A Perfect Pop Song: “Nineteen” by Tegan & Sara

Okay, this post isn’t about Crete, but about one of those songs that is perfect.

juno-nominees-tegan-and-sara

Tegan Quinn and Sara Quinn are twin sisters from Calgary who front a band called, of all things, Tegan and Sara. Eleven years ago, when they were 28, they released an album called The Con. One of the songs on it is Nineteen by Tegan Quinn and it may be a perfect pop song. I am a little obsessed with it.

What makes a perfect pop song? Well, a few things. First, it needs to be playable on commercial radio, which means it should be less than four minutes, and maybe even less than three. The early Beatles songs all clock under four minutes. Nineteen in the studio is a mere 2.54, and live, rarely is more than four minutes. Second, it should be about young people and probably about love. Nineteen is that, because it talks about being in a relationship that began when the narrator-singer was that age. It is a song that looks back on the relationship which has now come to an end, but the narrator doesn’t want to let go. She’s full of anguish and is trying to figure how to put it back together.

Here’s the song in its polished studio format: “Nineteen” in the studio.

And here are the opening lyrics:
I felt you in my legs
Before I ever met you
And when I lay beside you
For the first time I told you
I feel you in my heart and I don’t even know you
And now we’re saying bye, bye, bye
And now we’re saying bye, bye, bye
There’s a lot going on in the song. It starts off simply with a single electric guitar, perhaps doubled, and Tegan Quinn singing her song alone. The description of “love at first sight” is not a thought but a feeling where the narrator literally goes weak at the knees. When she lies beside her love she expresses that bizarre mystery of loving someone you barely know, again, more of a feeling than a thought. This is all so corporeal, so immediate, so real. Sara Quinn joins in on the statement “I feel you in my heart” but not “and I don’t even know you”, perhaps suggesting that the awareness of not really knowing the beloved is not stated out loud, perhaps foreshadowing the bewilderment that comes with “now we’re saying bye”.   The drums and the bass also come in on “I feel you in my heart”, playing an interesting off-beat that, for me, raises the tension. The doubled guitars split at 0:21 when the twist “And now were saying bye” comes in, emphasising some kind of bitter-sweet divergence.
Then the lyric
I was nineteen, call me.
I was nineteen, call me.
comes in, the refrain, really, which stretches out descends musically, and then stops abruptly.It’s an excuse – I was only nineteen – and a plaintive wail.
I felt you in my life before I ever thought to
I need to lay down beside you and tell you
I feel you in my heart and I don’t even know you
And now we’re saying bye, bye, bye
And now were saying bye, bye, bye
I was nineteen, call me.
I was nineteen, call me.
The song returns to the verse, this time with keyboards added as a counterpoint to the melody. The second verse more or less repeats the sentiments of the first, only Tegan Quinn sings a little more plaintively. The impression of the narrator/singer here is of someone who is quite self-focused if not outright narcissistic, capable of expressing her own emotions but not saying much about the other person other than as an object of need. The narrator is caught in an emotional loop of anguish that she feels can only be relieved by a phone call and a reunion. It’s desperate, as only a lonely nineteen year old can be.
Then the song shifts tone, returning to just voice and guitar. Tegan sings of her plan:
Flew home, back to where we met
Stayed inside I was so upset
Cooked up a plan
It was good except I was all alone
You were all I had

It’s the kind of thing someone might do in a movie, but in real life is going to be disastrous. She thinks it’s a good plan, but we already know that whatever it is it is probably not going to work, and the narrator is frozen in the house.

Love me
I was yours right?
Love you
You were all mine
Love me
I was yours right?
I was yours right?

She sings the words of love in a ballad-like way, suggesting that it was a good plan, except that, barely discernible (but more obvious in live recordings), Sara Quinn is yelling out the words “I was yours right?”, undercutting the good intentions of the preceding lyrics.

An then it all falls apart. At the end of the first line of the chorus the guitar produces some feedback and the drums come crashing down, creating a discordant sense of dysfunctional desperation. The singer/narrator is doomed in this relationship, at the moment doesn’t see why, and can only focus on their own emotions and needs.

I was nineteen
Call me
I was nineteen
Call me

So why do I like this song so much? Probably because I’ve been there. I’ve been that nineteen year-old who is so unreflective that they don’t start with what led up to the breakup, but instead tries to devise a plan to get together. I’ve been that person who is more focused on the idea of being in love than with what love really demands. The object of the song is a cipher – we don’t know anything about who the other person is – but we probably know enough about the narrator that we should walk away very quickly, at least until she grows up a bit. I’ve been there, and done that. I don’t ever want to be that person again, but the song reminds me of the pleasure and pain of such narcissistic love.

Anyway, here’s the song live at Coachella: “Nineteen” live. 
And here’s an acoustic version: Acoustic “Nineteen”.
And, finally, here’s the song in its more recent live version, where it’s more keyboard oriented and feels a bit slower (but really isn’t): Piano Version

 

 

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
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