Why do people prefer music from their teenage years?
July 30, 2007 6:30 AM   Subscribe

Why do people tend to gravitate more strongly towards music that was popular in their teen years?

I was a teenager from 1987-1994, and the music from those years just sounds "right" to me, especially at the tail end of that era (think Offspring, Green Day, Counting Crows, etc.). Music before that time seems dated, and music created after that time, while sometimes likable, never holds my interest the same way.

Mr. desjardins is 4 years older than me, and he tends to like stuff from the early 80s.

When I was growing up, my mother listened to stuff that had to be popular when she was a teenager. I used to make fun of my parents for listening to "oldies," but now I'm the one listening to music from 15-20 years ago. Yet it still sounds current to me.

Is there something in the adolescent brain that imprints music more strongly?
posted by desjardins to Grab Bag (42 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Because once you stop hanging around with a huge group of people who spend inordinate amounts of time obsessing over the currently cool music it becomes harder, and less important, to explore new music. The group did most of the work for you before. Well, that is my theory at least.
posted by caddis at 6:36 AM on July 30, 2007

Best answer: I expect it is a function of autonomy and memory. The stuff you listen to as a teen is likely to be the first stuff you chose to listen to (rather than being the choice of your parents). So you have more autonomy concerning the choice, so it is more you. When you add to this the effect of the reminiscence bump (a well-documented phenomenon whereby we remember more events and more clearly those from adolescence and young adulthood) it also becomes more memorable. I can remember what songs were playing at particular events in my 20s, but now? peripheral details are much less likely to stick.

Thus, the stuff that you listen to as a teen is both more memorable, and more "you".
posted by handee at 6:38 AM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Culturally, when your a teenager is the first time you have the independent income to buy records. Your parents listen to something for 13 years, you've come to really hate it, the first thing you probably do is buy something different. In the few years you do that, all sorts of emotionally significant moments happen (first car, first kiss, first whatever) that become imprinted against the music. While the less emotional part of your life may be better or worse, its made less of an impression artistically.

BTW, one small mini rant. The term "oldies" ought refer to the genre of 1950s and 60s music which reflected a certain cultural sensibility. The song "Wake Up, Little Susie" is archetypal of this. That means oldies is not Rolling Stones, its not psychedelic rock, its nothing about Vietnam. Its this particular section of pop music
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 6:41 AM on July 30, 2007

Music from your teens reminds you of your youth, its freedoms its passions and its joys. Your emotions, augmented by rushes of adolescent hormones, identify with and are shaped and imprinted by the music of those times.

Even though time passes, the music stands as a reminder and in a sense continues to exist in that time of your youth. It becomes poignantly overlayed with your own meaning as it was the soundtrack to a dynamic time in you and your peers life.

Just a thought anyway.
posted by MasonDixon at 6:44 AM on July 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

I loath the music that was popular when I was a teen. My parents hate the music that was popular when they were teens.

I think this is more an observation about your own family rather than a cultural phenomenon.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:45 AM on July 30, 2007

I'm not sure how obsessive you are about seeking out new music now, but I work at a college radio station with several DJ's in their late thirties who are very much in to genres discovered later in life. So it could just be that you, like most, stopped seeking new music as ardently after your teen years.
posted by phrontist at 6:49 AM on July 30, 2007

I don't think all people gravitate towards it. I don't like oldies at all, because I'm fickle and need new stimulation, so I prefer new music always, and easily fall out of love with artists and genres. My husband, on the other hand, is exactly as you describe, which means when we drive together, he hogs the radio looking for classic rock while I have to resort to my ipod.

I always thought the fondness was because of the memories the music invokes, and that your musical awareness and preferences start to form in your teenage years.
posted by iconomy at 6:50 AM on July 30, 2007

I think that this is definitely a phenomenon, though it may not be universal, and that there is a very good answer to this question, but I don't have the time to think about it or articulate it or just look to see if someone else has already stated it somewhere on the web, but I did want to say that if you like that kind of music, then you might want to check out some of the great answers to this question that I asked the other day.
posted by ND¢ at 6:50 AM on July 30, 2007

There's a (likely fictional) statistic I've seen thrown around that 80% of people still have the same haircut they had when they graduated high school. The number may vary, but the sentiment is the same -- there are many people that cement their personal aesthetic during that time and, while they grow as people later, they'll always have that as a base.

