When I was a kid, I used to go on summer vacations with my parents and my brother, and every year from the age of 10 and onwards – like many other vacation-bound kids I imagine – I would make a mixtape of music to bring on the trip so that I would have something to listen to, sitting in the backseat or late at night when falling asleep in a hotel room or a summer cabin somewhere in the world. Sometimes I would just copy an entire album I liked on to a tape, and sometimes I would pick out songs from lots of different albums and by many different artists and mix them together. But I always chose the songs or albums with great care, acutely aware that whatever music I picked would be – to my ears – affected by the impressions of the holiday, and would come to remind me about the holiday forever after. Below are the most important songs to me of each year between the years 1993 and 2001.
1993. “All That She Wants” by Ace of Base
I was ten, and had been taught English in school for a year. This had tuned my ears to English-language pop music, and Ace of Base was all the rage for Danish tweens at that time, more melodic and sweeter-sounding than the eurodance that was in fashion. I brought a tape containing their entire album Happy Nation with me when my family went on holiday to the Danish island Bornholm that year. The album was a hand-me-down from my brother who had liked the group for a time, but quickly tired of it as I believe most people did who knew English well enough to see how bad the lyrics were. He rolled his eyes at me when I sat next to him in the car with my walkman, bopping my head to the music and smiling broadly. Bornholm is situated very close to Sweden, where the pop group was based, so in a way it was a site-specific album for me to bring on that holiday, although I never made that connection back then.
Years later, 11 years later to be exact, chance would have it that I was to work with the actress who played the Man Eater in the video. She was lovely and attractive, but sweet-natured and intelligent and not an cynical man eater in real life at all.
1994. “Fuld af nattens stjerner” by Sebastian
In the fifth grade, which I had just passed in the summer of 1994, I had become very interested in musical theatre after playing the princess, a singing role, in a school production of Aladdin. I also sang in a school choir that put up a musical every year, and somehow I had become convinced (mistakenly) that the production of the coming season would be a popular Danish musical version of Treasure Island, composed by a popular musician who went by the name of Sebastian. My family and I were visiting another Danish island, Ærø, that summer, and I ambitiously devoted my holiday to the studying of that musical. I had my heart set on the part of Mrs. Hawkins, Jim’s mother, who had the following solo:
Every chance I got during this vacation, I snuck away from my family so that I could unabashedly practise singing this song – I remember singing it to the waves on a beach facing the Baltic Sea on a grey, windy day when I was absolutely sure nobody would hear me. It’s kind of a lovely song, I suppose, even if the synthesizer sounds crummy.
The choir never did produce that musical, but I landed the lead in the production we did put up – a musical about Moses, so I guess my efforts weren’t a complete waste. This would also be the year that I landed a part as a child dancer in Tannhäuser at The Royal Theatre, thus developing the love of opera that has followed me since then.
1995. “If I Only Knew” by Tom Jones
In 1995 my family went to Scotland. I was 12 and still mostly a happy, innocent child. An unpleasant incident that had taken place on a summer camp a few weeks earlier, however, had stirred something within me and still haunted me and made me uneasy.
What had happened was that I had met a boy, a bold-looking, redhaired, freckled boy, whom I thought to be flirting with me when once, at the beginning of the camp, he appeared leaning casually in a doorframe, looking me over and delivering some kind of pick-up line, the wording of which I have long forgotten. I was immediately charmed and during the next weeks of the summer camp, I made sure to smile at him whenever I had the chance, hoping to encourage him. Maybe he wanted to be my boyfriend, I thought. Maybe we would hold hands. He must have humored me a little for at least a while, but in the end he apparently got tired of the charade. I was walking through a hallway one hot, sunny afternoon when he came walking towards me – chance would have it that we were alone. I smiled at him as usual, but in return he suddenly quite roughly grabbed my upper arms and pushed me hard up against a wall. I hurt the back of my head. “How ugly you are,” he murmured at me, his face close to mine, his eyes angry and hard-looking, his hands squeezing my arms so as to almost leave bruises, “How skinny and disgusting. You’re so ugly. You look like a mouse.” I managed to free myself from his grab, and scurried away.
