I love Seth Stephens-Davidowitz's column in today's New York Times, which basically proves with Big Data what we've known all along: a song gets in us when we're in our early teens and, like ink, saturates and tattoos us in a way we can't rub off. "Songs that came out decades earlier are now, on average, most popular among men who were 14 when they were first released," Stephens-Davidowitz observes. "The most important period for men in forming their adult tastes were the ages 13 to 16." What about women? "On average, their favorite songs came out when they were 13. The most important period for women were the ages 11 to 14."
...I did find it interesting how clear the patterns were and how much early adolescence matters. The key years, in fact, match closely with the end of puberty, which tends to happen to girls before boys. This also adds one more piece of evidence to the growing scientific consensus that we never really leave middle school and high school.
The column's graph-heavy, but statistical curves aren't all that necessary. Think back to your teen years and the music you loved. Most of the essays I wrote in Field Recordings from the Inside are about those years and the confounding sensations, moods, and unspoken highs-and-lows that only Top 40 songs, it seemed, understood and articulated. At that age, songs tell us what we didn't know we knew, or didn't yet want to know, and score the baffling, dimly-glimpsed lessons we learn just about every day: about love; arousal; heartache; friendships; meanness; injustices of all stripes. When we're teens, songs lift the curtain on the complicated world that awaits us. But I'm not sure we want to live our adult lives by such sonic knowledge. Think of Jay Gatsby, the fantasy of a teenager named James Gatz. We all know how that story ends.For both men and women, their early 20s were half as influential in determining adult musical tastes as their early teens.
Stephens-Davidowitz also raises an essential aspect in the life of every music nerd (*raises arm*): that we love and obsess over songs that came out well before our teen years, and well after, songs that were massive hits or one-off obscurities that barely sniffed the charts. These songs, these artists, mean as much to use as the music that pulsated along with our puberty hormones. He admits to loving "Born to Run, though he was born eight years after the song was released. "In fact, my data analysis couldn’t explain where I got most of my musical taste," he writes. "O.K., maybe I caught the Springsteen bug because I grew up in New Jersey. But why my obsession with Bob Dylan? Or Leonard Cohen? Or Paul Simon? Most songs I listen to came out well before I was born."
This research tells us that the majority of us, when we are grown men and women, predictably stick with the music that captured us in the earliest phase of our adolescence.
But it also adds one more piece to the central puzzle of my adult life: Why did I develop so abnormally?
I spend as much time on Spotify filling in the gaps of bands I missed the first time around, Humble Pie to Husker Du, as I do jamming to the new Bat Fangs and Ty Segall albums. But those songs from my early teen years...they remain as vital, graphic, and memorable as cherished books, whose soft covers and tatty, dog-eared pages I turn again and again and again, relearning—reliving—the confounding lessons and mysteries enacted every moment around me in home and school hallways, back seats of cars, and as I tuned in to the radio alone in my room. Look out, here comes tomorrow.
"Teenagers listening to the latest hits 1957, New York." Photo: Esther Bubley. Via Pinterest