Capturing the past in playlists
Reflecting on the nostalgia that music from prior decades brings forth
Every time the song “Some Nights” by Fun. plays, senior Michelle Wang finds herself transported back to the summer after fourth grade. She remembers being at summer camp and her camp leader blasting the song as she and her friends screamed along to the lyrics. “Some Nights” joins many other songs on Wang’s Spotify playlist of throwback songs, a collection of music that holds unique, sentimental value to her.
“I think I have almost 100 songs in that playlist, but every single one of them has a very specific memory attached to it,” Wang said. “Every single song just takes me back to a very special moment. I think if you look back at all of your throwback songs and make associations with them, song to memory, you can really make the best out of every single song.”
Wang’s playlist, called “pass the aux,” is the product of a year spent compiling songs from her past that hold a special place in her heart. Wang believes that when most of these songs initially came out, she didn’t have any attachment to them aside from their entertainment value. She finds that this playlist has also aided her mental health — bringing back memories of more carefree times.
“The reason I listen to throwback songs is mainly as a mood booster,” Wang said. “Especially now, times are rough for pretty much everyone and mental health is an all-time priority … Every time I listen to [this playlist], I have this immediate image pop into my head of me and my best friends cruising down this road, on a road trip and just singing our hearts out to every single song on this playlist.”
Sophomore Sneha Agarwal echoes Wang’s feelings towards throwback music, often finding her mood lifted by older music. Agarwal also remembers the feelings the music evoked in her younger self, which adds to the effect that music has on her currently.
“I feel like a lot of [songs that] I listened to were about self-confidence; ‘you’re enough,’ ‘you’re amazing,’ ‘you’re a boss,’ ‘you can rule the world,’ kind of thing which definitely, when you’re small at least, is really empowering,” Agarwal said. “It feels really good to listen to that kind of music.”
As a child, Agarwal listened to more pop anthems than other genres, and acknowledges that the messages in those songs may have shaped her outlook on life as well as her personality in the present. Like Wang, she has a playlist full of throwback songs that she recalls being impactful, including hits like “Fireflies” by Owl City, “Starships” by Nicki Minaj and “Firework” by Katy Perry. Agarwal remembers watching music videos for songs like these, and the nostalgia contributes to the overall feeling of happiness she gets when listening to them now.
“Sometimes if I’m just feeling kind of sad or like I want a little bit of an escape from everything that’s going on, I’ll listen to that kind of music and it will reassure me or make me feel better,” Agarwal said.
Like Agarwal, junior Manvi Kottakota often finds herself listening to her favorite throwback songs to feel freed from the everyday stress and negative emotions she experiences in high school. Rather than it being as much of an ‘escape,’ as Agarwal describes it, Kottakota believes this type of music is more of a general stress reliever.
“I think it’s a distraction, because if I’m really stressed out, I’ll listen to throwback music and it will kind of take my mind off of what I’m doing,” Kottakota said. “And oftentimes, even if I’m feeling stressed out while I’m working [and] I’m not necessarily able to take a break from work, listening to throwback music while I’m working relaxes my mind and makes me feel less stress[ed].”
According to Kottakota, the reason behind throwback music being such an outlet for stress is due to her connection between songs from her past and happier memories from her youth, comparable to Wang’s song-memory association.
“The idea of being younger and being a child is so tempting to think back to, especially now when you’re so stressed and drowned in work all the time,” Kottakota said. “It feels like you’re actually growing up and you have so much else to think about other than just being a child.”
While she listens to several decades of music, including songs from the 1970s, 1990s, 2000s and early 2010s, Kottakota has the deepest connections with the artists she feels she grew up with. She’s observed that groups like One Direction – prior to their split in 2015 – and solo artists like Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber are all emotionally significant to her.
Through her interest in other genres other than modern mainstream pop music, Kottakota noticed a change in the production styles and overall effect of music between older music and what’s popular today. This is especially emphasized, according to her, in the transition of rap music styles over time. When listening to artists like Tupac from the 1990s era of hip hop music, she believes that certain aspects have downgraded in quality over the years.
“I’m thinking back to a video I saw on YouTube, and basically they were comparing [Tupac’s] music lyrics to current rap artists’ lyrics,” Kottakota said. “And I think it was so interesting because … I feel like lyrics were more meaningful [in the past] and I feel like they’re almost becoming less relevant in really mainstream popular rap. I feel like in the main type of music in the big artists [presently], a lot of it seems really repetitive and meaningless.”
