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July 19, 2018

Amanda Stern's Playlist for Her Memoir "Little Panic"

Little Panic

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Amanda Stern's Little Panic is one of the most impressive memoirs I have read that deals with mental illness (in her case, panic disorder).

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Honest and deeply felt, Stern’s story delivers a raw window into the terrifying world of panic disorders"

In her own words, here is Amanda Stern's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir Little Panic:

My book Little Panic is about growing up with an undiagnosed panic disorder in Etan Patz era Greenwich Village. For the first 25 years of my life, I knew something was horribly wrong with me, I just didn’t know what it was called. So, I thought my playlist would correspond to the years leading up to my diagnosis, ending at age 25 when I finally heard its name.

Elementary School

Petula Clark, "Downtown"

We moved downtown when I was a toddler. All I remember from that time was that my older brother and sister would blast "Downtown" by Petula Clark loudly, and into the street, so everyone could hear. The song confused me, because the melody itself was fun, and I recognized that it was “happy music” but as I listened to the words, I felt more and more isolated from everyone around me because Clark kept mentioning that people’s “worries” and “concerns” disappeared when you went downtown, but here I was LIVING downtown, and I was sloshing with dread and fear nearly all the time.

Middle School

Tom Lehrer – "Vatican Rag"

I split my time between my mom and dad. Uptown life was museum-formal; downtown was barefoot-mayhem. My dad’s humor is dark and mildly sadistic, and he is drawn to the macabre. Tom Lehrer—a mathematician slash musician (they don’t make them like they used to) was irreverent, caustic and hilarious. Of his albums and songs "Vatican Rag" remains my favorite. When my father played it, I’d feel lifted, however briefly, from the dread of my daily existence, into a brightness that only these lyrics can provide: “First you get down on your knees, fiddle with your rosaries, bow your head with great respect and genuflect, genuflect, genuflect.”

Junior High

Bauhaus – "Burning from the Inside"

The shift between 6th and 8th grade was startling. By Junior high, I was officially angry. By 7th grade, I’d spent more than my fair share of time getting my IQ tested to diagnose an issue that wouldn’t be diagnosed until I was 25 (panic disorder). School made my anxiety worse, and tests were a trigger for my panic attacks. Getting my IQ tested was the worst-case scenario for me (and my panic) because accessing a brain for the right answers when that brain is under duress, is exquisitely hard. When the next IQ test scores varied wildly from the last ones, I was sent for more IQ testing, and even more after that. So, you can understand I was growing quite pissed, and literally “Burning from the inside.”

High School

David Bowie – "Life on Mars"

I’ve loved this song since I was small. David Bowie was a big presence in my life starting at a really young age, and I’ve been devoted to him for nearly my entire life. When I was little, my favorite album was Hunky Dory and "Kooks" was the only song I ever wanted to hear. But in early high school, that all changed when suddenly a song I’d once found too chaotic and loud became the substitute for "Kooks." That was "Life on Mars," of course, and of course I was the girl with the mousy hair. Although I had no idea what this song was about, I used it as the official anthem to my feelings of fury and confusion.

Tracy Chapman – "Fast Car"

In high school I was tangled up in a confusing relationship with an older man—my acting teacher. I loved songs about hard lives, about people who were angry and despairing, and Tracy Chapman was the person who sang the world’s pain right into the mouth of the world, a place where no one listened or paid attention to what was right in front of them. I wanted the entire world to hear what she was saying and how she was saying it and after school, or on weekends, I sat on my windowsill, screens up, smoking cigarettes and blasting this song.


Ani Difranco - "Small World"

I went to three different colleges in four years, and I saw a lot of live music when I was home in NYC. My favorite bands at the time no longer exist. They were The Mighty Mighty Sweetones and Liz and Lisa (Elizabeth Mitchell & Lisa Loeb) When I got to my first college, I listened to Waiting Room by Fugazi a lot, and a ton of Public Enemy and Prince, but the person who probably defines my college years the best and the most is the person who defines the college years of many young, white American women: Ani DiFranco. "Small World" was a song that spoke to me intimately. Anything that had to do with being troubled, and needing attention and help were things I related to. It would be six more years until I would be diagnosed with a panic disorder and these songs were the closest I’d ever come to anyone understanding me from the inside.

Stevie Wonder – "Big Brother"

This song made me desperately sad, and I lived to feel my sadness because I couldn’t seem to access it without a prompt. This was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard, and it released the trapped grief inside me.

Post College

Patty Griffin – "Moses"

While Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville was hugely influential to me and my way of being and thinking in the world, there were two people whose songs I felt I’d dreamt. When I first heard these singers, their songs seemed to have been already lodged inside my body waiting to be remembered. These two in particular artists were Patty Griffin and Beth Orton. "Moses" by Patti Griffin was so much my song that three people brought it to my attention. I felt like the tragic figure she sang about, and I wailed to her songs, curating my tears to her albums, those great flags of melodic sadness.

Beth Orton – "She Cries Your Name"

I’d never heard music like this before. Either she was doing something different, or I’d simply never heard music like this before. This song and all of her early '90s albums were the soundtracks to my days in the East Village. Her sound did to me what the early '90s auteur filmmakers did to me—provided new portals for hearing and seeing, urging me to follow them and generate my own work. Her songs transitioned me into a new period of my life, one where I knew what was wrong with me, and that I could do something productive with my emotions instead of just being devoured by them.

Amanda Stern and Little Panic links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review

The Woolfer interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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