Their Words Still Speak to Me: Revisiting Teen Pop from My Childhood

by Robine Jean-Pierre

Last night after a long day at school, as I slipped under the covers and into bed, I did something that was long overdue: I looked up a Hannah Montana song on YouTube. I started with “This Is the Life” and next thing you know, I was a dozen songs deep and brimming with romance, joy, teen spirit, excitement, and needless to say, overwhelming nostalgia. I knew that once I had started it would be hard to stop; even though it was approaching 2 a.m. I just kept checking what was in the “Up Next” list under each video and picking the one I wanted to hear most, jumping from stone to stone like a child in a stream.

I love the musical composition of lots of Disney teen artists’ songs, like those of Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, the Jonas Brothers and Selena Gomez. Sure, teen pop is not the most diverse genre out there; the songs do tend to fall into a predictable pattern. But something about these songs was so familiar, so cozy; the lyrics spoke to my heart and even the instrumentation seemed so rich that I couldn’t resist soaking in it all.

Recording one of my own songs (Perfect Love) in a friend’s home-based studio last week made me realize just how much goes into even the simplest modern song. We had started with a preliminary acoustic version–just one layer of guitar, my lead vocals and my own backup vocals harmonizing–but I realized that if I wanted to take it to the next step in a future recording session, I would have to be thorough and specific about what I wanted. When you really listen to a typical song today there is so much going on, so many layers and nuances and effects.

Getting back to my Disney favorites, the beautiful thing about these songs was not just the instrumentation and composition, but of course, the lyrics. So many of today’s songs are too simplified–not that many words, or not much meaning or neither, just vain repetition. That’s why I hold dear to my heart the songs that have a pure, positive, universal message and are not just about sex, drugs and money. Many of these Disney songs talked about innocent romance punctuated by either fear, excitement or both (see Hannah Montana’s “He Could Be the One,” and Demi Lovato’s “Catch Me”); about having standards upon entering a relationship (see Vanessa Hudgens’ “Say OK”); about the love of a father and daughter through the years (Billy Ray Cyrus and Miley Cyrus had a few, such as “I Learned from You”); about friendship and love as a whole, not just romantic love (Hannah Montana’s “You and Me Together” and “Bigger Than Us”). These topics are not necessarily simple, but nearly anyone could relate and benefit from listening.

Some songs that really spoke to me that night were Hannah Montana’s “Make Some Noise” and Demi Lovato’s “La La Land.” “Make Some Noise” has the kind of message you don’t hear enough in mainstream music:

“Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not strong enough
Don’t give up, there’s nothing wrong with just being yourself,
that’s more than enough
So come on and raise your voice
Speak your mind and make some noise…”  

Sometimes we need this reminder, teenagers and grownups alike. Hannah Montana’s music was geared toward predominantly young preteen and teenage girls, I presume, and they are often in need of all the support they can get; they receive a lot of pressure from mainstream media to be something they’re not, and to keep quiet if their opinion is not popular. “La La Land” is a very feisty, edgy, playful song about someone who’s famous but not afraid to be herself, someone who doesn’t let celebrity go to her head. One verse says “who says I can’t wear my Converse with my dress? Oh baby, that’s just me.” The chorus says,

“Some people say I need to be afraid
of losing everything
because of where I
had my start and where I made my name
but everything’s the same
in the la la land machine.”

Demi Lovato had my heart from very early in her career and her voice is as amazing as her songwriting skill (which is an understatement). To see that she started strong, went on a decline, battled her demons and overcame to continue making powerful music is a tremendous feat. Maybe these very words played a part in bringing her back to full recovery, as she realized that she couldn’t let anything change her for the worse. (It would be unjust to not recommend her comeback song, “Skyscraper.”)

I can unashamedly say that many of those songs don’t need to stay in my childhood– they are just as relevant, some even more relevant than before (particularly for the love songs now that I’m of age and engaged). Seeing that some artists like Miley are grown now, and have made drastic changes in their career in terms of target audience, message and style, I could only hope that they are not ashamed of their past, and that they don’t dismiss the beautiful songs they made popular as childish, boring, or cliché. Their words still speak to me.

Louder Than the Beat

 

You hear a song playing on the radio. You start humming along and nodding your head, and your friend who notices says, “Oh, you know this song?” You recognize it as a song that’s been on every station, every hour, for weeks now, so you reply “yes.” But when he or she asks, “What’s it called again?” you are embarrassed to realize not only that you do not know the title, but that you don’t know any of the words either. Does this sound familiar?

