I probably spend almost as much time listening to music these days as I did when I was a teenager, but the quality of that listening has changed. I used to fall asleep with my iPod clutched in my hand, playing that week’s favorite song on repeat; now I listen more absently, at the grocery store or while working out. I still discover plenty of music that’s new to me and absolutely fantastic, but when you’re a kid, a single song can reorient your interests, or overturn your ideas about style and beauty. Adulthood just isn’t conducive to maintaining that perfect combination of wide-ranging openness and deep personal commitment to change.
This de-escalation in my relationship with music has been one of the most disappointing parts of being a rapidly-aging grownup. (Having to work, pay rent, and cook and clean for myself all have it beat, but barely.) But this year offered me a major treat—a whole bunch of teenagers started listening to one of my favorite songs in the world, allowing me to vicariously relive their wide-eyed wonder.
Life Without Buildings is a Scottish band that released its sole album, Any Other City, in 2001. It broke up soon after, and the album went out of print, not to be reissued until 2014, which is right around the time I began listening to it. The music has an arty post-punk style, but the quality that takes Life Without Buildings from being a band that I like, to one that never leaves my mind for more than a few days, is the voice of singer Sue Tompkins. She’s an artist, not a trained vocalist, and her performances combine speech, singing, and her sidewise take on scatting. Tompkins is a bit like the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, in that if you listen to just one minute of her chirping, chanting, and stuttering, you’ll be able to identify any Life Without Buildings song you hear for the rest of your life.
The style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. “For some, the scrape of fingernails on a blackboard is an exquisite sensation,” read one now-infamous early review. “Dentists’ drills provide a satisfying tingle. Animals dying in agony make a heavenly choir. And Sue Tompkins, ‘idiosyncratic’ frontwoman of Life Without Buildings, makes a beautiful noise.” But over the years, the band’s popularity grew despite their early dissolution, and Any Other City is now generally regarded as a cult classic. That wasn’t much help to me, as most of the friends I tried to introduce to the album took the “animals dying in agony” perspective. I thought mine was doomed to be a lonely fandom until TikTok teens got into Life Without Buildings.
Late last year, the opening seconds of the band’s song “The Leanover” first began popping up in TikTok videos, many of which feature people lip-syncing to Tompkins as she sings, “If I lose ya, if I lose ya, if I lose ya, if I lose ya, huh huh huh.” But people also use the sound in videos of themselves styling their hair, doing their makeup, and showcasing their artwork. Most TikTokers who deployed the song were young women who appeared to be in their teens, and many had keenly developed personal aesthetics—punk girls, goth girls, and at least one fairy girl. They were also an artsy bunch, and set videos of themselves creating jewelry, drawings, and crafts to the video. Nearly 100,000 videos use the song, which has now been streamed millions of times on Spotify.
One girl demonstrated her technique for making leg warmers from an old sweater. Another shared the jewelry she made, and another showed off her artwork.
“I was immediately struck by the fact it was predominantly young women getting into it and sharing their videos,” Tompkins wrote in an email to Paste Magazine after the song went viral. “I was really moved by that and mostly how you could see them just purely expressing themselves, and hopefully feeling loads of freedom!”
“Everything is open and somehow seems incredibly sensitive and sincere and transparent at the same time,” she added. And isn’t that just what being a kid is?
Perhaps music doesn’t sound quite as life-changingly urgent to me anymore because I’m not as sensitive, sincere, or transparent as I once was. But “The Leanover” is one of those songs that rekindles something of that urgency in me. It crests over the course of five minutes, as Tompkins chants, “He’s a shaker, baby,” again and again. Watching all these kids, kids at that uniquely urgent age, revealing snippets of their lives to this particular song was sweet and fun and reminded me of my own old favorite crafts and leg warmer hacks. It also reminded me that the old relationship I used to have with music isn’t entirely out of reach.