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Science May Explain Why We Love That ‘No. 1 Song On Your 14th Birthday’ Meme So Much


There’s a new viral craze on the Internet all the kids are into. And by kids, I of course mean all the old people on Facebook. What was the No. 1 song in the country on your 14th birthday? According to this musical meme, that single “defines your life.”

The trend seems to have started with this relatively unsubstantiated pronouncement by a Twitter user from Miami:

And, Twitter and Facebook were off and running, revealing a bunch of pretty bad No. 1 hits and the ages of a bunch of our friends and colleagues.

You can go here to check yours.

Let’s get this very embarrassing fact out of the way. Mine was Ace of Base’s “I Saw the Sign.” This frothy pop hit from a Swedish sibling band includes such uplifting lyrics as “I got a new life, you would hardly recognize me, I’m so glad. / How can a person like me care for you? / Why do I bother when you’re not the one for me / ooh-hoo-oo-oo-ooh.”

Upon reflection, I have determined this is an anthem of resilience and, yes, faith — what are we to make of the much-ballyhooed “sign,” other than that it comes from a power beyond our understanding, ooh-hoo-oo-oo-ooh, with the power to open up one’s eyes? It’s also a rockin’ skating rink hit. Fine, consider my life defined.

Whatever your song says about you — be it hard rock, British invasion, silly pop, or something from the Latin explosion or boyband era — there are some scientific reasons this kind of meme takes off almost universally. I was somewhat surprised to find that “I Saw the Sign,” does indeed speak to me, oh-oh-oh-ohhhh. It conjures clear memories of a very specific time in my life, even though I didn’t think I was particularly attached to the undeniably catchy hit, then or now.

Despite the unscientific origins of this meme, the reasons that song sticks with me, and your 14-year-old song sticks with you, may be written into our brains.

Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern wrote on the phenomenon in 2013, outlining research on this topic:

In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have confirmed that these songs hold disproportionate power over our emotions. And researchers have uncovered evidence that suggests our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers more tightly than anything we’ll hear as adults — a connection that doesn’t weaken as we age. Musical nostalgia, in other words, isn’t just a cultural phenomenon: It’s a neuronic command. And no matter how sophisticated our tastes might otherwise grow to be, our brains may stay jammed on those songs we obsessed over during the high drama of adolescence.

That explains this otherwise inexplicable tweet from me:

Or, why whenever I listen to Jewel, I feel the potent mixture of the devastation of my first break-up and the empowerment of learning I could move on.

New music apps offer rich sources of data and new opportunities for analyzing such preferences, and an economist writing for The New York Times teamed up with Spotify to discover something I’ll call the “Creep” phenomenon, which afflicts men of exactly my age:

Consider, for example, the song “Creep,” by Radiohead. This is the 164th most popular song among men who are now 38 years old. But it is not in the top 300 for the cohort born 10 years earlier or 10 years later.
Note that the men who most like “Creep” now were roughly 14 when the song came out in 1993. In fact, this is a consistent pattern.

It turns out that the “Creep” situation is pretty much universal. Songs that came out decades earlier are now, on average, most popular among men who were 14 when they were first released. The most important period for men in forming their adult tastes were the ages 13 to 16.

What about women? On average, their favorite songs came out when they were 13. The most important period for women were the ages 11 to 14.

Also, women in their 70s love “Gangsta’s Paradise,” so there’s that.

There’s an increasing amount of research about the teen years and how and why their impact seems so enduring. Laurence Steinberg, a sociologist who specializes in studying adolescence, reflected on the phenomenon in his own life for a New York Magazine piece, “Why You Never Truly Leave High School.”

“There’s no reason why, at the age of 60, I should still be listening to the Allman Brothers,” Steinberg says. “Yet no matter how old you are, the music you listen to for the rest of your life is probably what you listened to when you were an adolescent.” And that’s because your prefrontal cortex, which governs your ability to reason, reflect, and control impulses, gives people, just before adolescence, an increased ability to develop “the notion of a self.”

That development of “notion of self” is what researchers theorize creates what they call the “reminiscence bump.” We retain more memories from our teens and early ’20s than other times in our life, according to studies. So, more memories, many of them connected to creating a sense of identity, and the music of those times is inextricably linked to forming those memories and our identities. Hence, “Back that Azz Up” is an exhilarating testament to who I am as a person and a masterpiece, not a trashy club beat.

So, even though a Miami Twitter user’s assertion that “the No. 1 song on your 14th birthday defines your life” may not have been based on much more than a feeling, she was onto something.

Which is why all your friends and relatives were busy sharing this meme this week. And why I, ahem, saw the sign. Ooh-hoo-oo-oo-ooh.