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With ‘Stay,’ Lisa Loeb taught a generation how screwed-up love really is

The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.

Lisa Loeb doesn’t own “Stay (I Missed You).” Even if she controls the publishing and has possession of the master tapes, the song belongs to a certain subset of the world’s population: American women aged 31 to 34.

Women in this demographic were entering adolescence in the summer of 1994, when “Stay” became an MTV phenomenon and topped the Billboard Hot 100, making Loeb the first unsigned artist to score a No. 1 pop hit.

For young girls who’d experienced their first crushes and perhaps sipped from the scalding-hot cappuccino mug of heartbreak, “Stay” was truth sent down from the mountain—the words of a prophet in cat-eyed glasses and chunky heels. It’s a song about confusion, sadness, longing, and more confusion. If the basic plot is simple—girl leaves boy, then has second thoughts—Loeb packs a whole lot of story and complex emotions into three minutes and four seconds.

That’s partially why dudes (yes, dudes) and people in other countries liked it too. Thirtysomething American ladies may claim ownership, but “Stay (I Missed You)” is a song for everyone. In addition to holding Billboard’s top slot for three weeks in August of ’94, “Stay” was a Top 10 hit in Australia, Canada, and the U.K. It also cracked the Top 40 in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Ireland.

Why the global appeal? Breakup tunes are as common as breakups themselves, but with “Stay,” Loeb delivered something exceedingly rare: an honest and detailed portrayal of how screwed up and scary it is to be a grown-up in love.

On some level, of course, people were responding to the music. As Loeb reveals in the 2009 book Chicken Soup For The Soul: The Story Behind The Song, she originally intended “Stay” for Daryl Hall, who was looking for material at the time.

“I was inspired by this style of blue-eyed soul,” Loeb writes. “I was thinking of those kinds of songs when I was writing the chord progression and playing it. Although it was still my signature guitar lick, there was a little bit of R&B.”

It isn’t exactly “I Can’t Go For That,” but “Stay” is bouncier than your typical folk-rock tune. Plus, there’s that melody—the bait that really lures you in to Loeb’s emotional labyrinth. Before long, you’re singing the lyrics 24/7, trying to figure out where Loeb intended there to be quotation marks and what in the hell she meant by, “I think that I’m throwing, but I’m thrown.” At least those are the things you think about if you’re the type of person who tends to over-analyze things, and generally speaking, teenagers are these types of people.

In one respect, Loeb was providing a valuable public service. If any 13-year-olds were harboring grand illusions of what romance would be like once they graduated from college and moved to New York City to work as cartoonists or architects and live like people on NBC sitcoms, Loeb served up cold, hard truth in the form of soft, soothing pop. The song’s message is best summed up by the title of the film it helped to soundtrack, Reality Bites.

Kudos to Ethan Hawke, the star of said Gen X touchstone, for making the connection. As “Stay” super fans know, Hawke and Loeb were friends and neighbors in New York City, and it’s because the actor passed her tape to Reality Bites director Ben Stiller that the song wound up on the soundtrack. Hawke also conceived of and directed the iconic single-take video, in which Loeb paces around a mostly empty NYC apartment, looking alternately pissed off and sweet and, it must be said, more than a little sexy.

Hawke’s involvement was a lucky break for Loeb, who’d landed in NYC after studying comparative literature (of course) at Brown University and music at the Boston’s Berklee School Of Music. “Stay” had been kicking around for some time, and as Loeb explained in an interview with SongFacts.com, it’s based largely on arguments she’d been having with her boyfriend and co-producer. The breakup, she says, was one of those classic situations “where it’s gotten into your head too much.”

“Partially because somebody else is telling you that you’re only hearing what you want to, and that puts you in a little bit of a tailspin,” Loeb told the site. “It puts me in a little bit of a tailspin, because you can’t figure out what’s actually real, are you only seeing things through your own eyes?”

Loeb had lost touch with reality, but she knew it bit. She also knew how to roll all of her heartache and uncertainty into a catchy pop song. The opening line speaks to that central predicament of not knowing what’s real and what’s a projection of your warped mental state: “You say I only hear what I want to.” On first listen, it’s unclear whether there should be quotes around “I only hear what I want to,” which would mean Loeb is quoting her ex, not commenting on herself. The same goes for the next line: “You say I talk so all the time—so.”

From there, Loeb—presumably the one with the selective hearing who never shuts up—gets to the meat of the story. After dating this fellow for some time, she came to feel like she didn’t belong. She thought her pain was “simple,” and that the best solution would be to leave. But then she realized she screwed up. She missed him. Note the past tense.

As she considers how wrong she was, Loeb starts to catalog some of the hurtful things her ex said about her—namely that she doesn’t “listen hard” or “pay attention” to “anyone, anywhere.”

“I don’t understand if you really care,” Loeb sings. Was this guy making valid points about her personality flaws, or was he just lashing out, because she was making for the door with his copy of Private Eyes? Damned if she knows, but suddenly, her hearing isn’t so selective: “I’m only hearing negative: no, no, no, no.”

That’s when the song gets self-referential. Just as Loeb is at her most frazzled, she finds salvation in a familiar place: “So I turned the radio on / I turned the radio up / and this woman was singing my song: / The lover’s in love / And the other’s run away / The lover is crying ’cause the other won’t stay.”

As Loeb told SongFacts.com, those lines aren’t about any female singer in particular. She could be anyone, because in order for a love song to resonate, it doesn’t need to be deep or meaningful. When you’re lovesick, the antibodies that protect you from bad poetry deteriorate, and just like that, Britney Spears knows exactly what you’re feeling.

“When you’re not going through some of those things, sometimes as a songwriter you think, ‘Oh, that’s so straightforward and cliché,’ but you know what? That’s how it feels,” Loeb said. “In a way I think I wrote that into the song because I was relating my story to the effect that everybody goes through this. I’m not so special.”

Only Loeb is special. Not because her breakup was any different from anybody else’s, but because she analyzes it like a particle physicist would, breaking things down to their smallest, most incomprehensible bits. That kind of self-examination feels uncomfortable to many adults, but for introspective teens and tweens, it’s a way to pass a Saturday night. No wonder young girls (and guys) got “Stay” right away. It’s strong enough for adults yet pH balanced for adolescents.

“Some of us hover when we weep for the other who was dying since the day they were born,” Loeb goes on to tell us. “Well, this is not that.”

Those aren’t easy lines to parse, but what Loeb seems to be saying is this: When feelings get messy, some people stick around, while others grab the cat and hit the road, like she did. Only now she regrets it. “I think that I’m throwing,” she admits, “but I’m thrown.”

Loeb gives the last word to her ex, quoting him in the final stanza: “You caught me ’cause you want me and one day you’ll let me go / You try to give away a keeper, or keep me ’cause you know you’re just so scared to lose.”

She never weighs in on whether he’s right, probably because she’s not sure. She ends by repeating the opening line, like his criticism is still rattling around inside her head. She remains a work in progress.

Interviewing the singer for Vice, writer Lisa Crystal Carver suggested Loeb’s music is for “people in their 20s who are no longer what they used to be but are not yet what they’ll become.”

“That’s nice—transitional, overthinking, angst-ridden,” Loeb said. “That’s me!”

That’s the rest of us too.