Updated: Sep 24
Music is an intimate experience, a sonic manifestation of the emotions that often go unnamed. There’s something cathartic, and almost healing, about having the voices of Frank Ocean or Phoebe Bridgers dance in your ears as you lay on the floor in tears. Music is a time capsule for these strong, unforgettable moments whether or not those feelings are happy or not. In the same way that an album that got you through tough times is unbearable to listen to now, Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” can instantly bring you back to the furious, unexplainable joy you felt at your friend’s 2009 New Year’s Eve party.
For musicians, these feelings are even more visceral. Music is a necessary, compulsive outlet for them. Instead of processing their feelings by listening to music, they create it. Every heartbreak, let down and epiphany is penned into the lyrics of a song. Inspiration is pulled from the pivotal moments that they experience through different ages of life. More than any stage of life, there seems to be an obsession with being 17.
The age 17 infiltrates every singer’s discography. From Sharon van Etten to ABBA to Stevie Nicks to Taylor Swift, there is clearly a significance with this tender time. The only question is, why?
Seventeen year olds live in a year of limbo. They can drive and have a certain level of freedom, but truthfully, they’re just itching for the time the clock strikes midnight on their 18th birthday. To them, 18 is a time of freedom where they can finally morph into the person they’re meant to be without any adult lording over them. The independence of an adult, however, also comes with the responsibilities of an adult. The rosy glasses through which they had viewed the world quickly becomes cracked through the fierce blows of adulthood. Seventeen quickly becomes an idealistic time, a final slice of adolescence.
Musicians are so enamored with the age of 17 because, to them, it represents those last moments of true peace before the “real world” comes crashing down. Adulthood is a physical form of freedom, but being 17 brings a metaphorical sense of freedom. The weight of the world hasn’t yet laid on their shoulders. Once you’re an adult, the idea of being back in a twin-sized bed with a worry-free mind is alluring. Seventeen year olds are teetering on the precipice of adulthood. They’re able to enjoy a certain level of freedom without the emotional strain of adult life. Seventeen year olds are able to be anything and are able to dream of being anything. They can fantasize about awards and adventures without anyone telling them to be realistic.
Teenagers are often described as reckless and senseless; their adolescent antics wear on the mind of sensible adults. Truthfully, though, there’s a sense of magic in this disregard for the rules. Wouldn’t anyone kill to be able to live as carelessly as they did at 17? This reckless abandon is all anyone is chasing and it’s what the singers we hear on the radio are chasing too.
For all their glory and fame, musicians are still just people who are trying to cope with life. Their songs and lyrics indicate deeply-held beliefs and feelings in our culture. A song about being 17 is never simply a song about being 17; it’s a song about what that idyllic age brought to their life. Being 17 means grasping onto those last drops of adolescence, fantasy and carelessness before the real world comes along. It means being free.