Music for Boys

Why Fiona Apple’s music mattered to Vincent Scarpa, even when he thought it wasn’t supposed to.

Like most things I loved at fourteen, I was convinced that Fiona Apple’s When the Pawn … record was not intended for me. In my head, there was a clearly-defined demographic for Fiona’s music, and that was a box I couldn’t fit inside. The issue was an obvious one: I was a boy. And whether it was of my own invention or in fact a quiet standard society abides by and thus subconsciously perpetuates, I firmly believed that I wasn’t allowed to listen to—let alone love, admire, recite—music like Fiona’s as such. The problem was the pronouns. I loved to sing along in the privacy of my bedroom, but felt something like contrition when I brought a line like, “Hunger hurts, but I want him so bad, oh it kills,” to the roof of my mouth, letting that lyric slide a little quieter than the rest off my tongue. In those times when my shame was at its worst, I would comb the internet hoping to find the music that was deliberately for me, filling my browser with searches like “music for boys.” That’s how vast the disconnect was: I had no idea what boys listened to, only that it wasn’t anything like what I was.

I had felt this guilt before, a few years earlier, when I discovered Dar Williams. Ani Difranco came next, with PJ Harvey and Cat Power not far behind. I loved these records with a ferocity that far exceeded the emotional wherewithal I had demonstrated anywhere else. I began to deem my CD collection questionable at best, and this only served to exacerbate the fear of my life: That, whatever I was, I wasn’t it enough. In this case, a boy. I was not like other boys. I was not a roughhouser. I was subdued and reticent. I overate, cried often, was apoplectically terrified of car accidents and other cataclysms, and begged to quit every sport my mother signed me up for
inside of a year. In my closet were the neatly-folded uniforms I’d worn less than a dozen times: a green one for indoor soccer, blue for farm league baseball. The jerseys had not a tear, and the pants were still white as teeth.

And now I was listening to girly music.

It made sense to me. The few friends I had were always girls, and I had married all of them in non-binding playground ceremonies, had spun in circles with them, arms interlocked, in reenactments of the Titanic barroom scene. I liked their company, liked what they talked about. They seemed to be on the same page as I was when it came to the things that mattered, whereas the boys in my Catholic school seemed to be reading from a different book altogether. So I could often be found on the wrong side of the blacktop, sitting by the fence with Jessica and Laura, making lists of the teachers we would and would not save from capsizing vessels, watching the
flag football game I ought to have been quarterbacking. It should go without saying that the teasing that came my way—and of course it had—was almost always framed around my sissiness. [Though, there was occasionally a poorly-crafted fat joke. The last time you saw 90210, it was on the scale. Nevermind that the show had been off the air for four years, and I was, at best, thirty pounds overweight.]

Soon enough, I became convinced that my taste in music meant something about my sexuality. It was a mathematical equation that made perfect sense in my head at the time—your CD collection, and that alone, was indicative of your sexual preference. One look at mine, and I thought, Okay, then I’m gay. This is not what straight boys listen to.

This faulty epiphany proved problematic in a multitude of ways over the course of the next several years.

I began to feel an internal pressure to be like the men my mother dated, or married. After she divorced my father, her men were tough and fractious. They drank too much beer and had faded tattoos hidden at the ground level of their hairy arms. They worked in construction, or else were mechanics. They spit, burped, and farted around the house, these bulletproof, ten-foot-tall Real
Men. And they listened to the classic rock intended for them, all those wailing guitar solos in major keys. Their aggressive masculinity heightened my awareness of my lack thereof. But when I tried to emulate them in private, tried to imagine myself as the kind of man whose hands could fix cars or operate backhoes, it felt embarrassingly artificial. I wasn’t anything like them, but I wanted to be.

