Column: Songs We Sing Together

Jeannette Wall recalls all of the songs that she cannot help but sing.


Jeanette Wall talks about moments in her life where she’s been faced with a song, and had no choice but to sing along.

I love that scene in Harold And Maude where Maude insists Harold learns a musical instrument. I’ve written about it before, as I believe it is one of the most honest moments captured in film. Ruth Gordon’s iconic character preaches, “Everyone should be able to make a little music!” You don’t have to be good, you just have to mean it. There are a hundred of important life lessons in that movie, but the one that has always stuck with me is the catharsis of song. I’ve learned over the years that songs (usually) sound better when you sing along – and even better singing along with someone else.

If you want to sing out, by God, you had better sing out. And as Maude would say, “Let’s play something together!”

“Losing My Religion” by REM     

I learned to sing in the car from the woman who could have very well wrote the book on it. I learned not to care how loud I am, or how well I sing, or if I get the words right. My mom has no shame about belting along to the radio; made obvious every time the radio was on in the 1990s. Many of my mom’s favorite bands were heavily played on our local station throughout my childhood, including but not limited to Gin Blossoms, The CranberriesSister Hazel, and most importantly, REM.

When I was young this drove me crazy. Wasn’t that totally uncool? I worried pulling up to red lights, would they hear her rendition of “All For You.” She would hold the last note of the chorus seconds longer than it was written. I couldn’t imagine what compelled her to do this. Just listen to the music, mom. Be cool. I’d sometimes ask her to change the station.

But what for? What I couldn’t understand at this young age was that sometimes you need to sing along. Soon enough I began to understand. We were driving to the university where my mom taught. I was perhaps nine or so. “Losing My Religion” came on, and I remember semi-subconsciously starting to sing along. By the second verse, my mom and I were drowning out Michael Stipe’s voice on “Consider This.” I turned my face towards the window so she couldn’t see me grinning. Nothing had ever been this much fun. Nothing felt so right as belting out, “That’s me in the corner!” Whatever troubled my young mind, namely what people thought of me, vanished as I sang along. 

Years later I was in the car with an old boyfriend, and he said to me, “Just because I turn the volume up doesn’t mean you need to sing louder.” I argued that, in fact, it means exactly that.

“I Dreamed A Dream” by Anne Hathaway

The spring of 2013 was especially cold in Syracuse (NY). Weekdays were busier than ever, planning for what was ahead. I drove down to New York City for job interviews nearly every weekend. My lips were constantly chapped, and my emotions were in constant swing. Though there were only a handful of days before graduation, they were long, endless, arduous days full of anxiety.

Hence why every Sunday a few girlfriends of mind religiously gathered to rehash the events of the weeks before. I had a geography teacher in high school who used to meet his friends at the egg factory in my hometown every Sunday to gossip about politics. I imagine our meetings were similar, but instead of local government we talked about local bands. Some Sundays were joyous: one of us had landed a job interview, finished a big paper, or chatted up a boy we liked. Some, however, were not so. There were mornings where we’d all meet with our heads low: another rejection letter, another fight with the parents, another dream put on the back burner because of the wretched state of the job market.

One especially dreary morning, we were mourning the events of the night before gone sour. Unanswered cover letters and love letters and letters to our future selves had piled up with the Syracuse snow. One of us made reference to the classic ballad of the unrequited, “On My Own.” We promptly transformed the kitchen table into a stage, belting the lines as dramatically as we could. We chorused for “I Dreamed A Dream.” In this moment, we saw how temporary our problems truly were. Though our hearts were plagued for now, it would all come out in the wash.

“State Of Grace” by Taylor Swift

It was some ungodly hour during which no one should ever be driving. It was one of those hours where you can’t help but wonder what any other car would be doing on the road at such a time. My friend Zeno was in the passenger seat of my car, our friend Meagan was in the backseat asleep. We were driving home from a show that our friends had played at Bard College. I told Zeno to put on something fast, as my eyes grew heavy. I needed a defibrillator, a shock to keep me going for the last hour we had left between Red Hook and New Hartford. Zeno and I had both been outspoken fans of Taylor Swift’s latest effort, Red. It was something I loved to talk to him about. I loved seeing his face light up about the little bits of lyrical genius subtly sprinkled in each song. He kept a smattering of selections from this record on at moderate volume.