The experience had deeply unsettled me, and the violence of it kept coming back to me as I sat in the backseat, watching the landscape of the Highland rush by. Sadly, but typically, what I took away from it was not the conclusion that the boy was vile, a bully, an abuser, but rather that I had been foolish to think that he would ever be interested in me, that anyone would ever want me in that way, and that I should be ashamed of having felt for him the things I had.
Tom Jones’ “If I Only Knew”, however, seemed like a fun song to me, and provided a kind of haven from these thoughts. It treated the confusing adult sexuality that I was dimly becoming aware of with a humoristic, easy-going attitude that comforted me.
1996. “Why Does it Hurt So Bad” from the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack
I swear I did not even like this song. But the confusion that I had vaguely felt the preceeding summer, had in the course of the seventh grade grown to become a full-blown chaos as puberty had hit me. We went to Wales that year, and the pictures of me from the trip show a person who looks more like a hobo than a young girl. My hair was stringy and too long, my clothes never matched, and when I smiled I revealed a mouth full of metal and strategically placed, small rubber bands, designed to fix my prominent overbite. I was so confused by everything that was happening to me that when it came for me to put together a mixtape, I just picked the only album I had on CD (I had only just gotten a CD player for my 13th birthday), which was the soundtrack from Waiting to Exhale, given to me by an aunt.
I had not even seen the movie.
I never listened to the song again after that holiday.
1997. “Jesus to a Child” by George Michael
People roll their eyes when one mentions this song – it really was played into the grave during 1996 and 1997. But it held a real significance to me during this particular summer.
I’ve sometimes looked back and wondered if I wasn’t suffering from an undiagnosed mild-to-moderate depression during this time. I felt terrible, permanently terrible. It didn’t come out of nowhere, it had been brought on by the diagnosis in late May that I had scoliosis and would have to wear a scoliosis brace until I had stopped growing. I was going to be hospilatized for a week in August when the treatment would start, and I spent the interim summer months in a kind of limbo of hopeless expectance and dull dread. For the first time in my life I felt that there was nothing to look forward to. Whatever I hoped to do after the summer would be marred by the thought of the brace, and I couldn’t even allow myself to long for the time when the treatment would be over, because nobody knew when that would be. Women grew to be tall on my father’s side of the family, while their growth stopped much sooner on my mother’s side of the family. There was a risk that I would be wearing the brace until I was 18, maybe even 20, maybe even older than that – my father’s mother had continued to grow even after she had given birth to her first child. And during all this time, I would be physically restrained, and I would be different. Stilted, not in my actual growth, but in the growth that makes young girls attractive.
My family went to South England, and then to a summer cabin by the sea in Northern Jutland, but I hardly remember any of what we saw. I had no use for reality and all its bleak prospects, so I withdrew from it. I was sulky and my family tried in vain to cheer me up. From inside the walls of my mind, I remember fantasizing vaguely about picking up some boy at my own age, perhaps a year older, and let him have his way with me behind one of the numerous dunes in the vicinity of the summer cabin, sandy, barren dunes, full of sharp, dry, yellow straws that would leave your fingers bleeding if you let them slip through your hands. This wasn’t a fantasy of physical pleasure or romance. I was so young that the idea of sex was still something scary, perilous, and unpleasant to me, anecdotes about blood and grotesque-looking body parts, grainy close-ups of stigmatizing sores and blisters in the books we studied in health class. The fantasy was a wish for selfdestruction, for self-ruin. Not quite like wanting to cut your own arms like the teenagers do these days, and not quite like wanting to pinch yourself in the arm to try to escape a bad dream. But something in between those two sentiments.
I had brought George Michael’s Older album with me, and I do recall getting some small kind of consolation out of “Jesus to a Child”. The minor key, the idea of a Christ-like comforting or redemption, and the sexually ambigious singer with his almost falsetto voice. It made me feel safe.
1998. “Many Rivers to Cross”
My family went to Norway to go hiking, I was about to start high school.
