There are certain themes that come up time and again in popular music.
Growing up is one of those special themes.
We all have a different connection to growing up and will probably remember it differently.
Some of us will look back on our formative years and say those were the best years of our lives.
Others will consider all the awkwardness they endured in grade school and how they were outcasts in high school. Teen angst and romantic relationships can also feed into all of it.
For many, it will be somewhere in the middle.
So, let’s see what music has to say about growing up and if it can shed any light on our unique experiences.
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“Reckless Youth” by Pillar
Song year: 2008
This is one of my personal favorites from Tulsa hard rock outfit Pillar.
The song is basically about standing up to your fears and expressing yourself freely. It’s about taking chances in life and not fearing the uphill climb.
Since Pillar is a Christian band, there’s probably a moral somewhere in there too – perhaps about rebelling against all the temptations that come with being a youth.
Religion may have been a big part of your life as a youth and it may still be. You could listen to this killer song to reminisce about those days.
“Because You’re Young” by David Bowie
Song year: 1980
You can rarely take a David Bowie song at face value, and “Because You’re Young” isn’t much of an exception.
With references to “psychodelicate girl”, “little metal faced-boy” and “war” in the first verse, you might assume it’s a weird futuristic song about a post-apocalyptic world.
But stay with the theme and you’ll find that this is a song about a breakup and about being heartbroken.
“Because you’re young”, says the narrator, “You’ll meet a stranger some night” and leave me all alone.
It sounds a little one-sided, and the narrator may have been more in love with his partner than his partner with him.
There are other, lengthy and brainy interpretations for the song of course, but either way, I think it is certain disappointment is at the heart of it.
At one time or another, in our lives, we will be disappointed.
“My Old Self” by Wide Mouth Mason
Song year: 1995
“My Old Self” mostly seems to be a self-reflective piece. A song about what life was like, perhaps for guitarist and singer Shaun Verreault?
Although there’s some vivid imagery in the lyrical content (“Daddy’s downstairs digging a grave” – likely referring to his father’s tireless work ethic), this might be one of those songs you can take more literally.
It sounds like the narrator is telling their story:
“I’m up in the kitchen singing/Mama’s out in the backyard/Daddy’s downstairs digging a grave/I’m up to my neck oh lord/Mama’s working too hard/Daddy isn’t getting paid.”
“I’m Just A Kid” by Simple Plan
Song year: 2002
Like it or hate it, you probably remember this bit of delicious, early 2000s teen angst.
The narrator is up waiting for his friends to call but finds himself all alone until he realizes he’ll need to spend another night in solitude.
Then he cries:
“I’m just a kid/And life is a nightmare/I’m just a kid/I know that it’s not fair/Nobody cares ‘cause I’m alone/And the world is/Having more fun than me/Tonight.”
If you read into it a little (maybe too far), you get the impression that it’s a song about transitioning into adulthood with all your friends starting their own lives and everyone losing touch.
Maybe that’s giving this song too much credit.
Either way, if your childhood or teenage years were awkward, you’ll probably appreciate this song.
“Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus
Song year: 2000
“Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus is another early 2000s rock hit that was hard to miss.
The song paints a vivid picture of the experiences the narrator is going through, presumably in Jr. high or high school.
He says there’s this awesome girl called Noel in gym class. But he thinks he’s a loser and doesn’t have a chance with her.
In the second verse, he talks about her boyfriend who sounds like the jerkish jock type. Not entirely sure what this lyric means though: “And he’d simply kick my a– if he knew the truth.”
I mean, sure, as an awkward kid, you’re always at risk of being bullied. But what truth is he referring to? Maybe nothing. Maybe it just sounds good lyrically.
Somehow, Noel and the narrator get together at the end though (that could be the “truth” he was talking about), as indicated by these lines:
“I’ve got two tickets to Iron Maiden, baby/Come with me Friday, don’t say maybe/I’m just a teenage dirtbag, baby like you ooh.”
“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” by Tom Waits
Song year: 1992
Being a kid is a lot of fun. And, if you had parents that cared for you, you probably didn’t have a lot of responsibilities growing up.
