essays

all i know are sad songs

I saw Garden State for the first and only time when I was seventeen with a boy I thought I loved who kissed me too rough too heavy too urgent like he had something to prove and it wasn’t about me but I was there. I didn’t think it was a good movie but I cried anyway and I cried again when the sweater he let me take with me to college stopped smelling like him. I still don’t think it is a good movie but I get why it mattered to people and I find myself forgiving it more as I get older, the pitiful shout into the void that it is, the pointless rage against a machine of which it is a part. I haven’t thought about it in a long time but the other day I heard this new Mike Posner song and all I could see was Zach Braff sitting on a couch while the world happens around him.

There is something very uniquely appealing to me about dance songs about sadness. Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own”, Katy Perry’s “The One That Got Away”, a lot of Tove Lo’s body of work, almost all of Sia’s – these are all songs about pain, from the gaping wounds to the paper cuts, all of the varieties of hurt that exist, and they are all songs you can dance to. “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” is one of these, and it is a perfectly crafted song, because it sounds exactly like it feels.

They said “tell us how to make it cause we’re getting real impatient”
So I looked ’em in the eye and said

You don’t wanna be high like me
Never really knowing why like me
You don’t ever wanna step off that roller coaster and be all alone
You don’t wanna ride the bus like this
Never knowing who to trust like this
You don’t wanna be stuck up on that stage singing
Stuck up on that stage singing
All I know are sad songs, sad songs

There are days when writing hurts me more than it helps, when it feels like I am dragging my organs out of my body through my mouth and when I get them out into the light it wasn’t even worth it. There are days when I am convinced that everything I have written and will write is garbage. I am not alone in this; this is not a unique feeling, but it is very isolating, isn’t it? To be convinced of your own terribleness is a weird and addicting form of narcissism, poking at a bruise to watch it bloom purple, I don’t know. But the thing about it is – even when I feel like I am a terrible writer, that my writing is vain and self-serving at best and vain and self-serving and poorly written at worst, what do I do? I keep writing. I don’t know how not to write, so I keep writing. I write that I feel terrible about writing, that I hate writing, that I am sad and alone in the world when I am neither. This is why I forgive Garden State now; this is why I love “ITAPII”. Sometimes the thing that keeps you alive, the only thing that makes you happy, doesn’t really make you all that happy. Sometimes it doesn’t make you want to live. But it is the only thing you have, so what do you do? You make it self-referential, you keep digging it out of yourself. Mike Posner is disillusioned and lonely and tired of making music but he knows it makes him happy, he knows it’s what he is for, and so he wrote a song about it.

I’m just a singer who already blew his shot
I get along with old-timers ’cause my name’s a reminder
of a pop song people forgot
and I can’t keep a girl, no
‘Cause as soon as the sun comes up
I cut ’em all loose and work’s my excuse but the truth is I can’t open up

I think it’s easier to talk about pain in a dance song because people don’t listen as hard; people don’t expect it to be sad. You don’t listen to the Ryan Adams cover of “Shake It Off” if you’re in a good mood, is what I mean. So when Mike Posner calls himself a one-hit wonder, when he says the truth is I can’t open up it almost gets lost, sounds like a throwaway line because he needed a rhyme, and I think that’s how he was able to let himself say it. The original song was an acoustic number, a little ditty with a voice and a guitar and nothing else, but that’s not the song that’s on the radio. Mike Posner decided he was ready for people to hear him again but he wasn’t ready to be quite so honest with it, and so – this remix.

This song feels like sitting on the couch while the world happens around you. It feels like dancing alone in a crowded room watching someone you used to love kiss another girl. It feels like closing your eyes and giving in to your sadness, just for a minute, letting it pour into you and fill you tip to toe and somehow, ultimately, it feels like a kind of happiness. All I know are sad songs, but some of them you can dance to, and that is enough.

These Are Not Sonnets. Or, “honey babe”

1

You, Judy Blume, Marriage Equality.
Truly,
the great comic triumph of our time.
Three days of summer,
Three days as if kicked straight from the stars
a big fat fandango, cherry lips crack ribs
stupid good stupid pretty stupid sweet,
You kissed me.
You had me, I knew you.
In the morning I went home,
and Judy Blume touched my arm.
She, who changed my life and
mind when it was barely formed and she
who taught me how to love inside a body,
(about masturbation and mothers
and best friends and blood)
she wrote my name by hand and
you were the only person I cared to tell,
and when the sun rose again, then, it
rose on a country where women could
marry women and men could
marry men in every state and every
corner by the rule of the court and my
sweet friend cried on the phone so
I was sorry amid my joy that I couldn’t
kiss his head and my clever friend said
“so, was the sex really so good it changed the nation?”
and all my thoughts that day were purple
prose and all my purple prose for you and
Three days. That was three days.
And, it’s the kiss. So I can’t breathe.
I can laugh big and hard as I’d like
and still —
now when I leave work sick to
cry in my car about how it felt
to run my finger in an s behind your ear —
it always will be.
Even thighs pressed so tight, in
work pants knock-kneed,
tripping to stay together I fear
I know that anyone
can taste the scent of me.
I know this slickness never seemed so toxic.
And I remember. Lactic acid.
Paint and flags all
in the streets
and crying, and
Judy Blume
and you.

