A Coming of Age in 26 Songs: on Womanhood and Emotional Awakenings

I, like many other girls, grew up on a healthy diet of impossible expectations and interesting stereotypes that taught me what to expect from society, from love, from success and from myself as I navigated the world. I broke my teeth over the subtle violence directed at women in movies, gorged on the poison we were served in stories, acquiesced in ready acceptance at whatever standards we were to be held to, in the sphere of popular culture: and why shouldn’t I? 

Women in film represented, for me, the epitome of what I should aspire to: they were not people, they were ideas, ideals, muses, “It” girls, icons, symbols, emblems... Never mind that these almost never matched up to the much grislier realities these women endured daily. As a child who felt ugly in every sense of the word, the pitfalls of beauty were more than worth it, if it meant crystalizing and elevating oneself to an almost divine status.

I knew the damage had already been done when, at barely six years old, I got sucked into a documentary about the (often painful) transformations Old Hollywood starlets had to undergo in order to guarantee a successful career. Instead of being horrified, I shrugged it off, as if to say: and? what’s the big deal?


Where cinema dealt blow after insidious blow to what little I knew of self-worth, and literature often pursued that tendency to glamorize problematic characters, it was music that saved me in the end. 

The women I listened to spoke their truth in their own voices: and what a voice it was. They were rougher around the edges, less glamorous; in some cases, even intentionally off-putting. This, because they had something to say, and could not care less about being proper or nice while they were doing it.

Hence, as I grew more aware, I found my attention pulled away from the ostentatious glitz of the big screen, as these voices nestled more deeply in my ear. These women taught me how to be a woman, more than anything and anyone ever did, helped me rescue myself from the disappointment life set up up for, and they still do today — because I am far from done learning.

These songs (one for every year of my life) are the panorama of my coming-of-age, and revisiting their meaning has reminded me what troubled times make easy to forget: that womanhood is a language, a shared experience that is often thankless, but always, always worth it in the end.


1- “Acid Tongue” - Jenny Lewis (2008)

This one came into my life later, but nothing happens for nothing, as I like to say; and as far as “Acid Tongue” comes, it was what I needed to hear when I heard it. Beyond being a powerful song about the way some women self-medicate with pithy romances and other coping mechanisms, there is a profundity in it that holds the attention. At the end of my rope, but more petulant than ever, Lewis’ words simultaneously chided and comforted me: reminding me, on the one hand, that nothing and no one is irreparably broken, and that I needed to get it together; reminding me, on the other hand, that there was no glamor in self-pity, that I needed to get over myself and that my neuroses were no reason to continue being the worst version of myself.

Lines that made a difference:

To be lonely is a habit, like smoking or taking drugs

And I've quit them both, but man, was it rough


2- “Apologies” - Grace Potter & the Nocturnals (2007)

Not unlike “Acid Tongue”, “Apologies” has always been my reminder to be kinder to others even when I am at my most unhappy. But unlike Lewis’ song, this one appealed to my ego, rather than my emotions. As I grew with it, I alternately loved and hated this song because it prodded at something uncomfortable I refused to listen to: forgiveness and apologies don’t make us any less. If anything, they make us bigger and better people, even if it doesn't make those around us more graceful, more kind, more considerate. That I needed that point stressed to me is a testament to the fact that at times, my forgiveness did not come from a place of genuine clemency.

Lines that made a difference:

My love is like a blanket

That gets a little bit too warm sometimes

I wanna wrap somebody in it

Who can hold me in his arms


3- “Birds of Paradise” - Basia Bulat (2007)

After a lifetime of escapism and cutting ties (or refusing to make them in the first place), the gentle note of caution of “Birds of Paradise” finally rang true in my ear. I found myself, one winter, in the worst kind of emotional crisis, and realized I had essentially pushed everyone I knew away from me, so that I was utterly alone. It was a bitter kind of loneliness, not the one I’d always pursued and carefully curated. Basia Bulat taught me, when I least wanted to hear it, that there is something to be said about being gentle with those friendships and relationships that mean something to us. We never know when we might need them.

