7. “Stay” by Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories (1994)

The JOAT 50 Song Countdown is a blog series where every weekday for 10 weeks I am posting a brand new long form essay where I have ranked and written about my 50 favorite songs of all-time. From Adele to Zac Brown Band, Patsy Cline to Plasma Canvas, Ludacris to Rise Against, this series offers a personal essay about the 50 songs that hit me the absolute hardest.

Yes, my wife bears resemblance to Lisa Loeb and they’re both just so, so hot. Yes, this song has no chorus, which is (apparently) pure catnip for me. And yes, in that previous writing about this song, one critic absolutely nailed what makes this song such a killer piece of business:

“Loeb rants and rails through much of the song with barely contained emotion only to pull back for some tenderness in the refrain. It’s an outstanding performance of an enduring song… Considering all of the lines that start with ‘And,’ the song can seem like one big run-on sentence. Yet in the midst of all of the breathlessness, she focuses enough to spin out several couplets that really nail the topsy-turvy feeling that romantic mind games can play on you.”

I adore great and insightful criticism, and this dude captures the spirit of the thing as well as anything I’ve ever read. I can’t imagine there are many of you that read a review of something, especially something as old as this song, and get all charged up over it in a way that renews and refreshes your love for it, but I do, and I do it all the time with music, movies, TV, and anything else. Media studies is, after all, what I got my master’s degree in.

I fucking love all of that – the fact that Lisa Loeb is a snackalicious milf who kinda looks like my wife, the lack of chorus and the dizzy stream-of-consciousness structure, the great critical insight into why this song works, the fact that it’s just a classic, good-ass song – but the main reason I love this song is because it symbolizes an inflection point in my life. I heard it at a perfect moment, and that moment was within an evening where for the first time, I truly felt the excitement of romantic possibility in my young life. I was still very much a boy, but something shifted within me, and I felt the door to manhood crack open just a tiny little bit. It was thrilling.

“Stay” entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart in early April of 1994 thanks to its appearance on the Reality Bites soundtrack. By August it had climbed to #1, where it stayed for 3 weeks. It ultimately hung around the Hot 100 for a total of 30 weeks. I can tell you having lived through this period, this song was goddamn everywhere all the time.

Sometime in the Fall of that year my friend Shelley coordinated a trip to a haunted house with her friends. I was invited, as were my friends Dax and Carson. Also invited? Oh y’know, only 7 of the other most popular girls in my middle school – Christy, Colleen, Shalisa, Allison, Betsy and two others I can’t remember. So here I am, 13 years-old, faking like I know what the hell I’m doing and lacking the seemingly outsized confidence of Dax and Carson, feeling like a huge impostor around these eight cute girls. I’d turned 13 a couple of months prior, but hadn’t yet physically started puberty in earnest.

On the way to the haunted house, crammed into this car with all these girls who outnumbered us by more than 2-to-1, “Stay” came on, which the girls all immediately loved and sang along to. Carson, fearless loudmouth that he is, proclaimed how much he thought the song sucked, which I seem to remember joining in on because like all 13 year-old boys, I was a fraud and a coward and the cocoon of snark was comfortable. Truthfully, I liked the song probably just as much then as I did now, and I liked even more watching these girls earnestly and unselfconsciously enjoy the shit out of it.

The Rocky Mountain News had recently reviewed all the haunted houses of the season, and the one we were headed toward was rated the scariest, which meant the line was long as shit. I couldn’t have been happier because that meant a ton of uninterrupted hanging out with all these girls, something that had felt like an impossible dream since the beginning of middle school. A quick sidebar here: The first few days of middle school are INSANE. We had, like, 6 different elementary schools feed into our middle school, so getting to see so much new blood, and so many girls who had begun puberty was sensory overload.

As the line inched along, we talked about whatever middle schoolers talk about. At one point, one of the girls announced she was done with her gum, and does anyone want it? Carson, again, seemingly totally fearless, says, “Sure!” Took it from her hand, and then popped the piece into his own mouth, a sight that scandalized me more than a little. Dude! That was in her mouth! It’s sorta like you’re kissing by proxy! Holy fucking shit!

A few minutes later, another girl made the same announcement, perhaps as scandalized but exhilarated as I was by witnessing that, and I decided to step up to the plate and accept. She took it out of her mouth, handed it to me where I popped it in my mouth, and was immediately overcome by a rush of pheromones and adrenaline. On a purely aesthetic level, chewing another person’s gum that’s had all the flavor worked from it, where now it’s just a warm, wet, wad of mush is disgusting. But on a symbolic level, it was probably the most erotic moment of my 13 year-old life. Absolutely electrifying. The line took probably an hour. I wished it took double that.

When we finally entered the haunted house, group hysteria had overtaken the girls. We huddled in a big group as some actor read out the spooky rules and instructions for going through this thing. “Jon, hold my hand!” one of the girls’ voices called out to me in the tangled mass of limbs. I had never held hands with a girl before, at least not like this.  I found hers, and she begged me, “Don’t let go!” *thump thump thump thump thump thump* went my heart.

Haunted houses are brilliantly constructed because you can’t stay in one formation for very long. Your group becomes an amorphous, shapeshifting blob navigating through the dark, the surprises, and the screams. At one point I was at the back of the group with Shelley who had her arms wrapped around me and her head buried in my chest/shoulder. I briefly turned around for some reason and realized one of the actors was following us.

“Hey Shelley, was this guy in our group?” I asked her. She turned to look at him, shrieked, jumped two feet in the air, and then barreled through our group to the front like she was Jerome Bettis. Thinking about this still makes me laugh.

The haunted house ended after I got to serve as the brave valet for probably each girl in that group at one point or another. I don’t remember if that house was objectively scary or not because my mind was occupied with too many other brand new feelings. Nor do I remember much from the drive home or anything that happened after that, except for this. That feeling I experienced in the car, in the line, and in the haunted house… That all-consuming desire to be connected to someone romantically, to be wanted in return, to experience new feelings that were as invigorating as they were terrifying… I wanted more.

This wasn’t even a sexual thing. I wouldn’t go on to even have my first kiss until nearly two years later. I mentioned how I felt like a fraud being a part of this crew and like I was too much of a dork to be included, yet I was frequently included and went to a ton more stuff like this. What I realize now, but didn’t then, was that I belonged and these girls liked me for who I was. I wish I would’ve understood that better at the time, but we all develop at our own pace, I suppose.

The evolution from boy to man happens excruciatingly slowly. But there are always a few keystone moments you can point to where the game changed fundamentally, irrevocably, joyously. The haunted house trip in 7th grade with those eight girls will always be one of my most cherished memories.  

In addition to making me feel warm and fuzzy about my wife, my kids, my friends and MVT, “Stay” by Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories often serves as a secret passcode that unlocks the particular room where this memory is housed. So sometimes I just punch it in, walk through the door, and just… stay.

Up next: A balanced breakfast: Sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll (and how much work sucks).

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