Songs about teenagers are at turns whimsical and strife-ridden, hopeful, and also full of energy. They offer guidance, a shoulder to cry on, and glimpses into the future.
Knowing we were all there at one time or are still wrestling with the highs and lows that come with adolescence, here are the 21 best of this genre.
1. I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman – Britney Spears
Britney Spears is an icon whose 2001 hit exemplified the tension of being in between adolescence and adulthood — this no-man’s land of testing boundaries and needing safety to explore the world beyond.
Independence has been Spears’ defining lyrical clarion call, extending into her real life struggles. Reaching listeners who identify with needing to break away while spreading wings to fly, she reminds us we still need a nest to return to and somewhere soft to land.
2. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
Smells Like Teen Spirit was the grunge anthem that ushered in an era away from hair metal into a world of pared-down solo-less emotive screamers as young men and women rebelled against the excess and misogyny of the 1980s.
1991 was the year teenage angst fully entered the American vernacular. Thoughtful, near-mystic prophet poet Kurt Cobain penned introspective missives and sardonic digs at the establishment. His sarcastic grin laced with tragic self-loathing became both his signature and swan song.
3. Royals – Lorde
Royals depicts the modern teen outcast friend group who thumbs their nose at the flashy display of wealth of the music video scene. They opt, instead, to scrounge for subway train money, repeatedly saying they are okay with this.
Their zip code isn’t envy-worthy, but they find their thrills elsewhere. Acceptance in a different kind of club is where it’s at. Here, the rules are based on the kind of currency one can’t simply buy or be born into, showing that status hierarchies of all sorts exist where young people find their level despite outside norms.
4. I’m Eighteen – Alice Cooper
He’s Eighteen. Need we say more? This growling declaration of a young man demanding to be taken seriously while also admitting he gets confused every day is the epitome of transition.
While simultaneously reaching for a guiding hand and also breaking loose, Alice Cooper roars through this tune as if on the motorcycle and leathers he would become known for. Shock rock and rebellion congeal to establish Cooper as not needing to be coddled. After all, he’s a man now. He’s eighteen.
5. Breakaway – Kelly Clarkson
Here is the future girl boss’s dream. Coalescing every ambition and faraway desire, the horizon looms large, beckoning her to go. She won’t forget the place she comes from; part of that is us. We watched her grow, and as she dots her eye with a handkerchief and waves goodbye, we want her to write home. We are following this journey.
We simultaneously feel it is us who is growing up as we knowingly nod at her need to expand her known parameters. She sails through revolving doors in the city, reminiscent of “That Girl”, and we wait with bated breath to see who she’ll be.
6. Somewhere Over the Rainbow – Judy Garland
Who hasn’t felt misunderstood by their parents or, in this case, their proverbial Aunty Em? Torn between a land of black and white and blazing Technicolor, Dorothy Gale is soon quite literally caught in the cyclone of conflicting desires to be enmeshed in a familial group and to also have freedom.
The land of Oz holds a stunning panorama of possibility and with it, homesickness. Somewhere Over the Rainbow is for anyone who’s ever wanted to follow that yellow brick road wherever it leads.
7. Wide Open Spaces – The Chicks
Wide Open Spaces is that longing for fresh air when one has been cooped up too long in childhood and has ideas on how things should be. The Chicks 1998 landmark hit came long before the days of public scandal.
Reminiscent of the coming-of-age diary many of us have written, this song is a “Once Upon a Dream” ballad for country fans and music lovers the world over.
8. My Generation – The Who
The Who frontman Roger Daltrey may have stuttered in his delivery of My Generation, but he was perfectly clear in his message. “The times, they were a changin’.”
Amid the upheaval of the 1960s, one thing was abundant: the baby-boom generation was going to turn everything on its head.
9. Sixteen – No Doubt
Gwen Stefani sang directly to the youngster who was challenging her parents’ limits when she crooned Sixteen. She refers to her listener as “you poor little thing”.
Stefani commiserates with the lack of agency teenagers often feel while also sternly reminding them, in big sisterly fashion, that it is for their own good. Tragic Kingdom was a ska extravaganza and Sixteen‘s bass-heavy riffs set a nice counterpoint to the otherwise bouncy feel of the record.