2

Once
When it was hot
I was wearing a romper.
I provide this detail here to set the stage, please,
let none of us forget that I am prone to
abominable judgment,
that I was perfectly naked in a port-a-potty
when I had to pee, and that I was perfectly thrilled
every single second you were around me just around me
(“I feel fine anytime she’s around me now, and she’s around me now, almost all the time,” – James Taylor. You know because in the grass I told you all the songs that make me cry. I’ve wanted to dance to something in the way she moves at my wedding since I was too small to dance in any other way but atop someone’s feet and and still I had to bother formally coming out.)
had your hands around me and, all right,
the point is it was beautiful that night
I guess the point is that
I love you
More than strawberritas or snowflakes
or “Sweet Baby James.”
I guess the point is saved to my iPhone
is a picture where I can see
my own petals opening up greedy sugared swollen spring
like in the Georgia O’Keeffe paintings that I buy as six by six calendar prints to make a lazy and tasteless joke about vaginas, then hang on my wall as an ironic statement about my own overinflated, underused intellect– No, well.
I can look now and see us rising in the twilight
and all our teeth.
This is the part — you remember — where
our legs touch all the way from hip to foot while
You say that I am going to fall in love with you.
It’s near dark and I’m wearing a romper and
you don’t pause to say the words slow, you
say it like a fact. Like a threat.
You are going to fall in love with me.
it is July,
and I have known threats and
I have been hit and I have lost teeth on
ladder rungs of simple climbs and I don’t
put my hands out toward hurricanes and
I believe that it is good and smart to
close your fist and jaw and heart, and fear,
and I will not be trod on I say I
will never melt I have just the barb I
do not allow my heartbeat
to fall into perfect unison with another because
now they have just the trick to stop it just the trick
you’ll unlearn your hard-won skill for
punching on and on
and on alone brave red chambers alone,
no key, and I have never been easy and I
(I, so easy, I, made of pink play sand & peeling Elmers glue, I, all yours)
am, anyway, frantically grateful that you were right.

3

Joni Mitchell is sick.

I know this, but a gray man tells me it the way they do, when he stretches his hands out from his overcoat to pay. I know. “But, god. Blue.” This, we breathe at the same time, like a matching set of misassembled dolls, separate but the same. And in the hidden camera show of life this makes perfect sense, sharing from the stomach on a Sunday a wound that knows no demographic.

I
could drink
a
case
of you

He actually mouths it there in infinitely accidental mercy, with eyes closed. Now I don’t have to.

I iron my hair but not my clothing. A lot of that I’ve given away. A red dress from the fourth of july that made me ill to touch. I walk and walk and curl in and out of situps on the carpet until my middle screams. I shop for products to make my face look like someone else’s. Make oatmeal in the microwave with tap water then spoon it into the trash. I put the birthday card I won’t give inside a book I’ve read to breaking. I put the blazer that my mother bought me over the shirt that I am more alive under because it feels like your eyes on me, which was like the burst and fade of light from fireworks which is like bathwater set so the metal spout can burn. I put my hands in the pockets of my jacket sometimes to keep them still because even now even after even in the cold and the dark of your stepping from my locked arms my head appears suddenly bobbing above the water and I float away on the ecstatic luck of a love so vital as to sing all the same even without its partner. And then I turn on the car and drive.

But other times
I listen to Blue.

4

double-u double-u double-u  dot fragrantica dot com is a wealth of poetics, ephemera, is art for whatever that’s worth. “this smells like high school” “synthetic in a good way” “say what you want about this one, women like it” because scent is the basest sensory experience, because there are no words for the way I unfold from the center when you — or a college football player with a similar looking medicine cabinet, now, and oh, this makes me mad– walk by. The English language has not advanced that far. It won’t. But these men with lines shaved in their faces in their perfume website profile picture say they get compliments all day when they wear it, that on the streets after the gym the masses flock forward, needful, compelled, and so I breathe out jagged, sniff right back hungry, say it’s only science when I cry at Sephora.

5

Oh

But I do love boys who love Bob Dylan
And my mother loves Bob Dylan
And I love boys who love Bob Dylan who are
so much softer than they realize, who have taken sensitivity as a pose of intellect, who believe they have a handle on the way the moon moves with just their sweet pink brains, I can
I can talk to a Dylan boy at a party and feel impossible tenderness that does not sour

But we are sad
I may finally say

with my mouth wrapped on a plastic cup and my eyes on a girl across the room. Eventually, I will have to. Can’t you hear in your own voice that you are broken? Here we are, everyday, wading through. Dear one, you. Aren’t you tired, always, from pretending to win? It only happens, then happens. We can’t stop it and we chase it and I have been so happy I have holes in my teeth now. But I do love boys who love Bob Dylan who can’t see the way their own body has rebuilt itself around the cellular understanding they heard and found and held, the truth that beneath everything is the sorrow of its absence. It is always coming and so it is always there, the throb. The wet line down each bone waits to weep and this is what allows for all the rest to matter. The slow mornings painted a supernatural sleepy green. Beer soaked summer sun fat with possibility, salt tongues, barked laughs, the spectacular stupidity of human skin, alive, exploding on contact, not the last or only organ I wished I could rip forth and give. Streetlamp light through a high up window framing the mouth shapes, starts and stops, on the only face I’d ever need to see again. The fraction of a second, hanging in exalt forever, of her hand moving from the steering wheel to my leg. Always, always the goodbye hangs on the doorframe a long-limbed joker like the boys in the bright rooms who love queen jane. They don’t know, I don’t know and we are only falling. I can’t regret having been swallowed whole.

