Exploring My Teen Angst Using Overused Music Stock Photos
One of the essential paradoxes at the heart of teen angst: we all want to fit the mould by doing as the group does AND simultaneously be perceived as different, special and unique.
When I graduated from fifth form, my school organized a dance for everyone in my year to celebrate the momentous occasion. The idea of this event terrified me because my name and 'dancing' really shouldn't be anywhere near each other, but I went anyway for fear of missing out on "the time of my life." Awkwardly wobbling about in 6-inch heels, I made my way to the Hilton hotel, clad in a bedazzled peach gown that I most definitely didn't have the chest for. I prepared myself to have a glorious night, or at the very least, pretend that I did. However, when I arrived, I spent the evening subjected to death glares from another girl in my year, someone I had spoken to maybe once or twice in the five years that I had attended secondary school. Coincidentally, we had worn the same dress: mine in brilliant peach and hers in an illustrious grey. Different colours, but still self-evidently the same dress.
I thought it was a weird happenstance, but it didn't bother me, and I couldn't for the life of me understand the random ire that I received from this person I didn't even know. That is until I started writing and became immersed in the stock photo world. Most creators (including myself) source photos from Unsplash because it's relatively easy to do so directly from the story editor, and the website boasts a collection of over 850,000 unique photographs. 850,000! How is it possible, then, that we end up with at least five stories containing the same imagery for every playlist challenge? It's maddening, and something inside me dies whenever I publish a story and later see another creator use the same image. This feeling is stupid and unfounded, but it highlights one of the essential paradoxes at the heart of teen angst: we all want to fit the mould by doing as the group does AND simultaneously be perceived as different, special and unique.
Spurred on by the emotional and physical changes that accompany adolescence, WebMD hilariously defines teen angst as "hair-trigger moods and drama worthy of a midday soap opera." Movies and TV portray it as longing stares out of car windows with headphones in and music blaring, romance to set the heart on fire, parents that just don't get it and a general sense that you are alone, misunderstood and out of place amongst the din of the regular world. In that spirit, I thought I'd take you down memory lane today by exploring some of the music that marked my adolescence with the help of some popular music stock photos that I absolutely despise.
I should preface this by saying that I don't dislike these pictures because they're inherently bad. I think that some of these photographs are stunning and speak to the talent of the photographer. My dislike centres on the fact that they are overused and are, subsequently, stripped of meaning. Similar to when Gen Z discovers a "new" trend that has existed for generations and memes it into oblivion until it reaches such a point that we can no longer stomach it without feeling a distinct pang of bile at the back of our throats.
Phase 1: parentification and the proliferation of the coming of age anthem
“When we are children we seldom think of the future. This innocence leaves us free to enjoy ourselves as few adults can. The day we fret about the future is the day we leave our childhood behind.”
― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
I want to know this kid's story. Why is he screaming? And why does his side profile kind of look like Cara Delevingne when she buzzed her hair? If this kid was like me, he probably had a lot to scream about as a kid. My mom had me at a young age and spent hours tirelessly working to provide for my sister and me while my dad was out doing God knows what. If I had to take a guess, I'd say gambling. People don't talk about this enough, but when you're from a low-income household, you're forced to grow up and assume a lot of responsibility at a very young age. At 4, I was doing homework independently. At 8, I looked after my younger sibling (age 4) while my mom worked overnight shifts to ensure that there was food on the table. At 10, I routinely made the hour-long trip from tutoring sessions on Saturday to home by myself.
Parentification instills values of hard work and responsibility but also invariably robs its victims of a full childhood. My heart is empty of blame for my mom because I think parents make tough decisions when they have few other choices. I'm organized, independent, diligent and unyielding because of my upbringing. But I was also dragged into the throes of teen angst many years before my peers. I spent many bits of childhood wishing and wondering what life would be like if things were different. If I had the experiences of travelling the world like other kids my age. If I could afford to participate in such lavish extra-curricular activities as gymnastics, ballet or orchestra. How might I have turned out? Enter the coming of age anthem.
I didn't have an iPod growing up, or a walkman or any number of personal music players, so my music consumption before adolescence was limited to the CDs I owned (only 2) and whatever was playing on the Disney Channel or VH1. The coming of age anthem was a song to my soul. It spoke of better times, of a life ripe with incredible experiences and a heart bursting at the seams with love and joy. These songs also underscored the importance of perseverance and regarding your life with optimism and non-judgement. Given my circumstances, I credit these songs for giving me hope for a brighter future. Sometimes hope is all you have.
Breakaway - Kelly Clarkson
I'll spread my wings and I'll learn how to fly
I'll do what it takes 'til I touch the sky
And I'll make a wish, take a chance, make a change
A Place in This World - Taylor Swift
Got the radio on, my old blue jeans
And I'm wearing my heart on my sleeve
Feeling lucky today, got the sunshine
Could you tell me what more do I need?
And tomorrow's just a mystery, oh yeah
But that's okay
The Climb - Miley Cyrus
There's always gonna be another mountain
I'm always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose
Ain't about how fast I get there
Ain't about what's waiting on the other side
It's the climb
Some of my favourite songs from this phase!
Phase 2: rock, failed emo and assimilation pretenses
“Normal consumers declare rock to be dead whenever they personally stop listening to it (or at least to new iterations of it), which typically happens about two years after they graduate from college.”
