It's a situation that we all encounter at least once in our lives, and more likely several times: the day comes when we must leave behind our "nest": all that we know and are familiar with, and move on to another place and/or era in life. This scenario can take many different forms: a teenager leaving home and going to college, a longtime employee leaving a job for a better one, a family moving to another city, or even a protagonist setting out on a life-changing journey.
In all of these situations, it's understood that life will never be quite the same again. And for the most part, these are exciting times, full of potential and possibilities. However, any excitement a person might have tends to be tempered with ambivalence at leaving one's familiar life, and trepidation — or even fear — at what might lie ahead. Abandoning the familiar tends to leave us in a vulnerable and conflicted emotional state, and authors have spent entire books exploring the range of thoughts and feelings people have during this time.
"Leaving the Nest" Songs are musical attempts at exploring the feelings that accompany these times in a person's life. As everyone has different reactions to leaving home for the first time, these songs can run the the entire gamut of emotions. Some may be unambiguously excited, ready for independence and the challenges it presents. Others may be more subdued, with the protagonist feeling optimistic but uncertain. Still others may be melancholy, and dwell on homesickness and perceived loss of security. As striking out on one's own is one of the major life changes that can trigger severe anxiety and/or depression, in a few rare instances these songs can get quite dark even if the subject's reasons for leaving are fairly innocuous.
While most "Leaving the Nest" Songs are written concerning younger people, this trope isn't strictly limited to the young — after all, people can go through major life changes at all stages in life. Even when the subject of the song is a young person, the song often still resonates with older audiences as well. Older audiences may remember back to the time that they too left home, or they may appreciate the song from a new perspective as their own children grow up and set out on their own journey. Finally, "Leaving the Nest" Songs tend to encompass themes that are universal to everyone: freedom, independence, optimism, renewal, insecurity, regret, and the list goes on. It's not hard to imagine why this trope is among one of the most popular subjects to write songs about.
Although this trope's name is taken from an idiom that refers to young adults leaving the parents' home, this trope applies to any song in which a person is leaving their old, familiar life behind, by choice or otherwise. Moreover, not every song necessarily has to be a completely literal story about someone leaving their old life behind; there are many ways a lyricist might explore this theme. However, if it isn't at least reasonably clear that the song is at least somewhat related to leaving the familiar behind (willingly or not), then some indication of the writer's intended meaning is needed.
Frequently related to I Just Want to Be Free. Contrast I Choose to Stay. Can intersect with, overlap, or lead into Homesickness Hymn. If the subject of the song ultimately returns home, then Home Sweet Home may commence. If they return after a very long period of time, they may find that You Can't Go Home Again, or in extreme cases, find themselves a Stranger in a Familiar Land.
- The 1969 Bobbie Gentry (and later Reba McEntire) hit "Fancy" contains a much darker variation on the theme than most: Fancy, the protagonist, is living in abject poverty with her terminally ill mother and a baby sibling. In order to rescue Fancy from living this way for the rest of her life, the mother buys her a "dancing dress" and tells her to "be nice to the gentlemen...and they'll be nice to you." Yes, she basically sends Fancy out into the world to make a life for herself via prostitution. On the other hand, it does work out for Fancy in the end: she owns multiple properties while still in her 30s, and she has a few words for people who criticize her mother for doing what she did, when there didn't seem to be any much better options.
- Sawyer Brown's 1991 single "The Walk" references a teenager leaving home directly in the second verse, and the entire song is about the ambivalence and trepidation many of us feel when moving on to a new stage in life. Fortunately, the narrator's father is there to show he understands, and to say "Don't worry boy, it'll be all right."
- "Wide Open Spaces" by The Dixie Chicks directly addresses a young lady's need to escape her small, closed-off life and embrace the "wide open spaces" where she'll have "room to make her big mistakes." While mostly confident and positive, the song does contain an element of uncertainty, ending on the phrase "she knows the highest stakes."
- "26 Cents" by The Wilkinsons. The titular 26 cents is the money enclosed in a letter from the singer's mother, telling her to call if she gets lonely—the "penny for your thoughts, quarter for the call, and all of your mama's love." The song ends years after Mama has died, but the singer still keeps the letter to feel her love.
- "Don't Forget to Remember Me" by Carrie Underwood, told from the POV of a newly-flown woman calling home to talk to her family.
- "The Night Before Life Goes On" counts, about leaving behind a childhood love to pursue bigger things.
- "One Way Ticket (Because I Can)" by LeAnn Rimes is a twist on the trope. The singer is leaving behind an old relationship and starting over again by buying a "one way ticket on a westbound train" and making plans for all of the things she's going to do now that she's emotionally and physically free.
- "Humble and Kind" by Tim McGraw, which is a list of things for his young adult child to remember as she leaves home. The song includes things like visiting grandparents, coming home to visit, using manners, not taking anything for granted, and to "always stay humble and kind."
- The American Civil War produced many songs of this nature, mostly told from the perspective of soldiers, including "The Girl I Left Behind Me" and "The Marching Song of the First Arkansas Regiment" (which is told from the perspective of newly-freed slaves who have left their plantations to join the Union army).
''Father Abraham has spoken and the message has been sent,The prison doors he opened, and out the prisoners went,To join the sable army of African descent,As we go marching on.''
- A number of songs have been written about transportation of British and Irish convicts to Australia, including "The Black Velvet Band" and "The Fields of Athenry." It's worth noting that both songs center around themes of injustice as well as exodus — the former mentions how the narrator was framed by a woman he fell in love with, while the latter sees the narrator deported for stealing corn so starving children could eat — so naturally the songs could hardly be called lighthearted or optimistic.
