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Modern Love Podcast: First Love Mixtape

[theme music]
archived recording 1

Love now and always.

archived recording 2

Did you fall in love last night?

archived recording 3

Just tell her I love her.

archived recording 4

Love is stronger than anything.

archived recording 5

For the love of love.

archived recording 6

And I love you more than anything.

archived recording 7

What is love?

archived recording 8

Just love.

archived recording 9

Love.

daniel jones

From The New York Times, this is the Modern Love podcast. I’m Dan Jones.

miya lee

And I’m Miya Lee. And we’d like to introduce you to someone.

anna martin

Hey. I’m Anna Martin.

daniel jones

It’s Anna Martin, our new host of the Modern Love podcast.

miya lee

Welcome, Anna.

anna martin

Thanks. I’m thrilled to be here.

miya lee

Dan and I have a lot going on in Modern Love land. So we’re very excited that Anna will be the new host.

daniel jones

We’re going to be involved in TV projects that we’re working on, and live events that we’re hoping to plan coming up, as well as our work on the Modern Love column and Tiny Love Stories. But we will be back from time to time on the podcast, and are so excited to work with Anna on it.

anna martin

I really can’t wait. And actually, I have a, I have a question that I want to ask both of you, but I’m going to save it until after this essay — if that’s OK.

daniel jones

Oh, that’s enticing.

anna martin

So let’s kick off the season. We are starting with a really fun one. It’s called “What Lou Reed Taught Me About Love.” It’s written by Lisa Selin Davis and read by Kirsten Potter.

[music]
kirsten potter

When Lou Reed died, I got on Facebook and found out just how many friends had chosen “I’ll Be Your Mirror” as their wedding song. I wasn’t one of them. But that song, more than any other, taught me about love.

[music]

I listened to it endlessly the summer I was 16. My father had strongly suggested, if I wanted to stay in his house for the summer — as the divorce agreement had decreed — I should take a job doing hard physical labor in Saratoga Spa State Park in upstate New York.

My father’s idea was to heal me through hard work and the grounding power of nature.

The job paid $3.35 an hour for digging trenches, building foot bridges and learning about anger management, and the medical uses of jewelweed, which grew wild along the creek. The work was torture. I was cut out for songwriting, not construction. But the worst part was riding my Fuji 12-speed there with a green hard hat on the rear rack while wearing ocher-colored work boots. Boy poison, I thought.

I was disturbingly experienced. My older friends had introduced me to a variety of adult activities I shouldn’t have known for years. But I’d never had actual sex or an actual boyfriend or been in love. and I wanted those things more than anything.

After work one day, as I pulled my bike into our backyard, a boy was sitting there with my dad. My father was the local guitar teacher. And sometimes, gloriously stringy-haired rocker kids arrived at the house for lessons. This one wore beige shorts stained with bike grease, a yellow and blue striped rugby shirt, and very long red hair, the apogee of attractiveness, for me.

I had seen him before at parties with my friends. And each time, I had tried to get his attention the only way I knew — by speaking loudly about my stealing and drugs and temper tantrums, expounding on how depressed and in pain I was. I thought this would make me attractive by way of emotional depth. But he never seemed to notice me.

This time, he looked up, but I was desperate to hide. I went inside and stood at the screen door and watched as my father taught the beautiful boy the Travis style of finger-picking.

After that, I daydreamed anxiously of the boy with the long red hair. At work, I wore scratchy work gloves and pulled tenacious weeds from the side of the creek bed. And every day, I hoped to see him. But I feared it too, lest he see me with my hard hat and work boots. And then.

One Saturday afternoon when I wasn’t working, I saw him leap into the water beneath the Hadley-Luzerne Bridge, the place where the Hudson and Sacandaga Rivers meet. It was a magical spot, with a rope swing and swirls of black water, where my friends and I spent lazy afternoons and played guitars on the rocks.

He had pale freckles all over his chest and collarbone that formed a beautiful dent below his neck. He mumbled hello to me. I knew nothing about how to interest a boy. But I took off my non-work clothes, tank top and cut off jeans, and went in the river in my bra and underwear. I played the full tablature of Neil Young’s “Needle And The Damage Done” on the guitar.

I put my body next to his as much as possible, standing close whenever I could.