They're not called your "formative years" for nothing.
posted by mikeh at 6:51 AM on July 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

Because pop music is marketed towards, and geared towards teenagers. And for plenty of people, pop music = the only music they like.
posted by dydecker at 6:52 AM on July 30, 2007

I should add that I can't most of the music I was initially in to as a teen. So, another vote for this being a poor generalization.
posted by phrontist at 6:55 AM on July 30, 2007

I think it lie along the memory line. When you're a teenager, you finally get to make your own decisions. You'll meet your first crush, your first love, have your first serious relationship, have your first heartache, have your friends screw you over for the first time, want revenge for the first time, etc.

Music is our way of tying these memories together, and when you listen to the music you liked when you're a teenager you will remember these bonds.
posted by unexpected at 6:55 AM on July 30, 2007

I'm into all sorts of music, but the music of my teen years still resonates in a different way than the rest is capable of. Because everything was new to me then. The world was opening up and there are so many memories attached. Really, when you choose music in your teens it's the first real thing you have created for yourself, it's your first truly private world... your parents can't tell you what music to like. You have a personal relationship with your music at that age. It's truly yours.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:02 AM on July 30, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks ND¢ - I missed that question.

Btw, to those who theorize that it's some positive association between music and memories, my teenage years were full of horrible memories and events. Strong memories, to be sure, but not happy ones.
posted by desjardins at 7:09 AM on July 30, 2007

Habit and routine are a big part of the reason. Youth is idealized in this culture and many of us have come to take on the belief that it was "the best time of our lives". So music attached to that period can put us in a 'young' frame of mind. After you are involved in a career or have a family you are no longer mostly socializing with people simply by choice, meaning the same cultural and social touchstones. Neighbors and business associates often have radically different tastes which you might find somewhat alienating. You also aren't connecting with these people and doing fun stuff while listening to new music. Sense perception decays and loses acuity with age as well.
posted by BigSky at 7:12 AM on July 30, 2007

People listen to the same music they liked in high school for the same reasons they still cling to the same haircuts and clothing styles they had at 18. Perhaps it represents a care-free, happy time in their lives.

It could be worse. You could have grown up in the mid 80s, still love Lynard Skynard, wear your bangs tall and crisp and your jeans tight and faded. Where I live, 25% of the women dress in this nostalgic way.
posted by pluckysparrow at 7:14 AM on July 30, 2007

Totally with you on this. I'm mid 30s and increasingly the stuff on my iPod is from the early 80s to early 90s. I think it's mixture of things, like folk have said. Partly it's because your teenage years are just really intense, and in my case i tend to associate tracks with specific places and times which for those years, were generally fun and in nice places.

But I think it's partly because there was just loads of uplifting, fun music at the time, whether it's cheesy club stuff or hair metal or whatever.

I don't think I was anything like so into what was coming out in the early 90s - it all went a bit dreary, as did life in geenral. So what was quite an intense interest in music waned for pretty much a decade until the internet came along and I could find them all again and at 3am download something cheesy at 28kbs. Yay!

A lot of the new stuff I'm listening to right now (Captain, Delays, The Feeling) seem to echo this uplifting feel.

And following mikeh's comment, my personal aesthetic has changed a lot, thank god!
posted by dowcrag at 7:18 AM on July 30, 2007

I had this explained to me on the bus the other day, when a teenager asked me about my Joy Division t-shirt. I told him it was my favorite band, he asked why he'd never heard of them; I told him they'd broken up before he was born.

He said "Oh... so you're in denial then".

Kids these days...
posted by foobario at 7:28 AM on July 30, 2007

You were awakening to all the things life has to offer at that time. For the first time, you're able to buy the music you want, drive in cars with your friends, and really live your life with a soundtrack.
posted by HotPatatta at 7:30 AM on July 30, 2007

I always thought people got stuck on the music they listened to in their college years. In my case that is a huge step up in quality.