6

I spent money on heavy shoes
a navy velvet jacket
pretzel cheddar cheese combos
39 ounces of diet coke in styrofoam
tall socks cause my feet hurt
a t-shirt bearing a politically pointed joke
three kinds of chapstick
a book of mean poems
a book of kind advice
a book about Dickensian lesbian thieves
silver hoop earrings silver hoop earrings
silver
hoop earrings
professional removal of hair from my eyebrows
serum that stings so I stay young forever,
a horrifying prospect,
Taco Bell
red wine, ad nauseum
and
toilet bowl cleaner
an Adele song
new underwear with candy colored stripes to replace the pairs her dog ate

It hasn’t helped.

7

I may never see the rest of Making a Murderer
or find a use for my cold hands that I prefer to
sneaking them in against the small of her back.
I don’t imagine I’ll order steak over the telephone or
say Serendipity is stupid and mean it or
drive that stretch of highway easy,
and I’ll drive that stretch of highway daily, or
sleep to the sound of her breathing, no. That’s
too much I won’t say it,
or sleep,
or –probably– get the blood stain out of those sweatpants
(on Sunday I cried because I got a blood stain on those sweatpants)
Or think of Lizzie McGuire the same way
Or move first in my mind to my late grandmother when I crack a Miller Lite

8

It was never actually  insane, except the taste of it.

I didn’t know before and that is so funny, like, all right I’m stupid. I throat laugh I ache I can’t believe my body now when it moves through my days, I can’t. And when we laughed I knew had bones in me, but I’m not just sharpness now I am not my skin but I like what it feels like to be touched. I do! Okay okay because I can ride in the front on the highway and I know the songs. I can hold hands. I made myself a liar by all the old rules made for safety because of how I don’t even squirm. I don’t want to crawl from under my wanting, don’t even itch about it. A miracle a spectacle a flicker flame of trust that burned down an iron cage. I never want to breathe anybody else and I leave big tips when I pick up dinner. Only sometimes. Usually she pays. Paid. I am me. I am magnanimous I am crying I am the divine sickly head rush before the starting tone sounds in a swim race, leaning forward tight and waiting to give over to the chlorine burn, the man made chill, the muscles thumping, the heart that heart. I don’t really understand. I am delirious for wanting and beside myself for getting. So, the loss. The loss is already more. I am already too far. I am laughing because one night late and bare there together all wet and made more water just crying just moving through the feeling I didn’t care. I have so many small notebooks of secrets in my entrails, up my spine, in the jumping blue veins at my elbow. I am only all that ever happened to me, and everything I’ve done, and now like nothing I put my head in her lap and tell. Or I try. Or I like to. Or I want to. I’m bent. I say yes with all of me my bottom bloody belly is yes and all my breaths. Yes out my pores yes I need I want I love I can I rest I suck I hold I open my lips I yes, in out, I am, true.

Some days I can live on the ouroboros of my love alone. The whole of me, the hole in me is full with how I see you all in shades of gold, true good, true bright, I’m nodding now, I mean it. It’s okay. Some days I can feel the lining of my stomach wearing thin and wearing through. I can feel the pieces of myself you took away by accident. I can’t be sure you even wanted them; they’re gone. I search with fingertips top to bottom for nothing. Since the first, or anyway the start of the undoing,
the becoming
the woman,
there have been stretch marks on my breasts.
Quivering white tears
of tiny failure
or, alternately
the joke of the flesh that allowed me to put on
falsely like a silk gown
for dressing or shoes for dancing or a masquerade
the pose of an older woman
freed from and unfettered by
(Finally.)
the strangeness of the body
the climbing bile of shame.

It makes no sense, I told all the girls who saw them. The girls that looked at me, prodding pink. I am made from all the smallest of humilities. And mostly hollows.

Now, I know
that my girl body long ago away in years and bends
was ready for how
your presence would stretch
the machine in my chest
to breaking, to brilliance, to greater than skin
breaking
and so made scars
And marked the conquered terrain
so any new flavor I might seek
would see how I had torn

Dear, fox-faced, flint and cashmere Taylor Swift writes too many breakup songs say the bored and boring who are already dead but are paid to write about culture, and I suppose they have never known the exquisite horror that floods the days that come after a love you were so certain of keeping that it seeped into your best kidney and your sweetmeats and bedsheets and your favorite jeans becomes a love you remember but can no longer hold. Taylor Swift is enormously wealthy and famous because a pain like that is not eradicated from the body when it is named aloud but rather the words — and the cry quite unlike words for how it is too much of the body too much of the blood and throat sludge — must repeat on and on and over, a call to arms, to god, a zealot’s prayer, a mystic’s mantra, a superstition whisper-hummed against the bathroom floor where cat litter digs into your cheek pressed on the cool tile. I ache I ache I ache.

