It's not unusual for people to think back on the music of their middle school years with an inflated level of fondness and nostalgia. Songs are wrapped up in memories of school dances, listening to your walkman on the bus and helping to form an identity that, at least in part, you've carried with you until this very moment. (Case in point, in seventh grade, my best friends loved the Backstreet Boys, but I decided that I was going to get into Blink 182. Now, we all love garbage.)
For the most part, we tend to consider our preteen years to be great years for pop music no matter what era we grew up in, but I think this is especially true for the millennials and, more specifically, 1998. The year was golden certainly not because of the music's quality (who could forget these awful gems), but mainly because '98 was sort of a death rattle for a time that pop music really mattered. Despite the looming presence of Napster, illegal downloading had yet to become de rigueur, people listened to the radio instead of podcasts or playlists and we still rushed home after school to watch our favorite VJs on TRL — the last of the American Bandstand-esque TV shows to hit the airwaves for the time being. Top 40 is still rooted in our culture, but it's since become easily avoidable, heard only the background of the grocery store, an episode of Glee or by choice. The late 90s were the last time when the larger public was really forced to experience it, good or (more often) bad, together.
The final throes of the 20th century were also a great time for all-female music collaborations. Sure, artists like Rihanna and Katy Perry reign supreme on the charts today, but they tend to stand alone. 1998, alternately, was all about the girl group — TLC's FanMail and Destiny's Child Writing on the Wall were right around the corner, there were still five Spice Girls and the Dixie Chicks made it okay to like country. Best yet, 1998 was the year Brandy and Monica released their career defining duet "The Boy Is Mine."
I was 11-years-old when "The Boy Is Mine" came out and a big Moesha fan, which is to say that I was the target audience for this song. That said, even now after Monica has disappeared for awhile and Brandy has become best known as (For The Love of) Ray J's sister, the song holds up. It's catchy and the lyrics tell an interesting albeit played-out story of two women in love with the same man. And the video! I have always loved how the video portrays the two female protagonists starting off as adversaries, but ultimately coming together after realizing that they are both being used.
14 years, the near collapse of the record industry and a whole Skrillex later, Monica and Brandy have again teamed up on the duet "It All Belongs to Me." Do you remember where you were when this news broke? I do. I was in bed, reading blogs at 2am (I am not trying to be exciting, I am trying to be honest). Twitter erupted with people going crazy over the reunion, myself among them.
The music video for their new song "It All Belongs to Me" was released last month, though it admittedly stayed off my radar until this morning when they performed it live on Good Morning America. I was making tea with my back to the television when the sound of a woman singing a series of chaotic notes managed to break through my kettle haze. My first thought, and it breaks my heart to say this, was "What is this shit?"
This "shit," of course, was Brandy and Monica. My Brandy and Monica. Our Brandy and Monica.
The problem with "It All Belongs to Me" lies predominantly in the title. Presumably taken from the "He belongs to me" lyric in "The Boy Is Mine," the new song has automatically made itself into a relic of the past, a reminder of something that was once great and is now far past its sell-by date. Ironically, where the "Boy Is Mine" has actually managed to age quite gracefully, "It All Belongs to Me" already sounds remarkably dated, with it's references to logging off Facebook (conveniently rhyming with "Mac Book") doing more to harm than it does to help.
Then there's the music itself. Maybe it's because we're currently living in an musical era of futuristic bleeps and bloops, but "It All Belongs to Me" sounds so painfully like bad 90s R&B; at one point in the live performance, Monica — who was always my favorite — decides to simply forgo melody in favor of a bunch of senseless runs. It made me feel...I don't know...embarrassed? Both women are talented (vocally, Brandy sounds way better now than she did 15 years ago) and, sincerely, it was a joy to see how much fun they seem to have together. But there is something so desperate about the new collaboration, like watching New Kids On the Block doing a reunion tour — everyone is a little less charismatic and sparkly-young than they used to be. But for the artists, I imagine aging is less scary than facing the possibility/inevitability of a new generation having no idea who you are.
Perhaps I don't like "It All Belongs to Me" because my expectations are too steeped in nostalgia. It's wrong to listen to a pop song at 25 and expect it to evoke the same emotions that it could have at 11, 12 or 13. Or maybe the new song is just a cruel reminder of the steady march of time. "It All Belongs to Me" is Brandy and Monica now, and someday we are all going to die.