Next to sex and death, there’s no more compelling subject for songwriters than the thing that happens in between those two endpoints on the cycle of life. Aging—and all the excitement, confusion, and existential dread that accompanies it—has long captivated the songwriter, whose work within a ruthlessly youth-focused industry makes them hyperaware of the passing of time. Many artists have attempted to pin down the specific moments and feelings that encapsulate those years ticking by, offering a near-comprehensive guide to the ages from 13, at the budding of adolescence, to 30, at the Logan’s Run-like end of your vitality. Here’s a comprehensive guide to growing up, according to the people who fight most strenuously against it.
In pop’s purview, the dawning of your teenage years can be a bit ominous, bookended by one of the sweetest songs ever recorded and one that’s slightly more depressing. Big Star’s “Thirteen” offers an unvarnished string of pure, emotionally tentative couplets (no chorus necessary) backed only by some intertwining acoustic guitar and dreamy background vocals. As a young Alex Chilton asks the object of his affection to the pool, to the dance, to be an outlaw for his love, the seeds of future discontent are planted (“Won’t you tell your dad get off my back?”), but even that’s answered by the more hopeful mantra of youthful rebellion, “Rock and roll is here to stay.” Compared to the light, summery “Thirteen,” Pink’s “Conversations With My 13-Year-Old Self” treads on the dark side of adolescent confusion, offering some somber comfort from decades ahead. “Let me hold your hand and hug you darling,” Pink sings. “I promise things won’t always be this bad.” Still, the song’s minor key and shrieking violins tell a different story. Straddling the last vestiges of childlike innocence, the rockiness of puberty just beginning, the road ahead is only going to get bumpier and more complicated. [Gwen Ihnat]
There are two sides to being 14: the one you’re feeling—a roiling mass of hormones, instability, and newfound freedoms—and the one the rest of the world sees with its creeping eyes. That combination of emotional insecurity and sudden sexual interest is a recipe for disaster, as illustrated by the train wreck double feature of Charli XCX’s and The Vandals’ songs, both named “Fourteen.” Charli XCX’s entry into the world of adolescent fumbling is all puppy love and low self-esteem. She’s just looking for a guy who won’t laugh at her songs and who will do “the kinda thing that people do when they are in love” with her—like running through the forest or climbing trees.
Or, if he’s the narrator of The Vandals’ song, maybe he’s riding in his kickass van and plying you with wine coolers, having “watched you grow for all these years” and now “counting the weeks” until “all the rules and boundaries will slowly disappear.” While he repeatedly assures his quarry “we can’t make love together,” with the fevered repetition of someone protesting way too much, like all the best monsters, he is capable of playing the long game. Dave Quackenbush’s vocals are tongue-in-cheek, but its chilling predatory vibe—juxtaposed against Charli XCX’s carefree, emotionally vulnerable mark—captures the awkward age that has dads everywhere grabbing their shotguns. [William Hughes]
Ah, 15: old enough to get behind the wheel of a car, too young to actually peel out of the driveway. And so you hop on the bus (like the revolution-and-reggae-minded narrator of Rancid’s “Roots Radicals”) or your skateboard (as in Diners’ straightforwardly titled “Fifteen On A Skateboard”), under circumstances that are hopefully sunnier than the strung-out subject of Aiden’s teen runaway anthem “Fifteen.” If there’s an added bit of angst to the songs about this age, it’s because 15 also seems to inspire a lot of condescension. Sometimes, this comes in the form of advice to the singer’s younger self: Taylor Swift would go on to immortalize “22” as a time of consequence-free canoodling, but her “Fifteen” is a gooey cautionary tale about looking before you leap and not sleeping with a guy just because he has a car. But at least noted former teenage girl Swift is singing from a place of experience, unlike Never Shout Never’s Christofer Drew, who precedes the vlog demo of “Fifteen” with a dedication to someone who’s “very, very dear to” him and “growing up a little too fast.” And then he sings about watching somebody else ram their tongue down her throat.