Most people assume that growing up is a necessity and an inevitability. But that’s not necessarily the case.
While it’s always a good idea to be responsible for yourself, you can still take a childlike (note: not childish) approach to your life.
Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” doesn’t have any hidden meanings. Plainly, it’s a song about how things can get more complex in adulthood.
“Well, when I’m lyin’ in my bed at night/I don’t want to grow up/Nothing ever seems to turn out right/I don’t want to grow up/How do you move in a world of fog/That’s always changing things?/Makes me wish that I could be a dog/Well, when I see the price that you pay/I don’t want to grow up/I don’t ever want to be that way/I don’t want to grow up.”
It’s okay to maintain a childlike attitude. It’s not okay to escape responsibility.
“Youth Of The Nation” by P.O.D.
Song year: 2001
The key message of “Youth Of The Nation” is that growing up is hard.
The verses tell different stories about troubled kids. The first verse is told from a first-person perspective, though it probably isn’t the narrator’s voice.
Either way, the character in the first verse gets gunned down on his way to school.
The next verse gets into Little Suzy’s story. Apparently, she finds love in all the wrong places because her father left her.
The last verse is about “Johnny boy” who takes his own life.
Since P.O.D. is a Christian band, the bridge is basically pointing to the idea that there is a god and life without god is misery:
“There’s got to be more to life than this/There’s got to be more to everything/I thought exists.”
It is certainly true that kids can go through more than we even realize. But it’s also worth exploring the value of the things we each discover in our formative years, even if they were difficult.
“Youth Culture Killed My Dog” by They Might Be Giants
Song year: 1985
They Might Be Giants represents the unique and eccentric collaboration between bandmates guitarist John Flansburgh and keyboardist John Linnell.
Their songs are impossibly catchy while being quirky and oftentimes difficult to interpret.
That is part of their esthetic, however, and I think they like it that way.
As with all TMBG songs, different comments have been made about “Youth Culture Killed My Dog”. Flansburgh once said he wrote it as a tribute to his dog Iggy.
While that may be the case, there seems to be a deeper meaning – one where the reference to “youth culture” starts to make more sense.
Flansburgh once shared about the idea of insiders and outsiders and said that there’s nothing painful about being an outsider. The challenge is in being told that you’re an outsider.
That certainly reflects TMBG’s enduring career in some ways too.
But whether you were an “insider” or “outsider” as a youth, maybe you can find yourself in this song.
“Forever Young” by Rod Stewart
Song year: 1988
This song is from the perspective of a parent who’s blessing their child and wishing them well.
And, it reflects the idea that in the eyes of a parent, regardless of how the child ages, they will always see them the same.
This is probably part of your experience if you’re in your 20s or even 30s. You begin to see that your parents will always see you as their child.
And, if you have a child of your own, you can probably relate to the sentiment of this song as well.
“May the good Lord be with you down every road you roam/And may sunshine and happiness surround you when you’re far from home/And may you grow to be proud, dignified and true/And do unto others as you’d have done to you.”
“Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield
Song year: 2004
This popular song was hard to avoid in the mid-2000s and even beyond.
Fundamentally, this is a song about the idea that our futures have yet to be written. It’s a song about embracing life.
Conceptually, this is true, and it can even leave you feeling inspired.
“Drench yourself in words unspoken/Live your life with arms wide open/Today is where your book begins/The rest is still unwritten.”
It’s important for all of us to remember that we have free will. We can choose.
If we forget that, however, we are subject to our programming – the way we were raised, the challenges we experienced, things we’ve already made up our minds about.
True freedom and choice only exist on the other side of those things.
“Young Blood” by Bea Miller
Song year: 2014
“Young Blood” by Bea Miller is basically about that feeling you have as a youth, that you’re going to live forever.
Though its message seems a little timid overall.
See for yourself:
“We’ve got young blood/Can’t destroy us/We make our own luck in this world/We’ve got young blood/No one chose us/We make our own love in this world.”
The narrator is more interested in the idea of not being destroyed than in the idea of making a change. They’re more caught up in huddling in their own tribe than looking outwards to make an impact.