Lines that made a difference:

I was down on my knees

I was praying to leave

But I never know when I've gone too far


4- “Black Tongue” - Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2003)

I don’t know what to say about Karen O that would do her justice. I credit this strange, daring, and utterly cool woman with inspiring me to stray from making the kind of music I was expected to like and emulate, and to instead give into my weirder, more defiant impulses: because ultimately, that is what my knee-jerk reaction has always been. She was one of the first to show me how women could be as sweet as they were brash, as bold and fearlessly gleeful as they could be coy and gentle. “Black Tongue”, rings with Karen O’s signature bravado, infused with wordplay and a nose thumbed gloriously at the conventions of femininity.

Lines that made a difference:

Boy you’re just a stupid bitch

And girl you’re just a no good dick


5- “Bleed Like Me” - Garbage (2005)

Garbage, and Shirley Manson in particular, made me feel seen in ways rarely experienced: their incisive music always held a mirror to the underside of self-destructive behavior, the one often romanticized in pop culture. “Bleed Like Me”, the culmination of those tendencies, had always been a very important song for me, but it is not until years later, when I finally got help that I looked back at it, and understood how it had helped keep me afloat until then.

Lines that made a difference:

Dancing with the devil's past has never been too fun

It's better off than trying to take a bullet from a gun


6-  “Blues For Mama” - Nina Simone (1967)

When I was in elementary school, a very cute boy whom I’d barely spoken to decided, one day, that he had a crush on me. It was like a lightning bolt to my senses: I was meek, quiet, virtually a ghost. That anyone could notice me, let alone feel something for me, was utterly inconceivable. So I let myself get swept up into it, reveling in his attention, in the gifts he got me (Ring Pops, drawings, actions figures), in the gossip we stirred up, expecting that it would end at any moment — hell, precisely because it could end at any moment: because as far as I was concerned, in hindsight, attention-starved as I was, it’s obvious I wasn’t remotely interested in him, but in the comfort of being wanted. A few weeks later, with no warning or explanation, he decided he didn’t like me anymore, and with that, his entire attitude did a 180. He became one of my worst bullies (verbal and physical), and continued harassing me until he transferred schools. I was left reeling, but this would only be the first of many experiences with bitter, angry men, a lesson every girl, no matter her sexual orientation or gender identity, learns the hard way at one point or another. It also taught me something about myself, and the currency at which I sold my worth. “Blues for Mama”, hence, was a balm to my ears: it illustrated the inexplicable ways some men go about spreading rumors and being cruel to women, because they can. It was my first time hearing that a man’s harmful behavior was not my fault. It would take almost twenty years for me to start fully accepting that, but when I finally did, years later, it was Nina’s voice that gave me heart, taught me to stand up for myself and take back my narrative.

Lines that made a difference:

Get your nerves together, baby

And set the record straight, set it straight


7- “Ça Me Vexe” - Mademoiselle K (2006) 

Too often, women are told to be nice, to grin and bear it, to not rock boats. Katerine Gierak, the splendid front-woman of this French rock band, says: to hell with all that. From the very first lyrics (“nobody loves you? Oh yeah, thought so”) to the title of the song itself (“It Irks Me”, in English), her attitude is a detached “screw you” to the patriarchy. The song is a nearly 4-minute sendoff to everyone and everything that has stood in the way of her success and well-being. She complains about not being liked, about being abandoned by friends, about being talked about behind her back (or not talked about), laments the success life has still denied her. Hearing this for the first time was as eye-opening as it was soothing: at the end of the day, we all want the right to own our unhappiness, to be graceless and pissed off, before we can move on to more noble sentiments. Mademoiselle K has been a well of comfort to me in the worst days, the most hilarious, brilliant companions in misery, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without them.  

Lines that made a difference:

J'veux qu'on me lèche sur la vitrine

J'veux qu'on me dise "t'es bonne Katerine!"

