I Still Listen to the Tween Pop I Loved in Middle School, And It Has Even Deeper Meaning Now

The jams of yesterday have more than nostalgia going for them.
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Publish date:
September 23, 2016
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music, Disney, middle school, american idol

Whether you were the little girl bawling along with the unforgettable Girl-Who-Ugly-Cried as Sanjaya rocked "You Really Got Me" or the young guy who secretly man-crushed on the JoBros, there's something about the music of the '00s that simply can't be found chart-toppers of my generation's young-adulting years. The jams of yesterday have more than nostalgia going for them; they've got a deeper significance that I never imagined as a half-baked teen. It's only now that I've started to truly understand some of the meanings of my favorite songs from that awkward transition from tweendom to teenhood that is seventh grade, and that in turn has made me love them even more.

I bought my first album, David Archuleta's self-titled R&B CD, when I was 12 and limited my taste in music to the nuggets of sound I discovered through Radio Disney or Nickelodeon. At the time, I was obsessed with every track on the disc. Every track, that is, aside from "To Be with You." I found it a smidge too corny and couldn't relate one bit to it.

Seven years and one boyfriend later, I kept that cheesy ditty on an endless replay in the days leading up to my first date with my long-distance hunny back in January of this year. The line "Holding you for the very first time, never letting go / What I wouldn't give to feel that way" echoed how desperate I was to just wrap myself up in his arms. We joked about having an hour-long embrace or even making the entire date one uninterrupted hug in the middle of his college campus, without giving so much as one flying fig of whether it would make onlookers uncomfortable. This song takes me back to the fun that was buying the first addition in my family of music, sure. But even more than that, every time this song makes its way into my playlist I find myself transported to that magical evening when my 6'4" knight in shining armor swept me off my feet (quite literally) for the first time.

Still in my Disney-Is-the-Bomb.com phase, I feigned an unyielding disdain for the Jonas Brothers' first Disney-backed CD when it fell into my triplet sister Cate's hands at Christmas of that same year. But pretty soon I was sneaking off with her disc and our handy-dandy, high-tech portable CD player to jam out. They were my first boy band and, in my humble opinion, the last great one. Their music was so sing-along-able and unlike anything I'd ever heard beforehand. It had an edge to it (one that is virtually infinitesimal when compared to low-key emo days that would come years later) that spoke to me on a deep level, and I dug it from the first to the last song.

When their next album, A Little Bit Longer, dropped, I clamored to hunt down their latest songs on YouTube. Most of the songs were lighthearted ditties for the tweenage love puppies or lamenting a regrettable breakup. But it wasn't until I was 15 years old and headed home from a new doctor's office that the title track, "A Little Bit Longer," really struck a chord with me. The conversation played back in my head all the way home: "The periods of high energy and elation, the depression and suicidal thoughts, the lashing out... It just adds up to bipolar disorder, to me. Probably bipolar type I, which is more severe."

Just like that, my world wasn't just turned upside down — it was repainted in the most intense saturations of black and white. The song was originally about Nick Jonas's struggles with diabetes, but, as good songs are wont to do, this one could easily be applied to my shiny new diagnosis. The line "So I wait till kingdom come, all the highs and lows are gone / A little bit longer and I'll be fine" pushes me to the verge of tears every time. As someone with strong faith, the day that I leave this world of sickening biochemical rushes followed by devastating crashes in the dust for a place where I will just be myself, stable and no longer afflicted, is one that can't come soon enough.

In the green days of my 13th year, when my Radio Disney phase was coming to a close, another artist sparked a blaze in my spirit. Besides inspiring in my socially anxious self a short-lived dream to become the next big thing in the music business, Leona Lewis made a more indelible mark on my young mind when I discovered her debut album, Spirit. Her poignant "Footprints in the Sand" pierced my soul and to this day remains a lifesaver.

The lyrics cut deeper to the core than ever last November. I was forced to drop out of college in that month, thanks to relentless mental health issues. I felt the dust unsettle in my life as the proverbial doors to my future dreams were slammed in my face, and things couldn't have seemed bleaker. I was psychologically sick and struggling to find the way I was supposed to tread toward a fulfilling future. Had I not had a higher power to carry me when I no longer had the strength to even hobble along is a comforting image that I don't think I'll ever forget. He hauled me to where I am now: mentally healthy, happy, and finding my own path in life.

In that musically magnificent year, the world shoved yet another artist my way — the triumphant David Cook of American Idol Season 7. Yes, his irresistibly raw vocal stylings melt me into a puddle of fangirly goo. And yes, his record was arguably the most mainstream-sounding American Idol album, but that's not the only reason why I keep coming back to David's self-titled first album. The track "Heroes" is all but my official theme song. If it weren't for the fact that homegirl can't do music, this song could have easily been written by me.

My boyfriend has said that I'm one of the best people he's ever met, that I'm his "hero." I'm not perfect and I think he gives me far too much credit, but whether he accepts his awesomeness or not, he's my own hero, too. He's saved my life more times than I can count, and his strength and safety has opened my eyes to a life without perpetual fear. He's proved to me that there's a hero in us all — sometimes we just need someone to come along and show us that there's one inside us, too.

But if there's one song that tops them all when it comes to ringing truer today than it did back in my middle school days, it's Rihanna's "Umbrella." It might seem like a superficial pop song that is basic and altogether not profound, but this one has donned a meaning for me that makes it my go-to pick-me-up when I'm feeling low and need a little reminder that I am loved by people who aren't obligated by blood. My ride-or-die amigos stuck by me when I was having a mental breakdown at 1 a.m. and needed to meander around campus for two hours to burn off the agitated energy and listened patiently as I went off on bizarre tangents. My saintly best friend let me fall asleep on her shoulder when it was 8 o'clock in the morning in the hospital waiting room and I hadn't slept all night because I was busy proving that I was too ill to be safe in my dorm.

As someone who didn't have real friends to turn to on the first day of seventh grade because I had been home-schooled through elementary school, I could never imagine the unbreakable bonds that have been forged since. Whenever it's raining more than ever, they've got my back, facing the downpour with umbrellas in hand.

These songs I listened to in seventh grade have grown up with me thus far, and who knows — maybe even more will find their own place in my life eight years from today, with a significance that digs even deeper than it does now. I might not find the meaning of life in my middle-school faves, but there is still something profound, something with weight to it, below the surface of every mainstream pop hit. It just might take a few years for that something to rise out of the woodwork.