I am not as philosophically or literarily advanced as Proust. I believe smells DO take you back, but it happens to me so seldom that I don’t think about it that much. Songs, on the other hand, paint immersive technicolor exhibits in my head regarding the past I often never want to leave. I have had a “vice” involving headphones, max volume and pacing in circles that dates back to when I got my first Discman, probably 12 or 13 years old.
I want to go back to the times these songs remind me of, not literally–they were painful–but like an all-powerful version of myself who could take everything in properly, either that or a fly on the wall. I find that there were empowering moments in sixth grade, perhaps 10th, 11th and 12th, and definitely Freshman year of college (all of these were miserable years–who would think?), where music kind of woke me up in ways I had never been awake before. It wasn’t what you’d call “cool” music, or respectable. It was ordinary radio-variety pop, almost always later to be raised a few rungs on the music quality ladder by at least its sentimental value, but derided in its day. Britney Spears’ “If You Seek Amy,” a song that followed the lead of “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry in its racy homo-eroticism, still masked in attempts to arouse cisgender heterosexual men instead of display evidence of gay and bisexuality in among heavily exploited pop stars who were also female sex objects, was one that I secretly liked when I was 18 and 19. I liked it more than “Womanizer” and “Circus,” the other singles from that album.
What was that connection between pop, its heavy reliance on human sexuality for appeal, and my empowerment during horrible years? I don’t exactly know, but I have some ideas.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a star. I remember getting my hands on a copy of Seventeen Magazine (somehow, because my parents would not have bought it for me) and showing my stepfather a picture of Mandy Moore in a midriff-bearing camouflage outfit and saying, “That’s what I want to be.” He said something like, “Really? That?”
One time, my mother and stepfather asked me what I wanted. Specifically, they said, “Is there one thing you’ve always wanted that we could give you?” I drew a blank. I was not one to ask for things much, unless it was a special edition Barbie in an enormous and, to me, wonderfully resplendent blue dress in the middle of Nordstrom the exact month my mother’s credit card was maxed out. (I didn’t get that Barbie. I got other Barbies, though.) I spent a while thinking about what they could give me. I remember thinking vaguely of a trip in a hot air balloon (which I did get, years later, with my classmates.) Then, I knew.
My parents sat me on their bed and they stood in front, waiting, clearly disposed to care about what I was going to say. “I want to be screened.” I had learned this term from my friend Gabriel, whose dad worked in the film industry. According to him, it was where an adult–in his case, his dad–took you to a studio and they asked you questions and had you do things and checked your potential for commercials, shows, movies, etc. I did not want to be in commercials, and I told Gabe this, and he explained to me that you had to do commercials to get the other stuff, but you would end up in movies! Holy shit! I had to explain what it was to my mother and stepfather.
“No Alma. We don’t want to sell you like that, put you out there for anyone to look at. You really want this?”
I was disappointed, and convinced they didn’t understand. Later, I learned it was possible to be a stage parent and not be exploitative and evil–Natalie Portman’s parents seemed okay. Then, I made friends with a few girls whose mothers were models, and one whose father was a “rockstar” (he opened for the Go-Gos one time) and learned that fame, art, theater, performing and making money off one’s art didn’t necessarily come with toxicity. Being human did. The rest was a choice. So I could have been a child star, if my parents had been other parents.
This is all to say, I saw something in fame that, to me, I wasn’t getting. I think it was attention. I was a colorful girl, treated like a plain one. I was convinced I was not going to grow up, marry, raise kids and die and have that be it. I was like the proverbial caterpillar told by her parents that she might turn into a butterfly one day but that really wasn’t that great. Imagine that! My first step toward making sure that I not just flourish vaguely and die was hating men. Not all men. I hated boys less than men. Men, to me, were people who could take something from me. Boys were not so corrupted. And some men, I don’t know which ones, I just feel like they were there–they didn’t take things from me.
Those girls, who sang and were known for their singing, and danced and were known for their beauty, I loved them. I saw the power they had on stage singing their prefabricated songs for a very young and tripped-out audience. I probably sensed they were on cocaine–I’ve never done it, but I’ve heard it makes you feel powerful–or some other thing. People didn’t respect them, talked about their lip-syncing, their overt and excessive sexuality, like they had done it on purpose, being born with breasts. I used to want to say, don’t you know that’s what a woman IS? BEAUTIFUL?! NO?! THEN SHUT THE FUCK UP. I didn’t add this, but they needed to shut the fuck up because they were hurting me. When I saw popstars dancing through their videos on Disney Channel, their sexy outfits clashing sickeningly with Duck Tales as I watched, I saw sparkly women screaming in cages, screaming for the animals, trees, boys, children, men, screaming for ME, happy for a microphone. I knew I was in a similar cage–theirs was just a little harder to escape. It looked too nice on the inside.
Later I learned in a Buddhist book by Pema Chodron, through her friend in prison, that all of life is a cage. That we are all basically in prison, those in literal prison just don’t have to lie to themselves anymore. By that time my post traumatic stress disorder had taught me something that seemed deeper and scarier–that to be a human is to carry around the potential to behave like a monster. And to not even know it. If you don’t want to know, you don’t have to know–that was the scariest bit. I DID want to know, because that determination to consciously turn into a butterfly, and not die before I knew what I was, had created in me a deep resolution to be happy, and I had learned, through trial and grievous error, that making others suffer would not allow me to be happy. Ever.
