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Desert Island Disc Challenge: ‘Palo Alto’

The universal “indie kid coming of age story” turned into a soundtrack.

Editor’s note: As part of CMN’s ongoing music journalism program, we asked our team of music writers to take on the age-old challenge of choosing one piece of music they would like to have with them if they were stranded on a deserted island. It’s an absurd notion, but also irresistible. See all the different approaches they took to the challenge right over here.

I will be the first to say that Palo Alto isn’t exactly a cinematic masterpiece. It doesn’t have the best acting or cast, or the best plot execution. Palo Alto’s musical score evokes the coming of age feelings the film fails to captur. 

The disc has tracks from Devonte Hynes, Robert Schwartzman, and a guitar solo from Jack Kilmer that invokes feelings I could never describe. But the album didn’t rate well with the critics: Pitchfork said the soundtrack was “nice enough.”

Despite what the critics think, I’d listen to this disc forever, on repeat, especially on a desert island given no other disc choices. In the most somber and content of times, I still go back to these tracks. 

If I could put what I imagined as the universal “indie kid coming of age story” into a soundtrack, this would be it. The lo-fi, electro-alt sound reminds me of what I thought my teenage years would turn to out be. The tracks offer familiarity no other album could. 

And even though I never went through a Mac Demarco phase, the sound of this disc makes me feel like I did and that I would maybe, finally, fit in with the crowd I was trying too hard to chase.

Palo Alto’s score supports what the film actually is: touching enough to remind me of someone I wanted to be, but glad I never fully became. It reminds me of the amount of trust I put into everyone I met, especially men who were older than me.

No one ever tells you it’s weird for a 16-year-old to be involved with someone in their late 20s. Most people thought it was cool to date someone older than you, even if it wasn’t legal. I convinced myself my hurt was my fault when it was naivety. It’s something that should be written into those cringy, self-help books for teens and tweens: don’t romantically involve yourself with a man who could be your father. If he tells you you’re mature for your age, run. 

After all, James Franco’s character doesn’t stray far from who he is in real life. 

The disc evokes the idea of what my teenage years were supposed to be: sneaking out at night through my bedroom window on the second floor, having my first kiss at a high school party in someone’s house who I barely knew, and falling in love through a mixtape made up of only The Smiths.

At the same time, the music evokes everything I didn’t expect those years to be: Discovering my sexuality, the moments that led up to it, and accepting it.

If I ever want to be reminded of a time or state of being, I want to be reminded of the years I spent wanting to be someone I never ended up becoming. Each song on the soundtrack is the essence of the naivety and innocence those years bring. To live in those years, knowing what I know now, would be an absolute nightmare —it’s the innocence of it all that brings back the desire to be back in that space.

If you obsess over singers and bands, and are one of those people who make a playlist for every occasion, join CMN’s Music Journalism Course and get real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to music industry insiders, and a great place to display build your portfolio. Get all the details on the Music Journalism Course here.

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