Youth is everywhere in music. Everyone wants it, remembers it, aches to return to it. In music, youth is the time when life is the fullest and the most exciting — late nights, hijinks, drugs, sex, crying and dancing. The days are short; the nights long; the years even longer. In song, youth is the perfect storm of irresponsibility and impressionability. You can do everything and anything, and it all feels important.
There are so many songs about youth, about both living it and remembering it. Youth is visual, like all memories are: the fashion, the people and the places. But, of all the songs surrounding the idea of youth, those with particularly interesting music videos stuck out to me while trying to compile a best-of list. Which songs had videos that seemed to accurately reflect on some aspect of teenagerhood in the era in which they were produced? I narrowed it down to five songs about youth, all of which have music videos that feel especially “of their era,” acting as a visual record of the song’s subject.
1) John Mellencamp, “Cherry Bomb” (1988)
“That’s when a sport was a sport, “Mellencamp sings, “And groovin’ was groovin’ / And dancin’ meant everything / We were young and we were improvin’.’” Who doesn’t want to be improvin’? The song is everything you want: sentimental but upbeat, with lyrics begging to be karaoked. There’s the requisite melancholy for days gone by, but what’s most palpable is Mellencamp’s joy at remembering the wonder and excitement of his adolescence.
The music video is a moving collage of absurdity and sincerity: Found footage of teens in the ‘50s and ‘60s, accompanied by shots of a suspender-clad Mellencamp singing next to a jukebox as a teenage couple dances and feels each other up. Sometimes, the camera even cuts to Mellencamp doing his best Neil Young impression on a beach, wearing a denim jacket with no shirt.
2) Lauryn Hill, “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” (1998)
Is this song about being young? I think so. I think it’s about the competing interests of youth — dressing right, having fun, falling in love without getting your heart broken. She’s instructing youth on how to find self-worth within impossibly challenging conditions. The problem, of course, is that the hot desires of young adulthood often run in opposition to other longings. Can you be cool and true to yourself? Respected and silly? These are the questions Hill addresses. The song could be considered preachy, but instead it’s moving. “Now, Lauryn is only human,” she sings. “Don’t think I haven’t been through the same predicament.”
And the music video! It’s something else — a split-screen extravaganza of the late ‘50s, early ‘60s sock hop aesthetic on the left and ‘90s Afropunk on the right. The video’s concept drives home the central point of the song: The same struggles will follow men and women through every generation. Youth are prone to compromising their values in search of love or a cure for loneliness, and they always have been. “How you gonna win, when you ain’t right within?” she asks. “Come again, come again, come again, come again.”
3) Wheatus, “Teenage Dirtbag” (2000)
BBB wants us to think he’s all about rebellion and angst, but this song is about something far more tender: a crush. Do you remember the innocent fantasies of high school infatuation? It was a secret thrill — hoping that special person would sit next to you at lunch, or that they’d come up to you at a party, or that you’d be put in the same homeroom class. This is that feeling — a delicate hope, mixed with fear and self-doubt — wrapped up in a gleefully screamy alt-rock package.
The music video is a melding together of original footage from the 2000 movie “Loser,” starring none other than Jason Biggs of “American Pie” fame. In the movie, Jason’s character has a crush on a girl who’s having an affair with a terribly pretentious English teacher (played by Greg Kinnear, of course). Problematic source material aside, the music video is such an embodiment of the early 2000s that, when watching, it feels as if long-dormant memories are surfacing rather than being created. The plot of the video is a daydream in which a boy discovers his crush is also a teenage dirtbag who loves Iron Maiden. “She’s walkin’ over to me, this must be fake / My lip starts to shake,” sings Brown. Biggs wakes up and the fantasy ends, but the world of the song — being a teenager and an outcast, hoping that the person that you love will reveal themselves to be just like you — lingers.
4) Bronski Beat, “Smalltown Boy” (1984)
One of the top comments on the music video for “Smalltown Boy” is “I forgot the name of the song, so i searched ‘Gay train song 80s’ and this was the first video.” Yes, this is the seminal gay train song of the ‘80s, and it’s earned its place in the canon of music surrounding the struggles and joys of LGBTQ+ identity. “Smalltown Boy” is the sad prequel to “Take Your Mama” by the Scissor Sisters, cataloguing the grief of a teenage boy who must seek his fortune outside the prejudices of his hometown. “Mother will never understand why you had to leave,” sings Jimmy Somerville. “But the answers you seek will never be found at home.”
Somerville’s signature falsetto, supported by a synth-heavy beat, narrates the story in terms vague enough that the song’s meaning isn’t always obvious. The music video, however, makes it painfully clear what the song is about. Somerville plays a gay teenager, riding a train and reminscing about his emerging sexuality and the reactions of his peers and parents. The song’s subject was especially groundbreaking at the time of its release in 1984, when the AIDS crisis was in full swing. The video, a nosedive into mid-‘80s Britain, is a moving portrait that ends on an unexpectedly happy shot of the protagonist stepping off the train with his new friends. The scene freezes, Somerville grinning at last.
5) Asher Roth, “I Love College” (2009)
The lyrics of “I Love College” are probably not going to win any awards. “Man I love college (Hey!) / And I love drinking (Hey!) / I love women (Hey!) / Man I love college (Hey!).” It’s a silly romp of frat-rap about partying and drinking and weed and girls. But the music video for “I Love College” is a gem, displaying the conspicuous carelessness of party culture in full swing. Roth makes his way through the rooms of a house where a burn-it-down party is in full swing.
Revelers make out, throw a mattress off a balcony and play strip poker. Someone dressed in a dinosaur costume simulates sex with a keg. Roth grins next to an unconscious, Sharpie-covered partier getting a buzz cut, singing, “Don’t pass out with your shoes on.” It’s dumb and dangerous and it feels weirdly familiar, like this 11-year-old party could have happened last weekend.
It’s hard to say anything about being young without falling into the dangerous territory of aphorisms. These artists say something new, but they also say all the old things. Run away, find yourself, fall in love. “When I think back about those days / All I can do is sit and smile,” sings Mellencamp. Go West, young man — you’re only young once.