Forever Fifteen

When we are heartbroken, why do we turn to the music we loved as teens?

On the way home from getting his heartbroken at a steak house in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, my friend Dylan got the urge to pull his Volvo Sedan over onto the side of the road. There, he proceeded to listen to “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls on repeat until he felt a little better. That summer, he’d spend time driving through the rural countryside with his windows down, singing songs like “Hands Down” by Dashboard Confessional at the top of his lungs.

Though he didn’t know it then, this was a ritual he’d return to again and again over the course of his life. When the 27-year-old was last lovesick, he was quick to consult all the “corny stuff” he liked in high school. On his walk to work in Washington, D.C. he found himself instinctively scrolling through his iPod to Dashboard Confessional’s unplugged album.

Like most of us, Dylan is a “depression listener.” He makes sure to point out he hadn’t listened to the band in years and wouldn’t under “any normal circumstances.” Another friend also makes this caveat clear: She busts out “really cheesy” 90s R&B from the time when she “first started to experience extreme love and sex emotions” when lovesick, but says she would “never listen to if I weren’t feeling very emotional.”

If there is Guilty Pleasure, this is Guilty Pain. Dylan admits he’s very self-conscious to find emotional refuge in music that “isn’t even good.” It’s embarrassing to admit that during messy, adult heartbreak we often regress back to adolescence, to the same exact tools (even down to the 9-minute Something Corporate song) that helped us get through it the first time.

Is that because — for people who came of age in the early aughts — Usher was in his musical prime AND dating TLC’s Chili when he came out with “U Got It Bad” in 2001?

Maybe, but there’s also a neurological reason why music we listened to while growing up — specifically between the ages of of 12–22 — holds a special place in our hearts forever. The growth hormones released during adolescence tell our brain that every experience, including that of listening to a song, is extra IMPORTANT.

The Reminiscence Bump, as its called by researchers, is credited with why memories from teen years feel so vivid and play such a vital role in shaping your sense of self. “Adolescence is when you listen to the most music,” says Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind. “It’s when you chose the kind of music that will inform your identity.”

Yet I, like many people I spoke to, was nonetheless ashamed to find myself returning to an angsty pop-punk filled playlist after my latest heartbreak. It’s been almost ten years since I was first dumped after a passionate Lord of the Rings make out session, and I’d like to think my taste has evolved past the All American Rejects. But more importantly, the particulars of this complicated, adult fiasco are fuzzier — the hero and villain less easy to discern — and as with the ending of many grown-up relationships, there were two broken hearts.

When it came to picking post-breakup jams, that didn’t seem to matter. There was something that just felt so right about busting out the Green Day like I was “seventeen and strung out on confusion/trapped inside a roll of disillusion.” As Dylan says, there isn’t much thought that goes into into this compulsion: “It’s just what you do.” There’s something primally compelling about returning back to a simpler, more pure time when you were allowed to be completely miserable and stew in it.

“It might seem regressive and unhealthy to want to live in that world again, to revisit a time when you were full emotion,” a former colleague says, because “it seems impossible to do that without consequences anymore.” But the sensation is not too difference from “visiting a haunted house, watching a scary movie, or riding a roller coaster.”

Part of this cathartic release is because music is on par with sense of smell in bringing past emotional experiences back to life. University of Berlin Researcher Liila Taruffi says that in her study on sad music, nostalgia was the emotion most frequently experienced, as it helped participants “re-experience the past through music.”

But why seek out memories of a former rejection to get over a new one? I got my first broken heart when I was 15, and the thought of it still stings. That was the very first time I turned to Isaac for angst, and Billy for anger, and Mark for distraction. These weren’t people I knew personally, but through a black walkman covered in hologram stickers they were my one and only respite from misery. And they’d stick with me far longer than that boy.

It was on the bus home from school — the one where we first met —that I experienced for the very first time my thoughts drifting to that Dark Place. As I peered out the window with wet eyes, the songs I’d listen to on those rides became much more than a collection of cords. They were an empathetic hug or a night out with friends or an encouraging pat on the back. As Margulis poetically puts it: Music helped me see my “individual sadness as a universal tradition.”

But I think we also turn to nostalgia when we’re in pain because it reminds us of our resilience; of heartbreaks past and how we got over them. The only way to get over it is to place yourself in context. Your own context. To go back to that bus ride, or car ride, or wherever you were, and remember how you thought you were going to die. And how you didn’t.

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