One of the most unexpectedly delightful moments of my high school career occurred in my senior year Advanced Placement Biology class. The class was a collection of friendly acquaintances who inevitably bonded while staring at paramecium, cutting sheep brains into slices and not understanding what the Calvin Cycle was. It was during one of our grueling weekly one-and-a-half-hour block periods when it happened. I don’t remember the context well, much like I don’t remember most of the material from that class. What I do remember is someone (or maybe multiple people) quietly and inexplicably breaking out into the opening lyrics of Usher’s 2004 hit “Yeah!”: “Yeah, yeah, yeah … yeah, yeah … ”
And in a completely unplanned moment, a large percentage of our 20-person class quietly chimed in with the last and most emphasized word of the phrase: “Yeah.” Incredible stuff.
As we broke out into peals of laughter, I couldn’t help but think that there was some level of significance to that moment. Despite the years that had passed since “Yeah!” had last been relevant, this group of very different people were able to recall the (albeit very simple) lyrics. It made me think of all of the other songs, terrible or otherwise, that have stuck with me from when I was growing up. Thus, my “Bops for 12-year-old Me” playlist was born.
I’ll admit, the playlist’s title is a bit of a misnomer — the songs are from many different points in my adolescence, from the songs I passively heard on the radio that embedded themselves into my head to the Top 100 hits that the DJ played at my middle school dances. Even if I was a toddler when they came out, they’re songs that I remember from some context or another growing up. This collection of nearly 300 songs, for better or for worse, is part of my childhood landscape — everything from Rihanna to Sean Kingston to Katy Perry to, say, the High School Musical soundtracks. So why do I feel so embarrassed listening to it?
When I first made the playlist, I was oddly gleeful about it. Maybe it’s because songs like Iyaz’s “Replay” or Fergie’s “Fergalicious” make me laugh even as I find myself singing along to every word. But after the initial playlist-creation rush wore off, I found myself in an awkward situation: How do I justify listening to these songs?
In a world where art seems to always be focused on “what’s next,” it seems harder to justify consuming music that is a decade past its prime. Maybe it’s the sensory associations, or maybe it’s just the distinctive 2000s music production, but there is a special slice of music that people my age link to that kind of nostalgia.
In all honesty, some of the titular “bops” are songs that I didn’t like much when they came out, but they still managed to form such an indelible impression on me that I had to include them. Others I legitimately love to the point that if they came out in 2021, I would unironically listen to them all the time, guilt-free.
But listening to music associated with the big names of 2000s pop and R&B comes with an odd sort of risk. Clearly, this playlist is not universal — “Bops for 12-year-old Me” is based around my childhood, tailored to my memories of the 2000s and early 2010s. There may be overlaps, but not every song will slot perfectly into someone else’s experience the way it does into mine.
Because of this, there are moments when I am painfully aware that the songs from my childhood might not elicit the same reactions from others — there’s something uniquely awkward about putting a playlist on shuffle and having someone say, “I hate this song.” Every time I offer to take the aux cord and play “Bops” I find myself making the same caveat: “If you ever want me to skip a song, just let me know, and I’ll skip it.” It’s easily my most popular playlist: I have 13 followers, some of whom are probably strangers, and one of my friends told me once that she listens to it while she codes. (She works for Microsoft now, so that has to count for something.)
The easiest way to approach a playlist like “Bops” is through what I call “ironic listening” — listening to potentially cringe-worthy music where part of you is in on the joke. Whenever I listen to these “Bops,” I have to wrap myself in the myth of ironic listening like a protective cocoon, where I can’t be judged for my music choices because it’s all a joke anyway.
There are times when the “guilt” of these guilty pleasures is valid, mostly when the song itself is legitimately horrible. Think of the cringe-inducing crooning of early Justin Bieber — his song “First Dance” off of his debut album My World might have the most mortifying lyrics I’ve ever heard. “We’ll make it before the clock strikes nine” … I mean, come on.
Other songs are still cringe-inducing, but less bad: Think of the headache-inducing songs by LMFAO (and the Kia hamsters that go along with them) or the perennial earworm that is Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”
But what about the reverse? Over quarantine, I, an established Disney Channel kid, was introduced to Big Time Rush and found myself making my way through their discography. I found myself trapped between guilt and shame: How would I be able to continue listening to “Til I Forget About You” and “Windows Down” without facing the wolves of judgment? The answer was to put them into the playlist; despite the fact that I had somehow never heard of BTR when I was 12, adding them to the “Bops” collection was the only way I could listen to them guilt-free.
Thankfully, not every song on the playlist is of the guilty pleasure breed, but the legitimate music that makes the cut is dependent on a number of factors. Was the music critically acclaimed at the time? If so, Alicia Keys, Coldplay, Maroon 5, Bruno Mars, Adele — in theory, they’re all equally valid.
Is the musician still deeply popular and/or respected? In that case, my love for Beyoncé’s “Love on Top” and all of its key changes is still fully viable, and the early music of the Jonas Brothers has been given new life following their comeback album. Everything else requires a private Spotify listening session.
If you’ve noticed that this article has a lot of questions, it’s because this is what I ask myself when I listen to “Bops for 12-year-old Me.” I’m clearly overthinking all of this, but at the same time, I can’t help but wonder how the trends of nostalgia will move next.
Will Olivia Rodrigo’s “drivers license” make eleven-year-olds think they understand heartbreak the way that “Someone Like You” did for us? Will kids be dancing to “Savage” the same way we danced to “Cupid Shuffle”? I wonder when the songs I listened to when I was 16 or 17 are going to feel the same as the songs that defined my middle school experience. And I wonder if, when I’m in my 30s, I’ll be listening to a “Bops for 22-year-old Me” playlist.
For now, I stick with this 2000s range because it’s what I know best. It’s Alicia Keys’s “No One” and Natasha Bedingfield’s “Pocketful of Sunshine,” Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” and the golden age of early Beyoncé and Usher’s “Yeah!,” of course.
And this playlist only keeps growing. Whenever the grocery store plays a song I haven’t thought about in years or a friend’s music choices cause memories to resurface, it leads to the addition of another song. Each childhood moment I spontaneously remember keeps the playlist going and growing even as I get older.
The playlist is full of different songs in different contexts and, guilty or not, they bring a surprising spark in the midst of my social science major-attempting, 40-page journal article-reading, ten-page paper-writing, pandemic-ridden life. So I guess if you need me, I’ll be semi-ironically listening to “Yeah!” while losing myself in my childhood and trying not to feel embarrassed about it.
Senior Arts Editor Kari Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.