Hey There Nostalgia: Revisiting Middle School Music

By Olivia Bono

In the age of YouTube and Spotify, we can listen to any song we want from any era. So why is it that when we hear our favorite middle school jams in Okenshields—be they “Stereo Hearts,” “Dynamite,” or even “Cotton Eye Joe”—we drop everything (except maybe our trays of fried rice because we really don’t want to have to go through that line again) and listen? Whether by discretely foot-tapping or all-out choreographing, we’ve all been there. Why don’t current hits elicit this reaction? Music in general hasn’t changed in the last five years, and yet when I need a boost I still listen to (in private mode) the playlists I made when I was 13. It’s not even like middle school was this magical time—puberty kind of universally sucks. I think that it’s because those years were so rough that the music we listened to affects us so much.

Music is strongly tied to emotions and development. Current pop music doesn’t affect us as much now because we haven’t lived long enough to be nostalgic about it. We associate “Hey There Delilah” with long car rides to the store on rainy days, “Good Riddance” with our last day of seventh grade, and “Sk8er Boi” with throwing up in our best friend’s treehouse (or was that last one just me?). When we’re in a particularly emotional time in our lives, we feel the need to forget our troubles and block out the world. The invention and popularity of MP3 players and headphones certainly helped this, as they made it easier to drown out distractions and really feel like the music was personally talking to you, but certainly generations before ours experienced the same phenomenon. Why were the Walkman, the stereo, or the gramophone invented, if not to bring some sort of solace to past generations’ emotional lives?

Art by Fauna Mahootian

13, especially, is notorious for being a time of capital-A Angst, even when it’s totally uncalled for. Got a B+ when you feel you deserved an A? YOUR LIFE IS CLEARLY FALLING APART. One of your friends forgot to wish you a happy birthday? EVERYONE DEFINITELY HATES YOU. You accidentally drop your deodorant on the way to gym class and your Vice Principal picks it up for you? SOMEONE KNOWS YOU USE DEODORANT; THE WORLD IS ACTUALLY ENDING. And so, being the dramatic creatures that we are, we rely on music to validate us and give us an escape. Who among us hasn’t listened to “Gives You Hell” when they were angry in middle school? Or tearfully sang out “Traveling Soldier” with their friends? Or religiously belted the Across the Universe soundtrack of Beatles covers despite being way too young to watch the movie?

There’s a scientific reason that these moments are preserved so potently above all others: our brains go through crucial development during adolescence. It’s the reason there’s a drinking age requirement in most countries, and why it’s easier to learn a language as a child than as an adult. In 2000, a study led by Dr. Paul Thompson at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging found that the areas of our brain that specialize in language learning are rapidly growing until sometime between the ages of 11 to 15. When our brains are still developing, we’re the most vulnerable to outside influence, and most susceptible to absorbing new information, like song lyrics. We might not be able to memorize every single part of a plant cell, but we’ll know the lyrics to every Taylor Swift song until the day we die, whether we like it or not.

When we allow music to occupy so much of our consciousness, and define who we are as individuals, we get defensive. This is where the notion comes in that “all of today’s music SUCKS.” As much as we may complain about our early teen misadventures, we still feel a deep connection to them. This isn’t only a Millennial phenomenon—it’s precisely why “classic rock” is popular among older generations, and why “80s nostalgia” or “90s nostalgia” is now so common. In twenty years, today’s tweens will feel a sense of longing for today’s hits, and the tweens of the future will feel a need to listen to our music, insisting that certain lyrics reveal a “deeper meaning” and “sincerity” that the tunes of the future could ever recapture. Music is maybe one of the biggest elements of generational identity. It ties millions of people across cultures together, uniting them under the badge of honor that they came of age at around the same time.

Even if we experience intense emotions in college like we did in middle school, our brains are just developed enough so that any new songs we learn won’t quite elicit the same instinctual reaction in the future. We might get teary-eyed when we think about songs that have specific meanings to them, but we won’t feel the need to protect that song with everything we have. We can learn to speak a new language with practice, but we’ll always think and feel instinctively in our native tongues.

So will we look back fondly at our college years when we hear Meghan Trainor? Maybe. Maybe not. Quality doesn’t necessarily determine how much a song means to us. More than likely, we’ll still experience nostalgia, but today’s music will mean more to Cornell’s Class of 2025 than it will to us. They’ll have developed alongside today’s pop culture, as opposed to simply adapting to it. Was “Cotton Eye Joe” an artistic masterpiece? My middle school P.E. teacher might disagree with me, but I’d say not. And yet, every kid I know grew up hearing it at every school function, and knows the whole dance, whether they consciously tried to learn or not. It’s certainly not a deep, artistic masterpiece, but it’s a part of us now.

When a song is so ingrained in our identity, as are the songs we learned when we were just entering the “teen” demographic, it can have curious effects on our mood, despite the apparent “quality”. Somehow whenever I find myself at the end of the impossibly long line for pizza at Okenshields, and that song comes on, I feel a little more at ease, more in my own environment. The song might follow me for the rest of the day, despite being one of the more obnoxious ear-worms of contemporary music.

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