Nonfiction from Visions: Self-Titled Debut
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I hated ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’
But I mostly hated the people who liked ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’
The a cappella introduction – Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy1 – was some sort of call to the floor for all of the football players and cool kids at every. single. school. dance.
And I hated it.
I hated how of all of the boys would make a circle in front of the Substitute-Teacher-by- Day-and-DJ-by-Night and try to impress each other by singing all of the words. (It was a masculine ritual.) I’d sit on the bleachers with my sweaty bangs pressed to my forehead from expressively singing to all of the other songs, and wait for the never-ending six-minute song to end.
The song always ended. And the boys would scatter immediately. Maybe after realizing they were too close to each other but most likely because the next song never allowed for the same posturing as their favorite rock opera.
If only they knew that Freddie Mercury was gay. If only I knew at that age that Freddie Mercury was gay.
All of the boys loved ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ All of the boys except me.
In the summer of 1999 – years before my first high school dance – I had finished fourth grade at the Catholic private school, All Saints Academy, and was looking toward – but not looking forward – to fifth grade at the local public elementary school, Cohen.
The two girls who lived across the street – Meredith, who was in my grade, and Kirsten, who was in my older sister’s – had been going to Cohen all of their lives. Because they lived on The Hill and because they had both perfected their own brands of blasé grrl rebel, Meredith and Kirsten were considered “cool.”
My family had just moved into the house across the street the year before so I had already spent a year’s worth of weekends running for my life down their mile-long driveway in the black of night after too many hours playing GoldenEye with them in their basement. We were already friends.
On a typically hot and humid summer day in Upstate New York, I asked the two of them if I’d fit in at my new school.
“Not if you stand like that,” Kirsten told me, standing with her bike in our stony unpaved driveway. She was imitating my casual limp wrist. My sister, standing with her bike, laughed.
They both agreed that if I wore a “wife beater” – an unfortunate term that we had not yet reckoned with – that I would definitely fit in.
It was actually great advice.
a pop music aficionado.
a religious 94 Rock Top Five at Nine listener.
an Original TRL Kid (always from behind the TV set, never in Times Square screaming to be let into the studio).
I don’t know if Meredith introduced me to MTV but I do know that she was there from the beginning, in my living room, watching Carson Daly count down the day’s most requested music videos. Christopher, who lived two houses down from me and was also our age, was with us, too.
Christopher, like most other ten-year-old boys, loved Britney Spears.
We lived outside of the city on The Hill, which meant we were always the first to be picked up for school and the last to be dropped off.
In the mornings, the bus driver – an older man whose wife gifted us Dubble Bubble every Friday – would make sure to turn up the radio because he knew that we liked it. After winding our way down the hill, he would turn the volume back down since the bus had become mostly filled. I first heard ‘Oops… I Did It Again’ on that bus.
But the bus home was a different story. An anti-radio story.
I hated the bus rides home.
Unlike the morning’s journey, the bus home started full and would thin as we got closer to my house. The middle schoolers – who thought they were cooler than shit at an age when shit was one of the coolest words to say without an adult present – would usually try to get me to show them what I was listening to on my Discman.
I’d refuse. They’d then instead make fun of my appearance, usually telling me I dressed like a faggot or that their moms told them only gays wear New Balance.
Those kids would get off somewhere in suburbia.
The roads up the hill were bumpier than the roads in town. My anti-skip Discman skipped at every pothole.
Can you hear it in my voice?
Was it something I let slip?
Does the whole world know?
Isn’t it obvious?2
I called Christopher’s house from the phone in the kitchen and asked his mom, politely, if Christopher was home. I was scared of her but she always allowed me over to their house in the end. He may have lived only two houses down the street, Honeysuckle Lane, but it was still a good walk over.
I was one of four children in my family but Christopher was an Only Child. His bedroom aligned near perfectly with my idea of an Only Child’s bedroom. His baseball cards and autographed baseball from Derek Jeter were displayed within a glass cabinet. Two shelves worth of DVDs sat beneath his room’s TV. He had a binder full of Pokémon cards under his bed, including more than a few holographic cards.
And he had Britney Spears’ debut album along with the CDs of each of the album’s singles. I made him put in ‘…Baby One More Time’ just so I could hear the B-side that didn’t make the full- length album.
Once, without Meredith, Christopher and I watched TRL in his bedroom. When the video for ‘Sometimes’ came on he kissed the TV to show his adoration.
Christopher, like most other ten-year-old boys, loved Britney Spears. I was not as smitten.
After all, we couldn’t both like the same girl.
Autumn had not quite settled into Elmira Heights but I put on a sweater, anyway.
The sweater was a gray turtle neck and tight to the body, with a zipper that stopped halfway down. Two parallel stripes in a lighter shade of gray went across the chest.
I wore it to school and felt too warm all day. But I also felt like I had just stepped off of the *NSYNC video shoot for ‘This I Promise You.’ I lived for that fantasy.
A boy in the sixth grade hovered over my bus seat before we departed from the school at the end of the day, staring at my sweater. I looked up.
“That is a gay shirt.”
I never wore the sweater again.
I still listened to No Strings Attached, though. But I’d never cop to it being spun in my Discman. Unless, of course, Meredith wanted to listen to it on the way to school.
If only I knew at that age that Lance Bass was gay.
My childhood best friend, Ryan, grew up on Elvis Presley.
Whenever I slept over at his house, his father would put on ‘Hound Dog,’ and we’d dance around the living room.
