It’s graduation week, and we guess that means at least some of you are preparing to leave college behind for good. If you’ll allow us to get a little misty-eyed for a minute, we remember when we were in the same position, and it’s both exhilarating and frightening — suddenly the future is a big empty space, just waiting to be filled in. Happily, as ever, there’s at least some solace to be found in music, and there’ve been plenty of great songs written over the years about life and how to live it. So here’s a playlist of some of our favorite tracks with something to say on what life’s all about, and how you go about negotiating your way through it. Let us know if there are any lessons you’d like to share, too.
Butthole Surfers — “Sweet Loaf”
Key lyric: “It’s better to regret something you have done/ Than to regret something you haven’t done”
Life lessons from Gibby Haynes? Curiously enough, yes. This succinct couplet sums up an entire philosophy about life, and so long as whatever you’re doing isn’t hurting anyone else, this isn’t a bad axiom to live by. At all. (Of course, being the Butthole Surfers, it’s followed with the lines “And by the way, if you see your mom this weekend/ Be sure to tell her, ‘Satan, Satan, Satan!'” But the sentiment stands.)
Le Tigre — “Keep On Livin'”
Key lyric: “So don’t let them bring you down/ And don’t let them fuck you around/ ‘Cos those are your arms/ That is your heart/ And no, no, they can’t tear you apart”
Let’s continue on an optimistic note for now, shall we? This is one of our favorite anthems for life — not in a trite motivational poster sense, but rather in the best sort of bratty and resilient manner. As the top-rated comment on YouTube for this song says, “Surviving is punk rock.” Word.
The Verve — “Bittersweet Symphony”
Key lyric: “It’s a bittersweet symphony, this life/ Trying to make ends meet/ You’re a slave to money, then you die”
Popular wisdom appears to be that this song is depressing as hell, but we’re not so sure that we buy into this idea. After all, the title is “Bittersweet,” not just “Bitter,” and there’s something admirable about the spirit of defiance that permeates the lyric — a spirit that’s perfectly embodied, of course, by the song’s iconic video.
The Smiths — “Accept Yourself”
Key lyric: “Anything is hard to find/ When you will not open your eyes/ When will you accept yourself?”
Here’s the thing — we’re all fundamentally flawed people. But we’re all we have, too — so the sooner we accept ourselves for who we are, the sooner we can get on with living our lives the best we can.
Spiritualized — “Oh Baby”
Key lyric: “Baby, I can’t tell you any more than I know/ So darling, reach out and take it all in as you go”
We can’t say for sure, but we’ve always had an inking that Jason Pierce wrote this song for his daughter Poppy. But whatever the story behind it, “Oh Baby” is a simple, heartfelt lyric about experiencing everything that life has to offer. It’s also incredibly touching, and we always get genuine shivers down our spine on the rare occasions that Pierce plays it live.
Nina Nastasia — “That’s All There Is”
Key lyric: “That’s all there is/ So stop all your dreamin’/ It makes me sad/ Let’s keep what we had”
Sometimes, it’s important to realize what you have rather than focusing all your energies on thinking about what you haven’t. Don’t learn this lesson the hard way. Seriously. Trust us on this one.
Frank Zappa — “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”
Key lyric: “Don’t eat the yellow snow/ That’s where the huskies go”
No, really, don’t.
Run-DMC vs. Jason Nevins — “It’s Like That”
Key lyric: “One thing I know is that life is short/ So listen up, homeboy, give this a thought/ Next time someone’s teaching, why don’t you get taught?”
It’s true, no one likes to be given lessons or told what to do. But those old geezers who insist on giving you their views on life… sometimes they know what they’re talking about, y’know?
Otis Redding — “Try a Little Tenderness”
Key lyric: “You know she’s waiting/ Just anticipating/ The things you’ll never possess/ But while she’s waiting without them/ Try a little tenderness”
Be good to the people you love. And especially to the person you love. It’s easy to take people for granted, or to slip into bad habits, or simply to become self-absorbed and forget the good things in your life. Take time out. Do things together. Be tender. Be loving. It’s far more important than the material things you may or may not be able to give.