I had taken a liking to Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” and included it on my mixtape, and I distinctly remember sitting in my parents’ car in Oslo on a summer evening, waiting for the ferry back to Copenhagen to dock, listening to that song. The seat of the car pushed up the brace so that it dug into my ribs, my skin was hot and blistered under the massive plastic material from lack of ventilation in the summer heat, and I felt somewhat melancholy, but mostly I was hopeful, wondering what the future had in store for me. A month after our return to Copenhagen I was examined and it was concluded that I had stopped growing, taking after my petite mother after all, and the discontinuation of the treatment commenced.
1999. “To Emily Wherever I May Find Her” by Simon & Garfunkel
In 1999 I had just discovered Simon & Garfunkel and thought they were great. Nowadays I’m mostly sick of them, but this is one song I still think is rather pretty.
We went to Paris and Alsace with that year. I was annoyed with the presence of my parents, (ungratefully ignoring the fact that they were paying for my trip), but I liked the mild evenings down by the Seine when we would all stroll and sip foreign, delicious beer. And I liked gliding through the pitoresque Alsace landscape, listening to my mixtape, which, absurdly, also included several tracks from Songs from Dawson’s Creek. Surely the darkest of dark horses in my CD collection.
2000. “Death of Queen Dagmar”. Traditional Danish ballad
I was 17 and thus now certainly too old to be going away on holidays with my parents, but I was eager to go because the destination was Southern Jutland. In the past year I had abandoned my sulky, egocentric teenage self for good, and had started becoming genuinely interested in a number of different cultural phenomena, among these Danish medieval culture. And as chance would have it, Southern Jutland was one of the most important and prosperous part of Denmark during that era, and still the home of a number of interesting medieval landmarks and artifacts. For the trip, I had borrowed an album of choir versions of medieval Danish ballads to bring with me on this holiday, to create the right mood.
My favourite was “Death of Queen Dagmar”, a ballad describing the untimely demise of a popular Danish queen. Dagmar lived in the 12th century and died in childbirth, mourned by the entire country. The stanzas of the ballad take us through the final stages of her illness, her husband King Valdemar (also a highly popular monarch) receiving the news of her fragile state, his rushing to her side only to find her already dead, and her ghost’s brief return from the dead to bid Valdemar farewell and have him promise to do certain things after her death – making her son Kanute the heir to the throne (which Valdemar did) and refrain from marrying a lady named Bengard (which Valdemar went and did anyway) among other things.
It’s a beautiful ballad. I was delighted to find that the chimes of the dome of the Southern Jutland town of Ribe, which is mentioned in the ballad, play the melody every day at noon, in celebration of Queen Dagmar.
2001. “Det første møde” by Edvard Grieg
We went to Norway again, in July. In late June I had been sitting in the auditory at my school, waiting to go up on the stage once my name was called. I remember reminding myself to straighten up and walk confidently and elegantly when I crossed the stage to receive my high school diploma from the principal. The erect, proud posture and the confident stride seemed to stay with me for the rest of that summer. I trotted through the Norwegian mountains with a pride and dignity that I had never had during my actual high school years. My limbs felt long, and strong, and supple.
My mixtapes that year included Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, because by that age the love of opera that I had harboured since Tannhäuser in 1995 had overtaken my taste in music almost completely, and I rarely listened to anything else. But in keeping with the summer before and the idea of bringing along site-specific music, I had also brought quite a lot of Grieg lieder, and I listened to them over and over and enjoyed them immensely. Feeling healthy and young as I did, and my dark hair brightened somewhat by the Northern sun, I felt connected to the strong, sturdy, nordic girls of the Grieg songs who loved and made love and lost and grieved. My favourite song was “Det første møde” – “the first [love] encounter”. It fascinated me how the melody was first straightforward and happy and in a major key, only to become mysterious-ringing, piano like a whispering, flirting with the minor key and hinting at something magical and strange and maybe even dangerous in the repetion of the stanza.
This was the last holiday I went on with my family, and my last summer mixtape. By the next summer I had moved out to live on my own.