It was then, when I read through the lyrics printed for each song on the record sleeve, that I finally took a beat.
Studies over the last couple of years speak to the toll the pandemic has had on the country's youth as they spent keystone development years feeling their way through a constantly changing landscape. Between March 2020 through October 2020, a study from the publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and reported by the American Psychological Association showed that emergency department visits related to mental health went up by 24% for children ages 5–11 compared to the year prior. Also, according to 2021 data released by the CDC on March 31, 2022, more than a third (37%) of American high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.
To me, Growing Up is a work of popular art that humanizes and illustrates what's at the heart of those statistics, while simultaneously reflecting universal and ageless experiences.
If you think about it, "Racist, Sexist Boy" was a way for Mila to work through being subjected to blatant racism rooted in the ongoing pandemic. It was something worked through with the support of her cousin Eloise, older sister and guitarist Lucia, and longtime friend Bela. Ultimately, the song has become a welcome rallying cry and anthem for the thousands of tweens, teens, and adults who have experienced overt and covert racism, but at its core, it's a song born out of an 11-year-old's need to cope with the racist idea that she's somehow a person who inherently has COVID because she's Chinese American.
There's a moment in each of the album's 10 songs that has me clutching my chest as I hear the vulnerability amidst arrangements at times buoyant and other times neck breaking. Lucia, Eloise, Bela, and Mila each take turns as songwriters and lead singers, and each tap into and express complex, intimate thoughts and feelings that leave me humbled, grateful, and wanting to sign up to protect them.
The bridge of "Growing Up" feels like an admission of anxiety. In "Remember," Lucia sings about how "wishing only takes you so far" and not wanting to "go where it's too late" before concluding "I haven't yet grown, so I think I'm gonna stay." Eloise's "Fine" can easily work as a go-to response to the CDC's relaxing of COVID protocols and public health guidelines. "Why" illustrates the frustration of slogging on in a world where "there's a wall" that "refuses to give way" and the best that can be done in some moments is to "cry myself away." Bela's "Cuantas Veces" is a reminder of an omnipresent "la inseguridad" the girls feel.
Yes, girls. Bela, who just turned 18, is the oldest. That the raw human emotions on display in their music still resonates with 40-something me speaks to how such feelings can stay with us through life. Not one day passes without each of us looking for some way to find our footing, without reminding us that finding fun can take a lot of intentional work.
In this way, the songs have reach, each acting like a call from The Linda Lindas to add our voice to a world-spanning choir. The album celebrates the messiness and clarity of knowing there is much in life to learn, a fact often prescribed to youth but actually true of us all regardless of age. It's inspiring. It brings me joy. It helps me recover.