What is music but memories in sounds? Songs can define parts of our lives that maybe we would have forgotten otherwise. Like smells for the ears, we associate songs with the places we were and the people we were with when we heard them. KQED Pop’s authors have mined their souls to tell you the stories of the songs that defined pivotal romantic moments in their lives. So get in your time machine and travel back with our writers to the days of true love, middle school dances, important car rides and mixed tapes.
David Aloi, “Because You Loved Me”/Celine Dion
The Our Lady of the Sacred Heart “Seventh Grade Spring Swing” was in full effect in the parking lot behind the cafeteria. The school year was coming to a close and chances were I wouldn’t run into Molly Wannemacher after that evening, as she usually spent summers at basketball camp. With toes curled and palms wet, I set my Dixie cup of Hi-C down on the pavement and approached Molly for the final song, “Because You Loved Me” by Celine Dion from the always underrated film Up Close and Personal. The song itself begins pretty immediately, Celine’s voice wasting no time. Molly accepted my invitation, shyly but certain, her hands around my neck, my hands on her hips. We had danced many times before but this time was to be different and we both knew it. I decided to wait for the bridge to do it: you were always there for me / the tender wind that carried me. I slid my hands from her hips to her butt and kept them there for the final chorus. I’m not sure if Sister Monica or Mrs. Ratchuk saw, or if classmates were whispering behind our backs. Nothing mattered in that moment. I even think the sun was setting.
Natalie Grace Sweet, “Beast of Burden”/Rolling Stones
I remember exactly where I was when I was officially felt swept off my feet; Driving down Bethel Church Road in Bethel Park, PA in my boyfriend’s parent’s 1988 blue Dodge Caravan, I had shotgun. My hair was bleach blonde then and pulled back at the sides with two barrettes adorned by tiny photos of Betty Page. The night was crispy and I shivered a little under my jean jacket hoodie combo. We turned on the radio. I loved music and I loved my boyfriend, almost in equal measure, but there was a lot I still didn’t know. For one thing, I couldn’t read the boy’s mind and always wondered how he really felt. He was, sometimes, a man of few words. As we crossed Edward Street, he flinched, reached forward, turned up the volume on the stereo and said, “I wrote this for you.” He didn’t of course, Keith and Mick did, but I got the point. It was the first time I ever remember really listening to that song. That’s how my love for the Rolling Stones truly began…and that’s when I knew my boyfriend really liked me, too.
Nate Waggoner, TIE “Kick Out the Jams”/ MC5 & “A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock and Roll”/Donny and Marie Osmond
On our first date, as I was driving, I handed Alicia my iPod and asked her to pick something. It was inconsiderate of me; she was nervous and felt she had to pick just the right thing, nothing cheesily romantic or unhip. She nailed it, though: “Kick Out the Jams” by MC5, which is fun and meaningless and cool. When our dating turned into a relationship, we discussed what our “song” might be. One option was “Kick Out the Jams.” Alicia proposed “A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock and Roll,” which is corny as hell, old-fashioned, innocent and sweet. I said, “No, it can’t be something too ironic.” She said she wasn’t being ironic at all. We stayed together for another three years.
Laura Schadler, “Guided By Voices”/Awful Bliss
There was “Shudder to Think” playing in the summertime air conditioned room of my first love. And Souixsie’s “Peek-a-Boo” in the car of the cool older boy who drove me to art galleries and artsy movie theatres. There were the Cat Power tinged years of my hot college boyfriend who wore Whorehouse of Representatives t-shirts. There was the “Vitamin C” song by Can that every boy I ever had a crush on seemed to listen to for some reason. There’s the RJD2, Camera Obscura and Tom Waits of three memorable flings, and the June of 44 record a cute boy with ulterior motives invited me to listen to in his dorm room lit by Christmas lights. But the song that sticks out above all others is Guided By Voices, “Awful Bliss.” It first appeared on a mixed tape from a boy, with sides entitled Sex=Rock and Love=Roll. The mix, despite its awesome title, was not an overt love letter as most mixed tapes are, but something far cooler and more subtle, qualities that the maker of the mix possessed as well. He was a friend and we’d been secretly in love for years, punctuated by awesomely inappropriate emails, a variety of fraught antics and mixed tapes. Lots of mixes. But the Sex=Rock and Love=Roll mix took it next level. It was the precursor to the secret love not being secret anymore. Due to its sweeping, opaque emotion and brevity, this song, the last one on the second side, lent itself to being listened to over and over (and over), and so I did. It suggested to me that he was afraid of how in love with me he was, an interpretation I’m sticking with to this day. The best part was the line, “I wouldn’t dare,” which meant that, of course, he would.
Emmanuel Hapsis, “Lovefool”/The Cardigans
Certain songs have the mighty nostalgic power to dismantle your current scene and transport you to some long-ago bedroom or rooftop or any other place where you experienced something. That song for me is The Cardigans’ “Lovefool,” a pop song so sweet it’ll give you a cavity. I certainly served my time with this earworm in the ’90s, playing it from my Talkboy (hey, Macauley!), while biking around a suburb of Baltimore, but that’s not where the song takes me. Instead, I am sent to the passenger seat in a car with the windows rolled down next to the first boy I ever kissed. It was a time when I was coming to terms with my sexuality and just being a human being, really. He was driving me to my morning class after staying up all night talking about our favorite everythings and I sang out the mantra “Love me, love me, say that you love me!” He looked over at me with adoration and that was the first time I allowed myself to feel those things I read about in novels and saw play out in the hallways on My So Called Life, the things I thought were meant for others. For most, “Lovefool” is a sugary reminder of Lisa Frank binders and scrunchies. But, for me, it’s the complete restaging of the moment when I finally loved myself enough to be loved, the moment when I became real at last.
Lizzy Acker, “Crush”/Dave Matthews Band
Like Anne of Green Gables before me, most of my truly romantic moments have happened in my imagination. I heard “Crush” for the first time on I-5, driving from Corvallis up to Portland to my first/only during-high-school college visit. I was 17. My boyfriend/true love at the time was named Steve and we were at that point in our young love relationship where even being away from him for 24 hours seemed like an insurmountable mountain of despair. I never wanted to be away from him. I would have been happy to have him surgically attached to my side. So he made me a mixed tape, obviously, and while I drove up the freeway in my parents’ Subaru Legacy with the windows cracked and the stereo on loud, this song came on and I felt like I was floating in a cloud of love and I knew exactly what Dave Matthews meant and I knew that Steve knew too. Needless to say, I hated the college visit and spent the next three to four years trying to make my Dave Matthews romantic fantasy with Steve come true. Thankfully for both of us, it didn’t work out. But I keep his mixed tapes in my living room to this day (see above) and listen to them when I feel like no one in the world loves me, just to remember that magic feeling of perfect romance and fantasy love, not knowing if you’re right side up or upside down, pinching yourself because you aren’t sure if you’re dreaming.