Presumably, after that age you're just not cool enough to know the new, good music. So your tastes just stop advancing.
posted by scarabic at 7:40 AM on July 30, 2007

I turned 46 yesterday and received a boxed set of ABBA videos and CDs. It was the best birthday present I've had in years!

I agree that the music from "when we were young" often has special power and meaning for us. For me, that's not just my teen years, but also my early twenties when I was coming out. That might lend some support to the idea that there's an affinity for the music you liked at the time when you were establishing your identity. Later on, in my 30s and 40s, I've been too busy to spend a lot of time searching and finding new music, and so much of it, quite frankly, seems to be intended for people younger than me.
posted by Robert Angelo at 7:46 AM on July 30, 2007

I don't have the amount of neurological real estate to devote to music that I did when I was a teenager. I don't have time to seek out new music to love, and even if I stumble on something I don't really care about being a completist or even more than vaguely informed. There's just other things pushing those buttons now that I'm old.

Something that is odd, though, is that with the internet and satellite radio and stuff, I have discovered a lot of stuff from my teenage years that I never heard that I am hearing now and like more than what's out right now. I'm not going to go out and buy every Replacements album just because I found out this weekend that I actually do like them, but there's a lot of music from that era that resonates with me in a way that current music - much of it a crappy rehash of the stuff I was listening to when I was a teenager anyway - does not.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:54 AM on July 30, 2007

It's way more than music. I know tons of people who stopped reading new books when they turned 30 or 40, yet they continually re-read the books they discovered in High School -- Tolkein or whatever. And then there's this huge obsession with High School in general: the endless array of films and tv-shows set in schools. These shows are marketed (and apparently enjoyed) by adults as-well-as teens.

But as many have pointed out here, it's not universal. Here's my personal anecdote: I was born in 1965, but (though I like them), I don't spend most of my time listening to The Beatles or The Stones. Nor do I (ever) listen to the Disco music that the popular kids listened to when I was in High School. I also don't listen to Pink Floyd, which is what all the artsy, indy kids were into (more my group).

I mostly listen to Jazz and classical, which is what my dad was into. I simply liked that music and never really went through a rebellion or felt the need to define myself via something in-opposition to my parents.

But here's the real kicker: High School was the worst period of my life. I have virtually no fond memories from it -- not even fond rebellious ones. I wanted it to be over when it was going on, and I was happy once it was over. And I've never looked back. So I have no desire or interest in reliving those years.

Musically (and and with books, movies, etc.) I feel propelled into the future. I'm continually searching for new things.

But that looking-backward thing IS pretty prevalent, and it gets lonely for people like me. I want to hang out with people my own age, but I also want to hang out with people who are into new things. So many of my friends aren't. All they want to do is to walk down memory lane.
posted by grumblebee at 7:54 AM on July 30, 2007

Best answer: Adolescence brings a sudden urgency about finding out who you are, which is closely wrapped up with what group you do or don't belong do. Music is a huge social identifier with lots of personal-sounding emotion involved. It speaks to you (who are you?) and it ties together groups (what band name did you write on your pee chee?). Solving this issues is urgent to teenagers, not so much to older people.

Musicians give you a vocabulary of stances, fashions, attitudes and feelings to choose for yourself. None of this stuff is (I find) as urgent when you're in your late 30s -- or, if it is, not in such showy ways.
posted by argybarg at 7:58 AM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Most of my friends still listen to music they loved in high school, but I listened to Morrissey and showtunes, so I am all about the new music.

Wow, just typing "Morrissey," made me feel vaguely depressed and embarrassed. It's like high school!
posted by betweenthebars at 8:01 AM on July 30, 2007

Certainly not universal, but pretty common. This phenomenon is what all those 80's and 90's stations are playing into. It's not because teenagers of today are listening to that stuff. Ms. DarkForest notes that the music of her 20's stuck the most. For me it's both (the Beatles through the Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads) though we also like plenty of music well outside those years and genres. I just think that in those years music plays a bigger part of your overall life and you get tuned in to what you're hearing.
posted by DarkForest at 8:04 AM on July 30, 2007

I tend to enjoy music that was introduced to me during a time of my life I want to remember. I don't think it really connects so much to my teen years but I assume it works that way for most because the teen years tend to be the times in most people's lives that they've enjoyed the most.

