It seems every morning I wake up and it’s another Throwback Thursday (or Flashback Friday). It’s almost a testament to the swift passage of time; pretty soon, we’ll start measuring time, or the weeks of our lives, in TBTs. Because, come on, everyone loves a good TBT. People have even started looking forward to TBTs, perhaps even leafing through their family photo albums specifically in hopes of finding an arresting TBT. And while one would be right to assume that a single TBT should suffice—that, after your first TBT, we should have a pretty clear idea of what you looked like as a kid— this doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, it appears there’s no number of TBTs that will satisfy anyone. Which ultimately begs the question: Why all the TBTs? Why hasn’t the excitement faded and, furthermore, why does it look like it never will?
There may not be one distinct answer for this obsession, but a look into the life and legacy of Aaliyah could perhaps shed some light on the topic.
Aaliyah holds a special place in my heart, as well as practically all the other hearts of my generation. Google image her and every photo seems to be shellacked or matted in pristine, untouched splendor. She seems to exist in our collective memory with a halo, perpetually floating above her half-up pigtail ‘do.
In John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the speaker observes three scenes that are depicted on the Grecian Urn—scenes that are carved into stone and are thus frozen in time. Other female Hip Hop or R&B artists whose heydays overlapped with Aaliyah’s have grown out of their idealistic, romantic images. Take Lil’ Kim, Whitney Houston, Brandy, and J.Lo. But Aaliyah—whose image was in mint condition at the time of her premature, accidental, and unexpected death—is unaffected by time, and therefore her pristine image, like the images carved into the Grecian Urn, will forever remain intact.
“Heard melodies are sweet,” Keats writes. But, like Aaliyah’s unheard melodies that were stifled due to her death, the piper’s melodies, which are also “unheard,” are therefore “sweeter.” Standing outside time, the piper’s melodies, like Aaliyah’s, are “for ever new.” And, like the “Bold Lover”‘s woman, whose beauty stands on the periphery of time, Aaliyah’s beauty “cannot fade” in our eyes.
Perhaps we TBT in hopes of a similar outcome: to make our own beauty stand outside of time, and thus remain unaffected by it. It’s almost an attempt—albeit unconscious—at achieving immortality, which, at the end of stanza 3 in “Grecian Urn,” is depicted as highly favorable to mortality. Like the Urn that transcends time and will thus preach its motto—“beauty is truth, truth beauty”—to all generations, Aaliyah will forever remain the idolized figure that she was when she passed. She will be remembered for preaching youthful vitality and womanhood unlike, say, Lauryn Hill, whose racially conscious rap lyrics while part of Fugees have been all but obscured by recent blunders.
Like the Grecian Urn and Aaliyah, TBTs are an attempt to make a part of us exist outside of the boundaries of time, unaffected by (and ignorant to) grim realities, like aging and death. We look back fondly on those untainted times, and especially now, in an age when scarcely anything is concealed. There’s also an element of mystery to the Urn since we’ll never know the actual, true stories behind the images. And perhaps TBT-ing is an attempt to regain that mystery.
The speaker idolizes the Urn, says it can be “a friend to man,” and thinks the carved images will forever remain anew. Yet at the same time, is it possible that these images could suffer from being frozen in time? True, they might never know death, but the tradeoff is that they might also never know life. Then again, maybe a vacation from life is what we’re all striving for.
And now, Aaliyah’s lines seem ever-more prescient…
“Am I supposed to change? Are you supposed to change?…
You need a resolution, I need a resolution,
We need a resolution, We have so much confusion.”