Tone Deaf is a column where we discuss music. From personal stories to cultural analysis; from lyrics and instrumentation to music videos and live performances, we put it all under the microscope to understand how we experience music through our everyday lives.
I was standing in the snack aisle when it happened. Her familiar nasal croon sounded over the speakers, catching me off guard as I gazed at bags of crisps I had no intention of buying. Two seconds later, I was gasping for breath between sobs.
I used to think
I had the answers to everything
But now I know
Life doesn’t always go my way …
The lyrics resonated to an extent that could only be described as acutely embarrassing.
At 26, I was nearly ten years past the acceptable age for identifying with a song called I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman. At the same time, my shattered heart—and my newly minted ex’s—were proof of two things: one, that I absolutely did not have all the answers, and two, that girlhood, and the luminous hope which suffused it, felt further away than they ever had.
I hadn’t listened to Britney Spears or any ‘90s female pop stars in years. In fact, I hadn’t listened to them much even as a child, not being particularly fond of their overly packaged, bubble-gum sameness. But as I stood drearily in the supermarket aisle, wondering what desolate new world I’d found myself in overnight, I realised their songs were somehow all I wanted to hear.
Back in my bedroom, I put a playlist together, guided more by vague memories of the choruses and Spotify’s ‘Recommended Songs’ than any clear idea of what I wanted. I Wanna Be With You. Don’t Say You Love Me. With You. What A Girl Wants.
This was all I listened to for the next few weeks. The junk food stayed on the shelves. I went on a candy-coated nostalgia binge of ‘90s girlie pop instead.
There is a certain set of songs that, till today, should be instantly recognisable to anyone who grew up in the late 90’s and 2000s. If you’re old-enough-but-not-too-old to remember MTV, LIME magazine, and discmans, then the names Britney, Christina, Mandy, and Jessica should be as familiar to you as John, Paul, Ringo, and George, regardless of gender.
In general, the teenage pop of the late ‘90s and early noughties is not considered a high point in music.
Mention the ‘80s, and people will rave about bombast and punk, reinvention and reimagination; big synths and bigger hair and hooks that make your heart want to burst out of your chest. The ‘70s had disco and funk and Fleetwood Mac, so they can do no wrong. Even the ‘90s, generally speaking, were marked by remarkable diversity, from confessional singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple and Alanis Morisette to Britpop to the R&B resurgence led by the miseducation of one Lauryn Hill.
‘90s girlie pop, however, brings to mind frothy, mass-produced songs by white girls with bleached blonde hair, huge doe eyes, and vocals thinner than single-ply tissue. It’s iconic stuff, to be sure, catchy and wholesome, but not the kind of music that stirs the soul.
This isn’t to say the songs aren’t expressive, at least lyrically; it doesn’t get more upfront than “I try but I can’t get myself to think of / anything but you.” But despite the confessional nature of its lyrics, no one would ever regard Mandy Moore’s I Wanna Be With You as the musical or emotional equal of Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me.
By ‘no one’, I mean me. I have at least four different ‘sad’ playlists, all calibrated to specific shades of blue, from ugly-crying into my pillow to mellow-but-melancholy MRT rides. My past soundtracks for nursing a broken heart have included Damien Rice’s Cannonball and Robyn’s Dancing On My Own.
Breakup songs should run the emotional gamut from a good long wallow to exhausted resignation. To do this, they need to be authentic. They need to be powerful. Listening to them should deliver the same emotional wallop as heartbreak itself.
It therefore baffled me that for this breakup—the Big One everyone goes through, which reshapes your life irreversibly, and out of whose pieces all future loves are built—I wanted songs with the nutritional value of Hello Panda. My heart, when confronted with the mess and devastation of adult love, apparently wanted to go back to being a kid.
We think of nostalgia as a wistful longing for days past, but its literal meaning is a little more complicated.
The etymology of ‘nostalgia’ can be famously traced to two Ancient Greek words, ‘nostos’, meaning ‘homecoming’, and ‘algos’, meaning pain, grief, or distress. Nostalgia, in one sense, is fundamentally about pain: the ache of embarking on a journey, only to yearn for the distant, safer shores you left behind.
Psychologically, however, nostalgia is a beneficial state of mind. According to nostalgia researchers at the University of Southampton, although it can be triggered by conditions like loneliness, nostalgia is mostly positive. While bittersweet, the remembrance of things past “re-establishes psychological equanimity, elevates mood, self-esteem, and a sense of social connectedness, fosters perceptions of continuity between past and present; [and] increases meaning in life.”
Music is a surefire way to induce nostalgia. Everyone has this: a song that reminds them of their ex, hanging out in the school canteen, or late nights out with friends, drunk on possibility and rich with hope. When we listen to songs we associate with certain times, people, and places in our lives, we’re reminded not only of how those memories made us feel, but the people we were when we were living those experiences in real time.