J'voudrais signer des autographes

Qu'on m'adore même quand j'fais des gaffes

Translation:

I want to be admired like mannequins behind the glass

Want to be told "looking mighty fine, Katherine!"

Wish I could sign autographs

Be beloved even when I screwed up


8- “Doll Parts” - Hole (1994)

The heartbreaking message of this song flew right over my head when I first heard it, at barely four years old. I had loved dolls growing up, ironically, and was just as fascinated with their supposed perfection. It took a turbulent teenage-hood, and growing into my own body to realize the violence I was doing to myself, and allowing others to do to me, as I objectified and took myself apart piece by piece. I also blame this song with making me more wary of passionate, all-consuming love — but considering how immature I was, this was probably for the best.

Lines that made a difference:

I fake it so real I am beyond fake

And someday you will ache like I ache


9- “Feels Blind” - Bikini Kill (1991)

When I was eleven, I became infatuated with classic punk music, and on my way to search for more bands to fill my growing list, I fell upon the Riot grrrl movement, and with it, discovered Bikini Kill. They became kindred souls of mine through their brilliant lyrics and honest melodies, told me that my nascent feminism was not just a phase, nor was it something I should tread around daintily. Years later, when I would hear Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ music for the first time, I’d realize I’d been looking for them since Bikini Kill.

Lines that made a difference:

I'm the woman I was taught to always be: hungry

Yeah, women are well acquainted with thirst

Well, I could eat just about anything

We might even eat your hate up like love


10- “Fool” - Cat Power (2003)

I fell in love with Cat Power from the very first notes of this song, and almost fifteen years later, this love has only grown. She has spoken my anxieties and loneliness without irony or condescension through the ambivalence she herself presents: the violence and turmoil in her personal life, the many ferocious battles she wages with herself, and the shockingly gentle way with which she translates this in her music. This song is like holding water, in that it tries to pin down something fleeting, but no less powerful than those that describe concrete sentiments. It expressed the uncomfortable and often ignored truth: that everyone, no matter their status or privilege, is allowed to feel terrified and aimless, and I have needed to hear this more often than I can emphasize.

Lines that made a difference:

It's not that it's bad, it's not that it's death

It's just that it's on the tip of your tongue and you're so silent


11- “Happy Twist” - Elisabeth Yndestad (2007)

Like Jenny Lewis and Aimee Mann, Elisabeth Yndestad writes as if she has access to your soul. Like a sign from the Heavens, I heard this one at three key moments in my life, and came out of it making choices I would have previously shied away from. Every single line is something I have said to myself before, and to hear it aloud from someone else's lips is always momentarily breathtaking. It is self-awareness itself, infusing me with a clarity I still struggle to put into words, especially when mental illness threatens to cloud it deeply. 

Lines that made a difference:

I can see your anger turning into war

Like a twisted shadow eating all your love

And there is no Savior, it’s just strong behavior

It’s just nights of choices, and inner voices


12- “Hold On”/“Hopeless” - KT Tunstall (2007)

It is not technically cheating, because I’ve always considered both songs to be two sides of a same coin, a warning shouted and crooned in turn: “check yourself before you wreck yourself”, to borrow the expression. KT Tunstall is a flag-bearer in that list of women who changed the way I see the world, at once wise and broken, at once unbridled and insecure: it is clear that her songs are as much for herself as they are for others. But curiously, whether this was her intention or not, these two became emblematic, for me, of the struggle women often face, in a world that simultaneously expects them to overachieve and to fail. Both have, then, always been about knowing one’s emotional limits (ie listening to one’s internal compass), while at the same time not hesitating in front of obstacles the world is only too happy to put before us.