When I sleep now, we are together, euphemistically, and in the flesh from end to end, from sweat snarled nape to tattooed ankle, and all the mixed up pieces in between, mine or yours mine and yours yours on mine mine in yours, but the room begins to burn as I wake.

9

I skipped an Eileen Myles reading I had been counting down the days til so we could buy wine down the street and smoke out the window and watch an Australian children’s television show about teenage mermaids and be naked together in dark sheets so I could press my mouth to every heat source you were blessed with and shiver at the truly startling prospect that the cruel and wild universe would allow me to feel so whole, or your hair to be so soft.

I am not won’t be was never sorry and today I would choose you, too.
I am not won’t be was never sorry and today I need you, too.

I skipped an Eileen Myles reading I had been counting down the days til so I could pick the sunburn scabs from your back and I only want to write on the wall in plain block letters we will see in slow blink tandem if ever both our glances fall again on the spot where once we were in love that, whatever else, I didn’t think twice.

The Tinder Date Playlist: 7 Songs For Girls Who Go Bump In The Night A Little Too Hard

MONDAY: “All Hands On Deck” by Tinashe

You have asked him three times already if it’s actually his name, because everyone knows “Ralph” is some bullshit you’d call a cat, not a grown-ass person. You slur that line into his ear as you stagger together towards the door at last call and he looks at you with the artless incredulity of an infant encountering “peek-a-boo” for the first time. That makes you the cooing aunt, the crinkled adult face promised to emerge from hiding with a grin each round. Good. He’s laughing, because you’re funny maybe, probably because you’ve let him put his arms around your waist and he doesn’t really have to convince you to duck into the cab he’s already called to Cambridge. You careen on hot, loose legs in the general direction of a parked Uber, “Ralph” in tow. “Ralph” smells like the first floor of a JC Penny. Ralph might be thirty-seven. “Ralph’s” hands feel weightless, like they could be hollow, but you’re quick to credit any upper thigh numbness to the liquid ton of gin you’ve consumed over the last three hours. You wonder what you’d have to stuff his fingers with to make them heavy enough for your skin to respond. Steel? Conversation? Cigarettes? “Ralph” doesn’t smoke, you asked already. He won’t taste the way you want him to. He’s talking to you about the things drunk men talk to potential one-night-stands about: how he misses hiking in Australia, how he’s only in law school so he doesn’t disappoint his dad, how badly he wants to drop out and become a rock-climbing instructor. You reassure him blandly and fiddle with your false lashes and wonder if he could ever grip you tight enough to leave a bruise.

TUESDAY: “Turn It Up” by Kelly Rowland

His apartment might be cute if he didn’t decorate with faux-Buddhist head shop tapestries. Dorm-room remnants, probably. There’s already a host of reasons you should stop having sex with Philosophy graduate students (e.g. rampant condescension, uneven beard growth, clinginess) but the fact that they all seem to live with ex-partners of one form or another features prominently in the top five. This one’s moving out, at least. Boxes of her shit crowd every spare inch of the kitchen he’s stumbling around in service of your cider. You’re too drunk to identify the metaphor. She is (was? is?) also a painter, you learn—a bad one, alarmingly bad, and prolific in the effortless way that seems exclusive to bad painters. You imagine how you’d critique the six-foot collaged city-scape of Boston on his bedroom wall while he tries to navigate the zipper on your miniskirt. You wonder what makes her laugh. Later, when he’s finished availing himself of your least interesting secrets, you ask him how it ended, why she’s leaving. If you are going to get fucked while staring at another woman’s closet, you deserve a little background. He starts to cry, because of course he does, and you hold him against your breasts and tell him he is perfect while his snot runs down your sternum. Two weeks later he will try to rip your dress off at a train station in Brighton after you make it clear you should stop seeing each other. A cabby on his way to Tremont for closing time spots the struggle, slows down without stopping, swings open the passenger’s door and pulls you in by the elbow. He delivers you silently back to your mother’s house without asking any questions.

WEDNESDAY: “Ghost” by Ella Henderson

The moment Andrew’s door latches shut you are overcome by a thick wave of loathing, but the truth is that you loathed him from the moment he bought you your first shot of Patron. You wouldn’t have gotten in the car if you didn’t want him to hurt. You hate his five o’clock shadow and his ice-blue button down and how he’s trying to find a way to get you into his bedroom without acknowledging that he wants to get you into his bedroom. He would never, ever date you, of course. Real estate Southie guys like girls who jog, you’re guessing, girls with planners and blithe, effortless motor control, not cackling barflies who pick up and move north to make bad art and vomit in public and prick their hearts on self-made spindles. You don’t know this for sure, but tequila has no time for criticality, or for undoing the ripe adolescent taxonomies that prevent you from approaching men like him when you’re sober. Oh, you approached him, by the way. Don’t forget. That’s another reason you hate him. He fell for it.

“Do you want a drink?”

“The fuck do you think?”

You toss your purse onto his faux-leather ottoman.  You bare your teeth in the shape of a smile.

“I think you need another drink, is what I think!”

