#314: Lauryn Hill, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" (1998)

It’s 2003 and I have just entered Liberty Middle School, where I have met Amy Sue Williamson. Amy is one of the coolest girls in school and my new bus buddy, and this Saturday she is coming over to my house to hang out. Amy is one of the “cool girls” for many reasons but the main reasons are her huge farm with horses, her pot-smoking parents, and a very attractive 17-year-old brother who everyone wants to date. I am one of the “not cool girls” at school, with one younger brother who loves World of Warcraft and parents who won’t let me go see Michael Bublé in concert when I’m 16 because it’s on a school night. But here is my moment to shine, a chance to rise among the ranks of the cool crew and reach the ultimate goal, the goal everyone is after, the goal of dating her brother.

All the power snacks were bought for this very important social hang, including BBQ potato chips, Swiss Cake Rolls, and Fruit Roll-Ups. I have pimped out my room to look like the inside of Oriental Trading Company’s most recent catalog. There is a large neon blue star on my bedside table, a green lava lamp on my desk, and ice cream shaped rope lights dangling from my bedframe. Plus the crème de la crème: my purple inflatable chair, with ottoman, perfectly placed in the center of my room. As I am lighting candles to set the “I’m cool” mood, my mom shouts upstairs, “Marie, Amy’s here.” I race downstairs with anticipation and sweaty palms. Maybe her brother dropped her off? I think. I then see it’s only her patchouli-soaked mother.

I lead Amy upstairs to Studio 54 where she stops short at the door, giggling, “Marie, should I stop or go?” My confused look prompts her to point out the traffic light glowing on the wall. I give a panicked laugh, thinking, Did I over do it? She hasn’t even seen the bubble machine. We quickly get settled in da club and Amy opens her Jansport.

“Marie, I brought my favorite CD,” she says, “I thought we could listen to it.”

Um yes we can listen to it…duh, whatever you want!

“Sure. What CD is it?”

“It’s Lauryn Hill, Jake gave it to me.” OMG JAKE! The brother! Yes!

I pull out my Samsung CD player and Amy requests track five, “Doo Wop (That Thing).” She immediately starts dancing, completely uninhibited by her unfamiliar surroundings and amount of candles. I am in awe. She pulls me up and we start twirling together. The song fades out to a conversation between an adult and kids our age:

We’ve got a lot of intelligent women in here. Do you think you are too young to really fall in love?

As we keep listening to the CD, I am profoundly struck by this language of love paired with this language of female empowerment. It is the first time that I’m hearing such a strong female voice articulate such universal and basic human emotions in music. I grab the CD booklet to read some of the lyrics. Amy catches me reading through her twirls. “Aren’t her lyrics awesome?” She sits down beside me and we begin to talk about all the different verses. “Superstar” is Amy’s favorite.

          Now tell me your philosophy
          On exactly what an artist should be
          Should they be someone with prosperity

          And no concept of reality?

As we make our way through the album, we begin to discuss big topics, topics like feminism, love, destiny, concepts in which I had never really discussed with any of my other friends. We aren’t talking about these issues with any particular grace or tact, but in a very honest, unrestrained way nonetheless.

Along with our deep discussion, I start to notice a certain laissez-faire attitude in the songs toward the end of the album. This tone doesn’t seem negative, but in fact seems empowering, freeing. “Everything is Everything” is the first song to grab hold of me.

Who made these rules? (Who made these rules?)
We're so confused (We're so confused)
Easily led astray
Let me tell ya that
Everything is everything

Once I heard this track, I stood up with the same gusto that Amy had twirled around with earlier. Lauryn was right: “After winter, must come spring. Change, it comes eventually.”  Later in life, other tracks like “Nothing Even Matters” and “Every Ghetto, Every City” would provide this same boost of freeing confidence.

As we hit track 16, the last song on the album, a rush of emotions takes hold. The freeing confidence collides with the language of love and feminism in “Tell Him” and I am prompted to just tell him. I must confess my love to the older brother and truly become the coolest girl in school.

          Tell him tell him I need him
          Tell him I love him

          It’ll be alright

In hindsight, this song is clearly religious, but my 13-year-old self hears only the universe shouting, “Here is your opportunity!” So as our epic, empowering hangout comes to a close, my confidence soars, longing to open the front door to her god-like brother and render him speechless with my Lauryn Hill knowledge and sexy sophistication.

The doorbell rings.

“Marie, Amy’s ride is here,” my mom shouts from downstairs.

I hear a man’s voice. Could my dreams be coming true? Am I about to woo this older man and take the popular throne? I take a deep breath and follow Amy as we head downstairs.

There he stands, wearing a double-layered puka shell hemp necklace, a man bun, and an empty guitar case around his back. I go to hug Amy goodbye before I make my big move.

“Marie, I had a really fun time,” she says. “Thanks for having me. I really feel like I can be myself when I’m hanging with you.”

At that moment I remember Amy’s favorite song “Superstar” and how, within those verses, Lauryn challenges personal perception and the glorification of individuals. Amy is more than the “cool girl” and the sister of a hot brother and hippie parents. Two hours prior I was perpetuating an identity, which turned out to be completely false. She’s just looking for a friend who she can be herself around and who isn’t trying to use her for her coolness.

I decide to simply wave goodbye to Amy and her brother and walk upstairs to my groovy pad feeling more empowered than ever before. Because, like Lauryn says, “It’s silly when girls sell their souls because it’s in.”

—Marie Sicola