Powerlifter and strongman N. C. Harrison completes a particularly grueling workout with some soulful help from his favorite chanteuses.
I place the disc on my CD deck before starting a particularly brutal workout session. I’m currently in a phase where I am trying to develop my work capacity–no hypertrophy, please Lord, I’m big enough as it is–and today will be a heavy front squatting session on Dante Trudel’s “Doggcrapp” program. This won’t entail the sublime torture of his famous “rest pause” extended set, as it just wouldn’t be safe with the 405 pounds I am using, but I will hit five reps with that weight and then another twenty with sixty percent of it. This is extreme training, Trudel writes, and shouldn’t be considered by anyone who has less than three years of hardcore gym experience. I tend to agree since it usually leaves me gasping on the floor.
What music, then, have I chosen to fill my veins with blood and thunder during this strenuous time with gravity and iron? Most strongmen, powerlifters and bodybuilders that I know, in my position, fill the room at this point with storming death metal or the loose, flowing rhythms of gangsta rap. I press play on Myra Lee, by Cat Power, and then chalk my shoulders while the winding, driving guitar of “Enough” snakes through the gym, around my body.
It’s not that I don’t like music with male vocals. Old school heavy metal like Black Sabbath with Tony Iommi’s turgid power chords and delicate Goth rock, like The Cure or The Jesus and Mary Chain, take me to a dark and wonderful place. Nothing hits me in the heart, though, like a soaring feminine wail, especially over clashing, discordant alternative rock.
I rack the weight, after four front squats with eight big plates, and try to catch my breath before stripping two off each side. My legs are in agony as I bend them and lean back into a stretch to pull the fascia wider around the muscle bellies, and Chan Marshall moans “We All Die” over struggling, muddy guitars. The five minutes that it will take me to recover from this set, sweat dripping off my nose onto the floor, gives me to time to consider how this state of affairs came about, how the voices of women came to be so powerful and soothing to me.
It started, probably, in sixth grade when I was riding home from school with my mother. She is a pretty powerful alto herself and sang and played her Yamaha guitar frequently throughout my childhood, and sang “Rocky Top” to me on a chipped red swing-set in front of her trailer, just as my great-grandmother had done in her higher, reedier voice years before. These songs were ones that I had heard men sing, too, though and I thought of them as genderless. The song my mom was trying to learn in the car, though, was “Possession” by Sarah McLachlan on the album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. It was in some indefinable way but definitely, to me, a female song, the soft, spidery acoustic version hidden after the album’s title song even more than the harder rocking default track.
I still can’t explain why I came to this conclusion about Ms. McLachlan’s poetic, haunting work. It’s about her struggles with a stalker, and women are more stereotypically considered the victims of those predators (although they are manifestly not the only victims of stalkers), but this seems too much like later rationalization read back into my initial impression. What sixth grader, after all, thinks about gender norms and unconscious expectations when forming an opinion about a song? One more special and introspective than me, doubtless. And besides, “Possession” is written from the perspective of the stalker and not his victim, even using fragments of his strange, rambling letters. This would make the aforementioned interpretation of my impression an ill-favored one at any rate.
My twenty rep “Widowmaker” set is done. I lie on the floor, gasping, and curse Dante Trudel’s name. I shouldn’t, really. He’s a good guy who’s made a great program available to the world at no cost. The muscular endurance I gain from this bodybuilding-specific program will aid me during any powerlifting, throwing or especially strongman related endeavors. I’m still cursing his name, though, because to compete in any of those things I’ll have to stand up one day. Chan’s voice, singing “Ice Water,” kneels on the floor and lays down beside me. It covers and fills me intimately, cooling my face the substance itself. The truth is I don’t really know why I love female singers so much. I can speculate all day and not come up with anything more concrete than compelling speculation. I’ve never even dated a singer, only actresses and visual artists–though I was madly in love with an eccentric bluegrass picker or two as a teenager. It’s just a part of who I am, or has become so, like my astigmatism or allergy to penicillin. Sing on, Chan, sing on Tori, sing on, Neko… just don’t make me listen to Ke$ha.