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The Magic of Musical Nostalgia

There is a playlist on my Spotify entitled Early Noughties. Consisting of over two hundred and fifty songs, it is full of musical gems by the likes of P!nk, Eminem, Christina Aguilera and Avril Lavigne, to name just a few. There is also some serious cheese in there, with guilty pleasures like The Ketchup Song and O-Zone’s Dragostea Din Tei. Basically, the kind of songs I hope don’t start playing when other people are around and Spotify is on shuffle.

Of all my playlists, this is the one that conjures up the most nostalgia for me. I play it often, and every time I am transported back to the first few years of the millennium. I find myself reminiscing about all of it: the house we lived in back then, the bedroom I shared with my stepsister, the clothes I owned, the CDs we used to play. Everything becomes a fond memory, which is strange, because I would not go back to the early noughties for all the money in the world.

Why would I go back to a time when I had no confidence, no agency and no power? Before I learned to get on with my stepmom or appreciate my step-siblings. When I thought no boy would ever be interested in me unless I somehow managed to lose half my body weight, because the magazines I read made out that all boys were superficial to the point of only dating Victoria’s Secret models. When I rarely got to choose my own clothes or have any kind of say over my own daily routine. I wouldn’t. So why, when I listen to my Early Noughties playlist, do I feel such a sense of nostalgia for that period? I’ve been pondering that a lot recently, and concluded that there are several reasons.

The first is obvious: it was a much simpler time back then. At the turn on the millennium I was ten years old and full of optimism. It would be another decade before I developed any kind of interest in politics or world affairs, thus beginning the gradual erosion of my inbuilt idealism. Back then my main concerns were school work and whether the boy I was crushing on knew I existed. We did not have the constant bombardment that is social media or twenty-four-hour rolling news coverage. It was easy to ignore the outside world, and like most pre-teens, that is precisely what I did.

When I listen to songs from that period, it is like stripping back all the layers of complexity that I now know exist in the world. Mentally, I can regress to a time before I knew where my political affiliations lay, when the news was just something my Nan watched and I could calmly ignore. There were major events, of course, but due to my age I simply did not have the intellectual bandwidth to process them. I knew they were major events, but they didn’t elicit any significant emotional response from me. Fast forward twenty years and the exact opposite is true.

I may not have been in touch with the wider world back then, but my own world was expanding rapidly. The early noughties saw us move to a new house in a new area to live with my stepmom and her two children, necessitating a change of school for me and my brother. While I cannot pretend I was happy about these changes at the time, they did lead to a considerable widening of my horizons.

Sharing a room with my stepsister, I was exposed to all sorts of new things: magazines I’d never read, cosmetics I’d never used, music I’d never heard. Songs like P!nk’s Most Girls, Pure Shores by All Saints and Independent Women by Destiny’s Child all take me back to that lilac bedroom we shared in the early days.

My stepbrother was the one who introduced me the PlayStation, and the joy of old-school games like Toy Story 2, Spyro and Crash Bandicoot. I spent a great many hours holed up in the room he shared with my brother, the three of us taking it in turns to play whatever game we were obsessed with at the time. Our gaming sessions were often accompanied by the sounds of Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP and Zombie Nation’s Kernkraft 400. Whenever I hear those songs now, I think of that tiny box room with the lava lamp and the inflatable chair, where I discovered my love of gaming and the unadulterated joy that comes from running around fictional worlds collecting shiny things.

The early noughties were a time of self-discovery for me. A time of broadening horizons and new beginnings. It is only natural that the songs of that period should come to be associated with expansion and adventure in my mind. For example, Freak Like Me by the Sugababes reminds me of the primary school I moved to; the song was so huge at the time that the girls used to walk around at breaktime singing it. I associate Brandy’s What About Us with sleepovers at my friend Cleo’s flat, Cleo being one of the friends I made after moving. My fondness for those songs lies not necessarily in their musical merit, but in the memories I attach to them.

As the decade progressed, and teenage angst set in, music became an integral part of my coping strategy. Being part of a reconstituted family was not easy, and like many teens, I was craving an independence I was not yet able to have. Insecurities regarding body image and my lack of social skills resulted in feelings of inadequacy, which did nothing to dilute my shy, awkward nature. Music helped me enormously through all of that. Albums like Avril Lavigne’s Let Go and Evanescence’s Fallen provided an outlet for my frustrations, while Christina Aguilera’s Stripped gave me much needed reassurance. Even now, if I am in need of a vent or a pick-me-up, those are the records I turn to.

Songs for me spark memories of specific times, people and places. Many of those on my Early Noughties playlist remind me of my first high school, Sneyd. Again, I harbour a deep fondness for these songs, despite the fact that the school was far from good and getting out of it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. People at my first high school were into a very different kind of music to those at my second. It was mainly dance, hip hop and R&B, so naturally this was the kind of music I was into. Popular Sneyd anthems included Candy Shop by 50 Cent, Pretty Green Eyes by Ultrabeat and Sean Paul’s Get Busy. The kind of songs my friends at my new school would later brand “chavvy” and mock me for liking, but I do still like them. I can’t pretend otherwise.

I like them because they remind me of school, of the lessons I loved and the friends I left behind. Many people cannot wait to finish school, but for me the experience was overwhelmingly positive. As a high achiever in all the top sets, I was oblivious to the problems experienced by many of my peers. At the risk of sounding horribly conceited, I liked being at the top of the tree. Granted, the tree was much smaller then, but I loved basking in the glory all the same.

What teenage Lauren lacked in social confidence, she made up for in determination. My faith in my own abilities was unshakeable back then. I may have found homelife and the lack of control frustrating at times, but I had an implicit trust in the future to turn out well. And that, more than anything, is what I miss about the early noughties.

Just before the turn of the millennium, my Dad bought me a book. It was a huge A4 hardback, and in it was a collection of art and writing by schoolchildren from all over the UK about their hopes, dreams and expectations for the future. It was a heartening tome bursting with optimism-for the technology we would have, the global problems we would solve, the medical advancements we would make. I have been thinking about that book recently, about how far removed its contents are from our current reality, and how utterly dismaying that can be at times.

Early noughties Lauren didn’t know what the future held. She didn’t anticipate Donald Trump becoming President, or Brexit, or years of austerity. She didn’t expect an alarming resurgence in right-wing politics, and she certainly didn’t expect that she would live to see anything like the current COVID-19 pandemic. She was so young, so full of hope, so convinced that things would turn out well. I envy her that. I wish I could have kept it: that steadfast faith in humanity, but somewhere along the line I lost it. Sometimes I wonder when I became so cynical, but I guess the answer would have to be when I started paying attention.

When the world looks bleak and the news is terrifying, it’s OK to long for simpler times. It’s natural to want to go back to the days before any of it happened. But as we can’t do that, we’ll just have to cherry-pick the things that gave us joy back then and bring them forward into now. For me, one of those things is music. For you it might be films, or TV programmes or art. Whatever it is, it’s OK to seek comfort in it. Me, I’ve been rocking out to Avril Lavigne in the kitchen while making dinner and bopping around the living room to old-school Britney. It’s no magic fix, but it certainly helps.

So do what I do. Stick on your old playlists. Listen to the cheesy songs, the ones you still love even though you feel like you probably shouldn’t anymore. The songs that give you hope, reassurance, or a channel for your anger if that is what you need. The songs that remind you of better times-not just those that have passed, but those still to come. For surely there will be better times. There have to be.

Lauren Phillips is a language teacher and writer with a deep love of words in all their forms. She uses writing to help her process her own tangled thoughts.

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