Lines that made a difference:

Hold on to what you've been given lately

Hold on, cause the world will turn if you're ready or not ("Hold On")

 

Caught a little insight into everything that's happening to me

Like a little spider, I'm climbing the insurmountable

But I'll never hold myself accountable, no ("Hopeless")


13- “I Wish I Was The Moon” - Neko Case (2002)

Like Cat Power, Neko Case has mastered the art of transforming private, subtle pain into a rallying cry for something shared and universal. This gorgeous song about loneliness and anxiety has touched me in more ways than one: namely, by teaching me early on that there could be strength in honesty, in owning my pain. I could make it into searingly beautiful art if I only had the courage to meet it halfway.

Lines that made a difference:

God blessed me, I'm a free man with no place free to go

I'm paralyzed and collared-tight, no pills for what I fear


13- “If It Makes You Happy” - Sheryl Crow (1999)

I am not a serious fan of Sheryl Crow, but still, this one has transcended the boundaries of my personal taste. Perhaps it’s because the song keeps finding me in moments of triumph and self-actualization (when crippling doubt almost always reaches back for me) that its truth has always been impossible to ignore. Unlike others on this list that rightfully accept sadness and fear as valid emotional states, this one offers a challenge that I’ve often picked up over the years: why not try opening myself to the possibility that I might not fail? Why not try asserting my right to be here in this world, instead of apologizing for it? Why not try to get out of my own way, for once?

Lines that made a difference:

If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?

You get down, real low down

You listen to Coltrane, derail your own train


14- “Libertine” - Mylène Farmer (1986)

Even by French standards, Mylène Farmer raises eyebrows. Her unapologetic, often shocking persona has garnered her near-legendary status in France: an icon of seduction and vicissitude, she has often gone where her contemporaries have hesitated, proudly tackling love, death and gender nonconformity in her art. But to me, she's always been more than her irresistible allure: with her flame-red hair and button-pushing clothing, I saw in Mylène, as a child, someone who embraced femininity, all the while rejecting it completely. She refused to participate in awards shows, fluff interviews and the celebrity vehicle, even though her success would have more than justified it. She boldly sang the praises of sex, all the while remaining tight-lipped about her personal life. It is not until “Libertine” that I truly understood that those women I had adulated, like Marilyn Monroe, were trying to grasp what Mylène Farmer had already understood: there is nothing more empowering than authenticity, especially that which steps on the toes of institutions that foster the male gaze. The music video for “Libertine”, set in 18th century France, made waves, and its effect can still be felt today in French pop culture. In it, the singer appears totally nude, cross-dress, flirts with men and women alike, and gleefully proclaims “Je, je suis libertine, je suis une catin”, which loosely translates as “I am a libertine, I am a cunt”. My childhood was forever changed, my revolutionary instincts titillated, my provocative tendencies aroused with a deafening roar. Since, every time I have crossed a line, lines drawn to dictate women’s rights, I find myself humming Mylène Farmer’s chorus to myself. 

Lines that made a difference:

Je, je suis libertine, je suis une catin

Je, je suis si fragile, qu'on me tienne la main

Translation:

I, I'm a libertine, I am a strumpet

I, I'm so fragile, won't you hold my hand?


15- “The Limit to Your Love” - Feist (2007)

I could write novels about Leslie Feist, and the transformative power she has had — and still has — over me. Let It Die inspired my own music. Metals singlehandedly saved my life. Pleasure was an awe-inspiring masterpiece to behold. But I can say that my long relationship with her truly started when her transcendent voice pierced through the noise going on in my heart, in the form of “The Limit to Your Love”. I had gone through the loss of a very good friend, and it paralyzed me, because I thought it was safer than walking forward or backward on unstable ground. I’d become so used to depression by then, having dealt with it for more than half my life that it became comfortable. For the first time, through this song, I allowed myself to wonder whether pain, self-inflicted or otherwise, carried any reward. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. Every time I hurt myself or let others do so, I return to this ballad, and it assuages the rawness of the pain, if only for a moment.

