'Dancing Queen, Young and Sweet, Only Seventeen': Why The World Is So Obsessed With Being Seventeen

Illustration by Kayleigh De Sousa

Well she was just seventeen, and you know what I mean

(I Saw Her Standing There by The Beatles)

I once asked my mother if she felt her age. She said she still felt like a teenager sometimes.

Oh why are girls in songs always seventeen?

(1980s Horros Film II by Wallows)

I turned 18 a few months ago. I was terrified, excited, alarmed. As I lined up birthday cards on the windowsill, I felt like something was coming to an end, something indescribable and special. I felt like I was losing something I would never be able to get back again. Of course, being the over-dramatic and over-emotional person I am, in reality I doubt turning eighteen was that profound. But despite stepping into a new year of my life and a new challenege, I was crucially stepping away from seventeen. Seventeen. The age, it seems, the whole world is obsessed with and completely fascinated by.

You are the dancing queen, young and sweet only seventeen

(Dancing Queen by ABBA)

According to a quick google search, being seventeen is supposedly a wonderful number in age when a person stands on the precipice between adulthood and childhood. There’s freedom, but not too much. There’s responsibility, but not too much. Seventeen is supposedly the ‘fin de siecle’ of youth, and that is supposed to feel magical.

Seventeen and a half years old, worrying about my brother finding out, where’s the fun in doing what you’re told?

(Girls by The 1975)

For me, my seventeenth year was sprinkled with various lockdowns, quarantines and a pandemic. I didn’t borrow a 1961 Ferrari from my best friend’s Dad and drive to Chicago where I spontaneously performed on a parade float. I didn’t hold a secret high school dance on the edge of my town (a town where dancing was strictly banned). I didn’t go back in time in a DeLorean. Instead, I mostly sat in my bedroom, analysing Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ over Zoom lessons and lost my grip of time completely. I didn’t even get a chance to take my driver’s test. Let me put it this way: I’m not entirely sure my seventeenth year lived up to the ‘coming of age montage’ most films told me it would be in the conventional sense.

Cigarette daydreams, you were only seventeen, so sweet, with a mean streak

(Cigarette Daydreams by Cage The Elephant)

People write songs about being seventeen. People make films about being seventeen. The whole ‘young adult’ book genre is dedicated to being seventeen. It has become legendary, even mythical, in the media. Seventeen signifies coming to the end of formal schooling, it suggests a loss of innocence, a first love, a year of mistakes and self-discovery. Seventeen seems to have breathing space. Wiggle room to get stuff wrong, experiment, find things important which aren’t really important. There’s a naivety which is about to be shattered and dreams which are about to be formed.

I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything, but I know I miss you

(betty by Taylor Swift)

Teenagers lead revolutions, they march and protest, they start petitions and make change. Studies show as you age you grow more conservative; when you’re seventeen you’re likely to be the most politically radical you will ever be. You can afford to be in every sense of the world. Sure, seventeen year olds are supposed to party and dent a car or two, but seventeen year olds can also make real change in the world. Think of Greta Thunburg, Amanda Gorman and Yara Shahidi. Seventeen is freedom and power, it is finding your own political voice for the first time.

I wish we were seventeen, so I could give you all the innocence that you give to me

(If I Knew by Bruno Mars)

But surely all of this romanticises an age which, for many people, is not magical, beautifully messy or montage worthy? There’s pressure to figure out who you are, who you’re going to be as you’re told to lay the foundations for your future. Let’s be honest, it’s not like anybody (or at least I hope nobody) is going to write songs about how whimsical it was to be a teenager during a global pandemic. As much as we love, culturally, to romanticise the past, I doubt we can peer through rose-coloured glasses at the horrors of 21st century racism or the malice of social media. (If we start to see people writing songs about how much they loved growing up on TikTok, I think I might start a protest of my own.)

But the moment that I first laid eyes on him, all alone, on the edge of seventeen

(Edge of Seventeen by Stevie Nicks)

I suspect there was a whole list of things I was meant to do when I was seventeen. A whole list of stupid, complicated, (vaguely immoral) things I was supposed to accomplish with my friends at three a.m. whilst slightly drunk, whilst being seventeen, dancing queen. Perhaps, like the adults who write these songs and films, I will look back on when I was seventeen with the same nostalgia and reminisce in the same innocent, longing way and will forget the dread of looming adulthood or the endless pressures. Maybe one day I’ll look back and truly understand why the world is so completely obsessed by being ‘seventeen’. Something will click and I will sing all of those songs, read all of those books and watch all of those films with an understanding of how beautiful it really was to be seventeen.

I don’t know what eighteen holds; I doubt I’ll dye my hair pink and flirt with Timothee Chalamet at a cafe or accidentally mess with my parents' meet-cute when I visit the past in an orange puffer jacket. Perhaps being ‘seventeen’ is just a mindset as my Mum implied, perhaps we just like that it fits into melodies well, perhaps it doesn’t mean anything at all. Seventeen is supposed to be about freedom (ironic considering the year we’ve all just had, I know). It is supposed to be about standing on the edge of something new but turning back one last time for one last adventure. As we slowly and cautiously hope to see the other side of this pandemic, we are perhaps all on this same precipice, all a little unsure, all a little less innocent than before. All, in some way or another, ‘seventeen’.

Seventeen went far too quick and when my mind plays tricks, I have to go

(T-Shirt Weather by Circa Waves)

Article by Grace Dodd