“You’re a prince. Thank you, sir.”

He taps his index finger on the highest point of your knee every time he makes a point. The point he is currently making concerns his timeshare in Cape Cod. He’s pressed his lean body into the softness of yours on a creaking Craigslist couch with an urgency that numbs you further. He’s telling you how beautiful you are, which more or less equates to telling himself he is beautiful. His breath is hot and sticky. You kiss him to make him stop talking.

THURSDAY: “Cruel” by the Veronicas

You accidentally leave your copy of Irreality by Max Blecher at a fourth date’s condo in Ferndale, Michigan, and when he texts you to confirm how attentive and dull he was after you bounce in an Uber, he confesses to leafing through the first chapter. He likes having your book in his kitchen, he says—it makes him feels like the prince in a nerdy version of Cinderella. You call him from your cab and tell him sharply to stop. That’s your property, after all. He can’t just change it to mean something. The next time you see him he slides the book across the table to you in a Ziplock bag while you try to explain why you can’t get drinks next week.

FRIDAY: “Little White Lies” by One Direction

The same day your shrink suggests that maybe this abiding interest in casual sex falls a little short of productive, you book a plane ticket to Brooklyn to see a guy you have only known in person for about ten hours total. The distance makes you far more interesting to him than proximity ever could. He is short and bright but not difficult and defines himself through things and the rituals he ascribes to those things, a characteristic painters shouldn’t be averse to, theoretically. He lights candles as a preamble to sex. He loves Maggie Nelson but does not want to talk about feminism because he feels ill-equipped to talk about feminism because he is. You drop your dress to the floor when he asks you if you’ve seen Lethal Weapon, but he ignores the bait and persists in playing you the clip where Mel Gibson tries to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. He laughs at Mel’s accent. You have no idea what to do with your face.

SATURDAY: “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” by Adele

The government worker from Walpole with a recently dead mother and nervous fingers has asked you to write him a letter. He likes the way you talk, he says. You want badly for the epistolary impulse you reserve for men you love to stretch in his direction, but disappointment has left you mean, and you can’t think of anything helpful to say. You could tell him that, of course. You could tell him that he clogs your pores in choking weaves of noun-ness, of slippery experience slicked to slide over purpose. You could let him know he’s just another bearded signifier feeding his own flesh back second-to-second in endless, stake-free loops of multiple choice. You sometimes wonder if you molded him from scraps of rage and breathed air into his dick so he could blush and lie like a real man. That’s not what comes out, of course. You put pen to vellum and call him beautiful like a good girl. That is what straight men want to hear, you have learned, especially from you, since your particular breed of beauty seems to swallow viewers whole against their better judgment. An art critic would call that quality “immersive.”A painter would call it “maximal” without actually knowing what the term meant.

SUNDAY: “Don’t” by Bryson Tiller (Sevyn Streeter Remix)

You know full well that your memories lie, in the same way a photograph lies mimetically, in the same way a painting of that photograph tries to lie less. Socrates thought all human knowledge was recollection, since Hades more or less recycled its tenants after feeding them liquid amnesia. So, if learning is recovery, then forgetting should feel like home, not like bereavement, right? You split a plate of poutine with a Literature PhD candidate who tells you how shocked he was that MFA kids so often proved such lazy readers—their responses were always based on taste, not analysis. Creatives are scavengers, you argue. Your kind doesn’t read; you comb rocky shores for gold. You need meaning to shine so badly you forgo scrutiny to grab transcendence faster. You crave sublimation. And you bite his neck because that’s how you recall intimacy now, in negatives. The men you fuck form the contours of an empty space exactly the depth of your divestment, and their absence inhabits your skin beyond a haunting. You’d kill to be lonely. If you aren’t trying to shed shadows, you’re desperately salvaging details you didn’t even know you coveted before they began to fade. The sex is fine. He texts you the night before he moves to Wisconsin to see if you want to come watch Blackadder reruns on his couch. You put your phone on silent.


Torey is an east-coast gin enthusiast currently wrapping up her painting MFA somewhere needlessly far from the ocean. More grown men have caught her eating ham out of a bag than she is comfortable reporting. Her mom is way, way funnier than she is. 

What I Talk About When I Talk About Justin Bieber

Justin Bieber is very, very dear to me. I am writing this piece in advance of the piece that I am going to write about his new album because, as I was telling a friend of mine the other day, if I wrote about his album without first separately unpacking all of the stupid-deep emotional shit that I have about JB, I would have to put all that shit in the album post and it would be thousands and thousands of words and you wouldn’t read it, so we are splitting it up. I am going to try to keep this relatively brief but I am not promising anything, and what I want to make clear first and foremost is that every time I am talking about Justin Bieber I am talking about me, and who I am and who I have been, and the ways in which this Canadian goofball has been with me through that.

The first thing you need to know is that I have been listening to Justin Bieber for a long time. Like, a long time. I was listening to Justin Bieber before I even allowed myself to admit that I cared about pop, that it mattered to me deep in my soul. We have a history that is only surpassed by my history with My Chemical Romance.