Despite Drew’s best intentions, his pleas come off unseemlier than anything that’s writhing around inside The Rolling Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues,” which to its minor credit knows the object of its lust is only 15 years old. (And no, she doesn’t have to flash her ID.) Elsewhere in the intentional-leering category, the age’s transitional nature inspires as much confusion in the leerer as it does in the leered-at. The itchy C86 jangle of Standard Fare’s “Fifteen” matches an unfortunate late-night discovery: “But this isn’t right / I don’t want to have to stay the night / Six hours of my life / Just wanting you, wanting you, wanting you, wanting you, wanting you.”
The song’s lament comes from a 22-year-old (what is it about these ages that’s connected?), three years younger than the male half of Rilo Kiley’s “15,” a winning stab at blue-eyed soul that also contains some of the band’s worst lyrics. “She was ripe like a peach,” “he was deep like a graveyard,” and he’s bucking for a run-in with the law like the one Supergrass describes in “Caught By The Fuzz.” The Britpop trio’s debut single touches on several of the autobiographical themes 15 tends to dredge up—juvenile delinquency, regret, the threat of being kicked out of the house—giving the track’s pummeling buzz the perfectly relatable punctuation: “I knew I should’ve stayed at home tonight.” And to think that so many 15-year-olds are so eager to get out of the house. [Erik Adams]
What is it about 16-year-olds that inspires so much unapologetic perving? As submitted by a number of hit songs dating back to pop’s earliest days (and a handful of states’ consent laws), 16 is the age when yesterday’s jailbait becomes today’s technically acceptable object of lust. Or as Neil Sedaka’s “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen” puts it, far more unnervingly, “Tonight’s the night I’ve waited for / Because you’re not a baby anymore.” That characterization of 16-year-old girls as some teenage ideal—just awakening to their full sexual bloom, yet still virginally innocent—has been expressed both chastely (Sam Cooke’s “Only Sixteen,” The Platters’ “Sixteen Candles,” Billy Idol’s “Sweet Sixteen,” Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”) and lock-’em-up lecherously (KISS’ “Christine Sixteen,” Iggy Pop’s “Sixteen”). And in the Sherman Brothers’ “You’re Sixteen,” made famous by Ringo Starr, both approaches are combined into one hell of a romantic police report (“You come on like a dream, peaches and cream / Lips like strawberry wine / You’re sixteen, you’re beautiful and you’re mine”). In each of these songs, the message is clear: Now that you’re 16, you’re a sexual being.
Still, with that sexual awakening comes a lot of confusion and frustration. While the narrator bragging, “Now I’ve come of age” in Madness’ “House Of Fun” picks up all the pints and prophylactics he’s been dreaming of, No Doubt’s “Sixteen” tamps down that enthusiasm with a bit of hard truth: “You’re only 16 and you’re feeling real / But you can’t seem to cop a feel.” In fact, “sixteen, clumsy, and shy”—as evocatively described by The Smiths’ “Half A Person”—is a far more accurate picture of what The Replacements confidently declare “the hardest age” in “Sixteen Blue,” noting that you “brag about things you don’t understand / A girl and a woman, a boy and a man / Everything is sexually vague,” and meanwhile “everything drags and drags.” Nevertheless, John Cougar Mellencamp’s nostalgic “Jack And Diane” encourages its high-school-peaking kids toward “holdin’ on to 16 as long as you can”—probably because Jack’s one of the few 16-year-olds who’s actually getting some, and Diane doesn’t have to fight off dirty old Ringo Starr. [Sean O’Neal]
Straddling the line between teenager and legal adult, 17 naturally gives rise to a lot of empowerment anthems—and even more unabashed lusting. Typical of the latter group is the playful calls for ditching school in The Stray Cats’ “(She’s) Sexy + Seventeen,” as well as the far more popular (and much, much worse) “Seventeen” by Winger: “Daddy says she’s too young / But she’s old enough for me.” Jeez, dudes. Even Rick James showed more restraint in his own “17,” singing, “No, I mustn’t do this / She’s almost jailbait.” At least the subject of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” is in charge of her own sexuality: “You’re a teaser, you turn ’em on / Leave ’em burning and then you’re gone.”
