WYRD’s ‘Scream’ and a queer coming of age

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WYRD members Jelly Pangan, Nikka Paloma, and Babes Tolentino. 21 years since the OPM girl group climbed the top charts with “Scream,” the spirit of the 2000s moves writer Paolo Lorenzana to seek its singer out and reckon with his 15-year-old self. Photo courtesy of NIKKA PALOMA

“You got my attention by using my song in your video,” read an Instagram comment on a clip I posted a few months back.

The video captures freshly baked bibingka sliced to the chorus of “Scream,” a throwback from Y2K girl group WYRD. Commenting was one @nikkapaloma, who I discovered was the band’s lead singer up until the group faded in the early 2000s. With her shrill, vulnerable vocals, Paloma bemoans a toxic relationship mirrored by a “purple sky turning gray.” And through its equally memorable music video, “Scream” became an anthem for many Pinoy teens at the turn of the century.

The video, mine, was an attempt to make food porn gyrate to teenybopper pop rock from when I was, well, a teenybopper.

A year into the pandemic, indulging such nostalgia felt timely. Being stuck indoors riding the river rapids of anxiety recalled a much earlier era in my life. A similar, albeit self-imposed, period of quarantine where I suffered severe symptoms of self-doubt. And yes, I learned to wear many masks then, as well. The pandemic reminded me of puberty.

At 15, when “Scream” echoed through every radio station, I covered my ears, or at least pretended to. Hearing a girl my age bare her feelings reminded me of the ones I’d forced myself to bury. In junior high, a closeted kid’s best chance at survival was scraping by the cool kids unnoticed. The things I once loved, from “The Little Mermaid” to Lilith Fair, had become rainbow bullseyes on my zit-covered forehead.

Besides a sophomore jock mimicking my lisp, a teacher would inspire my Oscar-winning turn as Straight, Slightly Misogynistic Boy. In one PE class devoted to practicing our volleyball serve, my assigned partner thought that our ball was “too hard.” Our P.E. teacher scoffed when I asked to switch the ball for one not overly inflated. “Are you gay?” he asked, not as a question but as an accusation. I spent the rest of the class hitting that volleyball as hard as I could, determined never to deal with such curveball questions again.

WYRD at an interview with MTV. Photo courtesy of NIKKA PALOMA

In the summer of ’99, I butched up the way I walked and talked. Immediately, I traded baking, painting, and all my right-brained, supposedly feminine pursuits for more masc ones: gangsta rap and basketball shoes. Like Barbie dolls and Barbie Almalbis, “Scream” could only be enjoyed in secret. Only when alone in the car I borrowed from my brother to practice parallel parking did I turn the volume up. In school, Paloma and her hurt-strewn chorus was a punchline. But in spirit, I was that girl.

Now, with the song on Spotify loop and a message from the beyond — Los Angeles, to be exact, where Paloma now lives — the past wanted answers.

For Paloma, “Scream” wasn’t really about a bad boyfriend, as the song implies, but her own brushes with being bullied. “I was 14 [when I wrote it] and I’d never been in a relationship, so it’s funny. But I know at the time, I had a lot of insecurities,” she tells me over Zoom, her bright pink tank top echoing the cheer of her canary yellow couch and the L.A. sunlight pooling over it.

Back in 1997, she and her childhood pal Jelly Pangan joined MTV’s “The Next Big Thing,” the music channel’s search for music acts below 18. They won the contest, but Paloma quickly lost favor with the mean girls at her school. “It was a very sheltered, all-girls school and they didn’t like that I was on T.V. So most of those frustrations went onto paper, into a song where you’re talking about a relationship but the feelings are actually coming from a different place of hurt.”