This is the tragedy that has especially befallen our generation. Tragedy might seem too strong a term, but as I may have made clear in previous blog posts, I take words very seriously. I live by the maxim “my word is my worth and my worth is my word.” I give music the same value, so when you put the two together, I have very high expectations for songs. This is why I am appalled by how oblivious people can be to song lyrics.

Let’s indulge ourselves for a moment and consider the following examples: I have heard Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” played at the funeral of my family-friend’s mother, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on at least one Christian gospel album, “Say Something” by A Great Big World at my high school prom, “I’m in Love with the CoCo” by O.T. Genasis at an elementary school block party, and most recently, Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better” played at a sweet sixteen. These are just a few of the scenarios where the songs did not match the occasion at all. I can imagine what the DJs might have been thinking when they made these selections. However, I’ll explain why each was an inappropriate match-up.

Only one or two lines in the chorus of Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” are suitable for a funeral: “Oh won’t you stay with me? / ‘cause you’re all I need.” This is something you might wish you could say to a loved one you just lost. Take the first verse, however (“Guess it’s true, I’m not good at a one-night stand”), and that should make the context of the song clear.

I have seen way too many people mistake Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for a gospel song, which is so unfortunate. Hallelujah does mean “Praise the Lord” but the only thing being praised in this song is sex, not God. In short, it is filled with disturbing sexual references hidden behind Biblical allusions (such as King David and Bathsheba in the first two verses).

In terms of music alone, “Say Something” by A Great Big World might sound like the perfect slow dance, but I would hope that the words “I’m giving up on you” and “you’re the one that I love / and I’m saying goodbye” are far from what you would want to say to your lover or date on prom night.

On the surface, “I’m in Love with the CoCo” by O.T. Genasis is a catchy and funny sounding song. Nevertheless, it ultimately promotes cocaine addiction. I don’t see how drugs and kids go together, ever. Someone just wasn’t thinking straight at that block party.

As for Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better,” this was one of too many songs played at a sweet sixteen that would have better suited a strip club or someone’s bedroom.

The DJs in each case must have given precedence to the musical components, as in the rhythm or melody, rather than the lyrical components of the songs, and that is where things often take a bad turn. They did not consider who would be present or what the overall purpose of the gathering was. They just wanted something that people could “bump” to or “turn up” to and that was it.

Music is not just about the beat; if it were, why have lyrics at all? Why not just make instrumentals? The truth is, music is such a powerful force, one that can be used for good or evil. Without getting into detail on the moral component, every song has a message to get across or a mood to express. If we can mindlessly play, sing, or dance to certain songs without acknowledging the message they are conveying, that just goes to show how clueless, vulnerable, and unsophisticated we can be.

To me, there is something beautiful about choosing the right embellishments for the right occasion–the decor, dress code and especially the music all contribute to creating the perfect atmosphere. This stylistic decision-making, practiced by many wedding and party planners, is an art in itself. My hope is that people will value it more, and that lyricism will not become a lost art.

Be Careful During Your Morning Commute

Each day that I wake up I lay in bed and prepare myself for the day ahead by listing of all the tasks that I must complete by the day’s end. After organizing my time around assignments, household responsibilities, as well as making time for myself/ my needs I prepare myself for my train ride to school. I know you must be thinking, who needs to prepare themselves for their train ride, there’s nothing to it? Well that’s where you are wrong and you don’t even know it. Train rides are one of the most unpredictable aspects of life that can either make or break your day.

Most people aren’t aware how dangerous train rides can be because everyone walks around with their ear buds in their ears, with the intention of blocking out the world. In my experience I find that in order to have a safer and more productive commute, using headphones to drown out the world around you is ineffective. The best way to deal with the morning commute is to be aware of your surroundings, and be ready to react if necessary.

While I’m on the train, I like many other people, am guilty of listening to my music loudly to ignore others on many occasions. Recently I’ve noticed how dangerous it is to be on the train with my headphones on full blast. A few summers ago I was running a few errands and I decided to catch the three train so I could get to my destination quickly. During my train ride a man came and sat across from me and stared intently at me, but because I had my headphones in I paid him no mind. I felt a bit uneasy because I was in the train car alone with him but since my stop was coming up I didn’t fret too much. After a few minutes I decided to look up and get a good look at the man sitting across from me. He had a strange look in his eye, and he struck me as a person who may be going through a rough time. On his wrist I noticed a band that appeared to be from a medical center, and I also saw that his clothes were shabby and unkempt. After looking him over briefly I went back to playing with my iPod, and before I knew it I had arrived at my destination. I got off the train, and never thought twice about the man who sat across from me until I saw him again.

