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The Song That Changed Your Life

Are you on fire from the years? by Zoe Whittall

As part of The Song That Changed Your Life series, we asked writers from across the country to tell us which song or piece of music is important to them. 

In her story, Zoe Whittall casts herself back to gatherings in the church basement, acoustic guitars at summer camp, and an Indigo Girls song that got stuck in her head. 

As a teenager it felt like every new favourite song was a beloved anthem with the potential to change my life. There was the scratchy VHS tape of The Cure singing "Love Cats" that disintegrated from use. Eddie Vedder bellowing "Masters of War" on stage at the Bob Dylan Tribute concert made me shiver. There was "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd, purchased on cassette from Columbia Records & Tapes, because the first boy I ever loved said it was his favourite song. And of course, there was Ani DiFranco, because every 17-year-old with a shaved head in 1994 had the lyrics to "In or Out" transcribed in her diary because no one explains my life like that!

Tasked to select just one song from the pile of memorable musical transcendence was difficult. "Kid Fears" by The Indigo Girls is potentially a cliché for the Sapphic crowd, but the first time I heard it was in a church basement at a youth group gathering - did I mention I grew up rural? I chose it because I was reminded of its significance recently while attending a reunion of old friends, and its chorus has been rolling around in my head ever since. It was the song we used to sing, clutching well-worn acoustic guitars, by the firelight in Quebec’s Eastern Townships at summer camp.

For those unaware of the Atlanta duo’s smash 1989 album Closer to Fine, "Kid Fears" is a simple acoustic song sung in three-part harmony. It pairs the raw guttural drawl of Amy Ray with the pretty birdsong of Emily Salier’s soft soprano, and of course, the eventual third-act addition of R.E.M. front-man Michael Stipe’s perfect “on our own now.” My friend Alex and I must have sung it over a hundred times, along with "Secure Yourself," and probably the entire Side A of Closer to Fine. (Remember when there was a Side A?) And while I do have very fond memories of our Cure/Depeche Mode cover band, of all the songs we sang, "Kid Fears" makes the life-changing category because of the way a piece of music can hold emotional resonance long after you’ve stopped singing it semi-phonetically and with earnest 15-year-old abandon. The lyrics contain a renewed relevance when you’ve been an adult long enough to know how good it feels to “replace the rent with the stars above” and “the anger with the tide”. 

Note: The title of this story is taken from the refrain of "Kid Fears" by The Indigo Girls.

Zoe Whittall is the author of the Lambda-award winning novel Holding Still for as Long as Possible (House of Anansi) and Bottle Rocket Hearts (Cormorant Books), which made the CBC Canada Reads top ten most essential novels of the decade list. She's also published three volumes of poetry - most recently Precordial Thump (Exile). Her journalism has appeared in The Believer, The Walrus, The Globe & Mail and more. 

Tell us about the song or music that changed your life! 

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