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By Ellisa Sun
With so much new music available at our fingertips and ears, it’s easy to forget about bands we used to love and listen to like they were their own form of religion. At ten years old, I was obsessed with neo-soul — The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was one of the first CDs I purchased with my own money. Now, at 30 years old, I get 300 artists thrown at me every day in the form of playlists, social media, paid advertising, etc.
But every once in a while, a new song will transport me to that same place where music has always made me feel at home, and every now and then a new artist will remind me of the artists I used to love. When I’m transported back, it feels like such a simpler, more magical time. But it can also remind me that we’ve changed so much — sometimes for the better — in 2019.
Here are five songs from my youth and five songs from today that show how my ears (and time itself) have changed.
1. NSYNC* – “Bye Bye Bye” vs. Ariana Grande – “thank u, next”
NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” is pure pop in all its youthful glory — this song brings me right back to my first celebrity crush, Lance Bass (yes, the gay one, just my luck). As soon as I hear this song, I laugh to myself and immediately do the dance from their music video.
I find that Ariana Grande’s “Thank u, next” has a similar message of saying “bye bye bye” to a lover. Grande is herself a pop princess and I love that today, this one woman is breaking all of the pop records, because some of those records were previously held by boy bands like Exhibit A above. The industry is still male-dominated, but at least we’ve got a few femmes like Grande killing it. Speaking of which…
2. The Cardigans – “Lovefool” vs. Lizzo – “Juice”
The Cardigans’ “Lovefool”’ is one of my favorite songs of all time. It features such a fun bass line, and you can’t help but sing along to that top-line. But the lyrics are begging someone to love them back. All of Lizzo’s lyrics are about her not giving a f*#k about someone loving her back because all that matters is that she loves herself. That’s a message that resonates with me more now for sure.
I love both songs though. When I was growing up in the ’90s, there weren’t enough Lizzos in the world. The Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child had their own version of “girl power,” it came from a different place I think. But something about Lizzo’s execution is way more authentic, more believable, and more of what I want to rally behind right now.
3. Ms. Lauryn Hill – “Ex-Factor” vs. Lianne La Havas – “Green & Gold”
Lauren Hill’s “Ex-Factor” is a timeless song that will always give me goosebumps. I danced around my living room to this song — lip syncing and wishing I was in a music video, wishing I could sing like her. Today there exists another artist, and another song, that encapsulates Lauryn Hill’s soul, but more contemporary, and that’s Lianna La Havas’ song “Green & Gold.”
I love La Havas because she plays intricate yet simple guitar parts that have helped me become a better player. Her music spans genres and shows how diverse music is nowadays — she’s a gorgeous mixture of neo-soul, rock, jazz, pop, and soul, wrapped into one.
4. Sum 41 – “Fat Lip” vs. Mitski – “Nobody”
“Fat Lip” is an example of what used to be a mainstream genre: pop/punk. It is, unfortunately, no longer mainstream. I freakin’ loved Sum 41. I had a huge crush on their bass player. Anyway, there’s not much in here now that gives me the same angry catharsis.
But Mitski (she’s much more impressive than Sum 41, not sorry) has a voice and quality in her music that feels super cathartic — it’s like she’s reading from your diary and releasing your demons for you. She’s also Asian-American, and I grew up with zero Asian-American musicians to look up to.
5. Backstreet Boys – “I Want It That Way” vs. BTS – “DNA”
“I Want It That Way” was the epitome of boy-band ballads, the high-water mark of a guilty-pleasure genre that everyone, eventually, grows out of. The amount of times I’ve seen gaggles of people singing this at karaoke is astounding. Every word’s been ingrained in my head. Today, our teenagers listen and do their best to sing along to a Korean pop boy-band, which kind of begs a lot of questions about whether we really need to grow out of anything? Let alone understand it…
Whatever your opinions are on K-Pop, it’s awesome to me that the U.S. has gotten on board with an all-Asian boy band. Back in the ’90s (or, ever?) this was not a thing. But streaming platforms, social media, and accessible worldwide distribution of all types of music have globalized and changed our musical tastes — in this case, I think, for the better. We still have a long way to go in terms of representation in the music industry, but when I first saw BTS perform on the Billboard Music Awards, I was stoked!
Music sure has changed since I was a youth. The way we find new music, the way we listen, and the way we share what we’re listening to has all changed; and the political and social climate of today’s culture is reflected in today’s music in a way that has changed massively since 20 years ago*. But I don’t look back and think, “now that was good music!”
Good music is whatever you want it to be! But because of streaming services like Spotify and the affordability of distribution for independent artists, more people are able to make their voices heard rather than a small number of people the record labels deem worthy of influencing our youths’ ears.
*I do think we could use less messages like: “Happiness is the same price as red bottoms” (Ariana Grande), and more messages like: “If I’m shiny, everybody gonna shine” (Lizzo).
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Ellisa Sun cuts out her heart and leaves it on the stage — which is why she never wears white. Currently on her first national tour, Ellisa is showing she has what it takes to make it on her own. Just a guitar, a 30-foot RV, and an insatiable desire to perform. Raised in Los Angeles and (until recently) based in the San Francisco Bay Area, her sound is honest, heartfelt, and textured, combining elements of jazz, soul, and pop.