The win earned Paloma enough flak from classmates to urge transferring schools, but it also snagged her a record deal with Universal. Over the next two years, she, Pangan, and guitarist Babes Tolentino delivered on the Hanson-inspired pop encouraged by the label. Maybe too much, in fact. Right before the album wrapped, producer DJ MOD gave the group carte blanche on one song — “‘whatever gusto mong isama sa sinulat mo,’” he told Paloma. She chose “Scream,” an Alanis-inspired outlet for her angst, written just two days earlier. During a studio listen, its chorus got Universal’s bosswoman, Bella Tan, to turn in her chair and beam Paloma a knowing smile. Though a last-minute addition, it became the carrier single off their debut, “Wired 2 Scream.”

By mid-2000, “Scream” had topped the radio charts, as did a music video that follows the trio moping on an endless blank canvas while serving late ‘90s looks — from “Empire Records” Liv Tyler to spacey, ravey Gwen Stefani. If it wasn’t playing from car speakers to and from school, Paloma and her gang pouted from MTV, diverting my attention from homework and merienda. Even as I sat up in bed, dreaming up a hetero relationship I could tolerate — dramatized a la “Dawson’s Creek” and opposite Rachael Leigh Cook — I hummed Paloma’s lyrics in my head.

"Scream" climbing at the top of the charts alongside 2000s pop heavyweights. Photo courtesy of NIKKA PALOMA

“Scream” bottled a general mood at the close of the millennium. At a time when bubblegum pop exploded, rap rock raised its middle finger, and OPM sharpened its songwriting, the song embodied Y2K fears and Candy Mag advice columns simultaneously; a wariness of the future soothed by sips of a Starbucks Frappuccino.

WYRD literally rode the cultural moment on a conveyor belt. Soon, however, they would have to get off. A year after their debut, Pangan, the band’s drummer, whose idea it was to join the MTV contest in the first place, was diagnosed with a heart murmur. Though she was also behind the band’s name and what it stood for, the “rockin” in “We’re Young Rockin’ Dudettes” was no longer an option.

“It came to a point where our record label head wanted me to go solo instead,” recalls Paloma. “But I was so young. Jelly and I, we’ve known each other since we were five. We did everything together, so I guess when you’re a kid and you’ve been sharing your dreams with someone your whole life, you’re not used to the idea of doing it without her.”

Up until then, Paloma held fast to a deal she made with her parents: get a degree before charging head-first into the music business. Suddenly, she considered a regular 9-to-5 less as a backup plan. By 2002, she’d traded live gigs for entrance exams, powering through despite fellow test takers’ whispers about “the girl from that music video.” Throughout college, Paloma still got the occasional feeler to join this and that band. But by graduation, she’d lost her touchstone in the industry, Universal’s Bella Tan. “She died from cancer in 2005. She was like a second mom to me and that really shook up my world,” she says, the chirp in her voice cracking momentarily. At that point, the job interviews friends reported over drinking sessions now held even more appeal.

“Scream” bottled a general mood at the close of the millennium. At a time when bubblegum pop exploded, rap rock raised its middle finger, and OPM sharpened its songwriting, the song embodied Y2K fears and Candy Mag advice columns simultaneously; a wariness of the future soothed by sips of a Starbucks Frappuccino.

“When I was finally in the corporate world, I didn’t realize I’d get stuck there longer than I originally planned,” she says of her long stretch as an accounts executive, dealing with advertisers for media companies like FOX Philippines. “Of course, at the back of my mind the whole time was music.”

She still wrote songs — the occasional itch she needed to scratch when home and alone. “But I went on with the grind, ignoring the nagging feeling that my first love was reaching out to me.”

In 2018, when her fiancé asked if she would move to L.A. with him, relocating offered a chance at reconnecting with an undying passion. “I would make the crazy decision of taking a break from the corporate world, pursue music, and see where it goes,” Paloma says of her move. The starry city burst with talent, but also teachers who could reorient her with an industry now alien to her. Perhaps they could even help her map out a musical comeback. Then, barely a year after her big move, COVID-19 happened.

Nikka Paloma is now in L.A. and recently earned a certificate from N.Y.U. for a year-long music business course. Photo by LLOYD TY

For both of us, now 36, the great reset might have been a good thing.