The second thing you need to know is that people hate boys who sound like girls. They hate them with a weird and burning intensity that I have never understood, but as a JB fan and later a One Direction fan I can tell you that there are three things that a person will say to you, usually in this order, when they find out that you care deeply about these musicians: “I just can’t get into it, he sounds like a girl, like, no offense, but-” “Oh my god, aren’t they, like, twelve?” “You know they can’t really sing, right?” This last is my personal cross to carry through my entire life, apparently, because I can’t ever let it go, can’t ever just let these people exist in their wrongness. Oh really, they can’t sing, I shriek as I fling YouTube video after YouTube video in their general direction. Here are eight thousand instances of you being wrong, you colossal idiot. And of course no one listens or believes me or watches the videos, and then inevitably there is a moment in popular thought where the boy-who-sounds-like-a-girl stops sounding like a girl, and his music stops sounding like ~girl music, and suddenly the thinkpieces are everywhere. “Justin Bieber Slays Us All With His Acoustic Chops”, you’ll see a headline. “He Really CAN Sing!”

Remember when FOUR came out and that twentysomething dude went to a One Direction show and wrote this incredibly un-self-aware piece about how, like, wow, One Direction are actual musicians and he just was so impressed by how actually musicians they are because he never realized that, even though teen girls have been adoring them forever? That’s what it’s like all the time. There’s a tipping point for these artists where they become ‘cool’, where everyone (read: “music” “professionals” (read: dudes)) realizes that they’re good and that it’s not a shameful thing to enjoy them. And that point is both gratifying and incredibly frustrating.

So this is where I am coming to you from, as a person who has watched Justin Bieber grow up from a teeny-tiny thirteen-year-old, who has watched him do some stupid, stupid shit, and who has loved him anyway because he is a human person who reminds me both of myself and of my little brother. I am coming to you as a person who has been literally laughed out of rooms at parties, I am coming to you as a person who gets loudly and too-intensely defensive of a small millionaire who does not need my defending. Except maybe he does, because again, you know, he is just a person.

Now on the one hand it’s hard to feel sorry for the very rich
You could record an album of Mountain Goats covers and torpedo your career overnight
You chose this life

But on the other hand even a rich guy needs some space
And should be able to get to his car without people all up in his face
And getting on his case

You don’t have to leave Justin alone
You don’t have to leave Justin alone, but don’t be an asshole

Are there bigger problems in the world yes
Abortion is legal but not everybody has access

Try not to be an asshole
Try not to be an asshole

Justin Bieber has done some stupid shit. He is a 21-year-old who has been Beatles-level famous since he was fourteen, and he is a millionaire white boy with questionable taste in TV and jewelry, and he has done some stupid shit. And he is still a person. I talked about this a little bit when I wrote about Taylor Swift. I think people very genuinely forget that celebrities are real people. There’s this weird and callous disregard of their humanity that you see anytime they are suffering, or doing something stupid, or some combination of the two. “Well, they chose to be famous. You know the paparazzi don’t bother people that don’t give them anything to talk about. They knew what they were getting into.” So let me just – to lay the cards out on the table – let me say a thing, here. I am very much invested in becoming a pop star, I am probably trying out for the Voice next year, I would love nothing more than to be wildly famous. Like, I have dreams about this and they are so vivid that it sometimes hurts to wake up. So, okay. I want to be famous. But I don’t want people to scream things at me, and I don’t want people to write mean things about me in magazines, and I don’t want to feel like I can’t leave my house or say anything ever without it being misinterpreted. I don’t want those things, and I think it is cruel and disingenuous to suggest that anyone does, and to suggest that that is simply the cost of being a celebrity. Maybe it is, I guess; maybe I am too forgiving, to willing to let them simply be people. All I know is that when I was fifteen and sixteen and seventeen and eighteen and beyond, probably, I was doing and saying a lot of stupid shit that I genuinely regret, and if I had been in any kind of a public eye when I was doing those things I can guarantee you that people would not sympathize with me. And I know that you all know how I feel about forgiveness, and who does and does not deserve it, but I have to say this. If you don’t allow for the possibility that people can grow and change and become better, then I don’t know what any of this is about. And maybe I am too soft on JB, maybe I am too optimistic in my faith in the human spirit to overcome the weirdness of being young and famous, but I can’t help it. There are things I can’t forgive but being young and rude and feeling invincible are not those things, because I did a lot worse, and if I can’t live in a world where Justin Bieber can still be a good person then I myself am probably not a good person.

I had a Justin Bieber shirt in college, one that I wore until it physically disintegrated, and I loved it because it was sort of a trick, visually. It said “JUSTIN BIEBER” in massive letters, but they were so big and blocky that you couldn’t really immediately tell what they said, and then within the letters was a picture of JB himself, but it was all sunset-colored and again, you couldn’t really tell immediately who it was. So I would be talking to someone and we would be carrying on a conversation and they’d be respecting me, you know, as a person, and then they’d take more than a second to look at it and I could see, visibly see, their estimation of me change. And it hurt! It still hurts, if I’m being honest, when I meet someone new and they say something dismissive about pop music, about teen fiction, about the things that have shored me up and made me the person that I am today. There is something very dehumanizing in the way that people talk about these things, these girl-oriented things, oh, young adult fiction is so damaging, it’s so unrealistic, it’s so poorly written, oh, Justin Bieber can’t even sing, it’s all autotune, and like, I’m sorry, but this usually comes from someone who thinks Jeff Mangum has a really good voice. Or rather – maybe it’s not even that he has a good voice but that his message transcends things like “having a good voice”. Like – I am not dismissing Jeff Mangum as being important – but you have to have noticed that no one says these things about non-pop musicians. What I mean is that Justin Bieber can write a hook like nobody’s business and that is not – categorically not – less important than a song about how sad we all are.