When comparing other genres, such as pop, Kottakota sees sound production and background music as the biggest discrepancies between music now and in the early 2000s to 2010s. She cites the hit “Like A G6” by Far East Movement as a more upbeat, dance-oriented song that represented a lot of what was popular when she was younger, most notable by its focus on the background beats rather than its lyricism or meaning.
Amy Young, MVHS’s vocal music director and string orchestra co-director, has observed how music has changed throughout her life as well, the most striking one being the transition of pop music to a more electronic sound with the introduction of Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani and others early 2000s artists. While Kottakota remains skeptical of the direction music has gone in, Young wholeheartedly embraces it.
“I love the direction that pop music has gone in terms of being very dance-oriented, like a style of dance music,” Young said. “I’m all about anything with a good beat on it that you can move around to.”
While she does listen to a lot of music from her high school and college years, having grown up with 90s alternative and popular music, Young’s taste in throwback music expands to the swing and big band movements that were at their peak as far in the past as the 1940s. Her interest in swing music partly stems from her experiences with swing dancing in high school.
Young’s encounters with music in high school were some of the most influential in her life, as she’s still an avid listener to what she liked back then. Growing up in a household where she was introduced to heavy metal alternative rock by her mother and country and folk music by her father, Young’s mind remained open to various musical influences throughout her teenage years. The more memorable music that has stuck with her today are Broadway musicals, specifically The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music, which Young believes influenced her decision to study music in higher education and eventually become a teacher in the field.
Young’s experience with watching the evolution of music over time has led her to notice the specificities in the difference of production, like Kottakota, but she’s had the advantage of watching the industry rapidly react to the introduction of technology in the 90s and 2000s. In terms of the quality of changing music, Young is appreciative of the opportunities that technology has provided for aspiring artists with streaming services, as well as the recent transformation of sound.
“I grew up without technology, and then very much with technology and so we went through the phase of Napster and LiveWire,” Young said. “I don’t really know if it’s better or worse — I think that a lot of things got better in terms of accessibility. I think a lot of artists are able to get into the game now.”
The effects of digitizing the music industry weren’t just felt from a distance. Young recalls the technicalities of concerts and music abruptly changing from what she considers throwbacks to resembling modern music. DJs became more popular and completely live performances with background bands became less common, but she believes that the underlying significance of music and concerts will remain irreplaceable.
“I remember going to concerts when I was pretty young and then I went again in high school, and have gone to several since then,” Young said. “I think definitely the technology has gotten a lot better ... But I think the overall effect is about the same — just coming together to live in that music for a little while and enjoy it live.”
Young’s education in music history has also given her an additional perspective on pop evolution. According to Young, a lot of modern pop music traits can be traced back to the rock movement in the early 40s and 50s, and her interpretation is that the genre itself has maintained a consistent simplicity over the years. She says what separates pop music from the rest of the music industry is how it follows a basic format or outline, without it detracting from its quality in any form.
“I think my favorite song of all time is ‘Edelweiss’ from [the movie] ‘The Sound of Music’ and it’s the simplest, easiest song you could possibly ever sing, but I love it for some reason,” Young said. “So I think that simple doesn’t necessarily mean [a song is] worse, I think it just depends on what you do with it and what it means to you and what kind of function it could serve for you.”
The trendiness of pop music for many people in their adolescence is an effect that many teenagers like Wang have felt, because it’s common for people to prefer pop when they’re younger and deviate from that as they have more chances to broaden their music taste. Wang attributes this to the self-discovery that often happens during ones’ teenage years.
“I think when you’re older, you definitely meet a lot more people,” Wang said. “You try to find yourself in many ways, and I think music is just one of those things where it becomes your identity.”
The age factor in music is something that Kottakota considers as well, given that her appreciation for older music comes from the happiness and comfort that her old habits and music taste provide.
“[Compared to] being younger, the time that I’m living in right now has been more stressful and so all the music that I listen to now, I don’t have any emotional connection to it like [I do] with throwback music,” Kottakota said. “I think I associate [throwback music] with really good memories and happy feelings of being younger … But I don’t feel the same way about modern music anymore.”
Kottakota believes that what she listened to as a child, throwback music, was universally liked by most kids her age because no one had the maturity and self-exploration to find music that they could deeply relate to. Like both Agarwal and Wang, she acknowledges the experiences that come with age and how they can shape a person’s evolving taste in music.
“I think as you grow older, you do grow into music more,” Kottakota said. “Everyone listened to almost a similar type of [music] before. But now, music is almost a part of people’s personalit[ies]. When you see what different people listen to, it actually speaks for their interests and their actual personality. So I feel like music has become more meaningful to people, and people relate to it more on an emotional level than they used to in the past.”