The slow, sudden, beautiful, gross process of becoming a sexual human being is different for every person – as are the songs the sing us into womanhood (or whatever). Hearing the music that defined this heady time in our lives can throw a person right back into that hormonal flush. From Usher to Bikini Kill to the Counting Crows, Rachel Vorona Cote, Kirsten Schofield, Sarah Seltzer, and Lindsay King-Miller have gathered to reflect, celebrate and discuss the tracks that made them realize that sex was like, you know, a THING.
Rachel Vorona Cote:
I was roughly twelve when sex shifted from abstract milestone to an activity that I was really keen to try. Around this same time, my naïve mind began to toy with erotic fantasy – an attempt to assuage my unwieldy, insistent hormones by imagining the romantic and pleasurable potential of my body commingling with another. My mother unknowingly facilitated these mental exertions when she purchased Pure Moods, Vol.1.
My CD collection was relatively eclectic; my ears tingled to everything from the bubblegum wail of Taylor Hanson to Gavin Rossdale’s throaty morning-after croon. I knew a genre called “New Age” existed, but it hadn’t piqued my interest. The Pure Moods compilation was unique – or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I discovered it at a uniquely fortuitous moment.
The music from Pure Moods scored the fantasies of a pre-teen Rachel who, doubled down with anxiety and insecurity, needed to create narratives that were as romantic as they were erotic. I yearned for sexual intimacy that was numinous, charged, operatic. I didn’t want to simply imagine having sex with someone; I wanted to fashion (loosely) plot-driven narratives where the sex “scenes” acted as exquisite cathexis. When I listened to Enigma’s lush, rapturous “Return to Innocence,” the Taiwanese vocalization ensconced me in a pastoral world where bodily pleasure was religion. (Sidenote: I never contemplated the possibility of a unicorn in that dreamscape, but Enigma sure did.) I was utterly undone by the woman’s panting in "Sadeness," my body one timid, confused, yet desperately yearning nerve. The monastic chant that ushers in the melody and roams throughout the song promised that sex was as transcendent and monumental as I hoped. DJ Dado’s remix of the “X-Files Theme” galloped urgently, inspiring midnight rescue missions where I freed my lover from the clutches of evil. And Adiemus’s self-titled piece? It was a tremulous double-climax, the sweeping chorus soaring orgasmically, and then — gloriously, finally — exploding like diamonds against the sky. I felt the song’s drums simultaneously at my core and pulsating against my skin, the way drums should always be felt.
In an admittedly maudlin way, I’m grateful to this album – and I suspect that’s evident from everything I just wrote. Its music sparked my erotic awareness, yes, but it seized my imagination too; it shielded me from the most jagged aspects of my hapless adolescence. For a brief, perfect time, the agony of self-doubt would dissipate. I would fly away, drunk with the belief that I deserved a romance as sumptuous and epic as Pure Moods led me to imagine they could be.
P.S. Before writing this, I had completely ignored the “e” in “Sadeness,” and somehow missed the song’s references to the Marquis de Sade. I’m currently contemplating whether this ups my perve-factor.
"The bubblegum wail of Taylor Hanson..."
Kirsten: Wasn't totally sure if Taylor Hanson was a she or whatever but was positive I was Into It. When I started learning gender theory later, I was like, OH LIKE TAY. #spectrum
Rachel: ...whereas, when the boys jeered, "They look like GIRLS," I was all "Umm INCORRECT, Taylor is PEAK masculinity, thank you."
Lindsay: The feminine-boy thing: is that a phase all straight girls go through? I don't think I had that. Girls who look like boys > boys who look like girls.
Kirsten: I'm not really sure, but I bet Anne Helen would have something to say about that. I always notice how guys like Zac Efron and Co. are extremely handsome to the point of being beautiful, which, in turn, makes them seem not that threatening. Great for when what you're prepared for emotionally is holding hands and maybe graduating from Michigan-style grip to a laced finger hold.
Rachel: I think, when I was twelve, there was very little difference, erotically speaking, between Taylor Hanson's long hair and oversized button-downs and Kurt Cobain's long hair and flannel. But in retrospect I think that I was drawn to Taylor Hanson's "let's go get ice cream, and I'll chastely kiss it off your nose" appeal. Because I'm sure it isn't already clear that I was about the storybook romance life.
Kirsten: Actually, that sounds like a pretty nice date to me. Wonder what TH is up to right now.
Lindsay: See, and Kurt was where it was at, for me. I wanted tortured and raspy and maybe a little androgynous. Ice cream I could get for myself. Emotional anguish, though – that was the good stuff.
Rachel: I would have been all about make-up sex with a raspy grunge boy. And Billy Corgan. Always, always Billy Corgan. Don't judge.
“I wanted to fashion (loosely) plot-driven narratives where the sex “scenes” acted as exquisite cathexis.”
