in a Prefab Sprout phase right now. A phase can last weeks, sometimes months. I think I listened near exclusively to The Smiths for about a year. I binge eat artists, albums, and songs, but unlike food, the repetition of great pop music never makes me nauseous.

But there are of course moments when I Spotify playlist myself, trying like an algorithm to switch or indulge my mood. I typically indulge, which I do not suggest as a method of catharsis. Unless you like crying alone while watching Joanna Newsom artfully play harp.

If I am depressed, angry, despondent, vengeful…oh DO I have a playlist for those moments. I have entire records for those moments, box sets and anthologies. When it comes to finding the soundtrack to a bad day I’m practically Ariel from The Little fucking Mermaid showing off her endless archive of sad knickknacks. You want Joni Mitchell? I’ve got plenty. You want anguish in B Flat? I got whosits and whatists galore, ok?

So what does one listen to when suddenly inundated with…nice feelings? One might want perhaps, to not ruin it with the entirety of 69 Love Songs? What if your reference library is stocked with Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Roy Orbison, and artists of similar ilk? And furthermore, how do you write a column about it? I’ve run into countless occasions where I happen to be happy, and therefore want to maximize that feeling with some aural reinforcement – but I come up blank. Nick Drake, anyone?

“Happy songs, happy songs…” I mutter to myself, remembering only the bummed-out Aldous Harding track I’ve been listening to incessantly. A friend once asked me to make a playlist for her birthday party. I laughed and wondered how well this person knew me or my morose musical tastes. Everyone else in my circle has crowned me the worst party DJ ever, mocking my interest in listening to records in full and my affinity for seemingly anti-party music (what do you mean The Birthday Party isn’t a great thing to play at a birthday party?!). More than once have I spent hours carefully constructing playlists to my own birthday parties, only to have them intercepted by guests and supplanted with Top 40 jamz before the clock strikes 12. But I get where they’re coming from. No one shakes their ass to The Jesus and Mary Chain.

“Feel-good music” has never been a tag that excites me. Songs shaped into balloon animals to distract you from good-old-fashioned suffering. Pop trickery that manipulates your mind with chimes and pitch correction. But in the event of spontaneous elation, if you or anyone you know is at risk of having a good, even lovely day, I want you to know: it is going to be all right.

Whether we want anyone to know or not, joy does occasionally break through, and we just have to deal with it. I could far more easily fashion a playlist of breakup songs, funeral anthems, and frightening German noise bands. But setting aside my eternally teenage heart for the purposes of letting myself be happy (for now) is a tall but necessary order.

I’m getting better at admitting to shortcomings such as this. I’ve even found a way to label it (a writer’s favorite thing to do). Since the band’s inception, critics have often described The Smiths as “miserablists,” and while I won’t stand behind that point entirely – they were far too self-aware and satirical to be reduced to such a limiting word – I kind of love the term. “Miserablist.” It’s an absurd word, as if misery were a political party, its spokesperson being the lugubrious Moz, of course.

Involuntarily or not, I may be a card-carrying miserablist myself. To the extent that when a desire for more beatific, up-tempo, major scale pop music bubbles through all of my petty brooding, I have a slight identity crisis. But I am working on it.

In the same way it is ok to let yourself be happy (I hear), it is also ok to let yourself listen to happy music. Shiny happy music. But who am I really telling this to? You probably already know that.

I have appointed myself with the task of making a playlist of songs I enjoy for their sheer mood-erecting abilities, which was harder than you might think.  They can’t just be any peppy pop songs. I have to love of course. I may be in a good mood, but I’m still a snob.

In situations like these, I first look to ABBA. They are perhaps the only group in my collection whose “sad,” or “grave” ballads hold no interest for me. I turn (or twirl) to them for disco bangers alone, songs written for the purposes of merriment and cutting fat checks, not enriching the poetic canon. I wouldn’t call theirs particularly substantive music – though it was made with a depth of technical talent – but it sure as shit makes you wanna dance.

“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” is perhaps one of the most asinine and catchy cuts out there. Even Madonna couldn’t resist that ridiculous synth…pan flute? riff when she sampled it in 2005’s “Hung Up.” And neither can I.

The rest of my playlist follows a similar rule. As I construct it I realize that every song is void of guilty associations – those autobiographical kernels of nostalgia embedded into every song an ex showed you, or your mother used to sing in the kitchen. These songs have somehow become mine, no matter how they came into my life.

From what I can see of the end result, what makes me happy musically is pretty in step with real life. Absurdity (“Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”), idealism (“Tenderness”), love (“Funny Little Frog”), and funk.

I guess a little positivity won’t kill me. Yet.

ONLY NOISE: Pop Anonymous

The Smiths

Someone I used to date always said that I only hated everything that existed.  I fucking hated that guy, but he may have been on to something.  I’ve long been called many things; a contrarian, a hater, overly opinionated, and my personal favorite, too intense.  But while those assessments can ring true, they don’t take into account my aptitude for eating crow, a skill best exemplified in my musical flip-flopping over the years.  Lengthy is the list of bands I used to “hate” and now adore.  Changing your mind is a simultaneously painful and elating metamorphosis to endure.  Especially when it requires letting go of a pre-teen ethos deeply rooted in punk rock; a genre that is constantly evaluating it’s own badassness.  My leading question as a 14-year-old closet pop-addict being: does liking ABBA make me less punk rock?