A few days later, the phone rang. My father answered, his face momentarily registering confusion as he handed the phone to me. The voice was so low and mumbly that I couldn’t understand who it was or what he was saying. And that moment of intense awkwardness seemed interminable until I realized it was him. And he was asking me if I wanted to go swimming at Hadley-Luzerne.

Somehow, I managed to say yes, even though I could barely breathe. He had asked me on an actual date. I had taken LSD and made out with strangers at the Holiday Inn, but I had never been on a date.

He picked me up in his battered yellow Subaru station wagon, and we drove north, listening to the band X. It started pouring. We ducked into a cafe, and he ordered coffee. I had never had coffee. I pretended I drank it black. It was bitter and gross and the best thing I ever tasted because he liked it.

The rain didn’t stop. So we went back to his house and listened to the Replacements. He had a job fixing bikes. And he smelled like something tangy called Corn Huskers Lotion, which he used to get the grease off. Nothing else happened that day, but I was so happy, it hurt.

After that, I kept seeing him — walking downtown, going to concerts — but we never touched.

Then one Saturday night, we met at the radio station at the local college, where our friend had a show. He and I took a walk.

The night was warm and smelled of jewelweed and there were meteor showers.

He had that beautiful hair and the freckly collar bone, and it was way too much. The waiting had become intolerable. I stopped, turned toward him, and said, “What is going on here?” I was almost whining. “What’s happening?”

He grew quiet and looked down at his shoes. He mumbled again. I think he said, “I like you.” But then he looked me clear in the eye and asked, “Can I kiss you?”

No one had ever said that to me. No one had ever been so solicitous and gentle and kind. No one had ever wanted me that way. They had used me that way, but never wanted me.

I kissed him on the cheek as fast as I could and ran away back to the radio station, amid the shelves of records and their musty cardboard smell.

10 minutes later, he found me there, pretending to study the cover of Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company’s “Cheap Thrills.” I couldn’t look at him. He whispered, his hot breath on my hair, “Um, that wasn’t really what I meant.”

We went to his house. He sat on the couch, I sat on the floor, and he made this awkward attempt to rub my shoulders. I was more on fire with desire and anticipation than I had ever been in my life. As he leaned down to kiss me, I scooted to the other side of the room.

“Why do you like me?” I asked him. “Why are you interested in me?” I was just stalling, but he actually paused to consider the question. OK, he said. I’ll tell you.

He said I was cute and funny and good at the Travis style of finger-picking, and had good taste in music, which among our crowd was the highest compliment. My heart seemed to break upon hearing this list, but in a good way. Everyone else in my life could rattle off a list of my faults, but the beautiful boy saw what was on the other side of my misdeeds.

The lyrics to “I’ll Be Your Mirror”: “Go, please put down your hands ‘cause I see you.” And it seemed he was able to see the beauty in me that I couldn’t. He had his face very close to mine, that smell of cheap shampoo and Corn Huskers Lotion. And then he said, “I knew I really liked you when I saw you on your bike with the work boots and hard hat. I kissed him then.”

My teeth hit his, and my mouth was open too much, and it was messy and delicious and terrifying. And then we fell into a rhythm.

I kissed him for the entire B-side of REM’s “Reckoning.” I kissed him so much, I went home that night with red, swollen lips. I don’t think I ever experienced a physical sensation better than that burn. It seemed to wipe clean the dirty slate of my childhood.

I lost track of him years ago. I don’t know where he lives or what he does. I don’t know him digitally. I think of him only in analog.

All that love twisted up with my records, which long ago warped and mildewed in my mother’s basement.

But the lesson from “I’ll Be Your Mirror” remained. That someone can love me for what shames me the most. Now I sing those same lyrics to my daughter before bed.

The conservation job ended late that August. My soul — or my depression or anger management problems — hadn’t been repaired by it. I hadn’t learned about hard work or resilience or any of the other things the program was designed to teach me.

But I was healed, just as that love song promised.

anna martin

Coming up, I ask the question: What’s the song that taught you about love when you were 16?

I have to tell you, Danya this is a part I get the most nervous about, but I’m ready to do it.

danya issawi

I’m nervous too. But I think — so you clap, then I snap?

anna martin

We’re just going to do 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. We’ll do our thing.

danya issawi

OK.

anna martin

We’ll sync. OK. Here we go. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. [SNAPS] Beautiful.

