Popular music frequently serves as a marker to remind one of what life was like during a specific teenage year. It’s common to hear people refer to certain songs as the one they used to party hearty to senior year or the one they fell in love to for the first time. These tunes have more meaning than others because of the memories attached to them.
Some well-known tracks deliberately attach themselves to the listener’s age, like Alex Chilton’s “Thirteen” and Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen”. Songs like these proudly declare the specific time of life as a battle cry of innocence and experience. They announce that the adult world is fucked, and who can blame them? Since rock began, the planet has been shaped by war, greed, violence, and mendacity. That doesn’t even address the existential fact that we will all die without ever knowing why we ever existed.
Eliza McLamb is an angry “Sixteen”. One might even say that she’s mad, although McLamb infers that’s what her mother should be called because of the mental illness that landed her in the hospital. The first-person narrator also has psychological issues: she suffers from an eating disorder and likes to slice her arms with razor blades in the bathtub. She gets through life by getting smoking pot and working at a perfumery in the mall. The explicit details express the superficiality of her individual experiences.
The big difference is that teens are supposed to be having fun. It’s adult responsibilities that pull one down. Despite the negative reflections of Chilton or Cooper or McLamb’s more contemporary peers like Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodriguez, McLamb’s protagonists seem weighed down by their adolescence. She wants to be a kid again, as she sings on “Glitter”. A date with the right boy or the freedom of a driver’s license won’t cut it. She sweetly sings that she wants to kill her friend’s boyfriend because the demands of teen life are too hard. The echoes of London Bridge falling and other dark childhood fantasies lurk (unheard) in the background.
“Being unknown is all that I own,” McLamb croons in “Anything You Want”. Her presence is like a bug in a soda can. She can’t be herself and be what someone wants. The same theme reappears in “Mythologize Me” and “Modern Woman”. No one could really want the real her. So, the best one can do is fantasize about her while she fantasizes about being fantasized.
There’s a refreshing bitterness to McLamb’s confessional diatribes that connects her self-admitted personal failures to the larger society’s communal failures. This is pop music spiked with something stronger than liquor. She knows that happiness is just an illusion yet can’t help but simultaneously want and reject it. The music here is infectious and seductive even as McLamb rails against believing the lies one tells oneself because they are too good to be true and that other people are duplicitous despite their best intentions.
The listener doesn’t have to be a teen in a bad family situation, working a dead-end job, and getting buzzed to relate to McLamb. The specific details help one identify the larger concerns. The catchiness of the wordplay and good-feeling vibes of the music trap one into feeling trapped—in a good way. McLamb expresses what we are all going through because such is life in a post-COVID world where nothing seems to matter, even though we know it does.