― Chuck Klosterman, But What If We're Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past
This photo reads like the photographer turned on the camera, looked at the subject and said, "Ok, pretend like you're rocking out." Or maybe she's not pretending, and people actually aim to give themselves whiplash every time they listen to music. Either way, the picture is a suitable entry into my second phase of angst, characterized by pretending to enjoy rock music to fit in. Really, this phase should be called 'Amazing Music I Discovered While Pretending to Like Rock."
Before this point, as you've probably garnered, my music rotation consisted mainly of soft pop and R&B, leading many to call me an "oreo," which was a clever way of suggesting that my music taste was very, very white and I was very, very not. The heart-wrenching, stomach-flipping, palm-sweating issues of teenage romance hadn't yet touched me because I went to an all-girls school and only sparingly interacted with the opposite sex.
All of this was fine, and I felt no pressure to change who I was until a cultural shift in the tides occurred when I was maybe 14 (so around 2012). Suddenly, everyone in my year started embodying a particular subset of angst: the emo and goth scene. At once, it became all the rage to have haircuts that looked like you ran your luscious strands through a blender, dress in all black despite the constant heat of our tropical sun and regard notions of self-harm with romantic idolatry, instead of the empathic, listening ear that it deserves.
MySpace was in the midst of its final victory lap before eventually dying off during this time and decided to vomit some of its worst bits on the world to remember it by. Truthfully, I was not too fond of this era. I thought it was silly, self-aggrandizing and brought more harm than good. Still, I was curious about the hype and engaged in a short-lived (maybe three-month) process of reinvention and dabbling in this space. I didn't haphazardly cut my hair because my hair's curly, and that would look tragic. I did, however, fall headfirst into the music that defined this era: rock. Punk rock. Pop-rock. Alternative rock. Weird rock filled with no actual words but intense, ear-splitting screaming. Let me level with you: it was not my cup of tea. But amid the heaping piles of hot, steaming trash, I discovered some incredible music that is still on rotation in my Spotify playlist today.
Madness - Muse
And now I have finally seen the end (Finally seen the end)
And I'm not expecting you to care (Expecting you to care)
But I have finally seen the light (Finally seen the light)
I have finally realized (Realized)
I need to love
I need to love
Lithium - Evanescence
Come to bed, don't make me sleep alone
Couldn't hide the emptiness, you let it show
Never wanted it to be so cold
Just didn't drink enough to say you love me
I Write Sins Not Tragedies - Panic! At The Disco
Well, in fact
Well, I'll look at it this way
I mean, technically, our marriage is saved
Well, this calls for a toast
So pour the champagne
A playlist with some of the songs I stumbled onto during this phase:
Phase 3: indie tunes, swingset moods and me v the world
“After all, there was something rather pleasant in knowing that you were misunderstood. It made you feel different from everyone else.”
― Henry Handel Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom
I've seen this photo floating around quite a bit, and I have so many questions. How was this photo taken? Is that a pink wall or a pink floor? What purpose does covering half your face with your hair serve? If your eyes are covered, how do you then see to put the headphones on or change the song that's playing if it's one you don't like? So dramatic! Also perfect for describing this phase of my teen angst which I've aptly dubbed "indie tunes, swingset moods and me v the world." Because, at one point, I did feel like the world was against me.
Anxiety has been a mainstay throughout my life, and it ebbs and flows with varying intensity. When I was 16 0r 17, I experienced a particularly debilitating bout of it over a year. The stress of exam prep, unfulfilling friendships and personal insecurities mixed to produce internal turmoil that felt like I was walking around with a 50-pound weight strapped to my chest at all times. I had trouble sleeping, and going to school every day was acutely painful. During this time, I burrowed deeply within myself, and you could often find me tucked away into the corner of a packed room, head down, earbuds in, listening to indie music. This mood music mirrored my own turbulent, volatile moods and brought peace and solace when I could hardly find it from my external environment.
Control - Halsey
I sat alone, in bed till the morning
I'm crying, "They're coming for me"
And I tried to hold these secrets inside me
My mind's like a deadly disease
R.I.P 2 My Youth - The Neighbourhood
R.I.P. to my youth
If you really listen, then this is to you
Mama, there is only so much I can do
Tough for you to witness it but it was for me too
Wild - Troye Sivan
We're alike you and I
Two blue hearts locked in our wrong minds
So can we make the most out of no time?
Can you hold me?
Can you make me leave my demons and my broken pieces behind?
Some of my favourite tunes from this phase:
Phase 4: toe dips in the pool of self-discovery
“There's a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed
This photograph sparked the idea for this entire story. At the time of writing, seven challenge entries are utilizing this picture. To use the words of the great Kathryn Milewski, "I wish I could break that guy's radio." I have no idea who this man is, but something about the positioning of the radio, coupled with his chill, laid-back, cool guy pose just drips with arrogance. Or at least, that's what I thought before this story required me to do a bit more introspection. At second glance, I don't see arrogance; I see unassuming confidence. There is an overwhelming sense of contentment, not just with the music playing but with himself. He has little to prove to anyone. The music speaks for itself.
During a three-hour phone conversation, a friend of mine said, "now that we're older, it's easier just to like what you like." I'll be 23 this year and am safely outside of the realm of teen angst. Presently, I find that it's less stressful to talk about my genuine like and dislike for things, including music. If something rubs me the wrong way, I no longer pretend that it didn't. Invariably, I don't feel the need to give drawn-out justifications for my tastes in music. It just is what it is. To this end, here is the state of my On Repeat playlist on Spotify right now. No explanations. Do with this information what you will.
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