I’m sure you know this already, but in case you forgot, my birthday is coming up in a few weeks.
Like most people, I love birthdays. If I’ve accomplished nothing else in a year, at least I’ve stayed alive another 365 days, and that’s absolutely cause for a party. I’ve celebrated my birthday in a variety of ways with an array of trendy themes and a range of different cake flavors.
In 2003, I had a “Lilo & Stitch” party at my gymnastics school to which I invited my entire kindergarten class. I wanted to get a head start on cultivating social popularity at my elementary school, so I had to invite as many people as possible — consider it a networking opportunity.
The cake was half-chocolate, half-vanilla. It was decorated with plastic figurines of Lilo, Stitch, Pleakley and others; I generously gave the Lilo and Stitch pieces to girls I barely knew (but kept Pleakley for myself as a bathtub toy). And while I personally hated chocolate cake at the time, I was so desperate to please everyone that I went with both flavors. I wasn’t going to start off my first year at a new school on the wrong foot.
I felt much more socially secure by my 13th birthday; I had a sleepover with just three of my closest friends. We ate cookies and cream ice cream cake before watching “Harry Potter.” We picked “Order of the Phoenix,” because it was the one Daniel Radcliffe was the cutest in. The four of us gathered around my television, prank calling boys on our Motorola RAZRs while Umbridge was getting carried off by a centaur. Five-year-old me had needed to make everybody happy, but 13-year-old me wanted only to strengthen the bonds she had already made.
In 2014, I had something to prove. My sweet sixteen was about asserting my youth, validating my friendships and being the center attention. We listened to Daft Punk and Macklemore, went mini golfing wearing dresses from Forever 21 and got into heated discussions about “Pretty Little Liars” and “Glee.” The cake was vanilla with a raspberry buttercream filling. If Katy Perry had been there, she might’ve written a song about it.
For my upcoming 19th birthday, I am dying for karaoke. There’s something indescribably magical about crowding into a dark room with your favorite people, everyone screaming along to the songs that define us — “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Mr. Brightside,” “Wannabe,” “Gold Digger,” “Eye of the Tiger.” The possibilities are as eclectic as the guests you assemble.
A year ago, I might have sung “Uptown Funk” — the anthem to my high school senior year — because it would have captured the sheer fun of my final semester while staying true to my roots as a shameless mainstream pop junkie (I was the kind that owned every Maroon 5 album and knew all about that hip up-and-coming artist, Ed Sheeran.) But now I’m a freshman in college, my social life has dramatically evolved and so must my karaoke song.
For the first time since age 5, the friends I’d like to invite to my birthday party will be almost entirely new ones. The need to please has resurfaced; I might sing “Into You” or “Cheap Thrills,” not because I identify with those songs (though I do love them), but because pretty much everybody likes them. Any cake I might serve will once again have to be half-chocolate, half-vanilla.
I’m a toddler again, one who needs to be surrounded by adoring friends to feel comfortable and validated. Singing “Into You” at a karaoke party might symbolize my fun and carefree freshman year, but in actuality choosing a safe, well-liked song reflects all my childlike anxieties about being a freshman in college. I would sing “Cheap Thrills” because I would be scared that if I sang Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” everybody would leave.
I’ve realized that your karaoke song says something about the way you want others to see you, the same way your birthday party does.
I still have my Pleakley figurine, and sometimes I wish I hadn’t given away Lilo and Stitch just to buy my way into a toddler squad. If I had ordered a carrot cake and invited half as many people, I still probably would’ve survived. But if I went back in time to explain that to little me, she’d ignore me, though I know she’d reach the same conclusions eventually. She’d inevitably accept that “Half-Blood Prince” Daniel Radcliffe is truly the best Daniel Radcliffe and that “Thrift Shop” shouldn’t be anyone’s favorite rap song.
Her future birthday parties — 21st, 30th, 100th — will reflect these sophisticated, matured tastes, even if the party she throws instead still ends up being cringe-worthy, indulgent or dated.
Every birthday party is different, because the things we’re passionate about and challenged by shift with every new stage of getting older.
Shannon O’Hara writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on growing up through entertainment. Contact her at [email protected].