Lines that made a difference:

I love, I love, I love

The trouble that you give me

I know, I know, I know

That only I can save me


16- “The Lottery” - Emily Haines (2006)

I’ve written at length about how Emily Haines’ music has saved my life: the one that firmly belongs in my coming-of-age soundtrack, however, is “The Lottery”. It is rooted firmly in place, between the anxiety of an uncertain future, and the lamentation of troubled pasts and innocence lost. I found this song — or this song found me — at the height of my anger over things big and small, and it remains a vindication: of a time when being a feminist was not weaponized by those who hate women or those who don’t value inclusivity, when freedom was an exciting and daring venture to pursue, when life did not feel like a gamble, and finally, when love did not feel like it was a terrible, terrible risk.

Lines that made a difference:

I only wanted what everyone wanted since bras started burning up ribs in the sixties

Favors are flying, faces are falling and all I desire is to never be waiting


17- “Love Is A Losing Game” - Amy Winehouse (2006)

I have also written at length about Amy Winehouse’s singular effect over me, an effect obviously tinged with melancholy because of her life’s tragic turn. “Love Is A Losing Game” came on the heels of my first serious heartbreak; stumbled upon after days of mournful crying: and it was like listening to a miracle in song form. It gave me gentle, sated peace. There was no more of that frantic, frenzied questioning, that trying to make sense of what didn’t make sense. I came out of it older, more self-possessed, but also wiser, much much wiser, about where I would allow my heart to wander in the future.

Lines that made a difference:

Love is a losing hand, self professed, profound

Though I betted blind, love is a fate resigned


18- “Mother Mother” - Tracy Bonham (1996)

Almost every girl who’s grown up with a mother has an interesting story to tell about their mutable relationship: sometimes turbulent, sometimes beautiful, but almost always laced with a certain calamity. Rivalry, when it is involved, is devastating on a profound level, while intimacy is as elusive as it can be fleeting. Learning to, in turn: love, defy, love, resent, love, forgive, love and understand my mother was a series of small events and occurrences that challenged the way I saw her, and myself. I wouldn’t understand Tracy Bonham’s anthem of vulnerability until I had gone through that process, and seen how I could simultaneously crave her protection, and wish to be away from her, so much so that I would engage in petty self-destruction just to needle her.

Lines that made a difference:

If I tell you what you want to hear

Will it help you to sleep well at night?

Are you sure that I'm your perfect dear?


19- “Now, Now” - St. Vincent (2007)

The songs of the incomparable Annie Clark have alternately made me fall in love, made me love life again, made me a better person, and given me more insight into myself than I could ever have achieved on my own. This one came to me at a time when I was still unsure of how to let others treat me. It washed me of the notion that to love damaged people meant compromising myself in the process, and that to choose self-love was betraying nebulous notions of devotion and loyalty. In short, it was not my responsibility to “save” dysfunctional people who saw me as a device, a romanticized plot point to their story, rather than an actual person (this, she later echoed “Cruel”, “Prince Johnny” and “Savior”). Hers is a shore I will always come to shipwreck on, whenever my self-esteem takes another savage beating.

Lines that made a difference:

(I'm not) Your mother's favorite dog, (I'm not) The carpet you walk on

(I’m not) The feather at your feet, (I'm not) Your yellow brick street


20- “Pagan Poetry” - Björk (2001)

That aforementioned tug between glamorous and vacuous representations of women and those that chucked away all notions of conventional “beauty” ended when I listened to Björk’s otherworldly “Pagan Poetry”. I was eight years old, and my world would never be the same. It was around that time that I also became infatuated with Sinéad O'Connor, and found in both singers something equally devastating: a willingness to be so open that it could rake over the heart like coals. But it was also noble, in that way. “Pagan Poetry” struck me with its haunting melody first and foremost. Its depiction of exquisite love and self-love, I would only get much later; but by then, I was already sold.

