Songs that Got Me Through College

College was an emotionally turbulent time for me. It might be for others too, but it was especially turbulent for me—it’s when my bipolar disorder started to fully manifest and get really bad, although it was also a time of incredible self discovery and growth. I didn’t actually get help for my disorder until near the end of my college career, so that left me with some pretty tough moments to get through.

College was, for me, a time when music changed from entertainment or a recreational activity to a deeply emotional experience. Most of the drive and passion I have as a musician today can be traced back to the emotional help I received from music in what was probably the toughest time of my life. Here are five songs that were incredibly meaningful, even life-changing for me in college. These are songs that shaped who I am and continue to resonate with me even thirteen years after I’ve graduated.

Guster – “Happier”

Guster is one of those bands I thought deserved way more attention than they got. They’re so much fun, and yet so bitter at the same time, and they somehow mix the two together so seamlessly that it’s sometimes impossible to separate the two. They’ve mellowed out in more recent years, but Lost and Gone Forever was the height of their fun and bitterness. Also, fun fact, Guster is the band that inspired me to pursue hand drumming, which I still do to this day.

“Happier” became the anthem for every friend I had who let personal drama choke the life out of our friendship, every person who valued “self expression” more than the well-being of the people closest to them. I knew they probably had legitimate psychological reasons for doing so—I acknowledged that—but I had to acknowledge the pain too. And I had to do it with a sense of resolve and pride, wishing them the best while metaphorically giving them the finger behind their back and moving on with my life. That’s this song.

The pre-chorus delivers words faster than any other part of the song and builds dynamically, representing the many thoughts surrounding those endings and the many things you want to say, but they’re virtually cut off by the first empty-sounding chorus: “So go on, if this will make you happier. It got you this far. Do what you have to.” That’s the actual conversation that ends the relationship, the sad sending-off that marks the end. Then more thoughts, and another repressed chorus. Then more thoughts, and another repressed chorus, but this time with the actual feelings sung underneath of it, leading into what is dynamically the biggest part of the song. The musical metaphor is brilliant, and it so succinctly describes that dynamic.

Maybe it’s the way this song so perfectly phrases things you may still be mad about, but whenever I see Guster in concert, singing this song with a thousand other bittersweet fans is very cathartic. Even just listening to it alone in my car, it gives a feeling of walking away with your head held high. It takes what would otherwise be a horrible situation and allows you a little bit of dignity and even pleasure. I highly recommend getting familiar with it.

Rusted Root – “Welcome to My Party For You”

This is a song about that moment when you’re prepared to celebrate a relationship and suddenly realize that it’s abruptly over. Maybe it’s a lover, or maybe it’s a friend; maybe it’s been ending for a while, or maybe it was just beginning; but no matter how it happened, you were not prepared to end it.

Those first lines—“It ain’t me you were looking for”—are the sharp realization that set up the rest of the song. You’re happy, you’re celebrating the relationship and inviting others to do the same, you’re even willing to fight to make this relationship work, and then you realize that the other party had never really been looking for you to begin with and is walking away forever.

I’ve been there a few times, and always in romantic relationships—although this can happen in any relationship. I’m a quirky, creative, intelligent guy, and I got into a few relationships where that’s what the other party thought they wanted. For me, both of these college relationships ended with the girl cheating on me and running off with someone more exciting. Granted, I had some pretty bad emotional issues I was dealing with—as is often the case with quirky, creative, intelligent people—but in the end, a relationship that began because I was different ended because somebody else was normal.

I’ll admit, sometimes when someone walks away from my party for them, it turns into a pity party for me. But that’s the really remarkable thing about this song: Rusted Root was known for an undying optimism in their songs. This song in their repertoire was a little reminder that it’s okay to be sad about these things for a spell and still maintain a sense of hope and optimism about life. Notice that, while sad, this song does not wish anything bad on the other party—in fact, I get the impression that the lyricist probably still had that party, and would throw another one just because he cared for the other person. This is not a bitter breakup song. If anything, this is a song about caring for too long. That was an important reminder in those situations, and the feeling stuck with me for years afterward.

The Smiths – “Asleep”

I’ll admit, while it’s really cool to be a fan of The Smiths, I never had much exposure to them. I discovered this song in particular while reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower my junior year—it’s the most prominent track on Charlie’s mixtape. And yes, I actually got all of the songs and made the album after reading the book. This is the only song that really stuck with me, hit me to my core.

It sounds like a lullaby: soothing, not quite depressing, tender. It’s the most relaxing song about dying in your sleep that I know of. The lyrics are deep and complex—longing for someone else, yet pushing them away at the same time; a resignation to sleep, but welcoming a reprieve from the tiresome life he’d been living; hope for a better life, another world, just ahead, but with a little bit of doubt, just a little nagging anxiety that maybe things won’t get better.

