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In 1999, Stephen Chbosky released his debut novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Presented in the epistolary format, the book related the experiences of Charlie, a shy and troubled teen who slowly comes out of his shell with the help of some new friends, the music of The Smiths, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Set in the early 1990s, the book immediately struck a chord with readers young and old with its frank and often funny and heartfelt descriptions of teenage life. Because the book dealt realistically with issues that included homosexuality, casual drug use, and other controversial topics, it immediately became banned in certain school districts. However, the book continues to resonate with readers who have found catharsis through reading Charlie’s letters to an unknown person.
A feature film adaptation written and directed by Chbosky was released in 2012. Starring Logan Lerman as Charlie, Harry Potter co-star Emma Watson as the angelic Sam, and Ezra Miller as the flamboyant Patrick, the movie is the rare adaptation that both respects and enhances the source material. The film was a modest art house hit and is on its way to slowly becoming a cult phenomenon, not unlike Rocky Horror itself. It is certain that in years to come both the book and the film will continue to help readers understand the, well, perks of “feeling infinite.”
A portion of Perks' enduring appeal is how the book (and film) uses music to reflect the characters personalities. The lost art of mix tape-making plays a crucial role in the story, with Charlie discovering how songs can help people like himself get through hard times and express their feelings in ways they might not be able to articulate.
Some of the timeless tunes featured in the book/film include The Smiths’ “Asleep,” Suzanne Vega’s “Gypsy,” Ride’s “Vapour Trail,” XTC’s “Dear God,” The Samples’ “Could It Be Another Change?” (which contains the line “you can’t love anyone until you love yourself,” a sentiment echoed by Perks’ declaration that “we accept the love we think we deserve”), Cocteau Twins’ “Pearly Dewdrops Drop,” and David Bowie’s anthemic “Heroes,” which in the movie version plays the crucial role of being the “tunnel song” that helps Charlie, Sam, and Patrick realize they are young, alive, and full of possibilities.
There’s no sign of a Perks sequel on the horizon, and this is probably a good thing as the story is perfectly contained. Yet I can’t help but wonder what songs would have been important to Charlie in time since the book/film ended. Thusly here’s a self-indulgent and totally imagined mixtape (or, if you prefer, a Spotify playlist) of some songs that the character might enjoy these days. These songs all make me feel infinite, and perhaps they will do the same for you.
Kitchens of Distinction, “Drive That Fast”: Taken from the British pop group’s 1991 album Strange Free World, this achingly romantic college rock gem is all about diving headlong into love. The band was fronted was by openly gay singer/songwriter Patrick Fitzgerald, and the lyrics to many of his songs deal frankly with the highs and lows of gay life. It’s easy to imagine Perks’ Patrick being a fan of the band, and introducing it to Charlie. It remains about as timeless of a song about passion and devotion as you are likely to hear.
The Church, “Under the Milky Way”: The best-known song by Australian band The Church has been featured prominently in movies and TV shows (most notably during the Halloween party sequence of Donnie Darko) and was a staple on MTV’s 120 Minutes. The song’s sense of longing – “wish I knew what you were looking for, might have known what you might find” is a key lyric – feels right in Charlie’s wheelhouse.
The Ocean Blue, “Myron”: A perfect pop tune about a young man who is, spoiler alert, searching for himself. Charlie would relate.
Morrissey, “Jack the Ripper”: Moz’s best solo work remains this dark and brooding gem featuring some sinister vocals and a cooing chorus of “nobody knows me.” Perfect listening for those strange nights when you are feeling less than visible.
The Prom, “The City Gets Lonely”: This unjustly forgotten indie pop band opened for Death Cab for Cutie, released two albums of smart piano-based pop on Barsuk Records and then disappeared. It’s easy to imagine Charlie driving around listening to its jaunty musical charms while feeling bittersweet about people and places he has left behind.
Death Cab for Cutie, “Marching Bands of Manhattan”: The lyric “it is true what you said, that I live like a hermit in my own head” resonates with anyone who ever struggled with articulating their feelings and/or putting their internal monologue aside long enough to take notice and interact with the world outside of their brain.
Ben Folds, “Annie Waits”: Handclaps, ooh-oohs and a heartbreaking lyrical tale of love and loss. This standout track from Ben Folds’ 2001 solo album “Rocking the Suburbs” remains as fresh sounding today as it did 13 years ago. Where does the time go, and is there any way to get it back?
The Decemberists, “Red Right Ankle”: Presuming Charlie pursued a writing career, chances are he would become familiar with the smart literate pop of Portland’s The Decemberists. This being one of their most evocative love songs.
Barenaked Ladies, “What a Good Boy”: The Canadian popsters remain best known for their irksome novelty hit “One Week.” But they could also craft incredibly powerful ballads like this beauty that analyzes the “chains we got hanging round our necks” placed by society.
Suzanne Vega, “Ludlow Street”: This song, written by Suzanne Vega about her late brother Tim, is a reflection upon a time that can’t be recaptured…and a reminder that “love is the only thing that matters.”
Band of Horses, “The Funeral”: Because dealing with the past while living in the present never goes away.
Nada Surf, “See These Bones”: There’s feeling infinite and then there’s the realization of how fleeting this moment can be. The latter is explored in this remarkable effort from Nada Surf. A gentle reminder that one day we will turn to bones, and the only left of us will be in the memories of others.
Iron and Wine, “The Trapeze Swinger”: Did Charlie and Sam live happily ever after? We will never know. Here’s hoping they had an infinite love like the one featured in this mesmerizing nine and a half-minute epic.
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