[music]

When you’re a teenager, you have a lot of feelings. Comes with the territory. And one way you can really feel those feelings is by listening to music. You put on your headphones, and you sink into a song about heartbreak and loneliness and longing and love. And sometimes there’s one song in particular that makes you feel the most. And you remember that song.

Isabelia Herrera, hello.

isabelia herrera

Hi, Anna.

anna martin

You are the arts critic fellow at the Times. Yes?

isabelia herrera

That is correct.

anna martin

All right. I want you to bring me back to Isabelia at 16. What is the love song you cannot stop listening to?

isabelia herrera

I would have to say it is “Irreplaceable” by Beyoncé.

[music – beyoncé, “irreplaceable”]
archived recording (beyoncé)

(SINGING) To the left. To the left.

anna martin

Well, tell me more about you at 16. Paint me a picture. Who were you? What were you up to? What were you thinking about?

isabelia herrera

Yeah. It’s very funny. At 16, I was very much like a pop punk emo kid, things like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance. And so it’s very interesting that I chose Beyoncé as my song that reminds me of being a teenager.

So this song actually came out when I was 15. And I remember it was right before my quinceañera, sweet 15, if you will. And my family’s Dominican. And obviously, the symbolism of a quinceañera is very much about coming into your womanhood. And so I really wanted to select all the music for the event.

I’d gotten the CD from the local library. Came home. I downloaded it on the family computer, on like an ancient version of iTunes. And I was like, this is speaking to me in a way that I have not heard.

And so I remember like listening to it, being like this is a song that I will play at my quince, period. It is exactly what’s going to happen. I’m putting it on my playlist.

anna martin

What did you hope people would do when this song came on at the quince?

isabelia herrera

I knew that I was going to go onto the dance floor and scream the lyrics by myself, and I just hoped that people would follow me.

And anybody who could chime in could chime in.

anna martin

What about it? Was there a particular part of the song that tugged at you especially?

isabelia herrera

Yeah. The part in the chorus where she says, “You must not know about me. Like, I could have another in a minute.”

[music – beyoncé, “irreplaceable”]
archived recording (beyoncé)

(SINGING) You must not know ‘bout me. You must not know ‘bout me. I can have another you in a minute.

isabelia herrera

That, to me, was like communicating this sense of knowing who you are and knowing how much value you have as a person. I hadn’t been in love yet, you know? And I just remember, though, this song kind of giving me a blueprint to kind of remember who I am and the power that I have, even in a relationship that makes you feel like you might not have anything after, you know?

archived recording (beyoncé)

Don’t you ever for a second get to thinkin’ you’re irreplaceable.

anna martin

Danya Issawi, you are a news assistant at The Times, and you also write about pop culture. I want to know what is the song you could not get enough of at age 16.

danya issawi

A few come to mind, but specifically “Little Things” by One Direction.

[music – one direction, “little things”]
archived recording (one direction)

(SINGING) Your hand fits in mine like it’s made just for me. But bear this in mind, it was meant to be. And I’m joining up the dots with the freckles on your cheeks, and it all makes sense to me.

danya issawi

I used to do huge collages. You know how mood boards are huge now?

anna martin

I do.

danya issawi

I was doing that at 16, but using my bedroom wall. And so I just had piles of Seventeen Magazine and cutting out all the stuff that I thought my life would look like. And I thought love was on the horizon for me, and I was going to have the American teenage dream.

anna martin

I want to look at these lyrics, because they are sort of wild. There’s one verse where they go, “I know you’ve never loved the crinkles by your eyes.

archived recording (one direction)

(SINGING) I know you’ve never loved the crinkles by your eyes when you smile. You’ve never loved your stomach or your thighs, the dimples in your back at the bottom of your spine, but I love them endlessly.

anna martin

Tell me what 16-year-old you heard in those lyrics.

danya issawi

I always had issues with body dysmorphia and eating disorders that I’m open about. And I think hearing that, I was like, oh, wait, maybe there isn’t anything wrong with my body. And maybe someone’s going to dig it someday, which is kind of crazy that One Direction was my first step into body neutrality. Thanks, guys.

But if this came out now and a group of boys were like, I love your stomach and your thighs, even though they’re not OK to me, but I’ll love them anyway. Excuse me, what? What? You still have to squeeze into your jeans. You never want to know how much you weigh, but you’re perfect to me.

