Radio rock revelry gave one pre-pubescent his first taste of stardom.
Ear-piercing feedback, tattered flannel, jumping off the bass amp, whipping the fans into frenzied moshing, and the cute tattooed girls with thick-framed glasses coming up after the show to ask me about my “creative process”—this was my first real aspiration. Whether I was at a house party, the school gym, or the imagined rock venue I had yet to encounter in pre-adolescence, this fantasy of rock star worship – with me at front and center — remained about the same.
I entered tweendom around the turn of the millennium, when the collapse of the recording industry was preceded by the most inventive period of popular music since the 1970s. Although my older sister’s Radiohead CDs were a little too dense for my 10-year-old tastes, another album I stole from her really set these visions alight.
“The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” was burning up the charts, and it’s not hard to see why. Enough has been said about the album’s critical and popular legacy, but none of that mattered to a boy mesmerized by the haunting beauty of every chord change and tormented wail. I parsed out guitar lines, drum tracks, and horn trios to get the most comprehensive picture I could of this modern masterpiece, to feel closer to the woman who laid her love onto a disc.
During these marathon sessions, something strange happened – I began to imagine my elementary-school jazz band filling out Lauren’s backing group. I was first-chair alto saxophonist (impressive, I know), and most of my friends played instruments or sang. And with each new spin, I saw us all becoming featured players in the mythical band in my head.
My visions were fairly self-focused, however. Each time I sank into the neo-soul funk of Lauryn’s masterpiece, I saw myself as the saxophonist, guitarist, or any other instrumentalist whose line elevated the track. I was wrapped up in the power of that album, and categorically (if not narcissistically) placed myself into every step of what I heard. This is what I could create after all my years in arts summer camp – forget those stupid fucking Disney songs and big-band standards, this is what music was truly about.
Ms. Hill’s masterpiece has held up a lot better than most of the music that captivated me in the following years. My pubescent hypermasculinity drew me towards radio rock music, which hit a peak of thematic male aggression and loutishness in the early 2000s. On one side was pop-punk, with bands like Blink 182 and Green Day turning adolescent vulgarity and self-pity into catchy and quick anthems for all young men looking to score (or even just see real breasts). On the other was nu-metal, with bands like Korn and Sevendust mixing visceral lyrical images of violence and revenge with unrelenting down-tuned instrumentation, a barrage that mirrored the darkness blooming in every mistreated young man.
And as a growing boy that was both sex-obsessed and victimized by a fair amount of bully abuse, both genres made perfect sense to me. Pop-punk stars’ success showed us that music could whip your peers into a headbanging frenzy and make hot girls want to sleep with you. Nu-Metal convinced me that music could make a person bigger than your tormentors while sporting your freak badge with pride.
It goes without saying that both these specific genres of rock are also unabashedly male-led and male-oriented. Although they attempted to position themselves opposite to the mainstream, they were embedded in MTV’s celebrity worship machine, and thus suffered the same trappings of all sexist pop culture.
I realize now that such music (or at least how I processed it) had a detrimental impact on my relationships for years. It took me a while to understand systematic patriarchy because I legitimized my own insecurity and self-pity through music that indulged it. Some young men use it to feed the unhealthiest sides of their psyches before acting on them. It’s no wonder that so many women were sexually assaulted at Woodstock ’99, mainly during sets by Korn and Limp Bizkit. Rock music nurtured masculine rage, away from the purported threats of effeminate (or downright feminine) pop music. Fuck anybody else who got in the way.
At age 12, though, unabashed machismo still won out in social circles. If you weren’t an athlete or cartoonishly handsome, then you had to command respect some other way—or hope you didn’t get noticed. Starting a rock band was my way of reconciling every possibility – guys in bands made respectable art, looked cool banging on their instruments, could sing without being called gay, and claimed allegiance with social rejects while projecting an image of total coolness. Perfect.
With that, I reconnected with a kid in my grade that played drums and brought a bassist friend into the fold to jam. A month ahead of our 7th-grade talent show, to be held in the chorus room where I spent hours perfecting a cracking voice in front of too-cool jocks who needed arts credits. My band and I holed up in the drummer’s bedroom as serious as scholars. Through every weekend afternoon, we broke down verse-chorus-bridge song structures, discussed the finer points of our favorite singles, and stuck it to the man until our parents came and helped us carry our amps back to the car.
By the day of the talent show, we were more than prepared. Our set featured three covers exhibiting our allegiances to modern rock radio: The Ramones’s “Blitzkrieg Bop”, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (obviously), and Green Day’s “Basket Case”. We were like a tour through modern rock radio, and we wouldn’t have had it any other way. I, dressed in all black with a sideways baseball cap and my guitar slung comfortably below my crotch, projected the image of cool and collected rock star frontman. Or so I hoped. But really, in the small rehearsal room behind the stage, as our classmates played violin awkwardly and seared through strange interpretive dance numbers, we were freaking OUT.
But later, when the time came to plug in and announce our act, the steps thankfully blurred together. “One-two-three!” and we were off. Sure, the high-hat broke. Sure, we rushed through a few sections. Maybe the crowd didn’t say “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!” when we tried to get them chanting. But by the grace of God, we made rock come alive in that chorus room. It was everything I’d seen in my mind, and then some. When I entered the lunchroom a half hour later to rapturous applause, I knew that my visions could bring me even the most fleeting of stardom.
From that point on, I could not help visualizing every record I loved being played by the dream band in my mind, my fantasy always featuring me center stage. Call it self-aggrandizing. But even through the tons of other bands I jammed with in the ensuing decade, the bands I left, the bands that broke up, the bands that didn’t outlast the weekend, I will forever be that awkward middle school kid, the boy with a hope to dazzle everyone with a riff, a line, a howl into the dark.
I have discarded of the sideways hat, though. What was I thinking?
Photo: Flickr, C.M. Friese