Pop songs are for getting through your twenties
Katelyn Tarver’s song Don’t Let It Change You, off her 2018 EP “Kool Aid,” is about growing up and taking your time.

Pop songs are for getting through your twenties

MORE ADVENTUROUS - Fiel Estrella (The Philippine Star) - January 11, 2020 - 12:00am

I used to be the kind of person who defined myself by the music I listened to. In a way, I still might be.

I was 10 or 11 when I started learning that music existed beyond the songs I heard on the radio or the videos I saw on MTV. I was at a now-defunct music store in my local mall called Radio City when I found an album that would change my life — an auburn-haired, pouty-lipped teenage girl brooded on the cover, a green heart drawn around her left eye. Mismatched letters spelled out her name and the title: Skye Sweetnam, “Noise from the Basement.” I had never heard of her, and I didn’t know a single song of hers. I bought the CD anyway.

Skye Sweetnam ended up becoming a blueprint for my adolescence. Her best-known song is a passive-aggressive crush anthem called Tangled Up in Me, but my favorites were the ones about empowerment and nonconformity, like I Don’t Care, Unpredictable and Smoke and Mirrors. Her lyrics — she wrote or co-wrote all the tracks — taught me not to change myself in a contrived effort to get people to like me or accept me. That the only mold I needed to fit into was the one that embodied the goals and standards I set for myself, and the one that would make me into the person I wanted to be.

It’s funny thinking about the way Skye means a lot to me, because her solo career pretty much fizzled out after her second album. Sometimes I imagine I’m the only one who still knows all the words to her songs, maybe the only one who ever did. The 2000s were a heyday for girl pop princesses who were destined to fade into obscurity and remember-whens. Even Brie Larson, before becoming an Oscar winner and Carol Danvers, released an album in 2005 titled “Finally Out of P.E.” — and nothing else after that. (Unless you count Envy Adams’ cover of Black Sheep.)

I grew out of this Radio Disney phase as the years passed, morphing into the kind of teenager who took herself a little too seriously and put a lot of stock into her so-called indie cred. I wanted to be cool, and cool meant quoting The Strokes’ documentary In Transit word for word, crushing on Cavan McCarthy from Swim Deep, and rolling my eyes at Arctic Monkeys’ Do I Wanna Know? because Alex Turner had finally drunk the Kool-Aid. I followed The Like’s Tennessee Thomas on Instagram and read Alexa Chung’s It. I was always keeping up with new acts from London or Chicago or New York.

When I was diagnosed with depression in my 20s, my relationship with music changed. It took too much energy to always be ahead of the curve, to still care about having a “music taste.” My obsessive tendencies led to heavy-rotation playlists of songs that either drowned out the sadness or wallowed in it, mostly Mitski, Big Thief, and Paramore’s “After Laughter.” After a while, though, I realized that there was comfort in pop music — maybe because it reminded me of happier days when I didn’t know any better, or maybe because the sweet mindlessness of the songs and the emptiness I felt were both complementary and dissonant, earnest and ironic all at once.

Whatever it was, it helped me cope. I turned to the forgotten pop stars of my youth; I looked them up on Spotify and was relieved and happy to find that tracks I thought were long-lost had somehow survived beyond Limewire and were right there, ready to stream. Not only that — some of them, like Aly & AJ and The Veronicas, were making highly anticipated comebacks and releasing new music.

However, I was blown away specifically by Katelyn Tarver. When I was 12, her songs Wonderful Crazy and Something In Me were just for taking up space in my MP3 player and singing along to when I was bored. They were inconsequential, ephemeral. But her new music was refreshing, and the tracks were exactly what I needed to get through this difficult, scary period in my life. It was like reuniting with an old friend, or having someone read my journals back to me out loud — hyper-aware of time passing by, convinced every bad feeling will stay forever, lamenting if I knew then what I know now. Like Katelyn herself wrote on Twitter: “Depressing but still hopeful? My brand?

What speaks to me the most is a track called Don’t Let It Change You, which goes, “Do you remember how we used to be? What the world was like at 23?” I was that age myself when I first heard it, and it’s become a theme for navigating my 20s and learning when to take charge and when to let go. According to Katelyn, it’s about “hitting that point in life where you thought things would look a certain way, and they don’t, and learning how to deal with that.” She adds: “But sometimes you just have to cry over a bowl of pasta in public and let it happen.” I’ve never felt more understood.

Mitski gets me like she gets anyone, but it’s different with an artist that I’ve grown up with, one that has seen me through the awkwardness of puberty, the dramatics of high school, the uncertainties of college, and the mess of young adulthood, even if it was just on the fringes, in the murky recesses of my mind. I’ve been listening to Katelyn Tarver since she was 16, and I can practically map out how she has evolved — the way I can trace my own steps and see how I have evolved in the same 14 or so years that have passed.

Somehow we both made it, somehow we’re both still here — and I believe her completely when she says we’re right where we’re meant to be.

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