I just feel like we don’t need to be talking about those things anymore when it comes to discussing love and affection and validation from your partners. I mean, this is a song that came out over 10 years ago, and it was by a group of teen boys, you know? And I’m 26 now. And I know that that is not where my value comes from. And that’s not where my validation comes from.

archived recording (one direction)

(SINGING) I’m in love with you and all your little things.

anna martin

OK, Miya Lee, you’re the editor of Modern Love projects. Welcome back.

miya lee

Thank you very much.

anna martin

At the beginning of the episode, I told you I was going to ask you a question. So here it is. When you were around 16, what was the song that taught you about love?

miya lee

Ooh. The song that comes to mind is Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”

[music – bob dylan, “don’t think twice, it’s all right”]
archived recording (bob dylan)

(SINGING) I ain’t a-sayin’ you treated me unkind. You could have done better, but I don’t mind. You just kind of wasted my precious time. But don’t think twice, it’s all right.

miya lee

I came across it probably on YouTube when I was splitting up with my first boyfriend, high school boyfriend.

anna martin

Ugh.

miya lee

We met in poetry class. We were both pretty dramatic. And much like people subtweet, we kind of subtweeted each other in our —

anna martin

Meaning like you’d write poems.

miya lee

We’d write poems for each other.

anna martin

Ah.

miya lee

But we didn’t really get to know each other that well. And this song was about that, of trying to mourn a relationship where you really don’t know the person that well. Maybe it wasn’t the deepest love, but it was meaningful. So I had this as my anthem. I recorded myself singing a karaoke version of it on iMovie.

anna martin

Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, no, you can’t jump past that. You recorded yourself?

miya lee

I found a karaoke version on YouTube.

anna martin

As in just the instrumentals?

miya lee

Just the instrumentals with the lyrics across the screen.

anna martin

It was you in your bedroom.

miya lee

It wasn’t even my bedroom. It was in my communal family living room, singing a karaoke version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” yeah.

anna martin

[LAUGHS] Ugh. It’s hard to top that, but Dan Jones, hello again to you as well.

daniel jones

Hi, Anna.

anna martin

What about you? What’s the song that taught teenage you about love?

daniel jones

16-year-old me was around the time that the movie “Saturday Night Fever” came out. Somehow, I snuck in with my friends. And I’m sitting there, and the beginning of that movie is John Travolta striding down the streets of Brooklyn.

[music – the bee gees, “staying alive”]

The song “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees is playing. And he’s walking to the beat and swinging the can of paint to the beat. And women walking the other way, their legs are moving to the beat. Then he’s turning around to catch their butts moving to the beat. And he was a working class guy, like so many people I knew in Pittsburgh.

But this whole thing was so sexualized. And the Bee Gees, with their falsetto voices, that the whole thing was sort of this gender-bending experience at a time when I didn’t even know what the word “gender” meant. And it was just exploding with sexuality and ways you can be in the world that were out of the straitjacket that I felt like I’d sort of grown up with at that point.

anna martin

But I want to talk about the lyrics, though, because there’s this one line where they say, “We can try to understand The New York Times’s effect on man.” What does that mean?

daniel jones

I know, I saw that. At the time, I didn’t know what the word “gender” was. I also had never heard of The New York Times. It was like the media’s effect on men, like working class men like John Travolta.

anna martin

Well, I mean, 16-year-old you might not have heard of The New York Times, but I mean, now you work here. And you’ve created a really iconic part of it. You are the founder of Modern Love. 18 years ago, you started the column. And I want to thank you, Dan, and I also want to thank you, Miya, for trusting me with a little part of it.

daniel jones

Thank you, Anna. It’s so good to have you join us here.

miya lee

Yeah, welcome, welcome, and so excited for the new season.

anna martin

Thanks so much.

[music]

OK, we want to hear your stories of being 16. What song taught you about love? And what did it teach you? Share your story by sending an audio recording to Modern Love podcast at nytimes.com or by calling the phone number in the episode description. We will add your song to our Spotify playlist and maybe use it in an upcoming episode.

Our show is produced by Julia Botero and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sarah Sarasohn. This episode was mixed by Elisheba Ittoop. Dan Powell created our Modern Love theme music and original music throughout this episode. Digital production by Mahima Chablani and Des Ibekwe, and a special thanks to Ryan Wegner at Audm. I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.

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