By now, those burgeoning hormones have come into play for everyone, as immortalized by the backseat lovers of Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” or Frank Sinatra’s wistful reminiscing over hiding from the village green lights in “It Was A Very Good Year.” With that awakening comes a form of reckoning with your place in the world. As the sweet-voiced Janis Ian “learned the truth at 17, that love was made for beauty queens,” The Mountain Goats recall “This Year” as a time of just trying to survive, and Kings Of Leon more caustically characterize 17 as “Whine whine whine/ Weep over everything,” others, like Avril Lavigne and Stevie Nicks, turn standing on the “Edge Of Seventeen” into a veritable battle cry, one echoed by Lavigne crowing, “We were on top of the world.”
It’s a volatile age when your outlook—and even who you are—can change from moment to moment, as embodied by how Green Day’s “Coming Clean” travels from “Seventeen and strung out on confusion” to “Seventeen and coming clean for the first time” in the space of 90 seconds. Or the way Broken Social Scene’s Emily Haines despairs in “Anthems For A Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” over a friend who ditched her: “Used to be one of the rotten ones and I liked you for that / Now you’re all gone, got your makeup on and you’re not coming back.”
Of course, the flipside of all those changes coming on fast is the realization that you won’t be young forever, a fact that Ladytron’s ode to the ruthless world of modeling bluntly points out with “They only want you when you’re 17 / When you’re 21, you’re no fun.” Annie Lennox’s outlook is even more dire in “Legend In My Living Room,” whose 17-year-old narrator runs off to be a star, and instead finds herself in “a lonely place with a suitcase full of dreams,” the new “queen of doom.” It’s an age when the world is yours for the taking, and the age when you realize how much of it exceeds your grasp. [Gwen Ihnat]
Alice Cooper may have summed up the dichotomy of being 18 best when he crowed, “I’m in the middle without any plans / I’m a boy and I’m a man.” There’s really no getting around it: Eighteen is a rude awakening, the hinge point that thrusts you out of childhood and gives you the right to vote or die for your country, but mostly hands you nothing but a lot of responsibility and expectation. It’s a fact not lost on Tsunami Bomb, whose “Take The Reins” paints a bleak picture of joining the workforce, only to end up in a new cubicle-shaped trap (“Eighteen, you think you’re free / Independence doesn’t start when you leave home”). Chicago ska-punk heroes Slapstick also bemoaned this progression from student to worker bee on “Eighteen,” which begins with the all-too-relatable “Some days I don’t feel like being grown-up” and points to the bipolar nature of the age’s nascent obligations: “I’ve never understood why the closer you come to make your own decisions and be self-sufficient / You’ve gotta conform to the will of the world.”
There’s definitely a natural pessimism to hovering over the precipice of adulthood, whether it’s the feeling that one has “18 and life to go,” as Skid Row sang, or the lamentation that you’re “a failure at everything / Eighteen going on extinct,” as Fall Out Boy does on “Reinventing The Wheel To Run Myself Over.” Either way, it seems at “18, life is a bad dream,” as Joyce Manor argues, while even the poppy Ace Of Base concedes on “Blooming 18” that “Reality is such a drag / For barely blooming eighteens.”
Perhaps that’s why, in the wake of staring down the barrel of the rest of your life, some choose a daydream of suspended adolescence. Bryan Adams’ narrator on “18 Till I Die” snottily exclaims he wants to “Be young the rest of my life / Gonna be 18 till I die,” while Brand New’s Jesse Lacey mumbles he wants to be “18 forever / So we can stay this way forever” in the shiftless bacchanal of “Soco Amaretto Lime.” Of course, these are just fantasies. Eighteen only lasts for a year, and it’s the dying gasp of that unburdened joy. No wonder Cooper almost seems to be protesting when he declares, “I’m 18, and I like it.” Enjoy it while you can. [Leonardo Adrian Garcia]
Maybe it’s the realization you’re in the last year of your teens, but 19 makes for some especially fertile artistic soul-searching. Naturally, as far as pop music is concerned, much of that has to do with love. The heartbreak feels compounded by the cusp of adulthood—many have just left home for the first time—and so the pain is filtered through the lens of feeling like you’re supposed to be somehow more mature about it. Tegan And Sara’s “Nineteen” comes from a place of longing, Old 97’s “Nineteen” from a perspective of maturity looking back, and Phil Lynott’s “Nineteen” is pure macho bluster, but all of these capture the angst and passion of young love, before the commitment of adulthood fully sets in. Of course, The Long Blondes’ “Once And Never Again” has a response to all that lovesick agony: “You’re only 19, for god’s sake / You don’t need a boyfriend.”