So why does music matter? Why does pop matter? It matters to my heart. Little pink waves like the trail left by glowsticks or neon in pictures start dancing up and out of my heart whenever a certain song starts. And how strange that this fizzy feeling arises from the memories of periods of deep suffering? What is it about pop, my sexuality and being a human being that have combined and become a burial ground singing with fireflies and crickets in the bowels of my unconscious?
I do know why the music from those dark times stands out for me and makes me want to hold onto the memories. I could say life transforms even the worst things into beautiful things, but I don’t think that’s true. What I do think is that to be alive means to have a soul, and an opportunity to become aware of that soul. And, for me, the moments I became aware of that soul were when I couldn’t avoid it anymore, usually when I was between a rock and a hard place. That means suffering, generally, although I don’t think it’s necessary to be suffering for all that is glowing and gorgeous and weirdly happy in us at the same time we don’t think we are to make itself known.
I think it’s because the point of life is not necessarily to be happy in the way we are happy when we get our way. Our soul is like one of those giant parachutes they use in elementary school gym class. It’s starts out a square smaller than a man’s belly. As it begins to unfold, you are encased in color and wonder as the size of that beautiful, wonderful thing slowly takes your breath away. As it opens completely, you realize it takes up a whole room, can hide fifty children, with some room to spare. We are not here to stare in the mirror and remark at the amazingness of the four square inches we know of ourselves today. We are here to unfold ourselves into the full extent of what we are.
Because the person, oh sweet person, is disposed to avoid pain, pain itself is the way to tempt them out of hiding. Staying closed up and closed off becomes so painful that we must destroy ourselves or, like a rosebud, bloom. Music is like rain on the rosebud of my heart. As I squeeze my way through this dark tunnel of my thoughts, which people say repeat themselves in the same pattern everyday, a song plays nearby and all I know is that, despite my being nearly completely buried in my own ideas of my life, that song gave me a glimpse of what was really happening: I was at a party. There were people about. Boys and girls were looking at me. There were “drug fairies” offering spliffs and shrooms to whoever knew what they had in their backpacks. I was lonely, and that loneliness was in itself a sort of company, as I look back on it. It was such a constant companion, even in big groups. In fact, Ms Loneliness became more solid when I was around other people. She stood with me and waved people off, saying, “No, she doesn’t want any” to anyone who offered me drinks, company, etc.
Later I would learn these parties were a sort of meeting ground for lonely half-children like me, who had learned not to reveal that they were lonely. They all felt like that only one in the room who looked that weird. They all felt like they were being looked at. I used “all” relatively here, because I’m sure there were those well-adjusted kids who made real friends, and those confident extroverts who never gave these things any thought. But the kids I watched were the addicts. And I have learned, addicts are pretty much, without exception, lonely.
I felt like I was the most awkward girl who had ever set foot on that campus. I overanalyzed even when I took too deep a breath, or when someone else did. I watched everything so closely that I stopped seeing it, the world just turned into a sizzling pan of anxiety in which I was becoming confit. I thought of things to say but because I didn’t have the wherewithal to just SAY them the moment passed and either I said them and it was awkward, or I didn’t say them and it was awkward. I did not bond with my class, as my class did with each other. Or seemed to.
Let me tell you how deeply my class seemed to bond. They stayed up late into the night before papers were due, drinking and taking silly photos with high res cameras that they would later post on Facebook just to emphasize how good of friends they were. They took up smoking so they wouldn’t have to be alone when the others stepped outside to smoke. They said things on social media about being “freakish twins inside and out” with regard to a girl dyeing her hair the same color as the commenter and I sat in disbelief at their lack of restraint in these shows of “friendship.” When it was time to go to parties, or dances, or do anything, they went together.
I was fairly certain that you did some things alone, but these people made my aloneness conspicuous, particularly to me. My class was small, 23 people, and several had dropped out by the time I got sick of trying to fit in and sat alone at lunch every day. I had painful social anxiety. I wanted friends. I wanted to blend and not be seen alone (I hoped not too many people did see me alone as much as I was) but I didn’t feel like I could breathe when I hung out with my cohort, and I felt even less like I fit in. I also felt like they judged me. I also felt like they would abandon me, and one another, in a pinch. Maybe that was everyone at my school. Maybe that was 19 and 20-some-year-olds. Maybe I was afraid of abandonment so I projected sinister qualities on my peers just in case.
It was certainly a combination of all of these things. All I know is it was the strangest period of my life–maybe because the late teens and early twenties just are strange. I felt like I was emerging from something, at the same time I was being shoved into something else. My isolation, my trademark and pride, became the punishment it was always going to be after a few months, and my fear and resentment grew. A mythology emerged in my head about this group and I never stopped longing for their acceptance until years later. The truth was I thought they were the cool kids. They were most assuredly the cool kids, with respect to me. There were other, different, more down-to-earth cool kids and I made friends with them (even if I didn’t get close, because I didn’t know how–I will go into that later). I separated myself so cleanly from my freshman cohort that they acknowledged me warmly at functions (I am someone I have learned it is hard not to acknowledge warmly–people tend to like me) but did not include me in their clique, which had survived the throes of shallowness and become a standing friend group.
I don’t know if there was something wrong with me because I never developed the instinct to join and stay in cliques and “friend groups.” The thing about friend groups is I didn’t get to choose who was in them, and people, especially men, especially men who drank, scared me because I didn’t know how they would act. I was excessively cautious. I also argued with myself when I didn’t like something, especially people, because they were so scarce in my life. And I worried I was just insecure.