Seventeen

Album: Remind Me Tomorrow (2019)
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Songfacts®:

  • Sharon Van Etten was born in Belleville, New Jersey, but moved to Tennessee in her late teens. She moved to New York City in 2005. This thunderous track finds her paying nostalgic tribute to the places that shaped her in the Big Apple, even if they've long since disappeared.

    Downtown harks back
    Halfway up the street
    I used to be free
    I used to be seventeen


    Van Etten explained in a press release that the song shows "the chain reaction, of moving to a city bright-eyed and hearing the elders complain about the city changing, and then being around long enough to know what they were talking about."
  • The song is a Springsteenian love letter to Van Etten's adopted hometown. She told Billboard that during "Seventeen" she talks about "living somewhere long enough to see the changes that I have" before passing the baton onto a new generation.
  • Van Etten told Billboard that in writing the song, she "was literally catching myself bitching about something closing and reopening." Then the New Jersey-born singer remembered the grief that she'd given her friend, TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone, about his same attitude when she first moved to New York.

    "He bitched about it, about Williamsburg, and warned me that things were gonna change," Van Etten recalled. "I remember him saying his mantra: 'civilizations throughout time rise and fall.' [Laughs] He would get upset when something closed and a new place would open, and he was just like, things are going to change really fast."
  • The song was originally a country lament in the style of Lucinda Williams, before it transformed into a Springsteen or Arcade Fire-type wall of sound. Van Etten finished the tune while working with Kate Davis, a songwriter who she told Uncut "is definitely where I was 10 years ago."

    Kate Davis was trained as a jazz musician but aspired to be a singer-songwriter in the vein of Van Etten. Her debut album, Trophy, was in the works when she collaborated on "Seventeen." Davis told Songfacts: "Sharon worked up a demo with the chord progression and loose form for the song. By the time I got involved the song just needed melody and lyrics. We worked together to flesh it out - I followed Sharon's lead!"

    She added: "I have been a HUGE fan of Sharon's since 2010. I was always really moved by her ability to bring so much emotion through her voice. Also so moved by her mastery of confessional songwriting. I've looked to her artistry for inspiration ever since I heard 'Love More.'"
  • The song's music video was directed by Maureen Towey. "Sharon wanted to use this video to create a love letter to New York, her home for the last 15 years," said the director. "She showed us around all her old haunts – the places that made her the musician that she is today. Some of these spots are still around, some are just empty lots now."

    Towney added: "We took an eye toward the city that was both tender and tough, trying to find the ways that a beautiful city can fall apart while still nurturing the hopes of a young artist."
  • "Seventeen" was named the best song of 2019 by Consequence of Sound, with Ben Kaye writing: "It's an aching sense of belated prescience that Sharon Van Etten paints in stirring new wave notes on 'Seventeen.' By avoiding nostalgia and honing in on life's transience, she creates something utterly, hauntingly timeless."

    It was also named Best Song by Paste, with Ellen Johnson writing: "It's proof that even when we're flooded with (necessary) songs featuring social commentary and political outbursts, sometimes the most earnest, most true, most believable art is just a personal story from the past."

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