Leonard Cohen — “Anthem”
Key lyric: “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in”
Not so much a lesson about growing up as a lesson about life in general, the chorus of this song is one of the things in music almost guaranteed to reduce us to a weepy mess every time we hear it. Rarely has such a profound sentiment been so succinctly and beautifully expressed.
Bob Marley — “Who the Cap Fit”
Key lyric: “Your worst enemy could be your best friend/ And your best friend, your worst enemy”
True that. Don’t be paranoid, but equally, keep your wits about you. People can be a nasty bunch, sadly. (See also: Nick Cave’s “People Ain’t No Good.”)
The Korgis — “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime”
Key lyric: “Change your heart, look around you/ Change your heart, it will astound you”
Sometimes a change can be the most liberating thing in the world, even if it doesn’t necessarily feel like that at the time. Equally, though, sometimes change can focus you on what you already have. (Beck’s cover of this song from the Eternal Summer of the Spotless Mind soundtrack is pretty great, too.)
The Clash — “Clampdown”
Key lyric: “The men at the factory are old and cunning/ You don’t owe nothing/ Boy, get running!/ It’s the best years of your life they want to steal”
A while back, there was an article in The Guardian about the greatest regrets of the dying. The second most common was “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” Work is a necessity, and it can be both valuable and rewarding — but it should never dominate your life. Work hard, do great things — but live for yourself, not for your boss.
Magazine — “Shot by Both Sides”
Key lyric: “You live and learn/ You have no choice”
And another punk era classic, one that trades in brutal honesty and matter-of-factness. There are times in life when you feel like you’re out alone, when you don’t fit in anywhere, and when you’re surrounded by lunatics. All these things may well be true. But ultimately, you find a way to get through the situation. You have to.
Rowland S. Howard — “Life’s What You Make It”
Key lyric: “Life’s what you make it/ Celebrate it/ Anticipate it/ Yesterday’s faded/ Nothing can change it”
This is a cover — the original is by Talk Talk — but there’s something especially moving about Howard’s version, considering that he’d be dead of liver cancer barely a month after the release of Pop Crimes, the album from which this is taken. Poignant, bitter, defiant and somehow uplifting… this isn’t easy listening, but its lessons are hugely valuable.
The Mountain Goats — “Golden Boy”
Key lyric: “You must try to lead a good life/ You must do unto others as you would have them do”
The Golden Rule, eh? Unless you’re Ayn Rand, of course. Well, she‘s not getting any peanuts in the afterlife.
The Stooges — “Dirt”
Key lyric: “I’ve been dirt/ But I don’t care/ ‘Cos I’m burning inside/ With the fire/ Of life”
Call us weird, but this is probably the single most uplifting song we know. It doesn’t matter what people think of you — if what Iggy calls “the fire of life” is within you, then whatever happens, you’re gonna be OK.
Patti Smith — “Land”
Key lyric: “Dip into the sea of possibilities”
Similarly, despite the harrowing nature of the narrative, there’s somehow something uplifting about Patti Smith’s story about poor abused Johnny. We’ve always particularly loved the image of the sea of possibilities — if you’re just graduating, well, dive in. It’s all waiting for you.
The Cramps — “New Kind of Kick”
Key lyric: “Life is short/ Filled with stuff”
The Ataris — “In This Diary”
Key lyric: “Being grown up isn’t half as fun as growing up/ These are the best days of our lives”
And finally, we’ve finished with this because we feel it’s important to refute its premise. Perhaps if you were lucky enough to have an idyllic childhood and/or an adolescence where you were always one of the popular kids, adulthood may be a disappointment. But for a lot of us, that’s not the case. And either way, society’s veneration of youth is a pernicious and unrealistic idea, and one that permeates a lot of popular culture. So if you’re about to graduate, or you’re just worried about getting older, know this: “Being grown up isn’t half as fun as growing up”… well, that’s not necessarily true. Being grown up is perfectly OK, and getting older is perfectly OK. Life doesn’t get any easier, sure, but nor does it necessarily head downhill. Everyone is different. And there’s lots and lots to look forward to. Happy graduation, peoples.