One thing I always try to do is play and album over and over during a particularly good time - great vacation, particularly good stretch at work - this way whenever I hear that album again it will bring me back to that time and the memories that developed during it. Also works the same for sad times.
posted by any major dude at 8:34 AM on July 30, 2007

Like any major dude above says, I think this has little to do with age. It has more to do with association with happy times in your life. That's what it is in my case... some of my favorite music is from when I was age 30-35 (around 2000), which was the happiest era for me. There's a secondary peak in the early-mid 1980s, which was my second happiest era. Pure association.
posted by rolypolyman at 8:41 AM on July 30, 2007

I'm going to have to disagree with most people here and say that music actually does change every five years or so. When you find a genre or style of music you like, it won't stick around forever. Sooner or later the only way to get back to that type of music will be through your personal playlists.

I suppose if you spent all your time only listening to music you had picked beforehand, it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy--you would only like older music, because you wouldn't be listening to enough newer music to form an opinion and weed out stuff you didn't like.

I don't think it really has squat to do with age, it just feels that way.
posted by Phyltre at 9:11 AM on July 30, 2007

I was a teen from about 87-96, and I don't really think of that as a good time. High school was a meh experience for me and University was a lot of schoolwork folllowed by some really bad part time jobs - I would not wave a magic wand to go back to that time in my life. No way. Forget nostalgia as a determiner, at least for me.

But in some ways I still like the music. 90's stations tend to play music I didn't like then, Celine Mariah Carey and Boys2Men for example - what I do like, is say good grunge bands from that era who slipped under my radar at that time.

So while I reference that period in music a lot, I don't do it out of a longing for those times. My hairstyle has also changed a few times since I was 18. I don't know really why that music speaks to some part of my head, but it does.
posted by Deep Dish at 9:36 AM on July 30, 2007

Best answer: I've always hypothesized that imprinting has something to do with this phenomenon. The music you hear in your youth imprints in your brain how music is supposed to sound, explaining why music that came a generation before you and all that comes after you're an adult sounds somehow "wrong".
posted by The Gooch at 10:01 AM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

I am not in the club either.
I SHOULD like 80's music and I kinda hate it. At least what I was listening to then.
I love 70's and alot of newer music (well, and a lot of new-to me music.
posted by beccaj at 10:04 AM on July 30, 2007

It's not necessarily what was POPULAR when you were a teen, it's what YOU listened to as a teen, and I think it's just what you associate with the memories of your adolescence.

I don't know, I listen to a lot of different music but there's certainly an amount of nostalgia for a certain era.

Now, for my father, a lot of the popular music when he was a teen was crap, he doesn't like it now and he didn't like it then and he was one of the many people that got into folk music then and that stuff (e.g. Chad Mitchell Trio) he likes.
posted by dagnyscott at 10:18 AM on July 30, 2007

The only way 15-year-old music sounds current is if you've stopped seeking out new music.

As a new-music seeker, I think this is a bit extreme. I probably listen to 70% new stuff and 30% familiar stuff, but EVERYTHING I listen to still sounds current. By "current," I don't mean "contemporary," I mean it sounds relevant to my life and not dated. It's not even all about nostalgia. I often hear music from my past that fills me with feelings about my life now.

One of the pleasures I get from listening to older music is gaging how that music has changed for me. I'm going to notice and relate to different things in "Nowhere Man" or "Beethoven's 9th Symphony" at 40 than I did at 16.
posted by grumblebee at 10:53 AM on July 30, 2007

I know it's that way for a lot of people, but I should be listening to the dregs of the late 70's. Granted that I have a certain fondness for Alan Parsons and ELO, but I spend most of my time chasing break beats, industrial (which has been getting stale), and ambient electronica.