But 19 can also be an age where you hang on to that last gasp of teenage freedom and opportunity. It’s why Joe Jackson celebrates wanting to be “Nineteen Forever,” and Jonathan Richman wistfully recounts the wanderlust of being “Nineteen In Naples.” Still, kids that age can also suffer from wanting to be more grown up and acting above the promise of youth (the ska-driven Less Than Jake track “Danny Says” and Buck-O-Nine’s “Nineteen”)—though all of them should be celebrating the fact that they’re not the youth of Redgum’s “I Was Only 19” or Paul Hardcastle’s sample-heavy “19,” both of which evoke the battle-traumatized kids who faced war and left with permanent scars. That kind of suffering is enough to make the lecherous come-ons of Steely Dan (“Hey Nineteen”), Eagles Of Death Metal (“I Got A Feelin (Just Nineteen)”), and Muddy Waters (“She’s Nineteen Years Old”) seem downright appealing. Well, almost appealing. [Alex McCown-Levy]
Nobody had a worse 20th year than the subject of Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop,” a father and husband who works 10 hours a day at a factory but still can’t feed his kids. Singer Alan Vega taunts poor Frankie (“Let’s hear it for Frankie,” he coos. “Frankie, Frankie”) until Teardrop finally kills his family and himself, a particularly hellish extrapolation of the anxieties of that age. Two decades down, the glories of your teenage years officially gone, and the realities of adulthood are descending quicker than you can meet them.
This is the tension of being 20: a self-conscious understanding of adult responsibilities even, as Courtney Barnett’s “Elevator Operator” notes, your skin remains dewy. Tsunami Bomb’s “20 Going On” tackles this conflict in call-and-response form; The Dismemberment Plan’s “Spider In The Snow” chronicles the moment when the cliché “time flies” suddenly seems specific and real (“Different scene outside your window now / Same VCR, same cats”). You can fight back, as in Travis’s “20” or Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain,” by dreaming of those glorious teenage years, pining over the same old crushes and revisiting the old hangouts. But you won’t fit in; even Young knew that, singing, “You can’t be 20 on Sugar Mountain.”
Nevertheless, Barnett’s listless commuter eventually declares his simple dream, just as the Dismemberment Plan’s song climaxes in the reassurance, “You can’t say it but I know that it’s in there.” Because for all the oversize insecurity about being 20, there’s an animating energy to it, too—the notion that a purposeless life can still be avoided. Nas’ “Life’s A Bitch” isn’t about the despair of the struggle (or its necessary conclusion: death) but rather a snapshot of that moment when you can see adulthood clearly, yet react to it with the anger and invention of youth. A.Z. exhorts us to visualize “the realism of life in actuality” right before a clear-eyed Nas declares his 20th birthday “a blessing,” adding, “The essence of adolescence leaves my body / Now I’m fresh.” He’s “one quarter through life, some godly-like-thing created.” If only Frankie Teardrop could’ve realized as much before it was too late. [Clayton Purdom]
While 18 may make you legally an adult, 21 feels like the start of something bigger. “I know that we have just begun” the Eagles say in “Twenty-One,” believing that this benchmark should be met with optimism—even if that can be a bit foolish. As The Adverts plainly state in “No Time To Be 21,” it’s not such an easy proposition having “no chances, no plans” and attempting to navigate the world as an adult while still feeling like a kid. It’s the kind of thing that makes you feel a little bit like a poseur, playing dress-up in adult clothes. As Muddy Waters calls out in “Mannish Boy,” you’re going to have to put your best foot forward and sell yourself: “I’m age 21 / I want you to believe me, honey.”