I was around these men more than my own father, who I saw twice a week per the custody agreement. He was perhaps more sensitive in comparison, but still fought fires for a living; a lateral move on the manliness chess board, but out of check all the same. He had owned Amy Grant’s records, but there was Jesus there, which excuses just about everything. And though I didn’t fully understand the details of the divorce, the one side of the story my mother recited to me like a song did not imbue with me the desire to be anything like him. She made me promise as much. She’d take a drag of her menthol cigarette, letting the smoke curl out the side of her lips, and say, Swear you’ll never be like him. Don’t be that kind of man.

I wondered what kind of man I was supposed to be, wanted to freeze time until I had an answer. But my larynx was growing, my voice deepening into the waves of lower octaves, the sound bottled up in an apple mass by my throat. At school, I was handed a razor and shaving cream by my frigid geometry teacher and was told to shave in the bathroom, and yes she knew that Jesus had a beard but that wasn’t the point. Puberty was dragging me into a reality I wasn’t ready to face. I wanted so badly to reach the other side of that wide river of masculinity and perception; to find rocks, however far apart, that would allow me to cross. I tried to wean myself off of the
music I loved, tried to grow the thicker skin my mother encouraged. Nothing took. I had finished with puberty and came out on the other side even more anxiety-ridden, twice as desperate to feel understood.

That’s the state Fiona Apple found me in.

♦◊♦

I was in my poorly-funded Catholic school’s sad excuse for a library, browsing the Guinness Book of World Records, when I first saw her name. The entry was for longest album title, and the book included the epic 90-word poem in its entirety: When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘Fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind is Your Might [already, I was in love] So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You’ll Know Where to Land and if You Fall it Won’t Matter, Cuz You Know That You’re Right. I hadn’t even purchased the record, hadn’t heard a single song, and already I felt free of something, something I couldn’t name. I’d realize in time that what I had begun to lose was the sense of solitude that had filled up everything inside of me like a forgotten faucet. In my dreams, I walked the face of the Earth twice over after its violent upheaval only to find that I was the sole survivor. But here was Fiona, in a post-apocalyptic supermarket, pulling the tab off a diet soda, slapping her palm twice against the tiles, and telling me to take a seat. So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own
Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights. It felt like a hymn, a blessing. It felt like permission.

I bought the CD that night at the local mall. Once at home, I gnawed at the plastic wrap with my teeth, laboriously pulled off the labels that kept When The Pawn shut, and immediately placed the CD into my Walkman, headphones already plugged in. Together, Fiona and I began to work on the things that had been paralyzing me in the same way I might have done with a therapist, had I the gumption to ask for one or my mother the alertness to suggest a visit herself.

By the time the final track faded into fuzz, I was fundamentally rearranged. The songs had untied all of the knots within me, and for the very first time in my life, I felt spoken for. I went back to the beginning and started again, and by the end of the night, I knew all of the words. With time, I began to ignore the pronouns and just revel in what the music was making me feel. I was still convinced that I had to be gay, despite any real inclination toward that persuasion, but When The Pawn … took over my life in such a way that I stopped thinking about my sexuality and my masculinity altogether. All that could fit in my brain was the music. As I grew older, entering senior year of high school and never having taken When The Pawn out of rotation, what began to reveal itself in both Fiona’s music and inside of me was an isolating sense of self-loathing. It was years before I learned to call it that—the word package freed me
with its accuracy—but I heard it in Fiona’s lyrics and I felt it wrapping rubber bands around my brain. It was feeling lost even when I knew where I was. It was feeling homesick without having left the house. It was knowing how I was and how I should have been, but failing to traverse the Sahara desert between those two realities.

For years, I lacked the language for all of this, the words that distilled the clutter of my brain. I had Fiona’s music to do a lot of the legwork for me. She authorized my feelings as authentic, endorsed all of my emotional spectrum that I thought was inadmissible. She provided me an unparalleled sense of understanding that I still cannot find any where else in this mortal coil.