- "Ho! For California!" is about a group of prospectors heading out to California during the Gold Rush, and in the spirit of the time, the subjects feel bold and optimistic about their chances of finding a fortune in California. Unlike many entries on this list, though, the journey isn't necessarily meant to be permanent: the song entreats loved ones to "wait for about two year" for their return.
- "The Leaving of Liverpool" is a song about a sailor on the eve of a voyage to California, and the overall attitude of the song can be summed up by the last two lines of the chorus: "It's not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me, but my darling when I think of thee."
- "The Shores of Botany Bay" is about an Irish bricklayer heading out to Australia during the Australian gold rush. While he hopes to find his fortune out in his new country, he plans to return to masonry in his new home should that not work out.
- "The Wisconsin Emigrant" is about an argument between a farming couple over whether or not to emigrate to start a farm in Wisconsin or remain at home. The family is doing poorly on their current land and the husband wants to start anew in Wisconsin, while the wife counters with several reasons to stay put. Ultimately, the wife wins after bringing up "Indians who murder in the night" and presenting the scenario that the entire family gets unceremoniously killed.
- "Rocky Road to Dublin" is about an Irish man from the countryside (Tuam) heading first to Dublin (where his baggage is stolen), then to Liverpool (where he gets in a fight with xenophobic Englishmen).
- One of Helloween's most famous songs, "I Want Out," is told from the perspective of someone wanting to escape their closely monitored life and embrace freedom and independence. There is a secondary meaning, however: guitarist and founding member Kai Hansen has said in interviews that the song was written out of his desire to leave the band at that time.
- The American power metal band Twisted Tower Dire presents a very different angle on the theme with "Dying Breath," where a dying man laments leaving home to "chase the stars," only to end up unsuccessful and alone. The primary theme of the song is related to the narrator's regrets regarding leaving home and failing to keep in contact with his friends and loved ones, and not returning until it's "far too late."
- "Slipping Through My Fingers" by ABBA is sung from the perspective of a mother lamenting that her daughter has grown up so fast, and as the daughter goes off to school, the mother regrets the lack of time they have spent together.
- "Breakaway" by Kelly Clarkson tells the story of a person who is ready to escape the life they've been living, in an obvious nod to teenagers preparing to leave their parents' home, or more generally, anyone who's ready to get themselves out of a bad or stifling situation. The song resonated with listeners so much that it's become one of Clarkson's signature hits, even though it was originally only recorded for the soundtrack of The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.
- "Cruz" by Christina Aguilera is an ode to leaving behind familiar things that have been holding you back. Using the metaphor of driving away in a car, Aguilera sings of being "finally free" from "yesteryears and broken dreams," and "feeling like I've never felt before." As liberating as the song is, there is a tinge of reservation as the narrator acknowledges that she will miss her old life "one day."
- "Fly Away" by Singaporean singer-songwriter Corrinne May presents the theme in a two-part cycle: in the first verse, a daughter is leaving home, and the mother tells her to "fly away" even though it's tearing her up inside. In the second, the daughter returns home to do the same thing for her terminally ill (and imminently dying) mother.
- Miley Cyrus and Billy Ray Cyrus have "Ready, Set, Don't Go", a song about how Miley is ready to leave and have a future, while her father is struggling to accept that she's no longer a child.
- A darker, more troubled take on leaving the nest can be found in The Beatles' "She's Leaving Home," which tells the story of a girl who ran away from home. However, the song doesn't focus exclusively on the girl herself — a large part of the song is dedicated to the anguish and heartache of her parents, who woke up to find their child gone.
- Green Day's "Jesus of Suburbia Pt. IV: Tales of Another Broken Home" from American Idiot is about running away from the "hurricane of...lies" that the protagonist finds at home, but he also acknowledges that "there ain't nowhere you can go, running away from pain when you've been victimized." Two tracks later, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" follows up with a sobering portrait of the result of Jesus of Suburbia's exodus from home...
- "The Taste of Ink" by The Used takes the perspective of someone who recently has broken out of their old life and, with renewed energy, swears that they will make the most out of the rest of their life: "So here I am, alive at last, and I'll savor every moment of this."
- "I Will Go the Distance" from Hercules is a song about Hercules leaving home for the first time to discover his roots and his purpose after years of being treated like a freak for his godly strength.
- "Journey to the Past," an inspirational ditty from the animated film Anastasia, deals with trying to gather up the courage to leave one's old life and enter into the new. The commercial single for the song was recorded by R&B artist Aaliyah, but the film version of the song was performed by Anastasia's voice actor Liz Callaway.
- The song "Way Out West" in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West is sung by mice leaving overcrowded, crime-ridden, and cat-filled New York City to settle the western US. Fueled by Cat R. Waul's pie-in-the-sky propaganda, it's overblown and optimistic to ridiculous degrees...but it's not all that different from actual "Go West" propaganda of the era. Upon arrival, the mice immediately realize that the Old West isn't what was promised to them, but they remain hopeful and make a go of life there anyway.
- In the play Fiddler on the Roof, the inhabitants forced to leave their village sing the song "Anatevka," which is about leaving home and becoming:
''A stranger in a strange new place,Searching for an old familiar faceFrom Anatevka...''
- The 1946 opera adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Street Scene contains the musical number "We'll Go Away Together," in which two teenagers sing of their plans to run away from home. Notably, the lyrics for this song were written by renowned poet Langston Hughes.
- Redwall: Invoked and Exploited in Triss, where two of the main characters are running away from home due to what they feel is stifling parenting. They spend the night with an old otter, who sings so many heartrending songs about mothers never seeing their children again that they leave the next morning before she ends up making them go home. Once they're gone, it's revealed the otter knew exactly what she was doing: reminding them their departure wasn't as easy for their parents as they imagined it to be.