Moreover, there is stability in memory. We have no idea how the future will turn out, but the past is all known, and all ours; we know exactly how those memories end. We are free to revisit those moments, and to impose meaning on them as we wish.
In this, the act of looking back becomes a coping mechanism, helping us understand where our past selves and experiences fit into our present. As such, it makes sense that we’re most compelled to do it when life is at its most transformative: graduations, funerals, moving to a new country—the milestone moments. These often include marriages, or in my case, the nonoccurrence of one.
It made sense on at least two levels that I’d reached for girlie pop just as life felt like it’d grown unrecognisable.
The first was that the songs are, fundamentally, innocent. Approximately half of girlie pop songs are about girl power, and the other half are about heartache. But even then, there were no girlie pop songs for what I was going through.
Britney and the rest of the Mickey Mouse Club are all either pining or heartbroken, not the ones doing the heartbreaking. (They also manage to do this without sounding the slightest bit sad, thus achieving the remarkable feat of singing about heartache while sounding like they just came from a pool party.) However sincerely they might have sung their hearts out, love is contained, controlled, and manufactured into a predictable, satisfyingly upbeat ditty. Songs like these make love safe, which was basically everything I wanted—needed—to feel.
Significantly, I’d also first heard them at a time when I knew nothing about love.
At 8 or 12 or 14, you simply haven’t lived long enough to have seen much of life, so your grasp of its depth and complexity is correspondingly limited. Your idea of love is mostly shaped by the people around you and the media you consume, but more importantly, it’s only an idea; knowing (or thinking you know) the theory of love without understanding it.
As a girl, I thought love would be late-night conversations and coffee dates and exchanging songs one at a time, slowly revealing parts of yourself like a game of cards. I thought it meant absolute trust and absolute safety; the sureness of taking someone’s hand and never looking back.
I know now that it is all of those things, but that it can also be the treachery of lying awake beside your partner at 3:00 AM, wondering if you should have promised to bind your life to theirs. Or how the guilt and agony of breaking that promise will make you simultaneously want to burrow into the floor and scoop out your insides, desperate for anything to make the pain stop.
I did not know it was possible to be deeply in love with someone and also want to leave them, or that someone can be as close as it gets to perfect without being what you need. I did not know what it would feel like to kiss someone for the last time, knowing you will never have this again, and that the life you were building together can now never be.
Listening to these songs brought me back to a time when I had no idea of any of this.
I thought back to something a colleague had brought up weeks before: that real adulthood only starts with loss. You never truly begin to grow up until you accept that yes, the rules do apply, even when you think you might be able to have it all. Especially when you do.
Of course, the note of bitter in nostalgia’s sweetness comes in knowing you can’t go back.
This is obviously true on a literal level, because we can’t break the laws of physics. But more than that, we can’t go back to being the people we were.
Once you’ve known what it’s like to feel something, you can’t unfeel it. Everything you do will be touched by this knowledge. It will be present in your words and your smile and the way you take the hand of the next person you fall in love with.
I listened to my girlie pop playlist for close to three weeks after my fiance and I kissed each other goodbye, standing by the waterfall at Jewel with tears in our eyes. Every day, Christina Aguilera and Atomic Kitten and M2M would keep me company during my morning commute and eating lunch in the office, in Grab rides on the way to interviews and while wandering around town. For a time, their buoyancy was one of the few things keeping me afloat.
The turning point only came a few weeks later, when I decided to listen to Radiohead’s High and Dry while walking home one night. I stood at the traffic light without crossing the road, letting the lights change and the buses pass, while Thom Yorke’s falsetto lamented how the best thing you’ve ever had is gone away.
It was enough. I was ready to start trudging back to the present.
I had known from the start, of course, that this rather out-of-character musical phase would not last. Nostalgia is only ever a holiday, never a homecoming.
But what I didn’t realise till much later was this: that in using the music of my girlhood to get away from things, my real destination was never actually the past, but the future. I had needed a sojourn into simplicity to help me accept that I was, after all, grateful for the complexity of adult love, even if I had no idea what the way forward would be.
In this, perhaps the words of another hit song say it best, one which came out about a decade after Britney smashed her way to the top of the pop charts.
The singer, like Britney, was barely out of her teens at the time, but her sound couldn’t have been more different. She sang about love—in particular, its loss—in such a way that the emotions you felt while listening to her corresponded exactly to the lyrics of the song. You heard the truth in her voice.
Although nearly ten years have gone by since it came out, her best-known hit sounds as fresh and devastating as it did to my 18-year-old ears in 2011. The girl I was then still knew next to nothing about love, but she had begun to realise something any adult knows to be true, something we all recognised the minute we first heard the words: that sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.