21 years have passed since “Scream” pierced the airwaves; a fully grown adult between who we are now and the teens we tried to get away from. I’d spent a good decade getting comfortable with my truth, and the next decade, celebrating it. Now, in house arrest and finally at home with myself, all the ghosts of youth’s past came knocking for reconsideration — the ones teenage me had abandoned out of fear.

In the past year and a half, I painted again. I baked cookies in the shape of mermaids and iced them pink. I even learned the choreography to Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me” — unthinkable for someone who once mentally tasered himself for crossing his legs unconsciously.

Paloma herself is reclaiming what she gave up. In January, she earned a certificate from N.Y.U. for a year-long music business course. While nights have been spent reconnecting with her keyboard, her days are for running the livestream agency she launched last year. Besides bringing her some income during the pandemic, live streaming reacquainted her with performance. The agency gets OPM greats like Color it Red’s Cookie Chua and Mojofly’s Lougee Basabas onto digital stages, with Paloma joining in every so often. Through the daily gigs she hosts on livestream platform Mico, she might cover a track from the late ‘90s or that “really great time in music,” the early 2000s. Lately, she’s even revisited songs from her debut album.

A world away from WYRD, in a city where purple skies rarely turn gray, Paloma today looks like a polished version of her “Scream” persona. For one, she’s definitely big on smiles these days. Still, she’s thought a lot about that girl lately.

“I think wow, she’s so gutsy. She’s more confident than me,” she says of her 15-year-old self. “And to think that was the most awkward time in my life. I wasn’t happy with how I looked, but I didn’t care because I just wanted to make music. I just knew in my heart that I had to do it.”

By mid-2000, “Scream” had topped the radio charts, as did a music video that follows the trio moping on an endless blank canvas while serving late ‘90s looks — from “Empire Records” Liv Tyler to spacey, ravey Gwen Stefani. Photo courtesy of NIKKA PALOMA

When making it in today’s musical landscape urges screaming into a void of social media algorithms, Paloma looks up to who she was more than ever. “Now that I’m rediscovering my relationship with music, reference point ko si younger Nikka. There are days when it’s daunting and discouraging but then I see some of my artist friends who have 100 followers on Instagram but released a single on their own. They recorded it, put it on Spotify, and keber,” she says, citing a friend who landed a record deal despite his tiny social media following. “So it’s not true what some people say — ‘Oh, you have to have 100,000 followers before you can get a record label’s attention.’

“I’m starting from zero again. It’s tough and there’s still so much for me to learn, but I look to my WYRD days as a kind of guide to my journey now; like school notes you can look back on from time to time. I’ll think, okay, how would young Nikka approach this? How did we get through this before?”

In the new series “Girls5EVA” (executive produced by Tina Fey), a Y2K girl group makes a comical comeback in the age of TikTok. The premise isn’t so absurd considering the 2000s have spun back on this cultural carousel we call the zeitgeist. With the return of everything from Bennifer to early-aughts tramp stamps, it could even welcome a blast from the past like Paloma.

A Philippine Daily Inquirer feature on WYRD. Photo courtesy of NIKKA PALOMA

A second shot at relevance is less the point for her, however. Instead, she’s basking in the realization that a second, even third or fourth wind in life is possible. This time around, Paloma is even keen on a future outside of the recording booth. “There was a memory that came to me the other day. I remembered WYRD’s producer, DJ MOD, once told me that when I was 12 or 13, I told him, ‘Kuya, when I grow up, I wanna be just like you,’” she recalls. Learning how to produce music would at least help her sift through all the raw tracks she’s stowed away. “My next step is to develop those songs and see how capable I am in bringing my vision into my music.”

For a while now, I’ve been caught in the fever of doing my teen years better than the person who actually lived them. But like Paloma lately, I’ve realized that doing your youth right can also mean respecting it. It’s easy to blame the boy I was for his fears, just as he’d likely cringe if he met me now — engaged to a man and the proud owner of a mesh purple crop top. But at some point, the yelling match between us subsided into a content kind of silence. Maybe both of us wound up sharing pride about something — that we became exactly the person we needed to be.