Lindsay: I'm not saying I still do this but I'm definitely not saying I don't.
Rachel: You know, past tense may...or may not...be appropriate here. But, oh, we'll just leave it be.
Kirsten: I don't not do this.
“Its music sparked my erotic awareness, yes, but it seized my imagination too; it shielded me from the most jagged aspects of my hapless adolescence.”
Lindsay: This is so interesting because for me, at that age, music was definitely a way of intensifying my already hyper-reactive emotional state, not avoiding it. Around 12, 13, 14, I gravitated more and more toward song that sounded like sex and rage and loneliness and doubtless made "the most jagged aspects of my hapless adolescence" worse, not better. See also: my pubescent obsession with listening to Nirvana while crying.
Rachel: There were absolutely times that I sought a more aggressive intensity, but when I did it was textured with so much confusion about what that would mean for sex (potentially awesome and dangerous things, young Rachel!). My conception of sex was almost entirely based on Leo and Kate being sweaty and tender in that car, and my own life felt so blandly unromantic that my sexual desire became inextricable from my yearning for a life that felt important.
...and before you ask, hell yes "My Heart Will Go On."
Lindsay: Oh my Lord, I forgot about movie soundtracks. I FORGOT ABOUT THE BUFFY MUSICAL. I CAN'T BELIEVE I DIDN'T MENTION THE BUFFY MUSICAL.
My parents didn’t let me watch TV or listen to rap music when I was a kid, and I credit that with my extreme aloofness as a preteen. I was/am insufferable. I was also an embarrassingly late arrival to the puberty party who convinced herself she was going to become a nun, which explains college tidily.
Fiona Apple: Criminal. I was a precocious teenager that would declare “age was just a number” or whatever it is you say when you know that you shouldn’t be hanging out with guys in their late twenties but want to think that they like you because you’re special, not because they’re creepy. The first time I heard “Criminal” I was sixteen. I remember thinking, “oh, this is why they have age of consent laws.” Better than any song I know, “Criminal” articulates the manner in which, very suddenly, you have this THING that will make men do insane stuff, but have no idea how to harness it because your brain is still working out how to be a person. Also, this was an early example of learning my mom is right about everything.
Usher: My Way. Any millennial woman who tells you that Usher and Paul Walker were not formative influences on her sexuality is a damn liar. At a sleepover at my friend’s, we were watching MTV and the video for “My Way” came on. If you don’t remember, there’s a part where the camera hovers over U.R. Triple Sticks pubic bone and very famous abs. My brain flooded with oxytocin.
Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane over the Sea. At some point, I made a crack about losing my virginity in a rowboat to a rabbi’s son while “King of Carrot Flowers” was on and people believed that, which says a lot more about how pretentious people think I am than it does anything else. Around this same time, there was a pervasive rumor that I slept with Will Oldham, which made me irresistible to a very specific subset of boys.
Talking Heads: True Stories soundtrack. I associate the song “People Like Us” with things being at once not as physically stressful as you anticipated and not as life-altering as you’d been told. It’s a good song to eat a cronut to. Makes you think differently aboutJohn Goodman/David Byrne, doesn’t it? There is probably a lucrative subgenre of erotica I could be writing about those two, but instead I’m sharing the soundtrack of my late-blooming sexual awakening with strangers on the internet, free of charge.
Rumble: Link Wray. Dudes weren’t really that interested in me until I was in college, so I was fully eighteen when I found out you can use your record collection to make someone fall in love with the idea of you. This discovery defined my dating life for the next five years.
“Any millennial woman who tells you that Usher and Paul Walker were not formative influences on her sexuality is a damn liar.”
Sarah: I'm so glad you mentioned Usher, and abs, because I remember this sort of collective swoon when he came on the scene.
Kirsten: Even though I haven't ever been drawn to guys who have that "I have a cabinet full of soups and only eat baked chicken" look, it was def the first time I though, "Oh, dudes CAN be sexy!"
Rachel: I somehow missed the Usher boat. Weird informational tidbit: I interviewed him over the phone when I was a junior in high school. My indifference was so painfully clear that at one point he said, "You must not know much about me." Ouch. (Also, I had a thing or two to learn about interviewing)
Kirsten: OH. MY. GOD. Usher, if you're reading this right now, I want to apologize for Rachel and also retroactively take her place.
Rachel: Usher, if you're reading this right now I REALLY DID TRY. I researched your music, your abs! I really do love your abs!
"I made a crack about losing my virginity in a rowboat to a rabbi’s son while “King of Carrot Flowers” was on and people believed that."
Lindsay: A rowboat with a sound system? I am unfamiliar with the world of boating but is that a real thing?
Rachel: Zach Braff wants to direct that sex scene. And act in it.
Lindsay: He would play the rowboat.