10. Betty – Taylor Swift
Swift encapsulates the twists and turns of teenage romance by taking the male point of view and singing to a love interest named Betty. She declares that while only seventeen, the protagonist doesn’t know anything except that he misses Betty.
The final stanza has him working up the courage to walk right up to Betty on her front porch, hoping for reconciliation and a kiss in front of all her “stupid” friends.
11. Last Kiss – Pearl Jam
A timeless classic, redone in the year 2000, Pearl Jam revitalized this song from the era of hot rods and drive-in movies. Both the allure and danger of teenage driving come to a head when a date ends badly with a crash.
With his girl dying in his arms, the narrator pledges to be good so that he will see her once again in heaven.
12. Girls Just Want to Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper
Lauper puts a fun spin on the battles between father and daughter when boys are calling too late at night and she has no direction in life. Set in New York City, the colorful music video was one of the early uses of the new medium used to launch MTV into the stratosphere.
Her playful provocation of her on-screen parents with silly antics softened the conversation around growing up and normalized the breaking of barriers.
13. Only the Young – Journey
Steve Perry and company said what we were all thinking: each generation is distinct. The young are free to fly away, and they’re the only ones who can say what is to be. We may guide them, but the future, ultimately, is in their hands.
We can’t speak for them. And if you want to know what is on the minds of the young, you have to ask them. Soaring solos by Neal Schon and strong use of keyboard squarely place this song as a quintessential 1980s rocker.
14. The Kids Aren’t Alright – The Offspring
Almost a cautionary tale, the song paints a story of young lives being ripped apart or squandered by choices made early on in life. The location? Just one little street.
A series of problems haunt the friends of the narrator, and we are warned of the lasting consequences of teenage actions.
15. Teenagers – My Chemical Romance
Aimed squarely at the high school crowd and positioned as brotherly advice, this song issues a dark warning. Adulthood will squeeze teenagers into the corporate mold, grind them through the machine, and make them into carbon copies of dead-inside cogs.
He implores them to resist and to stay clear of these hazards, opting, instead, to lean into the stereotype of being a scary youth who terrorizes their elders.
16.Teenage Dream – Katy Perry
Bubblegum pastels, beach inflatables as stage props, peppermint, and schtick are Perry’s calling cards, and in this ditty, she gives language to the not-yet-realized romances that keeps one awake at night.
This 2010 smash came on the heels of her stunning 2008 debut, solidifying the international pop juggernaut status that was to become Katy Perry.
17.Teenage Dirtbag – Wheatus
Ah, young love. Who doesn’t remember gazing at someone longingly from afar and knowing you were practically invisible to them? This number has been revisited by One Direction and, in 2022, went viral on TikTok as performed by Ruston Kelly.
The “memesphere” has run amok, as have celebrities, influencers, and anyone and everyone, uploading pictures of their teenage dirtbag phase because alienation is universal.
18. Good Riddance – Green Day
This bittersweet coming-of-stage staple at proms and high school dances marks the end of adolescence with a self-aware knowing that soon, all will embark on becoming adults.
Included on the 1997 album Nimrod, this acoustic piece wryly remarks on the fact that people come and go their separate ways. It is a last hurrah before departing for the unknown, proving that parting is, indeed, such sweet sorrow.
19. 18 and Life – Skid Row
“Ricky was a young boy” begins the famous lyrics. Spiraling into a life wrecked with heartache before ending with lawlessness and a prison sentence, this dire tale depicts the woes of man from the wrong side of the tracks.
He fights continuously against outside forces before succumbing to violence, a somber nod to the “West Side Storyesque” notes that sometimes accompany the most severe of growing pains.
20. Dancing Queen – Abba
The contagious dance tune helps get a party started and bids everybody join the dancing queen. The night is just getting started.
21. Smoking in the Boy’s Room – Mötley Crüe
A hallmark of misspent youth is flouting the rules, and what could be better than smoking in the boy’s room? Done initially by Brownsville Station, the track later appeared on Theatre of Pain in 1985.
The powerful refrain, along with Tommy Lee’s impossibly strong drumming, instills a sense of camaraderie and shared interests in asserting independence and sticking it to the powers that be.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.