Twenty-one is the age where you know what’s in front of you, but you don’t always have the means to achieve it. As Dillinger Four’s “Twenty One Said Three Times Quickly” attests, “I know what I want but don’t got the tools.” Still, just having that spirit can take you a long way, and while it’s easy to get self-defeating—as in Something Corporate’s “21 And Invincible,” which sarcastically proclaims, “Can’t wait to screw this up”—it’s not worth it to be negative constantly. After all, you could end up like Pile’s down-on-his-luck “Mr. Fish,” who gives up before he’s even begun with “I pull the sheets over my head and try hard to disappear.” [David Anthony]
Pop’s most steadfast chronicler of aging, Taylor Swift believes “22”—not unlike “Fifteen”—is pretty great. Sure, Swift calls the year both “miserable and magical,” but the latter outweighs the former, especially if you’re dancing with friends and finding boys to make out with. But others see the encroaching dark side to all that partying: Lily Allen’s “22” offers a cautionary tale counterpoint to Swift, telling of a woman for whom “the future looked bright” in the halcyon days of 22, but now her heroine is pushing 30 and crumbling under society’s ageism. Meanwhile, The Hold Steady’s “Hurricane J” captures a reckless wild child in serious need of some direction: “But 22 and banging around in restaurants / Isn’t that much prettier than banging around in bars.”
At 22, a lot of people seem to be just treading water without knowing where they’re headed. The Flaming Lips’ “When Yer Twenty-Two” describes it as being “stuck in perpetual motion”; Switchfoot’s “Let That Be Enough” feels “stuck watching history repeating”; The Stooges’ “1969” moans of “another year with nothing to do”; Millencolin complains, “I’m 22 / Don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” Of course, that feeling of being lost is only intensified by the sense that time is quickly passing you by: “I was 21 years when I wrote this song / I’m 22 now, but I won’t be for long,” Simon And Garfunkel sing on “Leaves That Are Green”—lyrics that Billy Bragg adopted for his own lament, “A New England,” and a sentiment echoed in Lee Hazlewood’s “Must Have Been Something I Loved” and its dialogue between an old man and a heartbroken 22-year-old. And while Starflyer 59 argues that it’s possible to find the one in “Fell In Love At 22,” its melancholy second verse suggests that it’s equally possible to wake up one day realizing it was all a mistake. No wonder 22-year-olds are so indecisive. [Esther Zuckerman]
Twenty-three is about more than just the post-grad blues—it’s the year of the quarter-life crisis. Technically, that’d be year 25, but not according to music. Incubus’ Brandon Boyd is probably just being melodramatic when he rap-sings on “Pardon Me” about being on the “verge of spontaneous combustion” at the age of 23, or of his fiery end being a “welcomed vacation” from his earthly burdens (student loans, presumably). But there’s no denying the feeling of being adrift, coupled with the feeling that you should really be past all this already.
Unsurprisingly, the man-children of Blink-182 summed that up better than most in “What’s My Age Again?” It’s not entirely true that “nobody likes you when you’re 23,” but certainly, hanging on to childish things doesn’t help. Mark Hoppus is optimistic about having “many years ahead to fall in line,” even as he seems to fear that day. Former Bayside member Andrew Elderbaum is a bit more impatient in “Masterpiece,” writing that, at 23, “Five years should have been enough time for you to grow up and get over this.” Galaxie 500 paints a more dire picture on “Crazy,” describing 23 as the year “spent in a drunken frenzy,” where you “lied to your friends, adopted false ideas,” and “quit your job because it made you crazy.” (Maybe student loans aren’t so frightening after all…)
But let’s say you’re not the type to prank-call your girlfriend’s mom or stab your friends in the back. Good news: Twenty-three still has plenty of heartbreak for you. In Tori Amos’ case, she loves someone so much it’s liable to lead to a “Heart Attack At 23.” Amos can’t even take comfort in this being a conscious decision; she and her friends can’t help that they “waste so much love on our men.” Meanwhile, Jimmy Eat World’s “23” wants you to make up your mind and stop “waiting for the right time”—or person. All told, being 23 will see you pulled in so many confusing directions, it’s a wonder you’re intact to see 24. [Danette Chavez]
The totality of what it means to be 24 is best and most hilariously expressed in Pat Stansik’s hip-hop goof “I’m 24,” in which he runs through an inventory of minor, mid-20s accomplishments. “Buy my own groceries / Parents still pay for my gas,” he raps. “My vocab is changing / I say things like ‘for good measure’ / And when I get free time, you know, I’m reading for pleasure.” Stansik can appreciate what he has (after all, he’s “a multi-thousandaire”), but he’s also begun to notice that his metabolism’s slowing down, his muscles are weakening, and he still doesn’t know how to tie a tie. The idea behind “I’m 24” is simple: At the age of 24, the average middle-class American has a job but not a career, a relationship but not a partnership, and too many opportunities to party to start behaving like a responsible grown-up. Nevertheless, 24 is also old enough to start think about… well, getting old.