Rachel: Natalie Portman would tap dance on it/him.
Kirsten: I can tap dance.
"There is probably a lucrative subgenre of erotica I could be writing about [David Byrne/John Goodman]."
Rachel: I just need to express my jealousy right now. I have loved David Byrne/Talking Heads since I terrified grocery store patrons at age three by singing "Psycho Killer" to myself. I WANT SO MUCH TO GET IT UP FOR DAVID.
Kirsten:I consider "Psycho Killer" to be my personal theme song. Please take that for what it is.
Rachel: I knew I liked you.
“I found out you can use your record collection to make someone fall in love with the idea of you.”
Lindsay: This never worked for me! Probably because I liked what 10 Things I Hate About You described as "angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion," which made straight dudes go "yikes" and queer girls go "yeah, I already have all of those."
I came of age right in between the glory days of grunge and old-school hip hop on one end, and boy bands on the other. Right in that narrow band of schmaltzy “alternative” music lay my bat-mitzvah year, and with it the dawn of my yearning half-decade. And boy, did I have a soundtrack to accompany the earliest iterations of said yearning. I refer of course, to the ne plus ultra of whiny, condescending male singers: Adam F. Duritz of the Counting Crows. Duritz was always worried about some girl. Maria. Anna. Marjorie. Elizabeth. At any hour of the day I was pretty sure he was just sitting in California, bumming out about some girl in another state and how sad she was. And would you know it, I was a girl in another state, and I was pretty sad, and all I longed for was someone sensitive to be bummed out about me. (I didn’t get the whole Nice Guy™ thing yet. I was a late bloomer in many ways.)
Every month in middle school for me was A Long December. And while we’re at it, every solo walk down any New York Street was a 6th Avenue Heartache. Yes, yes, I crushed hard on Duritz’s old bandmate Jakob Dylan too. Don’t judge. Remember that Rolling Stone cover? Remember those piercing blue eyes? Remember that the same black line that was drawn on you, was drawn on him?
Anyway, soon enough I got wiser and more sophisticated. I started digging The Velvet Underground, and Jimi Hendrix and Jakob’s dad, Bob (Adam Duritz, you may recall, wanted to be Bob Dylan, while Mr. Jones wished he was someone just a little more funky) , and then moved from Dylan senior’s protest music to his more, um, personal songs like “I Want You” and “Lay Lady Lay.” Radiohead and sarcastic Britpop gradually replaced the Counting Crows on my boombox. Once, early in a teenage June, I accompanied a whiny British boy to Tower Records, and told him to buy “Blood on the Tracks.” He told me buy “The Bends.” We bought the CDs. We kissed. Because we had bonded over music, I was sure this was it: he was destined to be my defining summer love. As it turned out, he started dating someone else soon after that.
6th Avenue Heartache indeed.
Years later I ended up marrying Simon, who now works as an editor at Rolling Stone. He’s also a Radiohead superfan with fairly impeccable music taste. Often, we talk about the finer points of Bob Dylan’s discography over dinner. And even though I still treat the Counting Crows’ first 2.5 albums with something like the reverence he has for cutting edge dance music and indie-rock, he forgives me. That’s how you know it’s real love.
"At any hour of the day I was pretty sure he was just sitting in California, bumming out about some girl in another state and how sad she was."
Lindsay: Man, this was THE LOOK for alterna-dudes for like... a really long time. I also feel like this kind of explains Zach Braff.
Kirsten: I'm like, 10 months too young for this, because the alternacrushes of my teen years were pretty much Seth Cohen, et al. Zach Braff in Garden State almost seemed like the creepy dude I mentioned in my notes on "Criminal."
“Yes, yes, I crushed hard on Duritz’s old bandmade Jakob Dylan too.”
Kirsten: Was anyone else a Girls Life reader? There was this bizarre essay once about this mom who had a crush on Jakob Dylan and didn't get why her daughter was like, SO INTO BOB. God, that girl must have died of embarrassment.
Lindsay: Oh my gosh, I had totally forgotten Girls Life and everything connected to it but NOW IT'S ALL RUSHING BACK.
Rachel: I'm not sure what this says about my feminism, but Jakob had me at the lyrics of "One Headlight." I used to recreate music videos, and I absolutely wanted to be the girl who "couldn't break away from this parade."
"And even though I still treat the Counting Crows’ first 2.5 albums with something like the reverence he has for cutting edge dance music and indie-rock, he forgives me. That’s how you know it’s real love."
Lindsay: Ooh, spinoff project: relationships with totally disparate musical tastes! My partner is an Indigo Girls lesbian, whereas I am a Sleater-Kinney lesbian (those are basically the two kinds). We make it work.
Sarah: Damn. Good for you for bridging that vast gulf.