Different things are important to different people, but it’s always pop that gets dismissed because it’s “easy” and “shallow” and “not serious” and a number of other adjectives that are not-coincidentally also used to describe girls. And then there’s the tipping point – the music bros finally admit that they like to dance, or whatever – and all of a sudden it’s okay to like pop. Certain pop, though – no one who’s writing the JB thinkpieces now is going back and listening to My World 2.0; that guy who went to the 1D concert isn’t blasting Up All Night on his way to work. Those things still belong to the girls and the people who don’t appreciate real music. Justin Bieber had an incredible voice when he was twelve and he has an incredible voice now, and I saw Never Say Never in theaters twice and I cried both times, and I could talk to you every day for the rest of my life about individual syllables on each of his albums, the way he has always known exactly how to get at my heart, but I won’t. Either you get it or you don’t. Either you look at this millionaire and you see a fourteen-year-old kid trying to make a basket with his back turned to the hoop, or you don’t. I’m sure it’s harder to do if you weren’t paying attention to him when he was that kid, but I want you to try. Or at the very least – I want you to try this: When I talk about the album next month, when I try to explain to you how talented and incredible and precious this boy is, I want you to think about what you can forgive. I want you to think about your own mistakes, and making them on a stage so large that you can’t see the edges of it. I want you to think about the fact that he cried, openly wept, after his performance at the VMAs this year because he didn’t expect people to cheer. He didn’t expect to be forgiven. But he wants to be, and he is working toward that, and I just want you to think about what that means to you, if anything. I don’t expect anything more from you than that. This is my stupid cross to bear, my stupid hill to die on, the fact that I can’t abandon this kid that I can’t help but see as my little brother, but at least do me this favor when we reconvene: Try not to be an asshole.

Diary of an Emotional Masochist, Chapter One: Dignity and Shame

I am an emotional masochist. I’m the kind of person, who, when I’m already going through a bout of nostalgic melancholy, will decide to read old journal entries or look through old photographs. The kind of person who, when it’s three a.m. and I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about what loves have come and gone (to borrow a phrase from Edna St. Vincent Millay), will get up and Google search those loves. I am the kind of woman who, when I’m already sad, will listen to an album that devastates me. I have a long list of albums that it’s almost too painful to listen to, albums that remind me of such specific times in my life that listening to them takes me right back to where I was then. A different person would purge their record collection and iTunes library of such albums, but, like I said – I am an emotional masochist. On lonesome evenings, after a couple glasses of whiskey, nothing sounds better to me than spinning one of those records (or queueing up one of those playlists). This is one of those lonesome-whiskey evenings, so won’t you join me in indulging? We’re listening to Crooked Fingers’ Dignity and Shame.

From the first sparse, haunting notes of “Islero,” I am transported back in time to the summer of 2005. God, that summer. That terrible, wonderful summer. I’d fucked up my life the year before, and I thought that would be the summer I’d fix it, except all I did was fuck it up even more. God, that summer. That March, I moved away from Chicago after living there for five years. I planned on moving to Milwaukee come autumn, to start fresh in a fresh town. In the meantime, I moved back in with my parents. I wasn’t home, much. Nights, after work, I went to one of the two bars in Kenosha where all my sad drunk hoodlum friends hung out. On days off, I walked in the woods – the heat was relentless, and the canopy of trees offered cool green comfort. Or I drove to Chicago to see shows and drink with my friends and try to remember why I’d left; drove to Milwaukee to scope out neighborhoods, sit for hours at the Hi-Fi Cafe, go record and dress shopping. On one of my record shopping expeditions, I bought Dignity and Shame. It was on the Staff Recommendations shelf, and I liked the cover art, so I took it home with me – and it was serendipity, it was exactly the album I needed at the time.

As soon as I got home, I set it spinning on my turntable, and the first track – “Islero” – gave me goosebumps. The second track – “Weary Arms” – made me cry. It had sad cellos and a lonesome cowboy guitar, and Eric Bachmann’s voice was a raspy baritone: Beware of strangers knocking at your door. Old lovers, too. Don’t think for one second they’ve forgotten you. Oh, oh, oh. By the time the final, hidden track played, I’d melted into a puddle of tears and goosebumps on my bedroom floor. The album destroyed me, and it spooked me because so many of the stories sounded like things right out of my life, both from that year and six or so years before it. It was like Eric Bachmann had read my diary and set it to music. I wanted to write him a letter and say: “Get out of my head, god damn it! Get out of my aching heart.” It’s impossible for me to write about Dignity and Shame, or about the summer of 2005, without descending into hyperbole, sentimental poetry, and melodrama. My God, that summer was hyperbole, sentimental poetry, and melodrama. I was still young enough that it was acceptable to feel things that intensely, acceptable to talk about a sunrise over Lake Michigan by saying things like: “When the light shot through the horizon in streaks of peach and gold, it was the most god damn beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” Dear diary, listen to me.