To my surprise, Zeno chimed along with me. Zeno’s a quiet guy, a performer no less; however, I’ve always thought that singing in a car with someone is far more intimate than singing on a stage. Naturally, I belted out each song at full volume, following in my blessed mother’s example. That is our way, to sing our heart out when it isn’t perched on our sleeve. Meagan surprisingly slept through most of this.

Our time singing Taylor offered something close. Singing with someone, sharing music with someone, can make you feel so much closer to knowing what makes them tick. I’m not sure if either of us are fire signs. Two eyes blue, two eyes brown, maybe hazel. But as we sang the final chorus of “State Of Grace,” our slates were certainly clean.

“Breaking Up” by Rilo Kiley

My college roommate, Emma, loves Jenny Lewis. She is one of her role models. Nearly any mix CD Emma makes will have a tune from one of Lewis’ many projects on it. We were driving to Syracuse’s annual Arts And Crafts Festival a few autumns ago. We had both been enduring tremulous relationships, and needed to get off campus. Downtown Syracuse wasn’t necessarily an oasis, but the Crafts Festival always promised for a good time. When we got in the car, she had Under The Black Light in her CD player. She told me that this was her least favorite Rilo Kiley album, though she still appreciated Lewis’ honest songwriting. I felt similarly, though some of my favorite Jenny Lewis songs are on the record.

Track four flipped as we drove down Salina Street, and Emma turned up the volume. “This is the best break up song ever written.” I heartily agreed with her as we both chimed in for the opening verse. Jenny Lewis’ unwavering confidence reminds me how easy moving past a bad relationship can be. Life will go on, “it’s not as if New York City burned down to the ground once you drove away.” The sun will still shine once those clouds up above wash the blues away.

The bridge began as we neared the warehouse where the festival was taking place. Emma commented on how she loved the chorus in the background of this part. The bellowed out, “Oh, yeah, feels good to be free!” There’s no sense dwelling on a relationship that isn’t working when you have people to sing with. There’s no sense in singing softly when it feels this good to be free.

“Dancing On My Own” by Robyn

My friend Cassandra once said, “I could write a song about my life, but Robyn already did that.” We’ve all had those moments of dancing on our own. Your heart breaks in your hands. You could keep all the little pieces in your pocket, or you could toss them around the room, like Pink’s Grammy performance. Speaking from personal experience, it is far more cathartic to do the latter.

Nothing quite embodies this sentiment like a night I spent singing “Dancing On My Own” with Cassandra and a few other friends in a gutted living room. We had toted a couple of speakers as a modest PA set up for a living room show. I brought over my ukulele, some folks brought up guitars. Two of our friends, esteemed members of one of Syracuse University’s a cappella groups, decided to take the stage after a few of us had played. “This one’s for you, Cassandra,” they said before launching into an inspired rendition of Robyn’s pop anthem.

Cassandra grabbed my arm as she ran to the front. The four of us belted out the song with as much enthusiasm as we could muster for our unexpecting audience. Stripped of any reservations, we danced and chanted our hymn. A couple of folks even joined in. It was odd, I’m sure. For us, though, it was a celebration of all those lonely nights that lead us to wherever we end up. These days Cassandra and I frequent a karaoke night at a bar by my apartment. Every Tuesday, the streets of Brooklyn ring with the sound of the two of us belting out, “I’m giving it my all, but I’m not the girl you’re taking home.” Luckily, when we’re together, we’re never dancing on our own.

“Absolutely (Story Of A Girl)” by Nine Days

There’s a city in New York called Utica. It’s about a 45-minute drive from Syracuse. I have a couple of friends who live there. There’s a coffee shop where some of their bands play, a fantastic pizza place, and a bar called The Dev where my friend Ben works. One night I was visiting for a show at The Dev. I was the designated driver and showed up to Ben’s house where the stereo was on full blast and the couches on the living room were completely occupied.