Maybe that’s what it’s like to be young, however, as many of us have experienced that feeling of being the “best” generation.
“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper
Song year: 1983
No hidden meanings in this lighthearted 80s classic.
Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, however, has had some serious staying power over the years and has even been covered by the likes of Miley Cyrus (not great).
“That’s all they really want/Some fun/When the working day is done/Oh girls, they wanna have fun/Oh girls just wanna have fun.”
So, do girls just want to have fun?
Well… yes and no. Fun is always good. But girls have a lot of the same desires, guys do, whether it’s doing something that makes a difference in the world or being expressed creatively.
This is still a fun song to dance to though.
“Here’s To Never Growing Up” by Avril Lavigne
Song year: 2013
“Here’s To Never Growing Up” by Avril Lavigne is basically about partying and being out to cause trouble.
Funny how that’s her reference for what keeps someone young.
I don’t know about you, but I think partying might age you faster than just about anything else you could be doing out there.
Still, it sounds like Avril is having fun so we won’t come down on her too hard.
Go ahead, have your fun Avril:
“Singing Radiohead at the top of our lungs/With the boom box blaring as we’re falling in love/I got a bottle of whatever, but it’s getting us drunk/Singing, here’s to never growing up.”
“What’s My Age Again?” by Blink-182
Song year: 1999
One of the best punk rock songs from the late 90s, “What’s My Age Again” is an amusing take on growing up and forgetting your age.
There’s nothing quite as punk rock as that.
Surely, we’ve all had those moments when a friend has turned to us and said, “what are you 12?” even when you’re 20 or 30 something.
There’s nothing wrong with giving your inner child some expression.
But please do regress responsibly, okay?
“And that’s about the time she walked away from me/Nobody likes you wen you’re twenty three/And I’m still more amused by TV shows/What the hell is A.D.D.?/My friends say I should act my age/What’s my age again, what’s my age again?”
“School’s Out” by Alice Cooper
Song year: 1972
Some kids loved school. Others, not so much.
And, if you didn’t like school, then you probably resonated with this song, which could be heard blaring every June.
“School’s out for summer/School’s out forever/School’s been blown to pieces.”
Who hasn’t dreamt of that moment?
Of course, as some grow older, they begin to look back on their schooling years fondly.
It doesn’t matter which camp you’re in. If at one point or another you despised going to school, then this song is sure to get your blood pumping again.
“Youth Gone Wild” by Skid Row
Song year: 1989
If you were a so-called “problem child” growing up, then you probably relate to this Motley-inspired song.
Or, even if your tales of rebellion are vastly exaggerated, you may have, at one time or another, fantasized about being more notorious.
This song is clearly targeted at both groups.
Beyond that, there isn’t much point to it, but hey, Skid Row had to build their reputation somehow, right?
“They call us problem child/We spend our lives on trial/We walk an endless mile/We are the youth gone wild/We stand and we won’t fall/We’re one and one for all/The writing’s on the wall/We are the youth gone wild.”
“Flaming Youth” by KISS
Song year: 1976
As far as youth rebellion songs are concerned, “Flaming Youth” captures the sentiment better than any other song we’ve covered on this list.
To be fair, the term “flaming youth” could easily be misinterpreted by today’s youth, but rest assured that’s not what this song is about.
“My parents think I’m crazy and they hate the things I do/I’m stupid and I’m lazy, man, if they only knew/How flaming youth will set the world on fire/Flaming youth, our flag is flying higher and higher and higher.”
Watch out! The youth are taking over.
“Turning Thirty” by Randy Stonehill
Song year: 1983
As people become adults, some talk about getting old.
“Old”, however, seems to be a state of mind more than anything. There isn’t a specific age range where we’re considered young, turn a certain age, and suddenly become old.
You’re about as old as you make up your mind to be.
Randy Stonehill’s “Turning Thirty” is a celebration of life. It’s about looking back on years past with fondness, recognizing that there are still many great years ahead.
“And my world is very different/From lost lazy bachelor years/But if I had the chance to go back/I’d rather stay right here, turning thirty, I’m turning thirty.”