Before my musical diet broadened exponentially, before I caught myself enjoying a Taylor Swift song here and there, or found out that I did in fact like hip hop, The Cardigans, and Kate Bush, I pretty much only listened to punk.  I wanted music with anger issues.  I was allergic to melody…or so I thought.  There was a specific regimen of sloppy, fast, and distorted a song had to abide by to catch my attention.  It was a closed mindedness I’m shocked anyone was able to put up with.  My mom would softly chide me as I furiously jabbed the radio tuner in search of something to appease my limited tastes, “variety is the spice of life, you know.”

And she was right!  But I couldn’t even see the variety so intrinsic to punk rock at first: jazz, ska, rockabilly, country…they all found homes in the tedious sub-genres of punk at some stage or another.  But at the time it had a narrow definition, and more importantly, existed in a vacuum.  Whenever my dad would try to relate to me by voicing observations such as: “hey, this is really just sped-up pop music!” I would defend its “hardcore” integrity with a spiny vengeance.

Pop was also burdened with a slim definition.  Pop meant flaccid and saccharine.  Pop was the noise that bubblegum made.  Pop was the opposite of punk, unless it was pop punk, a genre I absolutely indulged in but would go to painstaking lengths to rename as “skater punk” or “neo-punk” because semantics and titles meant that much to me.  I wonder why.

There were countless bands that I tossed aside in my one-woman-war against melody.  The Smiths were top of the heap.  Did I really hate The Smiths because I’d patiently, painfully sat through full albums and just couldn’t stand the irresistible brightness of Johnny Marr’s guitar, or Morrissey’s delicious voice?  Or did I stop my investigation  short of listening, scoff at the flowers in Moz’s pocket, and turn away the moment I realized that everyone else loved them?  As we know, pop is short for popular, and with discriminating ears I’d decided that “popular” was synonymous with “crap.”

It took me a long time to realize that hating something because of its popularity is just as lame as liking it for that reason.  Concept, I’ve learned, can be the enemyThose little placards next to the paintings at museums can never communicate what it is that the canvas does to you.  It may seem funny that a music critic is telling you to not listen to the ideas surrounding music, but before a critic I’m a listener, and one thing I  know is that diving in on your own, swimming around, feeling the temperature and the texture of a song…that’s all that really matters.  Gleaning significance from a concept-a synopsis really, no longer interests me…I want the meat of the thing.  And it was with this abandonment that I was finally able to enjoy a whole slew of music I would have shrugged off in my younger years.

If concept is the enemy, context is a friend.  After all, it was context that first tricked me into liking The Smiths.  I was on an ugly grey balcony in Seattle, the balcony belonging to a friend’s hip older brother.  It was the summer before I moved to New York and I found myself dating hip big brother’s college friend, a coy Brit who played with his bangs too much.

The brother, being a musician, had a hoard of instruments strewn about his apartment, along with plenty of friends who could play them.  What college apartment would be complete without the requisite acoustic guitar, after all?

Though I grew up in the midst of musicians and have been witness to my fair share of casual-setting sing-alongs, I’ve never taken a shine to them.  Too intimate.  Too showy.  Mostly too intimate.  This occasion was no different.

Some guy with a fashion mullet and a purple zip up hoodie started strumming away on a six-string, and though I already wanted to run far away, I remained board-stiff in my deck chair.  The song was requested by the Englishman, who shortly began to sing:

“stop me, uh-uh-oh stop me, stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before…”

My ears perked up-I hadn’t heard this one before.  I loved it.  I wanted to know who wrote it so I could hear the original version as soon as humanly possible and wash the sonic imprint of this “stripped-down” cover from my skull.

“Whose song is that?!”  I demanded.

The two men looked at each other with mild disgust that I didn’t already know.

“The Smiths,” replied a thin British accent.


It was the beginning of an ongoing love affair that peaked mid-college, at which point I effectively ruined The Smiths for my first New York boyfriend after playing their catalog too much.  I probably have friends who think I still hate The Smiths.  Don’t tell them.

My newfound love of the Salford four might suggest a wellspring of new interests on less aggressive terrain…say Belle and Sebastian, for instance.  Not so.  I found Stuart Murdoch’s voice too whispering, the music too soft, too…wussy.  For years I scoffed at the mention of them, never realizing that Murdoch’s lyrics were just as divisive as Morrissey’s, Elvis Costello’s, and Paddy McAloon’s.

But the battle against Belle and Sebastian would be lost to one song: “The Blues Are Still Blue” off of 2006’s The Life Pursuit.  I was studying in Milan and sharing a mini apartment with a friend from school.  The two of us were practically married, sharing a bedroom, class schedule, and groceries.  We would cook for each other and spend hours at our tiny kitchen table smoking poorly rolled cigarettes and finishing off bottles of three euros red.  Wine-stained and enthused, we would exit our circular debates about religion and politics, opting instead to play music we suspected the other hadn’t heard.  This was much easier for her, as she was Brazilian, and could pretty much stump me with anything other than Sergio Mendes or Os Mutantes.

And yet her greatest victory in this game was Belle and Sebastian, which took her months to secure.  “No.  I don’t like Belle and Sebastian.  I can’t stand Stuart Murdoch’s voice.”  I insisted.  “Ah, but you have to hear this song” she would counter.  It hit me like a kiss.  There was no denying it was a fantastic song; dripping in hooks, with a chorus you couldn’t stand not to sing.  I admitted after a few listens that it was pretty catchy, but just because I liked one song didn’t mean I liked the band as a whole.

Within weeks I was secretly listening to other songs off The Life Pursuit, then the entire album, and eventually, older Belle and Sebastian records.  Right before we graduated I conceded to my persuader.  “You did it,” I reluctantly grunted.  “You made me like Belle and Sebastian.  Are you happy now?”  She smiled with purple lips.  I still can’t get her into Nick Cave.  She doesn’t like music that is too angry.