Who are the great musical influencers of our lives? Lovers, friends, parents, librarians. The people who were in close proximity when our cultural preferences were still small, squishy, and developing. Their impact on our taste was indispensable and unforgettable, as they passed down songs to us like cherished family recipes. Rare is the record collection built solely from autonomous discovery – because that wouldn’t be very interesting, would it?
But what about that other person in your life? The one who got the bigger bedroom, the better car, and all of the boys? The keeper of crucial adolescent information, such as the definition of words like “Phat,” “wangsta,” and the meaning of Limp Bizkit’s LP Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog Flavored Water? The wearer of JNCO Jeans and “candy” bracelets. What about your big sister?
Until recently, I might’ve excluded my big sister – one of them at least – from any Pop Culture Sherpa accolades. But that would’ve been a great injustice. Older siblings are often our first reference points for culture and cool – or perhaps they were before children had handheld access to the Kardashian lifestyle brand 24/7. But our crib didn’t even have dial-up…until several years later, when everyone was on that high-speed shit already.
Our household was always a stride behind the times, and the only window to the cool kid world was through my big sister, Miranda. At five years my senior, she wasn’t always thrilled to share her secrets with me, however. Pleas to hang out in her room, watch her play AOL chat, and borrow any article of clothing were frequently denied. The latter was a pretty fair decision though, as an eight-year-old might have looked questionable in pleather snakeskin bellbottoms.
Her closet and clique of friends were off limits. Music, on the other hand, served as diplomatic territory, although I was never sure why. Maybe Miranda just needed an audience for her carefully choreographed dance routines to the pop gems she exposed me to. The moves for Ace of Base’s “Don’t Turn Around” for instance, featured literal interpretations of the lyrics: turning around, grabbing and “breaking” her heart, a bicep curl to show that she was “gonna be strong.” This was nuanced stuff, I tell ya, and I ogled over her creativity and grace. She was always better at dancing; had a long, lean dancer’s body that must have come from her biological father. My own frame couldn’t be more disparate: short and hippy with an inexplicably large ass. We look almost nothing alike.
Miranda was my mainline to the cool world. Her dance performances were sacred ceremonies that were known to us alone. Whether it was this consecrated exchange, or the music itself, I loved everything Miranda played for me…and singing along to that breakout Ace of Base record The Sign is one of the earliest memories of sisterly peacekeeping I can recall. We fought a lot, but so long as a pop song was playing, a ceasefire ensued long enough to dance and sing.
If there is one artist I associate with Miranda the most, it has to be Mariah Carey, whose 1995 masterpiece Daydream dominated our living room sound system. My sister knew every word, and therefore, I knew every word – kind of. “Always Be My Baby” and “Fantasy” were our favorite cuts, the latter inspiring many a dance performance. If I slipped up on the lyrics, I could always resort to the many “Sha-da-da-da-da-da-da-doos” throughout, while Miranda hit those “freestyle” high notes (with more passion than pitch per se). “One Sweet Day” was also a big one for us, as it was Mimi’s collaboration with another childhood staple: Boyz II Men. Listening now I realize “One Sweet Day” is about a dead person, speaking to Mariah from behind the grave, embodied in the sultry voices of Boyz II Men. But at the time we embraced it as a syrupy love song, and that was enough for us.
Those were the early days – when pop felt innocent (as we all say when we get older). Our favorite songs were about heartbreak, staying strong, dancing, and loving ghosts. Kid stuff! In a few years the pop paradigm would shift however, sprinkling our newly complicated lives with subversive content. By 1999 Miranda was a teenager, and I was an awkward 10-year-old completely adrift in a post-divorce family. My big sister was engaging in increasingly hazardous behavior, and our relationship was often on the rocks, to put it lightly. But despite our tumultuous sisterhood, I never stopped wanting to be a part of her clan. Sure, she may have been hanging out with the “bad kids” at school, and maybe she was even doing “bad things,” but she still looked fabulous.
I distinctly remember a trip Miranda, my mom, and I took to Southern California during spring break of ’99. We were visiting my grandparents, who lived a stone’s throw from the ocean in Huntington Beach – a place rife with all the beautiful tan people we didn’t have in rainy Washington State. There were swimming pools, and beach days, and ice cream trucks. We went to the glamorous South Coast Plaza mall, which had an Abercrombie and Fitch! Miranda procured a pair of purple pleather flair pants that fell low across her hipless body. I think they were from Spencer Gifts, or maybe Wet Seal – high-class establishments we had limited access to in our hometown. God I wanted those pants. It was as if Miranda knew that pleather was about to be the number one fashion look – because spring break of ’99 wasn’t just monumental for us – it was a big moment for Ms. Britney Spears, too.
Our grandparents had something we lacked: MTV. For years we didn’t even have basic cable, so it was a treat visiting Grandma and Grandpa, who were apparently much cooler than us. Few music memories are as clearly etched as sitting on their couch that trip and watching the video for “Oops!…I did It Again,” which mesmerized us. The pleather. The lip-gloss. The weave. The shoddy space narrative. The pleather!
It was a massive turning point in our musical education. Britney was “not that innocent” anymore, and neither were we. Our minds were further infected with pop’s sex appeal – for it was the same week that Pink’s revenge-tinged “There You Go” dropped, as well as Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin,’” Crazy Town’s “Butterfly,” and of course, Sisqo’s “Thong Song.” Sisqo’s hit especially appealed to my young demographic, as “That thong-thong-thong-thong-thong” were super easy lyrics to remember. What a time to be 10.
Thanks to pop, and Miranda’s dutiful descriptions, that was the week I learned what a pimp was, what “come” meant (as in “Butterfly’s” “Come my lady, come come my lady”), and that letting your thong rise above your low-slung (pleather) pants was really cool. And called a “whale tail.”
It wasn’t long before I acquired my own pleather snakeskin pants, began anointing my forehead with a bindi a la Gwen Stefani, and for reasons I’ll never understand, started putting shimmery blue eye shadow on…my eyebrows. It was a sweet spot of time when my interests intersected with Miranda’s. Punk hadn’t quite entered my life yet to temporarily obliterate my love of melody. Back then, I loved everything she loved, simply because she loved it. I wanted to be the Monica to her Brandy in the video for “The Boy Is Mine.” I wanted to put on living room lip synch concerts to No Doubt’s “Spiderwebs” and Aaliyah’s “Try Again.” And I must say – I still do.