Many people complain about getting old or wanting to stay young, but perhaps Stonehill has the right idea. Maybe it’s best to be thankful and appreciate your formative years.
“Youth Of Yesterday” by The Veer Union
Song year: 2009
A song about the passing of the torch from one generation to another.
Yet, it’s apparent from the narration that the generation “on its way out” is resistant. The generation “on its way up” is looking to seize control, even if by force.
The older generation never got to see their dreams realized. The younger generation is saying, “don’t blame me” just because you didn’t get to do what you wanted to do. It’s almost as if they’re saying, “we’ve surpassed you already.”
“You are the youth of yesterday, don’t take it out on me/We are the youth of our new day, don’t take it out/You stumbled through the land of lost and broken dreams/Can’t you see you’re bottled up beyond belief?/Don’t blame me, don’t blame me.”
It’s true – the youth of today can’t take responsibility for a past generation.
“Only The Young” by Journey
Song year: 1985
It’s the dawn of a new age. A new generation is rising.
They see through all the lies they’ve been told. They’re ready to bring change to the world.
That seems to be the essence of “Only The Young”, which is lyrically spare, and relatively vague besides.
“They are seeing through the promises/And all the lies they are to tell/Is it heaven or hell?/They know very well.”
I’m not sure what the line “They’re free to fly away” refers to. It doesn’t sound like the youth is escaping. It sounds more like they’re standing strong in opposition to what they see as being wrong.
It’s possible the band chose it because it rhymes with the preceding line and it sounds good.
“When You Were Young” by The Killers
Song year: 2006
The ever popular and award-winning “When You Were Young” is basically a song about how our perception changes over time.
But that mostly seems to undermine the religious references and poetic sounding lyrics like “We’re burning down the highway skyline/On the back of a hurricane that started turning.”
To me, the references to Jesus and the devil are basically showing that we can easily misjudge good for bad and vice versa. It’s about how our expectations can betray us.
The mention of the mountain appears to have some connection to aging. But it doesn’t play well with the rest of the song if we look at it that way.
Perhaps it’s saying there’s no way for you to see things the way you used to see them – a loss of innocence.
“Never Die Young” by James Taylor
Song year: 1988
There’s more than meets the eye to “Never Die Young” by James Taylor.
What’s clear, at least from a surface level, is that everything is hunky dorky in this song until bad things started to happen.
The hope-filled lyrics of the first verse (“We were ring-around-the-rosy children/They were circles around the sun/Never give up, never slow down/Never grow old, never ever die young”) and second verse do not make a comeback in this song.
The closing lines, in fact, talk about broken hearts, dreams running dry and the older generation passing on.
Some say this is a song about a couple who endured through hardship.
These lines seem to contradict that notion:
“I guess it had to happen someday soon/Wasn’t nothing to hold them down/They would rise from among us like a big balloon/Take the sky, forsake the ground.”
I’m going to take a stab in the dark and say this is a song about war. “They were glued together with body and soul/That much more with their backs up against the wall” is referring to an alliance that stood together until the end.
“Young Grow Old” by Creed
Song year: 1999
The temptation with song, as with others, is to take the title at face value and trust that it is, in fact, a song about young growing old.
The lyrics, however, are less forthcoming.
The only line that seems to hint at the core subject matter is the last one in the second verse: “But age doesn’t make you a man.”
So, the idea is that we are easily fooled by appearance. It’s easy to assume a man is a man because he is fully grown. But that doesn’t mean he’s responsible or mature.
What you see isn’t everything. There’s something deeper.
“So far in a distant land/There’s a fight between boy and man/See the light through the open door/Sit and watch as the young grow old.”
The “light through the open door” is the truth we find when we’re willing to dig deeper.
Songs About Growing Up, Final Thoughts
Growing up is a natural part of life. But experiences are always individual.
And, growing up can also serve as a powerful metaphor to describe and interpret other events in our lives.
What do you remember about growing up? What songs resonate with you most?
Treasure your memories of growing up, as they are uniquely yours.