The Power of Music & Memory: An Ode to Middle School Dances, Vanessa Williams & Face-to-Face Music Listening

By Eric Hutchinson  •  October 16, 2017

Eric Hutchinson
Eric Hutchinson

Quick: what’s a song that reminds you of a school dance? I’ll give you a minute to remember one. For me, that song is “Save the Best for Last” by Vanessa Williams. It reminds me of my first dance at Eastern Middle School, in the suburbs outside Washington DC, in the fall of 1992.

I had arrived to the 7th grade, a shy, non-popular kid who was definitely not interested in going to dances. I liked dancing (I was obsessed with Michael Jackson at precisely the only moment in time when it was not cool to be obsessed with Michael Jackson), but going to a dance seemed too dangerous (MJ pun intended). Exactly two weeks after starting school, I became so absolutely, unstoppably girl-crazy, that I’d do anything to be around them, and suddenly attending the dance felt like brave and important work.

Middle school dances are the cruelest of all school dances in my opinion - a night of confused raging hormones, drowsy art teacher chaperones, and that terribly awkward moment at 9:30pm when they flip on the fluorescent flood lights and tell you that your parents are waiting outside in the parking lot. I know for a fact there are several places in war-torn countries where POWs will actively choose to be waterboarded, rather than be forced to attend a middle school dance. Google it.

Anyway, just before they flipped on the lights at the dance, just before the Go-go dance floor turned back into the sticky cafeteria floor, there was the all-important last slow dance of the night. Of course, there were several slow dances throughout the night, but the trick was to dance with a friend, or to be in the bathroom during these songs. These were undercard slow dances. Everyone knew the only dance that mattered was the last slow dance of the night. That was the song when you dared to dance with your crush. That was the pairing everyone would notice. That was the news that would cascade through the grapevine for the rest of the weekend and on into Monday morning. In the fall of 1992, the power ballad finale was “Save the Best for Last. Later, it would be usurped by “End of the Road” (which was a tricky last dance because it lasted almost six minutes, which meant finding the right dance partner was crucial), but for now Vanessa Williams reigned supreme.

“Save the Best for Last” was written by Phil Galdston, Wendy Waldman and Jon Lind Edmonds (and was named ASCAP’s Song of the Year in 1992). It’s sung by Vanessa Williams with an innocence and wonder, as she makes bold statements like “Sometimes the snow comes down in June / Sometimes the sun goes ‘round the moon.” I didn’t understand it then, but now I see: it’s a song about longing, about patience, about holding out hope for true love until the last possible second, against all odds, and without a promise of the future. You couldn’t write a better song for a romantic 7th grader who’s about to be dragged away from his love life and back to his family’s Dodge Caravan.

About 10 minutes before I knew the last song of the night was coming, I began to hover near my crushes - Zariah, Joyce, Erica, Amy, Alison, Allison and Alyson. Once that soft electric piano and lush digitized flute intro of “Save the Best for Last” began, I had to move quickly - Zariah, Joyce, Erica, Amy, Alison, Allison and Alyson were all in high demand. I awkwardly approached Joyce Tang and asked “Wanna dance to this one?” She said yes, and there, under the cafeteria disco ball, Joyce and I drank in Vanessa Williams’s message of passion and her intention that for three minutes, 38 seconds, you should be only with the person you love, and try to hold on tight. Forever.

So again, I ask: “What’s a song that reminds you of a school dance?”

These kinds of questions and stories are how I love to connect to recorded music - the literal soundtrack of our lives. At its best, music can be a time capsule, a shock to the system, and a direct re-connection to the past. Studies have shown that infants prefer music they heard while in their mother’s womb. That means, even as a baby, it’s possible for us to be nostalgic for a song from the good ole days. At any age, remembering a song note for note, word for word is comforting. In an adult world that doesn't always make sense, it’s assuring to play “Save the Best for Last” and hear that Vanessa is still singing her magic, that at exactly two minutes, 42 seconds, she is still bemused and contemplating aloud: “Sometimes the very thing you’re looking for / Is the one thing you can’t see.” Everything is in its right place, just where Vanessa and I left it.

Music is one of the most powerful ways I know to connect to another person. In today’s listening culture, I can often miss that human connection. Too much of the time, I find myself alone with my earbuds, or sending a YouTube link of a song I’m obsessed with to a friend. I long for the emotional connection that face-to-face music-listening can bring. I miss my younger, carefree days when my friends and I would sit around listening to music, talking about it and debating whether Zariah, Joyce, Erica, Amy, Alison, Allison and Alyson would like it.

I decided to chase that old feeling. One cold February night, not too long ago, I invited some friends over to my New York City apartment for a chance to unplug and reconnect. I came up with some music prompt questions and we had a few drinks, turned the volume up loud and talked about our lives, listened to music, and discussed how it all fit together. The neighbors complained the next day, but it was worth it. Songversations had been born. Soon my living room was full, these get-togethers had become a monthly occurrence, and I had a waiting list of friends of friends who were hoping to come over to my apartment to listen to music and talk about it.

Now, with Abrams Books, I’ve created and released Songversations - a deck of cards to help other people re-connect to music-listening and to each other. You can answer and discuss questions like “What’s a song that reminds you of a school dance?” “What song is playing on a never-ending loop in your own personal hell?” or “What’s a song that reminds you of being in the car with your family?” and feel the flood of nostalgia and the rush of endorphins that comes with remembering a song you’d totally forgotten you know front to back.

Many people told me this idea sounded like an app, but I pushed hard for it to be a tangible card game, something that would promote face-to-face and ear-to-ear contact among friends, family, strangers and mortal enemies. The questions are about music, but each one is an invitation to talk about memories, aspirations, likes and dislikes. You can play Songversations at the dinner table, on a car trip, or if you’re waiting to be rescued while trapped under a huge rock.

My hope is that Songversations helps you break away from the earbuds, and once again think of listening to recorded music as a social experience. Cue the Vanessa Williams!

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Eric Hutchinson is a singer, performer, and proud ASCAP songwriter. Eric’s 2008 single “Rock & Roll” earned him his first gold record in the United States and the song became a #1 hit in Australia, New Zealand & Norway. Eric has performed in all 50 states in America, touring with artists such as Kelly Clarkson, Jason Mraz and OneRepublic. Eric lives in New York City and is an advocate for the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation and Operation Smile. His new album Modern Happiness will be released in early 2018.

Eric is the creator of Songversations, a music listening card game, available now from Abrams Books. Pick it up on Amazon or learn more at EricHutchinson.com/songversations.