Lines that made a difference:

This time

I'm going to keep me all to myself


21- “Sheela Na Gig” - PJ Harvey (1992)

I was scolded by my teacher as a child, when she found explicit drawings of mine in my desk. What she mistook for provocation had actually been genuine curiosity about the body: I loved to draw, was a romantic at heart, idolized the human form. The scolding nestled in me, and with it, brought a shameful connotation to anything related to sensuality: but it did not last. “Sheela Na Gig” taught me, at that tender age, that I should be uncompromising about desire, that I should not be ashamed about my body, a lesson I would need more than ever when puberty came prancing along. PJ Harvey singlehandedly educated me on how womanhood could be raw, painful, magnificent  never a weakness, no matter what society said. Her discography unveiled for me the lengths and depths of how music could be a vehicle for the most potent kind of confessional writing, and how one could lay down the ugliest corners of one’s soul, and still be made even more commanding. 

Lines that made a difference:

Gonna wash that man right out of my hair (just like the first time, said he didn't care)

Gonna wash that man right out of my hair (heard it before, no more)

Gonna take my hips to a man who cares


22- “Sometimes It’s A Bitch” - Stevie Nicks (1991)

In other people’s hands, this song would have been reduced to shmaltzy shmaltz. But Stevie Nicks, ever the legend, transforms it instead into a declaration of perseverance in the face of life’s curveballs. The lyrics, more than the song itself, have become an idiom I repeat so often it’s turned into an inside joke with myself. Whenever I’ve been handed lemons, muttering “sometimes it’s a bitch” under my breath stays my anger, and the impulse to rage about the unfairness of it all.

Lines that made a difference:

Sometimes it's a bitch, sometimes it's a breeze

You gotta take it as it comes, sometimes it don't come easy


23- “Solitaire” - Marina and the Diamonds (2015)

As the song I would put last in my coming-of-age soundtrack, “Solitaire” is the destination this playlist leads to. It is the track, incidentally, that inspired this retrospective list, the song my movie would end on, the conclusion to my chapter. While seeming to be, at first, it about observing that she is regrettably alone and lonely, it is in reality, a love letter to freedom and self-love. Having struggled with being shy and introverted all my life, I’ve finally become okay with not compromising who I am, despite what the world dictates I should be like: buoyant, extroverted, available. I am okay with being solitaire — not alone, not lonely. Marina Diamandis’ music has accompanied me in crucial times, from turbulence to quiet peace, and I am proud to consider it the finishing touch on the person I am today. 

Lines that made a difference:

Don't wanna talk anymore, I'm obsessed with silence

I go home and I lock my door, I can hear the sirens

I see buildings and bars from the window, and I listen to the wind blow

I see people and cars covered in gold, and I'm happy to be on my own


24- “Straight On” - Heart (1978)

While “Magic Man” has been my cautionary tale to end cautionary tales, “Straight On” is the anthem that has helped infuse me with self-worth, especially in adulthood. It carries an edge of danger, a flair of something aggressive I'd rarely seen in the paltry pop culture role models I latched onto as a child. It shone light on another idea of womanhood and identity, and I began to hunger for it increasingly: I didn’t need to apologize or make concessions, because I had just as much right to go for what I wanted, even if it went against any and all conventions and decorum.

Lines that made a difference:

Now I know I got to play my hand

What the winner don't know, a gambler understands


26- “You’re So Vain” - Carly Simon (1972)

As a young girl of the doe-eyed, rosy-colored persuasion, gorgeous, indifferent men were my kryptonite (I weep for the naive, tragic person I was sometimes). Hearing Carly Simon’s powerful dismissal of those who gorge themselves on women’s attention and relish in using them for their selfish means was a moment I will never forget. It was like an armor, going forward, the knowledge of how pitiful these people truly are, the rebuttal to Nina Simone’s “Blues for Mama”. I knew that I would be alright when, one day, face-to-face with the bastard of the century (one who would have surely made me swoon years earlier), I realized there was no getting through to him, and walked away, humming this song, thanking the heavens for the reminder never to be this brainless again.

Lines that made a difference:

You had me several years ago, when I was still quite naive

But you gave away the things you loved, and one of them was me

I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee