Five Moody Movie Songs That Defined My Adolescent (and Pre-Adolescent) Longing
I often write about the way that teenaged Chad Durham viewed the world. As a shy, insecure, secretly sentimental young man, the amount of romantic yearning I pushed down for my unrequited crushes was significant. I could not quite move out of the dream realm when it came to wanting to pursue courtship and flirtation. I hoped that somehow girls would just realize they found me attractive and cool suddenly and declare their devotion. Every nuance in my life took on secret meaning: looks, touches, songs, movies, food, conversations, etc. If I could apply my fanciful interpretations to a thing, I was going to do it!
Because of this, I was drawn to moody songs that seemed to perfectly capture the angsty sensations I felt in my fragile, overactive heart. It was even better if those songs came from a movie soundtrack because then I had bittersweet images with which to pair my imaginative longings or at least a cinematic “feeling” that I could match up with my own confused impressions.
Here follows five moody movie songs that defined my adolescent (and pre-adolescent) longing. Not all of these songs were written for the movies that they are in, but that is how I was first introduced to them and that is how I always remember them.
(1) “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” — The Platters (American Graffiti, 1973)
The story: I was not alive when American Graffiti came out, but the soundtrack for the movie was one of my dad’s favorite albums of all time. He had most of the soundtrack on a cassette when I was growing up and I wore that tape out listening to it over and over. It started a lifelong love of 1950s and 1960s music for me. There were many songs I came to adore from American Graffiti that I still consider to be my favorite songs, full stop. I did not actually see the movie until much later in my life but the songs always conjured up a specific time and place, even if it was one from before I was born.
What the song came to represent for me: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was never a song that I considered to be one of my favorites from the soundtrack. In fact, it gave me weird feelings because I felt like it was singing about something I did not understand. The song was too emotional, too thoughtful, and too adult for my young brain to comprehend. (I started listening to American Graffiti when I was 5 years old or so.) The song is about the fire of love and relationships and the heartbreak of the end of that love. It was absolutely nothing that I could understand when I was not even 10. In some ways, it describes feelings I am still learning about in my middle age. But it always represented the idea that when I got older, I would be able to contemplate and consider the sentiments expressed by the Platters in this achingly beautiful song.
Line(s) that encapsulated my longing: “Yet today, my love has gone away; I am without my love (without my love).”
(2) “All I Want is You” — U2 (Reality Bites, 1994)
The story: A good friend of mine in high school gave me the Reality Bites soundtrack long before I could even have appreciated Reality Bites. As a 14-year-old, I could never have fathomed the subtlety and subtext of the movie, but I did appreciate the transfixing nature of the songs that were curated and/or written for it. Ben Stiller’s film about a group of friends in their twenties is a touchstone for many and the music on the soundtrack is perfectly calibrated to represent the time and the feeling of figuring out how to be an adult and how to take control of your life.
What the song came to represent for me: I have never been a fan of U2, which I know is blasphemous for many people. I never actively hated them, but I felt they were grossly overrated. But “All I Want is You” summed up the devotion I felt in my mind and matched the idea of what “love” was that I adored in the movies. There is definitely an element of obsession explored in the song, but young love, naive desire, infatuation, whatever one calls it, always felt a little obsessive. That is why I could never name it. U2 made it feel furtive and focused but somehow fitting.
Line(s) that encapsulated my longing: “But the promises we make from the cradle to the grave, when all I want is you.”
(3) “Iris” — Goo Goo Dolls (City of Angels, 1998)
The story: One of my best friends in high school was a girl I had a mad crush on. She and I used to go see movies together a lot. I fancied myself a cinema connoisseur, though I certainly was not, and seeing City of Angels felt like a deep experience because it was based on the German film Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders. Even though English-language remakes are far inferior to their foreign predecessors, I was excited to be able to see City of Angels, especially in the company of my crush. Whatever your opinion on the movie, it definitely cultivates an ardent sense of longing. The soundtrack plays a big part in that. I was captivated by the movie and its depiction of desire — a depiction that both delighted and distressed me.
What the song came to represent for me: So many songs that came out between 1995 and 1999 unlock vivid memories for me when I hear them now. “Iris” is chief among them, transporting me back to the agony and nerves of high school and reminding me of my naivete and my shallow understanding of human nature and love. But “Iris” is dichotomous because it also ties to my fledgling love of movies and reminds of a simpler time when the only worries I had were my self-consciousness — making sure no one actually knew what I was feeling inside. Life gets more complicated as we get older, I think, so that looking back on adolescence reminds us of our idiocy and our anxiety, yes, but also of the clarity of innocence.
Line(s) that encapsulated my longing: “And all I can taste is this moment and all I can breathe is your life and sooner or later it’s over; I just don’t want to miss you tonight.”
(4) “Farther Down” — Matthew Sweet (Can’t Hardly Wait, 1998)
The story: For a little more context on my experiences with this movie, you can check out these articles I wrote: Movie Theater Experiences and on Characters I Found Attractive. Can’t Hardly Wait came out the year I graduated from high school and it was literally about graduating from high school. I bought the soundtrack because it had Third Eye Blind, Smashmouth, and Blink-182 on it and because it felt like I had to to hold onto some of the inscrutable feelings associated with the end of an era.
What the song came to represent for me: Every time I listened to the soundtrack, it reminded me of that 1998 life: me, frozen in time, scared and shy and stupid, hankering for love, not understanding anything, but feeling everything. I was so self-conscious in high school — sometimes it felt debilitating. This song made me feel like someone understood what it was like to wish so hard and care so much. Matthew Sweet’s earnest vocals captured what it was like for me to hold every secret crush inside.
Line(s) that encapsulated my longing: “Farther down I’m desperate for you, where you never have to know; farther down I’m still without a clue till something, something takes my pain away.”
(5) “Just Another” — Pete Yorn (Bandits, 2001)
The story: For many, Bandits is a blip of a movie, curious more because of its stellar cast (Cate Blanchett, Billy Bob Thornton, Bruce Willis) and celebrated director (Barry Levinson) than because of its quality. I happen to love it and was really impressed by the way the selected songs set the mood for such an offbeat movie without an obvious or didactic theme. I do not know much of Pete Yorn’s music, but his song stuck out more than any of the others. Though I like the characters of Bandits and I think Blanchett and Thornton give underappreciated work, I don’t watch the movie for the plot, I watch it for the way it cultivates an entrancing mood through its music choices.
What the song came to represent for me: This song was much more about a feeling than about any of the specific lyrics. Pete Yorn’s impassioned voice and the sweet-sounding melody seemed to indict me with melancholy for my life of hoping and my unwillingness to risk anything: it kept me from getting hurt, but it kept me from the possibility of ecstatic joy. It took me a long time to learn that lesson, I guess. But no song seemed to sing that idea into my soul more than this one.
Line(s) that encapsulated my longing: As mentioned above, it was more the feel of this song, but the lines “You were lying wide awake in the garden trying to get over your stardom and I could never see you depart us and you’re my baby” were the most affecting for me.