The detached garage had been converted by his father into a man cave. A man cave that doubled as a sacred space for The King. Ryan and I would sneak inside without permission and we’d stare up at the memorabilia that hung on the walls.
A black leather jacket. A vinyl record cover. A framed picture of Elvis performing in Las Vegas.
They didn’t mean much to me at the time but we acted as if they were holy.
I, on the other hand, grew up on The Lion King soundtrack and Amy Grant. My sister choreographed dance routines to Janet Jackson for my brother and me to perform for our parents.
I grew up on the radio.
It was a week before I was to begin fifth grade at Cohen and just like every other year before, my mom planned a trip to the Waterloo Outlets in Geneva to buy us school clothes. It was an hour and a half trip along Seneca Lake.
My allowance at the time was five dollars a week (two dollars if my room wasn’t kept clean) and I never managed to save more than a weeks’ worth of money before blowing all of it on something stupid. I had just received my five-dollar allowance the day before the trip and without any of the previous week’s money, I realized that it wasn’t going to cut it.
I created my first – and quite possibly my only – budget plan.
I didn’t have any money to budget so it was just a list of the things I wanted to buy paired with the estimated cost. It was just a crafty way for a ten-year-old to ask his parents for more money.
And it worked.
My mom took us to the Waterloo Outlets with the goal of buying us nice (and nicely discounted) school clothes. I was going to the Waterloo Outlets with the goal of buying my first CD.
At the start of the Summer of 1999 I owned zero CDs.
At the end of the Summer of 1999 I owned one CD.
In the summer of 2004 I upgraded my standing wire rack to a self-assembled wooden shelf display from Target because I had too many CDs.
My mom once called me into her bedroom to tell me she thought I was wasting my money.
Every year for my mom’s birthday, we picnicked at the Watkins Glen State Park, which consisted of a series of waterfalls from a narrow river that wound its way through a wooded gorge. The picnic area was halfway up the gorge with trees that blocked most of the sunlight, a soft cloud of wetness occupied the space instead.
On the picnic table, next to the salads and the charred hamburgers, we had placed the portable radio – which was tuned in to 94 Rock. My father had made my siblings and me request ‘A Kiss on the Rose.’ It had become some sort of tradition.
If we were lucky, we’d hear our voices on air, wishing my mom a happy birthday.
I don’t know if my mom liked the song or if my dad liked the idea of her liking the song.
There was a time I was blind, I was so confused,
Run away just to hide it all from you
But baby, you knew me better than I knew myself (ooh)…3
The New Kid, who was on the Varsity basketball team, made the fatal mistake of showing his teammates the album he was listening to on the trip home from Moravia.
More Than You Think You Are. This was cause for all of the boys to erupt in laughter. This was an opportunity to call The New Kid a faggot.
I was on the Junior Varsity Team. I slumped in my seat.
I was listening to the same album.
I rejected Queen. I rejected The Rolling Stones. I rejected Bruce Springsteen. I rejected any music that I was told was cool. I thought liking The Beatles was a cheap ploy for credibility.
I had yet to acquire my Discman so all I had done on the ride home from the Waterloo Outlets was pull off the shrink wrap, pick at the jewel case’s security seal (it was the first time the glue got stuck beneath my fingernail), and flip through the album’s booklet.
I had already begun memorizing it.
Written by Steve Kipner, David Frank and Pam Sheyne. Published by Steven A. Kipner Music/EMI Music Publishing (ASCAP). Produced, recorded and arranged by David Frank and Steve Kipner. Mixed by Dave Way.
The lyrics, too, were printed inside. Little red words, slanting in all directions across the pages. I read them – without any musical context – until I was forced to close my eyes from my carsickness.
When we arrived home from Geneva, I didn’t help my mom unload the car. I ran into the house, up the stairs, and into my room so that I could load the CD onto my Dell.
I took out the SimCity disc, put it face down on my computer desk (my dad had told me over and over not to do this with CDs), and replaced it with the album I had just bought. And I began listening to Christina Aguilera’s debut album for the first time through my crappy external speakers.
Christopher may have loved Britney Spears but I had chosen Christina.
Meredith was the type of kid who duped her babysitter into taking her to Target to buy the Parental Advisory labeled Marshall Mathers LP. She’d never spent more than a day with these kinds of CDs. Her parents always found out and they never let her keep them.
I was the type of kid who kept note of album release dates and saved my money carefully so that I could slowly add to my CD collection. I had Christina Aguilera, Vitamin C, LFO, and Mandy Moore (my mom hated ‘Candy’).
I was the type of kid who found safety within pop music, who built worlds from its industrial, flamboyant beats, who collected the found pieces of himself that were scattered throughout its lyrics.
I was the type of kid who loved ‘Genie in a Bottle.’
- Mercury, F. (1975). Bohemian Rhapsody [Recorded by Queen]. On A Night at the Opera [Audio File]. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/track/7tFiyTwD0nx5a1eklYtX2J?si =-2ffoKImQnpfgNuZe wgA
- Holley, H. (1999). Obvious [Recorded by Christina Aguilera]. On Christina Aguilera [Audio File]. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/track/5ahHuUFXG7Ad2EYBJmc 9v9?si=5wG3tbmgS- yCC1UpdOAoTQ
- Peiken, S., Roche, G. (1999). What a Girl Wants [Recorded by Christina Aguilera]. On Christina Aguilera [Audio File]. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/track/5bGmuxShUba9maPswDnhCs?si =hzkTHjhzQ5qLmHxGBobuaw
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