It’s 2005. I’m staring into the abyss. I can’t remember which abyss, I just know it’s deep and I’m staring, peering, forcing myself to feel everything by way of not actually feeling anything.
Then a gasp.
Then Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” pours into my ears through my headphones: “Where are we? What the hell is going on?”
Like someone trying to remember a quote they might eventually tattoo on their inner bicep and then later regret, I mouth the lyrics back: “Where are we? What the hell is going on?”
I’m really feeling it. I’m letting my skin crawl with feelings. I’m in the depths of the doldrums of adolescence, misanthropy and the sort of unrequited high school love that feels like it could be happily ever after, if only she notices me.
I’m 15. Millennials everywhere, but especially privileged suburban teens like myself are, thanks to the creators of The O.C., handed an essential moment in the teen drama television oeuvre. The scene itself is standard daytime stuff: The show’s blond protagonist is about to be killed by his brother until his on-again-off-again girlfriend shows up to the motel where the two brothers are brawling, just in time to shoot her boyfriend’s brother in the back before he can smash her boyfriend’s face with a rotary phone. Y’know, the sort of spectacle that pulls at the heartstrings of affluent suburban teens who want to believe their lives are also full of exotic soap opera melodrama.
But it’s that gunshot that lingers — punctuated by Heap’s computer-assisted vocals, her voice the acoustic incarnation of a teen, drowning in emotion.
In that moment, and for several subsequent moments, I begin to associate feelings with Heap’s keyboard-controlled, digitally harmonized vibrato. Burdened with the anvil that is low-stakes, serialized teen fiction, the song quickly transforms into a hymn, one where I can repeat the first few lines when life gets first-world, suburban tough. Like that time my crush decided it would be better if we stayed friends after spending the night kissing on her backyard trampoline inside the gated community. Or the following night when I agonize over three effusively mushy text messages I never actually send.
Before “Hide and Seek,” pure teenage angst was scored by Postal Service’s “This Place Is a Prison,” but after that episode of The O.C., it’s all Heap — the tangible sound of gloriously, self-indulgently wallowing in misery.
Two years later, that O.C. scene is parodied by Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island Guys in an SNL digital short that also uses “Hide and Seek,” confirming that you can inject cheap, angst-y drama into anything merely by playing Heap’s song over the top.
But it’s too late — for me, the damage has been sustained. My subconscious implores me to wonder, if a scene with that song is so easily mocked, then are my explosive teenage emotions ridiculous, too?
I’m not, though, ready yet to let go (the title of another Heap classic, naturally).
Another two years go by. I’m in college now, and Heap’s vocals are remixed by American singer-songwriter Jason Derulo. This time the song is packaged to serve a younger generation of millennial teen angst during the infamous thanksgiving dinner scene in the generation’s latest prestige teen drama, Gossip Girl. Derulo’s rendition is more popular than the original: Titled “Watcha Say,” it infuses a sing-song-y poppiness that, to my older, wiser ears, feels like a corruption of the a capella original — a sign that I’m graduating from teenage angst into young adult nihilism.
Even as an homage to the tiny, explosive teen feelings I once clenched so tightly, Derulo’s remix doesn’t quite do it for me — the feelings slowly dissipate like an illness that’s no longer symptomatic.
Fast forward to 2020 and, like a phoenix I wish were dead, the song emerges in Hulu’s latest hit TV drama, Normal People, based on Sally Rooney’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name.
This time, however, things are different. For one, I’m a fully adult, well, adult. But also, the song has been batted around so much and finally used up completely in a Zach Braff movie. The once-precious operatic soundtrack to my emotionally fraught youth is now nothing more than a pair of old boxers with the elastic worn out. Perhaps also crucially, there’s no gunshot or dinner table squabbling in this version: Instead, the main characters are tangled in a sex scene spliced with images of the lovers walking past each other in a high school hallway. It’s just not the same.
There’s also the knowledge that, clearly, this is the wrong song choice for this scene. “I fought hard to replace [‘Hide and Seek’], but it had been in the cut even before I was brought in, and people had grown very attached,” Maggie Phillips, the show’s music supervisor, told InsideHook. Ultimately, Phillips had to give in to director Lenny Abrahamson’s request that the song stay in the picture, but she’s right: After years of use and reuse, “Hide and Seek” has been rendered impotent to those in my age bracket. The once-vital tune of teen angst no longer summons feelings of the abyss.
But I can’t help thinking about some other teen boy who’s experiencing this mix of “Hide and Seek” and melodrama for the first time — a teen boy who’s watching the show as the song seeps into his ears and connects with the part of his nervous system that causes his heart to beat both faster and slower at the same time.
From where I’m standing in my adult shoes, it’s all a bit sappy and saccharine. But for him, wherever he is, I know that the abyss has never felt more real.