It’s a complex feeling that I knew very well. I wasn’t really sad, I wasn’t really up against a wall—but in a small sense that felt familiar and comfortable, I was a little bit of both, and I was just tired. It’s one of those weird feelings that’s impossible to put into words. It’s more happy than sad, really. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I don’t know that you ever will; if you know the feeling, you’re probably nodding and saying, “Yep. Been there.”

One vivid memory of this song is when some college friends and I packed into my ‘96 Ford Taurus station wagon one weekend and drove up to the beach. We stayed until well after sunset and sat in my car in the dark with the windows down, listening to this song while the waves gently crashed into the beach. That was one of those perfect moments that I dream about someday working into a screenplay or something so others can experience something like it. Maybe that will bring people a little closer to feeling that feeling I was talking about.

To this day, I hold this song up as one of the most perfect and beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this song.

Radiohead – “How to Disappear Completely”

My college friends can attest, Radiohead is what played whenever I hit rock bottom—which, with untreated bipolar disorder, was a lot. It started with OK Computer my sophomore year. OK Computer is the gateway drug to really depressing music. It’s what you experiment with when you’re hanging out with your depressed and angry friends. And soon, you’re listening to it by yourself in your dorm room with the blinds shut and the lights off, hoping no one knocks on your door.

Eventually, I worked my way up to Kid A. If OK Computer is the gateway drug, Kid A is heroin. I remember a number of occasions lying on the floor staring up at the ceiling listening to “How to Disappear Completely” play on repeat, unable to get up, unwilling to try. That haunting guitar line and the repeating lines, “I’m not here” and “This isn’t happening,” are what those moments were all about.

And it sounds terrible describing it this way, but this song really helped me in those times. It let me know I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t abnormal or completely broken. When my choices are lie on the floor in misery in the biggest empty silence I could fathom or lie on the floor in misery as a really awesome band perfectly encapsulates what I’m feeling and going through and sits there with me, the latter wins every time.

Though I had a few really close friends in college, in a sense, this song is the friend who never left my side, even when I was incapable of reaching out to another human being. This is the song that played when I slipped out of a party early because I was feeling crushed by social anxiety. This is the song that played in the long car ride after I first told my parents that I had bipolar disorder. This is the song that played countless nights as I drove around by myself at night in contented solitude. And, believe it or not, to this day, it makes me happy. After all these years, it’s still like a warm blanket I can pull over myself to keep me safe from the world.

Counting Crows – “Anna Begins”

It was so hard for me to pick just one Counting Crows song—or even just one Counting Crows song from this album. Counting Crows were a big band for me in college. “Colorblind” was another big one, as was “Round Here”; but “Anna Begins” earns top pick for being a song that got me through some tough spots.

This is a very personal song for Adam Duritz. Adam Duritz, the lead singer and songwriter for Counting Crows, has depersonalization disorder. It’s a mental disorder where you frequently feel disconnected from your thoughts and actions, as if you’re watching the events of your life play out like a movie where someone else is playing you and you’re just observing. Your consciousness is all there, inside your head, watching and thinking, sometimes screaming to get out and connect with the real world. The phenomenon is called disassociation. It’s happened to me a few times, and it’s awful. It happens to Adam frequently.

As you can imagine, this is not good for romantic relationships. Adam had seen relationships rise and fall over his life, and when they fell, they fell hard. This song captures the apprehension and fear of getting involved in another relationship that will most likely end in heartbreak, contrasted with the sense of joy and comfort he feels when he’s around Anna. At the end of the song, he still doesn’t have his answer, and it ends with the line, “I’m not ready for this sort of thing.”

This is a song I immediately latched onto my freshman year of college, but it took me four years to figure out why. Of all the romantic relationships that I’ve had over the years, I’ve been the one to end most of them—and not always on good terms. I was a very caring person, but I was an emotional wrecking ball. As I slowly realized this throughout my college career, it led to my eventual diagnosis with bipolar disorder in the beginning of my senior year, which was like finally seeing the photo on the box of the puzzle you’ve been trying to put together for your whole life. And when I saw that photo, I saw myself hurting people over and over again, and I realized that, without even fully realizing it, I held onto that same fear in every relationship I was in. In fact, now that I’ve been married for twelve years, I’m actually more terrified than ever of hurting the person I love the most with my instability and irrationality. For me, it’s an ever-present reality.

“Anna Begins” is a reminder that some relationships are worth the fear and hurt of subjecting another human to myself. It captures that moment when Adam sees the change in himself and realizes that it might be possible, even with the string of failures behind him. It’s a song filled with confusion and hope, and I found myself latching onto both for a number of years.

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