A few days later I was on the two train going to Flatbush and the same man got on the train, in the exact same outfit. To my surprise as soon as everyone saw him people either started running out of the train car, or moving as far away from the man as physically possible . I thought maybe he smelled bad, but since I was listening to my music I once again paid him no mind. An older woman tapped me and told me that this man, that I had sat across from and ignored a few days prior, was actually mentally ill. Not only was he mentally ill, he liked to fondle himself on the train, and once he was finished, he would wipe his ejaculation onto other people surrounding him. I was shocked at my own insolence, that I sat across from a man who appeared to be mentally challenged, but because I was too busy listening to my music and ignoring him, I didn’t pay attention to the cues in my surroundings.

I share this story with you because I want to explain how dangerous train rides can be when we do not pay attention to the world around us. This man who I sat across from was ill, and I was too caught up in my music to realize that I was in a bad position. It was by the grace of God that I was not assaulted by this man while being in a train car alone with him, and I am so grateful that the situation worked out in my favor. After this incident I decided to find other ways to occupy my time on the train. If I do decide to listen to my music, the volume is low enough that I can hear people around me. At other times I will complete assigned readings, so that my mind is occupied, and I can still be cognizant of what’s going on around me.

Paying attention to the world around us has become more of an option than a necessity, and I want people to know that they are doing themselves a great disservice by distancing themselves from the real world. By ignoring the people and the world around you, you are not preparing yourself for danger than can occur at the slightest moment. Instead of trying to drown out the world, embrace the universe, deal with the people or aliens that inhabit it even if they are unpleasant, but just stay safe and don’t allow yourself to fall victim to others. Listening to music on the train is a great way to pass the time, but it’s also a great way to put yourself in danger during your commute. My advice to all people who use the train as their main form of transportation is to be aware, be smart and most of all be careful during your morning commute.

Union Square Park

When I was around the age of six, I picked out my very first favorite place in Manhattan. It was the first time that I can recall myself creating an instinctual memory of a place; that I knew how to get there from home and what it was called. It wasn’t so much of the architecture that made me like the space so greatly, it was this feeling of the surroundings; like everyone was important and we were all connected. Bias of race, gender, or culture played an inferior role in this particular environment; in fact, New Yorker’s differences were highly embraced and even emphasized. To my young mind the place was my own version of kid-heaven; pets, books, music, diverse cuisine, and other shops were all within walking distance from each other; it was fun, challenging, and I always went home with something new. Although I would loudly and quickly state that my architectural taste has gotten more refined from my childhood, somehow I always find myself in my old favorite spot, Union Square.

The origin of the name, “Union Square”, comes from the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. Which was a very detailed plan of the roads, streets, and avenues of Manhattan that we still use today. The plan was completed with the help of John Randel, a surveyor, who joined the project in June of 1808 and worked on the development for the next thirteen years. Throughout the years of observation, the creators of this plan coined the name by explaining the intersection of Broadway and Fourth Avenue (previously known as Bloomingdale Road and Bowery Road) which creates an irregular square that no one wanted to build upon so it was decided to make the space a public park. The area was then utilized for social assemblies and trading. The space was formerly called “Potter’s Field” and was later changed to better fit the social aspect of the area; making a union between both roads and people.

The Union Square Park that we know of, officially opened on July 19, 1839; the roads paved, paths created for foot traffic, and the landscape planted to suit the people.

By the 1870’s the Ladies’ Mile shopping district began to form which was a term to describe the long strip of commerce, art, and theater that lined the streets from Union Square Park to Madison Square Park that is on 23rd street (which I mentioned in a past post for the Flatiron Building that resides juxtaposed the Park).

Throughout history Union Square became a meeting space for people to voice their opinion; whether it be in the form of a speech, protest, or gathering. This is the place that people met with each other to show support and respect. In 1861 about two hundred-fifty thousand people gathered on the Square to show their respect after the fall of Fort Sumter (notable Civil War sea fort); this would be the largest gathering of its time. This aesthetic didn’t depart from New York approach. After 9/11, New Yorkers gathered here in response to the crisis; it showed a large caliber of support and condolences; for some time, it was known as a grieving area.

As I walk through Union Square Park now, I still feel the same vibe that I fell in love with as a child. Music, dance, and other artistic performances taking place on the regular; almost as if something is always happening and if you don’t experience it, you are destined to feel an acute absence of what could have been seen, felt, and cherished.

Morphous by Lionel Smit. A South African sculptor who got his piece to be displayed in Union Square from June 13, 2016 to April 30, 2017.

This Sculpture was made with bronze like the Statue of Liberty.