I refuse to get stuck. I just refuse. There are people who chase what is new. Maybe I'm just one of them.
posted by MarcieAlana at 11:13 AM on July 30, 2007

Best answer: It's almost certainly part chronological accident factors that have been mentioned--ie, that's the music you were listening to as an adolescent, when you were forging your own identity, having personality-forming experiences, etc, and lots of other people feel the same way and say the same thing about whatever music they were listening to at that age.

It may also be in part because there is a finite amount of musical devices in pop music (and by that I mean chart-pop, R&B, metal, mainstream rock, "alternative", punk, folk, blues, funk, and so on) that keep getting recycled and reshuffled--in different combinations, played on instruments with different timbres but ultimately built up from the same set of building blocks. Certainly there are lots of pop/rock/whatever tunes that are quite original in part or in whole, but those that have real staying power are in the minority compared to the rest that use primarily the same set of musical building blocks.

So when you're a young adult and your mind really opens up to the musical experience, you get to hear all these things in different combinations for the first time. You might never learn intellectually what a chord progression or a key change or syncopation are, or various other bits of music theory and song-construction, but your mind is absorbing them and learning about them intuitively. So when you hit your thirties you don't have the vocabulary to describe exactly why a new single the kids love doesn't excite you (e.g. "Oh, that's a I-IV-I-V chord progression and a key change one whole tone higher for the last chorus"). But subconsciously your brain recognizes that it's heard that combination of building blocks several times before, only with someone else singing and different effects on the guitars.
posted by Martin E. at 11:50 AM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

There are still songs I am fond of, even though they remind me of unpleasant teenage memories, because I've long since moved on from the pain of those memories, and now it's just nice to remember the fact of it ("was I ever so naive?" and all that.)

Let's face it, for better or worse your teenage years are likely the single largest source of your strongest emotional feelings, the time you were most self-aware and self-absorbed and yet completely unable (thanks to hormones and being young) to control your feelings or view things with the proper perspective.

As adults, we look back on these things, and even the most painful (and, sadly, the most positive) feelings have faded -- so these songs bring back the fact of the memories, and help connect you to a small smidgen of feeling *anything* about 'em.
posted by davejay at 1:07 PM on July 30, 2007

Best answer: I have a different theory, that relates to some of the other ones mentioned. I think Sturgeon's law makes it appear that way. My first "independent" years were the early 90's grunge years. I liked a lot of the new music, but that was because it was all new to me.

Now, though, I like a lot of that same music, BUT: when you're listening to older music, it's quality-skewed, filtered, I guess, to the good stuff. Crap songs that didn't stand the test of time are forgotten about. There's a lot of good stuff in 80's lunch hour on the radio, or 90s night at the bar, or whatever. That's not what it was like back then. If you had 24 hours of radio you used to listen to on tape, it would probably have more crap than good stuff.

Only kids like the current stuff (as a whole) because it isn't pre-filtered. The 90% of it that's crap is still in there. I bet you do like one or two of the current songs, though. Those are the ones you'll hear in 2007 flashback radio programs in 20 years.
posted by ctmf at 2:06 PM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Only kids like the current stuff (as a whole) because it isn't pre-filtered. The 90% of it that's crap is still in there. I bet you do like one or two of the current songs, though. Those are the ones you'll hear in 2007 flashback radio programs in 20 years.

I think there is some truth to this. It kind of goes back to my comment above. Finding the good stuff takes work and kids have the unlimited free time, and a huge support group of similarly motivated friends, to do this work. Most adults have too many other priorities which get in the way.

By the way, I think all you guys who think that this phenomena represents some form of youth nostalgia are out of your gourds. Life doesn't stop, development doesn't stop, intellectual growth doesn't stop at the point you leave school and enter the work force. Heaven help any for which it does; those poor souls died at that point.
posted by caddis at 3:30 PM on July 30, 2007

Everyone has said what I would have said, so I'll just offer this: Comedian Chris Rock has a bit about everyone's favorite type of music is whatever was on the radio the first time they got laid.
posted by acehigh at 8:24 AM on August 1, 2007

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