by Anika Jain (’22) | October 11, 2021
“And I’m so sick of 17 / Where’s my f****** teenage dream?” These acerbic lyrics from the opening track of Olivia Rodrigo’s record-breaking, debut album SOUR have been on repeat for many teenagers this year. While Rodrigo’s song “brutal” was a fresh listening experience, her lyrics touch upon a trope in the music industry that spans decades—songwriters’ obsession with the age of seventeen.
While Rodrigo referred to the age with an emphasis on teenage angst, ABBA’s hit “Dancing Queen” from 1976 touched upon the notion of being seventeen years old with an emphasis on the vivacity of youth: “You are the dancing queen / Young and sweet / Only seventeen.” In addition to the catchy beat and rhyme, the reference to seventeen adds a romanticized aspect to the song, as it is a heavily sensationalized age across many media platforms, including the age of many protagonists of highly popular coming-of-age stories, such as Lady Bird, Edge of Seventeen, and Superbad.
Being seventeen is such a specific moment in your life: you are not quite yet an adult, but you are not a child either. The dichotomy between adolescence and adulthood creates a formative period. Odds are you’re at a similar stage in life as me: you have your driver’s license and a part-time job, and are also finishing up high school and applying for college. Although this age comes with newfound responsibilities and privileges, you are probably in the same place you grew up in, surrounded by the same people.
The Beatles sang about seventeen back in 1963 in their song, “I Saw Her Standing There” from their album Please Please Me. “Well she was just seventeen / You know what I mean / And the way she looked / Was way beyond compare.” The idea of writing about a seventeen-year-old girl was no coincidence. Paul McCartney composed this song when he himself was seventeen years old while skipping school with John Lennon. The song is about young love, another phenomenon typically associated with the age of seventeen.
Almost six decades later, Taylor Swift also wrote a story about young love in her song “betty” in which she sings “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything / But I know I miss you.”
On the other hand, there is a more technical reason that seventeen is used so often in lyrics. Off their album Melophobia (2003), “Cigarette Daydreams” by Cage the Elephant deals with more negative aspects of being seventeen. Many people disagree over what this song is truly about; leading assumptions include a tragic relationship or a girl with bipolar disorder. Lead singer Matt Shultz sings “Cigarette daydream / You were only seventeen.” The rhythmic pattern is elevated with the use of seventeen, a trisyllabic word as opposed to sixteen or eighteen which are only two syllables, allowing for a cadenced advantage in the song.
The business aspect of the music industry also plays an important role in the use of seventeen in lyrics. Many people who listen to the songs are adolescents, a reliable demographic to target as the fanbase for many songs and artists. Relatability appeals to consumers, especially for newer pop music like “brutal,” which allowed SOUR to become the most streamed album this year.
From the 1960s to the 2020s, the obsession with seventeen has persisted across generations. Personally, I never noticed this trend until I myself turned seventeen. I suppose that is what gives these songs its longevity and stamina. Although in the next six months, I will no longer be seventeen, a nascent generation of seventeen-year-olds will enter this period of their lives and engage in this music, which I find exciting.