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Karen Winn
April 27, 2022

‍The Time Stamp of Old-School Music‍

Here's the thing about music, about the songs you grew up with: It’s all about the experience.

If you set a book in New Jersey in the 80s, then you must listen to Bon Jovi.

One recent morning, my nine-year-old son began humming a familiar song over his bowl of oatmeal.  I was scrambling around, as I often do on school mornings, filling up the kids’ water bottles and stuffing homework folders and overdue library books into their backpacks, so, it took a minute before Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” fully penetrated my thoughts. 

“Wait,” I said, suddenly, my finger pausing on the zipper of his backpack.  “How do you know that song?”

“I just do,” my son answered with an air of nonchalance.   

I stared at him, wanting to know more.  That song belonged to my generation, to my youth.  Specifically, it belonged to the fall of eighth grade, when my friends and I confidently strutted down the halls of Mountain View school, feeling like we (as the oldest students) owned the place.  

So how exactly, decades later, did my fourth-grade son know this song?  

But we had a bus to make; there was no time for further inquiry.  And so off he went—we went—out the door, and he took his song—which I still couldn’t help but think of as my song—with him.  

It would be a couple weeks later, during his music recital, when I finally grasped the connection: The chorus teacher led the entire fourth-grade class in a resounding medley of “old-school” songs.  Yes, there was Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but also “Come as You Are,” and Green Day’s “Basket Case,” and “Good Riddance,” and some Foo Fighters as well.  The kids loved it, but as I scanned the auditorium around me and noticed the wide grins on fellow parents’ faces, the taps of their shoes against the floor, and even the way some wordlessly mouthed along to the lyrics (the real ones, not the slightly modified ones our kids had learned), well, then, I knew that we parents loved it even more.  

Because here's the thing about music, about the songs you grew up with: It’s all about the experience. And if you grew up in (not born into!) the 80s and 90s, you likely rocked out to Nirvana at a school dance (or at the very least tried your own private headbang), and you were actually “In Da Club” for that song—not watching it being performed on a Superbowl halftime show—and the band Berlin literally took your breath away in the movie theater during Top Gun.  

Music has the power to evoke nostalgia, to create a visceral timestamp which the listener can revisit. When I was writing my debut novel, Our Little World—a story of two sisters in a small New Jersey town in the 1980s whose lives are suddenly and irrevocably changed when a neighborhood girl disappears at the local lake—I often felt like a time traveler, aided by my 80s-heavy play mix.  I relied on music for research, to evoke what it felt like to be young, to be awkward, to rise in popularity, and to become the outcast.  I used it to recall the wondrous sensation of butterflies in my stomach that accompanied my first kiss, but also the terrible way it felt like the world had ended after a fight with a best friend or sibling —feelings I drew on to create the darker, more serious elements of my novel. I found that listening to music with which I had my own relationships, my own memories, allowed me to freely traverse the time barrier.  

Some have called my novel “a love letter to the 80s,” while others have repeatedly remarked on the nostalgic aspects of it.  Many say they are transported during their read. Here’s a sampling of the playlist (full list available on Spotify) for my novel, Our Little World:

  1. “The Joker” by Steve Miller Band
    To me, this song is quintessential 80’s/90’s hangout in someone’s basement (or garage), and it often goes hand in hand with beer cans/drinking games. The song appeared during the Spin the Bottle scene, where my protagonist, Bee, and her crush, Max, share a first kiss in the basement of a friend’s house.   

  1. “Learning to Fly” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
    Tom Petty is one of my all-time favorite artists, and I listened to this song quite a bit during the writing process. It’s just such a great song and captures the essence of life, of striving to overcome adversity. Perfect for a coming-of-age novel.  

  1. “Jessie's Girl” by Rick Springfield
    This song needs no explanation. 80’s in a nutshell.  

  1. “So Far Away” by Dire Straits
    I once received a cassette tape mix with this song on it (I can still visualize my friend’s handwriting). I love the cadence of this song (it’s very easy to write to) and the repetitive lyrics stressing the distance between two people. I drew on this notion to help create the friction between Bee and her sister Audrina

  1. “Like a Virgin” by Madonna
    Who didn’t want to be Madonna in the 80s? Bee’s sister Audrina certainly did. She tried to dress up as Madonna (“Like a Virgin”) for Halloween, but her father wouldn’t allow it. Hard to imagine that Madonna was once considered risqué!

  1. “Call Me” by Blondie
    Debbie Harry was the epitome of cool in the early 80s. The fashion of the 80s had a punk-element to it, thanks to musicians like Harry. To make the mid-80s setting of Our Little World authentic, I relied on details, details, details: from era-specific fashion choices (think jelly shoes and hot-pink leggings) to even breakfast cereals popular at the time (do you remember Mr. T?)

  1. “One of Us” by ABBA
    ABBA makes a strong appearance in Our Little World and takes me back to my youth; my father would often play their music. I loved this song; I remember how I couldn’t wait for the cassette player to reach it (there was no quick fast-forwarding of songs back then!) and how some of the lines seemed to capture my teenage angst. I drew on the recollection of these feelings to infuse similar ones within my characters.

  1. “Livin' on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi
    If you set a book in New Jersey in the 80s, then you must listen to Bon Jovi. If you set a book in New Jersey in the 80s, then you must listen to Bon Jovi. If you set a book…

  1. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan
    Our Little World
    is very much a novel about lost innocence, about an idyllic town and families that become ruptured due to tragic circumstances. This sad song is a nod to that.  

  1. “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King 
    This song is the Hickory Place kids: Bee and her sister, Audrina; the Wiley brothers; the older girls Diane and Courtney; and of course, cute Max and his little sister, Sally—who goes missing at the lake, setting everything in motion.


Karen Winn received her MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She also holds a doctoral degree in nursing. Born and raised in New Jersey, Karen now lives in Boston with her husband and two children. OUR LITTLE WORLD is her first novel.

Visit her website:

Instagram: @kbookwriter

Twitter: @kbookwriter

Facebook: @kbookwriter

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