NPR logo Forever Young: Graduation Songs

Forever Young: Graduation Songs

Remember high-school graduation? I do. As I sat on stage along with the rest of the graduating class of 1992, watching a slide show culled from childhood photos of horseback-riding and hey-mom-look-at-me playground poses, we listened to the tunes of none other than Cat Stevens. "Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning / Born of the one light, Eden saw play / Praise with elation, praise every morning / God's re-creation of the new day," he sang on "Morning Has Broken." And we cried, even though that song came out before most of us were born. Then came another Stevens' song, this time "Wild World," which was probably meant as a warning before we were to leave the safety of our sheltered suburban homes. After all, we would soon discover the awful truth: that it IS hard to get by just upon a smile.

You'd think that in Redmond, Wash. — located 20 minutes outside of Seattle, a.k.a. the birthplace of grunge — we'd be listening to Nirvana, whose "Smells Like Teen Spirit" had been released back at the beginning of the school year. In fact, we would have settled for "Black" by Pearl Jam, a song we listened to at house parties all year long, sloppily drunk on Boone's Wine and Jello shooters. Some of the guys would write out the lyrics on a notebook during the party, just to drive the message home: "I know someday you'll have a beautiful life / I know you'll be a sun in somebody else's sky / but why, why, why can't it be, can't it be mine?" Yep, we thought that a song expressing our anger over someone who dumped us after three weeks of romance during sophomore year would have been a perfect summation of the entirety of our pre-college schooling. Maybe that's why we didn't get to choose the music.

Personally, I'd always been jealous of kids who got to graduate to "School's Out" by Alice Cooper or "F—- School" by The Replacements. The latter might just have been a rumor perpetuated by my friend's older brother. After all, what parent wants to imagine a proverbial middle finger directed at higher education, something for which many of them were about to pay?

Truth be told, most graduation music isn't contemporary — or at the very least, it isn't angry, sarcastic or rebellious. People want to cry at graduation; especially parents and grandparents, but also the students. We want sentimental, cheesy and trite advice sung to us by bands. We want to forget each godawful thing that happened to us over the years and give over-effusive hugs to even our worst enemies. There is even that moment when we think, 'Let's be friends, even though we've had 12 years to be friends, but never were.'

Green Day has written a song perfect for graduations: "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)." And Vitamin C cut to the chase and put out a song called "Graduation (Friends Forever)," basically securing herself a place in the musical canon whereas otherwise she'd be miles outside of it, surely forgotten by now.

Advice to any band worried about its legacy: Write a song about growing up, changing, making friends, keeping them, loving your family and fearing the future, while also knowing that everything is going to be okay in the end. Oh, and you might want to imply that high school was the best time you've ever had, and that things might be downhill from here on out. Finally, try to maintain a sense of hope even if one of the verses gets dark and talks about "the accident," "Robitussin overdose" or "Daddy's belt." Mostly, it's important to remind people of what it all means: Today is the greatest, we are the champions, and it's the laughter we will remember, whenever we remember, the way we were.

So, what songs did you listen to on graduation day? And what elements, in your opinion, make the best or worst graduation songs?

Here's a song that I think fits the criteria: