“What are your influences?” However cliché it is, this is the question I’d ask my musician and artist friends whenever I wanted to know how they got started with their creative pursuits. Two years ago, over forkfuls of pasta, my friend BP told me how in elementary and high school, she’d loved listening to Third Eye Blind and Frank Ocean. She is only older than me by a year or so, but she seemed way more mature as she spoke of how she got into guitar at 10, and how her music was heavily influenced by ’90s lyricism and ’80s synth sounds. Never mind that she was wearing a thrifted SpongeBob sweatshirt, her answers warranted what I already knew: BP was cool, and I was not.
BP is just one of the friends I looked up to because of her taste in pop culture, which, at the time, seemed infinitely more sophisticated than mine. When I asked her how she discovered these interests, she told me that her older sisters had introduced them to her. After asking this question countless times—during interviews with creative people and in simple conversations with friends—I realized that there was a common denominator to their coolness: the older sibling or influence. On TV and in films, it’s called the cool big sis trope; she is always the wiser, and loads cooler than you.
My cool older sibling observation was verified after I read this essay by the writer Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta. In it, she discusses the role of older siblings in shaping their younger siblings’ tastes. One passage stood out in particular: “I mean, if you were 8 years old and already listening to Ian Curtis, chances are someone pointed you in the right direction, and I always wonder why this person rarely gets credit or love in the few ’80s throwbacks I’ve read—as if to give so much as a nod to the great anonymous would be to admit that everyone needs a purveyor of cool, and that no one is cool in and of himself.” The piece gave a term to the influential older figures I yearned for: purveyors of cool. These people act as taste guides of sorts, suggesting that people watch this, or listen to that. Katigbak-Lacuesta makes a great point for everyone who grew up with their own purveyors, but after reading her words, I also found myself wondering, What about those of us who didn’t have anyone to shape our tastes? Could that mean that we could never be cool?
Until just recently, I thought of my interests as boring. I thought that my insipidness would have been avoided if only I’d had a cool older figure to guide me. I am the eldest in my family. My Generation X parents weren’t the type to blast the Beatles, or any music besides disco, in the car. And so as a result of this lack of musical persuasion, I picked up interests on my own, and practically lived on Disney as a kid. I kid you not: Lizzie McGuire and Hannah Montana were my best friends. All the musicians I listened to were signed to Hollywood Records, and most of the movies I watched were either Disney Channel Original Movies (DCOMs to the initiated), or directed by Kenny Ortega (best known for directing the High School Musical trilogy)—in some cases, both.
My interest in these “childish” things became a source of shame thanks to a seventh grade class assignment. My teacher asked us to bring a copy of the lyrics to our favorite song, and still reeling from having just seen Camp Rock a couple of weeks earlier, I brought Demi Lovato’s “Who Will I Be.” When the teacher asked where the song was from, one of my classmates said in a jaded, kind of monotone voice, “It’s from Camp Rock.” Although that classmate didn’t say anything outright, his tone was enough to get me thinking. Was he dismissing my favorite song? On my way home that day, I realized that I was the only one in seventh grade who was still into Disney. Everyone else had started listening to more mature bands with strange three-word names (see: All Time Low, Boys Like Girls, Fall Out Boy) that I knew little to nothing about.
I began to see everyone whose music taste wasn’t mine as superior: My definition of cool shifted to automatically include “everyone into anything beyond overly manufactured Disney pop.” I refused to let go of my Disney interests (say what you want but High School Musical is the bomb), but I did everything that I could to tone them down. From then on, I kept all the Disney talk to myself—instead diverting my interests online, where I could browse fan forums and obsessively rewatch classic Jonas Brothers videos (fine, take your banana!) in peace.
Eventually, I realized that since everyone around me had moved on to better things, liking Disney was what made me different. And unironically thanks to all the DCOMs I watched, being different was something that I had learned to be proud of. I looked at everything I consumed a little more critically, but at a distance that was just enough for me to still enjoy it. Come senior year of high school, I was finally ready to let go of my teenybopper phase thanks to the Jonas Brothers Manila concert. The brothers performed a full setlist of 28 songs, and by the time they finished the encore, my heart was full, my voice was gone, and after over five years of being a loyal JoBro fan, I was finally all Jonas-ed out. The concert provided the closure I needed. It was time for me to move on.
In the aftermath of the concert, I became more open-minded, seeking out new music and asking friends for suggestions. They loaned me copies of Before Sunrise and Moonrise Kingdom, and I was able to broaden my music selection thanks to Rookie’s weekly playlists. My love for Disney tween-marketed things remains—I still pride myself on being up to date with all the new DCOM releases—but they are now joined by my love for Freaks and Geeks, Cinema Paradiso, and Belle and Sebastian. Confident that my new tastes would guarantee me praise from the cool crowd in my head, I gained the courage to make my own playlists and share them, even playing my music in carpool rides on the way to school. I also joined my high school film organization, and during conversations, I wasn’t afraid to say that I watch Filipino rom coms and the Disney channel. I wear my past interests proudly. All this was building up to something even bigger: the true test of my coolness. Tired of always thinking of myself as the uncultured one, I had been patiently waiting for the day that I could step up and be someone’s purveyor of cool.
One Sunday, during a family lunch, I found the perfect opportunity to show off the confidence that I had in my own taste. My cousins are still at the stage where all they know is Disney and Top 40, so I figured that letting them listen to some of the music I like wouldn’t hurt. Michelle (age seven) and Therese (age nine) have listened to Taylor Swift songs almost as much as I have, and Marie (age 11) practically idolizes Ariana Grande. This is it! I thought as we gathered around the octagon-shaped living room table. I finally had the upper hand after all these years. As the horn intro from Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me” began to play, I sat grinning, imagining a future where they’d ask me for music recs, and where I’d give them mix CDs in return. We’d bond over riot grrrl and movie soundtracks. It would be perfect. They would worship me.
My daydream was interrupted by Therese: “Can you change the song, now? This sounds weird.” CUE RECORD SCRATCH. Did she just say what I thought she did? I was hurt. How could they not recognize the genius of Carly Rae, queen of everything? As it turned out, Thea wanted me to change it to the new Taylor Swift single. I stood my ground and powered through the other genres in my iPod, but it wasn’t until Michelle and Marie started protesting halfway through a Marina and the Diamonds song that it finally sank in: They hated my music selection. Admitting defeat, I handed my iPod to Therese. We listened to 1989 for the rest of the afternoon.
My cousins’ immediate dislike for my music was slap in the face, yes, but it also showed me that having an older person influence my younger self wouldn’t guarantee anything. Simply knowing about music and movie “classics” wouldn’t automatically mean that I’d love them right away. Liking them at that age would give me street cred in the future for sure, but that would be it. Let’s be real: 12-year-old me could have easily rejected Bowie in favor of Hannah Montana. As I watched Therese and Michelle sing the chorus of “Wildest Dreams” with gusto, I saw how sincerely they loved the song, and I couldn’t judge them for limiting their listening to 1989. When they’re 15, they might just brag about how they they listened to the classic that was Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion album back when they were kids. Or maybe they’ll have someone entirely new to worship. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even jam to her tunes together.
In the end, it doesn’t matter where I got my tastes; what counts is that I was able to develop them myself. It may have taken some time to grow into feeling confident about them, but what’s important to me is that I was able to figure out what I’m into, even just for now. I may not have a purveyor of cool to credit for the tastes I’ve developed, but, somehow, that just makes me feel more like me. ♦