♦◊♦

With high school graduation approaching, I reached the age Fiona must have been when she was writing the songs I had come to exalt, and this realization only served to bring me closer to her in my mind. The songs began to reveal themselves in different lights, and I came to find something new in the music and in me with each listen. Simply put, I was getting older. And as I sent in college applications, finished finals, threw my cap in the air, and readied myself for the brand new life in Boston that awaited me at summer’s end, When the Pawn … became the only thing unmoving. I was terrified of what the future held, and Fiona was the only stationary thing I could anchor myself by. I felt a renewed sense of purpose to make things work in Boston, despite my overwhelming
sense of anxiety that they wouldn’t. I wanted to be different in a different place, but what happened instead was more of the same.

♦◊♦

The first two weeks at my new liberal arts school were terrific. I was amazed every day by all that the city had to offer, and did not miss for a moment the farms and used car lots of New Jersey. I met people who made me laugh, formed lukewarm friendships with my five roommates, and thoroughly enjoyed my classes. I was settling in just fine.

But soon the self-loathing began to manifest itself in new, unhealthy ways. I was surrounded by people I thought were exponentially more beautiful, more talented, more thoughtful, more articulate. They were funnier, kinder, smarter. And in my writing workshops, I quickly became convinced that everyone and their mother was a better writer than I could ever hope to be. I could hear nothing to the contrary, which is evidence of how solipsistic self-reproach makes you. It convinces you that your opinion is not just the true one, but the only one.

I began to drink—too much, too often—and found pot and coke. I smoked a pack a day, sometimes two. I stopped eating, and seemingly overnight dropped the thirty pounds that had made me cry once a week for much of my life. And now that I was 300 miles from home, finally freed of my suffocating Catholic school and still convinced that I had to be gay, I started sleeping around. There were men from Kansas. Men from Vermont. Men with wedding bands who handled me like luggage. Blondes, brunettes. Men who were funny, and others with the personality of an ink cartridge. Men in good, not-so-good, and terrible shape. Men with fancy apartments. Men in hotels. Men who played the guitar left-handed. Exactly one Pulitzer Prize winner.

I thought the freshman fifteen was how many people you were supposed to sleep with in a year, and I had gained it.

But I didn’t like it, not even once. The sex never made geometric sense to me, and I couldn’t help but feel like Gumby the way my arms and legs were pulled and spread. But I kept at it. I had even tricked three separate men into falling in love with me, lying through my teeth when I said I felt the same way. The truth was that I wanted something to leave, to ruin, and this was the only way I knew how to get it. I wanted something to fill me with worth that, at any time, I could take a match to and watch burn. And still operating under the silly premise I had invented years ago—this notion that the music I loved made me less of a man, and therefore no woman would ever
want me—I began to hurt all of these men in unforgivably deceptive ways.

By the end of freshman year, I felt as lost as the newly-hatched bird in Are You My Mother? who thinks it’s the offspring of a Labrador. The self-loathing had me me destructive; had made me mean with myself and with others.

I started seeing a series of therapists and doing the antidepressant dance. Prozac, Klonopin, Zoloft. They turned me into a zombie or they did nothing at all. The only therapist I had come to trust totaled her car on the Mass Pike on the way to one of our appointments. She fractured her skull, and I never called to reschedule for fear of seeming insensitive to her injury.

Most days, I slept until the sun was already making its way down across the river. I rarely left the basement apartment I was subletting in Cambridge. I was massively depressed, and I’d accidentally seen every single episode of Reba. But even in the thick of it, even at my most miserable, I had the great idea to turn to Fiona. She’d helped me before, and I figured she was my best bet at pulling myself out of the inescapable funk I found myself in.

I was sick of my own despondency. I wanted to be transported, even temporarily, back in time. I wanted to be the fourteen-year-old who followed the lyric booklet with his finger, who cut out the album art and taped it to his bedroom wall. The problem was that, in the haze of that first year of college, I’d misplaced my copy of When the Pawn. It’s amazing the things you lose when you’re high for a year. Not far from my apartment was Weirdo Records, a dingy record shop that I’d been to once before. So what I did was brush my teeth, put on the only shirt that didn’t reek of cigarettes, and make my way down Massachusetts Avenue.