The specter of aging and changing haunts so many songs about being 24, stretching all the way back to Neil Young’s “Old Man,” in which the singer sees opportunities stretching ahead of him, but he also imagines himself staying stubborn—and lonely—as a coot, all the way to his later years. There’s a sense of sad inevitably to 24, whether it’s The Promise Ring singing in “Jersey Shore” about how the days of crashing on couches and sleeping on beaches in the summer are coming to an end (“I’m barely walking on the boardwalk anymore… When July is gone, I’ll be 24 and then not anymore”), or Chris Cornell setting the apocalyptic nightmare in “Preaching The End Of The World” during his 24th year. In Game Theory’s “24,” the singer feels frustrated that “I get around but I don’t get closer” and wonders if people would take him more seriously if he were as old as he’s actually beginning to feel. And in Red House Painters’ “24,” the age is framed as the end of everything. “I thought at 15 that I’d have it down by 16,” Mark Kozelek moans. “And 24 keeps breathing in my face.” [Noel Murray]
In the wake of all those years of partying, aimless soul-searching, and coming to terms with your dying youth, 25 feels downright sobering. If the early 20s are a time for cutting loose, reaching 25 is all about getting your shit together and realizing that maybe you aren’t yet the adult you thought you were. Bomb The Music Industry knows it in “25!,” singing, “I’m 25 but I still act like I’m 10 goddamn years old,” adding, “We got our ideals but no way to achieve them.” It’s the year of taking stock and trying to find peace, while learning that all those habits that have formed might not be so easily broken. “I’m afraid I will never change,” sings Veruca Salt on “25,” an attempt to make peace with the past and learn a little something from it. [David Anthony]
How inconsequential is 26? The only song that seriously addresses it is by AFI, whose typically melodramatic “But Home Is Nowhere” finds Davey Havok singing, “Twenty-six years and seems like I’ve just begun / To understand my—my intimate is no one.” It’s probably a fool’s errand to attempt to make literal hash of lines like, “Twenty-six years end, still speaking in these tongues / Such revelations while understood by no one.” Still, it does loosely capture the sort of itchy, existential ennui that settles in at 26, after you’ve crested the hill of your 20s and realize that you’re rapidly approaching a time when you should be planning for your future, yet inside, you’re still basically the kind of self-pitying teen who’s moved by AFI lyrics. “I’m the one without a soul / I’m the one with this big fucking hole / No new tale to tell / Twenty-six years on my way to hell,” Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor agrees in “Wish,” putting a more spiteful, pessimistic spin on that regretful self-awareness, while Bran Van 3000’s rollicking “Drinking In L.A.” attempts to laugh off this, the last year of dicking around, by asking, “What the hell am I doing drinking in L.A. at 26?” It’s time to stop wallowing and start getting your shit together. [Sean O’Neal]
At 27 you’re closer to 30 than you are 20, and it’s easy for a sense of dread to come creeping in—particularly in the music world, which is littered with artists who didn’t survive it. It’s easy to find yourself like Herman Dune (“Not On Top”), looking in the mirror and uttering the phrase, “I think I’m getting old.” Or, for the downtrodden likes of Jeffrey Lewis in “Don’t Be Upset,” it’s just as easy to declare, “I think it’s too late for me.” It’s the age where hopes for the future give way to tacit acceptance of what can’t be changed, like Blacklisted’s acknowledgment on “Stones Throw” that “At 27 years old I live all alone / Knowing full well I’ll never marry or have children of my own.” It can also be cause to wonder where the time went or whether you spent it effectively, like Pinhead Gunpowder (“27”) looking back and wondering, “What was it all worth?” But hey, despite all that negativity, 27 is still pretty young. It’s about what you make of it—even if you don’t know what that is. As MS MR points out on “Twenty-Seven,” sometimes just making it through is enough—“Don’t need the promise of heaven / Just faith I’ll pass 27”—and knowing there’s still plenty to be found on the other side. Take it from Passenger’s “27”: “I don’t know where I’m running, but I know how to run.” Sometimes just knowing that can be enough. [David Anthony]
