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 and human being that have combined and become a burial ground singing with fireflies and crickets in the bowels of my unconscious?
I want to wave the question off with an “I don’t know,” but I think I do.