There were a couple people I knew there, but it was largely only people I heard about in small town folklore. The theme of the party was turning into something like, “songs we all know the words to.” Cans of Utica Club were piling. There was a brief interlude for grooving to “Dance Yrself Clean.” Afterwards, I was offered up the 8-inch jack to play DJ for a while. It’s always scary to take that sort of plunge in such a small, unfamiliar group of people. I took a breath.

You never can tell what you share with people, but I find, generally, that 90s alternative radio is a good place to start guessing. Initially, when I put on “Absolutely (Story Of A Girl),” it was a sleeper. It might have even welcomed a few groans. However, we all were in unison by, “Your clothes never wear as well the next day.” We even managed to keep our timing up for the dramatic pause placed in the first line of the final chorus (“This is the story of a [pause] girl…”).

I don’t exactly remember everyone’s name I met that night. I’m sure with all the drinks consumed, no one remembers my name. All I can hope is that they remember me as the girl who cried a river and drowned the whole world.

“The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World

Emo Night at Idle Hands Bar is a must is you’re ever in New York City on the first Thursday of the month. It’s so aptly named, “Do You Know Who You Are?” The guys who DJ hand pick a plethora of classic emo standards, as well as a deep cut here and there, mostly from the late 1990s/early 2000s.

My first Thursday back in New York City this summer was, in the most fitting way, Emo Night. I sauntered down Avenue B to meet some old classmates, a professor, and a few other friends who were DJing. You can make requests at the booth in the back corner. I always ask for “Jukebox Breakdown,” in memory of my fourteen-year-old self. Sometimes they play some songs I remember, a lot of times there are songs I recognize, but can’t place. The crowd favorites seem to be Dashboard Confessional and Taking Back Sunday, no matter who is present.

Singing along is not explicitly encouraged; but as the night progresses, the chorus of Idle Hands patrons will crescendo. My first Thursday back, there was one song that got everyone on their feet. The opening guitar riff was a roll call, and everyone put their fists, or drinks as the case may be, high into the air.

Hey, don’t write yourself off yet. It’s only in your head you feel left out or looked down on!

No one was left out, as everyone sang along. No one was looked down on, as the volume was full blast. Some folks from my past life in college were around, as I made the preliminary etchings in my new life in New York. Entering into adulthood was not nearly as seamless as I had imagined, but I guess that’s why they call it “The Middle.”

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” by Whitney Houston

A couple summers ago, my best friend from high school and I pooled up our piggy banks to spend a couple of months living in the East Village. I walked to my job in Chelsea every morning, headphones blaring Whitney Houston. Kenzie would be in the living room most evenings when I got home, with a record on. Our nights consisted of Nightmare On Elm Street marathons, tours of our three favorite bars, or a show at Mercury Lounge.

At some point of the night, be it when we were getting ready or just getting home, we would throw on a playlist we had made for each other. It was made up of songs we loved to dance to, REPTAR, Marina And The Diamonds, and Sam Cooke. Our finale was nine times out of ten Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” Kenzie and I would hop up on our coffee table, grab our hairbrush microphones, and let our hair down. We left our blinds open so that the whole 1st Ave could witness pop history being made in our miniature 5-floor walk up.

It was the simplest ritual, but so loaded with feeling. What the feeling was changed every other day. I’d always be there dancing with someone who I loved, my best friend. Afterward we’d fall on to the couch, out of breath. It’s the emptiest my brain has ever been. Some people meditate to clear their mind. My brain has never been more at peace than when we sat, winded on that couch with Kenzie. Some people go to therapy to learn how to communicate their feelings. I learned more about how to talk about my feelings through singing them instead. Some people play music to listen. Sometimes you can get just as much from it by participating.

You can do what you want, the opportunity’s on. And if you can find a new way, you can do it, sing it today. There are a million things to say, feel and be. It’s all within reach if you simply sing out.

  • JRW

    Yes, turning up the volume on the radio predicates singing louder. “Oh no, I’ve sang too much” Lovely piece…

  • kenzie

    god, this is so spot on and brilliant. i have so many similar vignettes that have affected me so profoundly and viscerally. and also, jeanette, i’ll never forget that summer of reptar, beyonce, marina, sam, and, of course, whitney. this must be the place, babygirl. sing it out.