There aren’t a lot of songs about being 28—perhaps because there’s not much to say about it. You’re nearing an era in which your birthdays become increasingly less notable anyway; everything after 30 pretty much comes down to watching the decades tick by. Even Lorene Scafaria’s melancholy, romantic “28” views it as some interstitial thing, a goalpost to be dreaded in advance, then quietly pushed past once it arrives. “Tell everyone that I plan to go straight / When I turn 28 / Things are gonna be great,” she sings, only to end by making the same promises of 29. Twenty-eight is a holding pattern, a non-age, a harbinger of the looming threshold at which each year does not bring some seismic shift in maturity or accomplishment. Just get through it and take solace that an unremarkable year is fine. It’s good practice for your 30s. [Clayton Purdom]
As the last year before terminal adulthood sets in, 29 is the point where most realize the untapped “potential” of our youths is pretty much spent. Maybe we respond to that realization with denial, like (half of) the singer of Garfunkel And Oates’ “29/31.” There a ukulele-wielding Kate Micucci plays a soon-to-be-30-year-old, cheerfully arguing with her two-years-older self (Riki Lindhome) about how it’s not all about to come crashing down. After being treated to yet another verse about the joys of the universe and the power of self-actualization, Lindhome’s 31-year-old growls back, “Here’s another secret / You’re an asshole.”
Or maybe you’re just trying to get as much as you can while the getting’s good, like the women in Amy Winehouse’s “Fuck Me Pumps.” A legion of near-identical “party girls” hoping to snag a rich athlete the only way they know how, Winehouse’s subjects drink and laugh and fuck, always keeping an eye on the ticking clock. “Don’t be mad at me,” Winehouse sings, condemning these trapped souls, even as her own untapped potential hangs over the song like a funk. “’Cause you’re pushing 30 / And your old tricks no longer work.”
Not that everyone has so much potential. Given that he spends his nights “loaded on ephedrine looking for downers and coke” and “teetering stoned off the side of buildings,” the protagonist of Ryan Adams’ “29” probably wasn’t going to end up on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list no matter what he did. Still, fighting store clerks, digging up dead dogs, and thumbing his nose at his married friends doesn’t sound like a recipe for mature adult bliss, even if there’s a certain allure to his self-inflicted “live fast, die young” philosophy. But you can’t burn the candle at both ends when there are kids who need you to pay the electric bill, which is why most of us end up like the subject of Aaron Tippin’s country hit “Twenty-Nine And Holding.” Sure, its hard-working single mom has to kick her no-good husband to the curb and “is holding the world on her shoulders” by working a crappy job and keeping her kids alive. But at least she’s got Tippin crooning compliments to keep her going—exactly the sort of diminished return that captures the slow decline that is 29. [William Hughes]
For anyone who’s still clinging to childish things, 30 is far past time to grow the hell up. Jefferson Airplane’s “Lather” (written as a joke for drummer Spencer Dryden’s birthday) describes a disappointment of a son whose mother sends him clippings about his school friends, respectable businessmen all, while he just farts around and drums in a rock band. You’re too old for such foolishness; time to settle down, have some kids, and start paying attention to your health. “For my next 30 years I’m gonna watch my weight / Eat a few more salads and not stay up so late / Drink a little lemonade and not so many beers,” Tim McGraw sings on “My Next 30 Years,” a sense of realizing that you’re not as invincible as you once were—“At 30, muscles fade,” Into It. Over It. reminds on “No EQ”—and that now is the time to slow down and appreciate the little pleasures of hearth, home, and health, as echoed in Randy Stonehill’s sentimental “Turning Thirty.”
Basically, you’re boring as fuck now, and the rest of your years are no longer even worth writing a song about, so hopefully you at least have a nice place to live. Then again, Jay Z’s “30 Something” argues that “30’s the new 20,” so hey, maybe there’s still time. [Sean O’Neal]