Kirsten: Real talk: I think it's kind of nice when you don't like all the same stuff. I used to believe that it's "what you like, not what you are like" but people who fall in love with your record collection maybe don't think you're an actual person. Looking at you, Braff.
Lindsay: Yeah, there's something a little dehumanizing about dudes (in particular) who are super-competitive about whose girlfriend has the best taste in music. Plus: I would never have gone to an Indigo Girls concert of my own accord, but it turns out they're AWESOME live. Who knew?!
I hate to admit it, but the soundtrack to my adolescent sexual awakening definitely featured a lot of Mariah Carey – which makes sense now that I think about it, because virtuoso vocal runs over bland, soulless tracks is a pretty great metaphor for the overwrought hormonal reactions of junior high romance. Rainbow came out when I was in seventh grade, and I was into it to a degree that embarrassed me even at the time. I liked “How Much” the best, and listened to it over and over imagining someone telling me “Essentially you’re all I’m living for / Basically each day I need you more.” Today, of course, I would never get it up for someone who overused adverbs like that.
At approximately the same time, I discovered punk rock (particularly the riot grrrl bands I’d been too young to appreciate when they were still making music) and my own bisexuality. There was a really confusing phase of listening to both Mariah and Bikini Kill, fantasizing about wildly disparate types of relationships depending on what was in my Discman (remember Discmans? Discmen?). I listened to “How Much” and imagined a dreamy, soft-focus, obsessive love with hand-holding and flower petals and shedding gentle tears because of the unbearable intensity of my emotions. Then I’d rock out to “Rebel Girl” and imagine making out with a really cool girl with really cool clothes, including huge black boots that she would let me borrow before we went out to change the world (in ways that, to my sheltered white middle class imagination, were dramatic but also kind of vague.)
Also, I was really into “Tame” by the Pixies, especially the part where Kim Deal goes “Uh-huh, uh-huh” over and over. I’ve wanted to fuck to that song since I was 13, but it hasn’t happened yet.
"I hate to admit it, but the soundtrack to my adolescent sexual awakening definitely featured a lot of Mariah Carey."
Rachel: I never went to sleep-away camp, but I was very invested in the after-lights-out teenage snuggling featured in the "Always Be My Baby" video.
"There was a really confusing phase of listening to both Mariah and Bikini Kill"
Kirsten: That awkward time between my love of Celine Dion and Ben Folds.
Lindsay: Which lines up, I think, with the transition from liking music just because you like it to liking music because that makes you the kind of person you want to be / want other people to think you are. Twelve-ish was around when I really started defining my identity through the kind of music I listened to.
Rachel: Yes, twelve was absolutely when I began to cherry pick what interests I broadcasted. But I'm so glad I didn't actually self-regulate when it came to what I popped in my discman. I needed to listen to Tori Amos AND the Spice Girls AND Smashing Pumpkins AND Hanson AND Radiohead. That simultaneity was emotionally crucial, I think.
Lindsay: Between I think ten and twelve, I pretended that I didn't like the Spice Girls. At twelve I decided FUCK IT THE SPICE GIRLS ARE AWESOME AND I DON'T CARE WHAT ANYONE THINKS. I have never revised that opinion since.
"Remember Discmans? Discmen?"
Sarah: Oh, I pine for discmen, mix tapes, and mix CDs. I mean, the physicality of these objects that you traded with friends and crushes can't be replicated by spotify. (On a related note, we walked uphill in the snow to school both ways and WE HAD MANNERS.)
Lindsay: I was a little young for mix tapes, but mix CDs were the sign of true friendship/love/wanting to see someone naked.
Kirsten: Sarah, I'm going to make you a mix CD as soon as I figure out a transition track between Enigma and Mariah.
Rachel: Can we please make a playlist inspired by this roundtable?
POST SCRIPT: What CD’s liner notes did you cut up and sticky-tack to your bedroom wall to swoon over?
Sarah: Can I admit that I was obsessed with Jewel’s liner notes? They were (bad) poems. But again, I was also writing bad poetry. So what did I know?
Rachel: I liked to pretend that I understood Tori Amos’s lyrics. But I think–hope–I am not alone in this. Also, re: Jewel, I waited with bated breath for VH1 to play “Foolish Games” every day. That and Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn.”
I wasn't allowed to tape things to my walls (it's ok, Mom who I hope is not reading this, I'm healing). Had I been able to do so, entry into my room would have been seizure-inducing. I would have WALLPAPERED it in song lyrics.
Lindsay: That's pretty much how mine was, plus huge posters of Kurt Cobain and Bruce Springsteen. In between them were zillions of liner notes, Sleater-Kinney featuring prominently, plus a pencil sketch my artist friend made me of Corin Tucker, Porcelain Rock Goddess of My Heart.
Rachel: Bruce: Still hot.
Lindsay: TO THIS DAY.