I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to music. I have no doubt that my favorite songs, all recorded in the 1960s and ‘70s, were the best ever made. The music was revolutionary and the lyrics had important things to say. End of story. Or so I thought. Today’s blog is about a song from this new millennium that changed my prejudiced opinion, but first let me explain the science behind my stubborn allegiance to my favorite songs.
In the last couple decades there’s been some groundbreaking research on how our brains develop and function. Some scientists—the really groovy ones, I’m guessing—have studied how the music we first heard as kids gets lodged in our brains. They’ve even figured out why I can’t always remember my phone number, but I still know every word of “American Pie.” Here’s the reason, in layman’s terms:
During the time that we’re going through some intense development—those supercharged teen years—lots of information gets stored in our brains, with different sections acting as holding chambers for specific data. One of those sections keeps a file of the songs we listened to 20, 50 or 500 times. So, depending on when you were born and who was the leader of the music pack when you were growing up, the folds and wrinkles of your brain might be devoted to Glenn Miller or Elvis or the Stones or Madonna or (insert your favorite here.) Just like we learned two and two make four, we have no doubt that the songs we couldn’t get enough are simply the best.*
My stubborn devotion to ‘60s music ran into trouble a few years ago, after I’d retired from running a children’s summer camp. Throughout my 27 years supervising teenagers who were working as counselors, those budding young adults often tried to introduce me to a song they couldn’t get enough of. No thanks, I’d say with a sly smile, I’ve got my own music.
A few summers after retirement, a staff member I’d worked with was still at the camp and he sent me a link to a YouTube video the staff and campers created. My first thought? We never needed videos for kids to have fun. Is this what summer recreation has become? But out of respect for the staff person, I watched the video. Take a look: “Firework” by Katy Perry
If you’ve ever worked at a camp or organized a children’s program, you’ve got an idea of what it took to make that video. Here’s what I saw that impressed me: In the dog days of August (The lawn’s shade of brown tells me it had been a cruel hot summer.), the staff still had enough energy to stage a camp-wide activity based on this Katy Perry song. Did you notice how different groups of campers had on the same color T-shirt? That means those kids bunked together, and working on their line or two of the song would have been a bonding experience. And wasn’t it cool that Arts and Crafts added props like glistening stars and Sports offered something for boys who thought lip synching to Katy Perry was lame?
I ended up watching the video several times, noticing more ways those counselors created a fun activity. As I took it all in, something stirred in me. Creative camp counseling aside, I was enjoying the song. The tune was hummable, and as I joined in I felt…uplifted. When I checked out the song’s lyrics, I realized that the masterminds behind the video had wisely chosen “Firework,” because it captured what was always the camp’s goal: helping children feel good about who they are. In case you didn’t catch Katy’s inspiring lyrics (she had help from Ester Dean, StarGate and Sandy Vee), here’s a sample:
Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
drifting through the wind
wanting to start again
Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin
like a house of cards
one blow from caving in…
Do you know that there's still a chance for you
'cause there's a spark in you
You just gotta
ignite the light
and let it shine
just own the night
like the Fourth of July
'Cause baby you're a firework
come on show 'em what you’re worth…
Wow! “Firework” is a mini-lesson in self-esteem! Who wouldn’t feel better singing and dancing along? After several more listens, my brain’s decades-old loyalty to my music unlocked and let “Firework” in. The song is now logged in my memory, right alongside “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Lean on Me,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I was listening to new music—and I liked it.
But a song’s importance can only be confirmed with the passing of time. It’s been five years since I first saw the camp’s video, and when I started creating this music blog and listed the songs I wanted to write about, “Firework” was near the top. I know an old-timer like me shouldn’t be writing about a song by a pop star who looks like a model from People magazine. According to the science of the brain, there’s no way Katy Perry’s music should matter to me. But thanks to some counselors at a summer camp, whenever I’m having a bad day her song sings me out of my slump. ‘Cause, young or old, baby you and I, we’re like fireworks.
Have you heard a song from recent years which suddenly upended your “Best of the Best” list? Share it with me here and help me keep the musical folds of my brain from freezing over.
*Of course, the science of the brain is a lot more complicated than my one paragraph. If you want to read more about the link between music and the brain, check out the article, “Why Do We Love the Music We Heard as Teenagers?” by Mark Joseph Stern. The article mentions a book that helped me wrap my mind around this whole music-brain connection, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel Levitin.