When I got to the record shop, there was only one copy left. I stood in the aisle and read the poem on the front once more, even though I’d never forgotten it, not a word. When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember that Depth is the Greatest of Heights. Here’s hoping, I thought. I brought the CD to the front desk, where a leather-skinned, long-haired man flipped through the pages of a guitar magazine behind the counter. He wore a blazer with Harley Davidson lettered on the front and had the disposition of someone who probably owned one. I handed him the CD.

“Nice choice,” he said. “This is one of my favorites.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “This is one of your favorites?” I asked.

“Shit, yeah,” he said, and then he sang a line from “Limp.” “You’re gonna love it man,” he said.

All along, up until that very moment that I waited in line to buy the CD, I’d been worried about what others would think of the music I loved. I chastised myself for not seeking out artists that were more appropriate. But here was Harley Davidson, a Real Man in the flesh, and this was one of his favorite records. Wasn’t music universal? Who invented the idea of demographics and suitable audiences and music for boys? Had that been me the entire time?

I gave him the fifteen dollars, thanked him, and went home.

♦◊♦

I was not instantly saved by When the Pawn, but it helped. It got me off my ass. It got me to clean my filthy apartment. It provided the same communion it had in high school, and most days that’s all I really wanted—to feel understood, to be given benediction. And I realized I didn’t have to go back in time to be the person who found it—I could be the person I was now. That, even after a miserable year of self-destructive behavior and meanness, even after I’d done unforgivable things, there was still music for me. More now than ever. And so I began again with Fiona’s help, learning so much along the way. I would not always be happy, and the self-loathing would not disappear, but I’d learn and relearn ways to manage it. I’d lose some friends, but find new ones. I’d take a gender studies course and explore the concept of masculinity until I was blue in the face, concluding in the end that I was my own worst critic, and probably no one cared what I liked to listen to, and if there was really one other person on the planet who thought I was less of a man for my music collection, they’d have nothing to say that I hadn’t been saying to myself for the better part of a decade. I’d fall in love for the very first time with a girl whose name I wanted to to spell out in the sky with stars, and find Fiona yet again when it fell apart. I’d graduate, miraculously. And three years after I bought When the Pawn for a second time, I’d be standing in a bar with 300 people, the lights dimming, the crowd anxious. The familiar beat of “Fast as You Can” would start, and Fiona Apple, who had never left me solo, who had been the one holding my hand all along, would float out onto the stage like a vision. She’d thrash around, scream her lungs out. Make us cry, laugh, dance. She’d give us everything she had. And I’d raise my hands like the saved do, thinking, Praise.

Read more Quarter-Life Crisis stories on The Good Life.

Image credit: musicgeekstress/Flickr

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About Vincent Scarpa

Vincent Scarpa is a graduate of Emerson College, and the 2012 Norman Mailer College Fiction award winner. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in journals like Hayden's Ferry Review, Baltimore Review, and plain china: Best Undergraduate Writing 2011. He tweets @vincentscarpa.

Comments

  1. wellokaythen says:

    It’s not news to me that Fiona Apple’s music can appeal to men. Certainly as a hetero male, I have always found something very compelling about her voice and the intensity of the vocal performance. There’s longing, desire, and a little sexy/crazy in her lyrics, at least in her earlier work. There is something about the smoky, sultry, groaning aspects of her voice that is very easy on my ears, like Lauryn Hill singing “Killing Me Softly.” That’s the pudding.

  2. Brian Reinholz says:

    Vincent, thank you for sharing your story. I think we’re always our own toughest critics, especially about insignificant things. You might be surprised by the myriad insecurities and wounds that those “manly men” have as well…probably many of them seek to be so overtly “manly” because of the same fears you’ve expressed.

    Wishing you the best on the next leg of your journey.

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