My “Weary Arms” wrapped tight around so many lovers, that summer – four of them, plus a handful of brief flings. Later that year, I lamented that I hadn’t had as many wild love affairs as I’d had in years past, which, yes, says something unflattering about me. And Eric Bachmann sang: You have many enemies, for reasons no one’s certain of.

One night, while I sat at one of the bars and waited for my friends to arrive, a girl approached me. I didn’t know her, but she knew me. She sat down across from me and lambasted me for sleeping with a guy she’d been dating at the time…two years before. She called me a slut, and some worse things. I wanted to buy her a drink, to appease her. I couldn’t understand why she hated me so much. When I slept with that guy, I had no idea he had a girlfriend. So many enemies, so many lovers, but could a jaded girl like me heed an uptempo “Call To Love?” In that song, Eric took the role of a particular one of my lovers, and said: Won’t you hear my heart? I’m transmitting a call to love. On a night when the moon was orange-red and luminous, that lover said: “The moon is the color of your hair.” Another night: “You were born in the wrong era, Jess.” And, though I was a sucker for sentimental poetry, my guard was up. Lara Meyerratken answered for me: Don’t need my heart kicked ‘round the block no more. You may be smooth-talking, daddy, but I’ve heard it all before. I traded gossip with the “Twilight Creeps.” In this sweet-sad song with the bright piano and the shimmering backup vocals, I was both the singer and the sung about. I could have sung it to one of my lovers, should have said to her: Flower, don’t dig so deep so you don’t go anywhere. But the words were also about me: You say someday you’re gonna float away. Take yourself some kind of holiday. I often told my sad drunk hoodlum friends, the twilight creeps, that I needed to get the hell out of town. “If I could just get gone for more than a few days, go somewhere more than a few hours away…there ain’t no use in trying to make me stay.”

My lovers all wanted to make me stay. The flower-girl, I’ll call her Valerie. The one who spoke poetic words to me, I’ll call him Jack. And there was Lon, and Carmine. In different ways, for different reasons, they each wanted me to choose them over all the rest. Even a few of the week-long flings and one-night stands, older punk guys or younger hippie girls, said things to me like: “How did I get so lucky as to meet a girl like you?” Or: “So, are you my girlfriend now?” And when I said no, they called me a heartbreaker. A “Destroyer.” It’s a woebegone cowboy of a tune. Doleful drums, piano that tinkles like ice cubes in a bar glass, and a lap steel guitar – which, as far as I’m concerned, is the aural equivalent of an anti-hero walking off into the sunset. The song is all about how the singer is going to make someone his, and then he’s going to leave them behind. When they called me heartbreaker, I wanted to sing it: Lay down, just let it come, and resign your heart, today, to get blown away. “Valerie,” well, that’s why I’m referring to that lover as Valerie. Much like me, she was a punk rock girl turned heroine of a Tom Waits song (heroine of a Crooked Fingers song). She had thriftstore dresses and jailhouse tattoos and self-inflicted scars. “Valerie,” the song, has a sanguine strut, is a besotted love song, and I thought of Valerie, the girl: Red roses, silk, you in your sleek summer dress. You were light, revelation, oh, I love you the best. But she and I kept our love unspoken. We both had other romantic complications, and only touched each other on long hot nights after too many bottles of wine and too many pills. “Sleep All Summer” was my song for Jack, the young ex-goth whose mouth was pink and pouty like he’d been sucking on a strawberry popsicle. Our love was either all the good songs and kissing ’til our lips were raw, or it was screaming matches and hangover headaches. What bliss is this, and then he’d get attention-starved and whiny, and I’d burn hot and cold and say nasty things, and we’d say: “This is it, we’re through.” But – There ain’t no way we’re gonna find another, the way we sleep all summer. Why won’t you fall back in love with me? And we’d run into each other at the bar, and faster than our friends could say I told you so we’d be tangled up in the backseat of his car or rolling around by the lake, and the whole thing would start all over again. He’d play the martyr, and I’d say: I would change for you, but babe, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna be a better man.

And “Coldways” kill cool lovers. Lon was a folk singer from the north woods. He’d been one of my best friends for years already, and when we started dating I was so tired of complicated, fiery relationships that I mistook comfort for True Love. My heart still hurts when I think of how I hurt him. He wanted me to marry him and I just wanted to be drunk and in love, to listen to “Coldways”’s thrumming, swelling sound. To sing along: Come out, come on, tonight the city’s alive. “Wrecking Ball” has a jaunty, punchdrunk piano, and the piano had been drinking, but so had I. God, I drank so much that summer. On the rare night I spent at home, I holed up in my room, wrote long, sad, tales of people in the legend of my life, and drank blackberry brandy mixed with Sprite. Something like that would taste over-sweet to me now, make me shudder, but maybe the same part of me that craved sentimental poetry also thirsted for sugary drinks. And most nights, I wasn’t at home. Most nights, I changed clothes in my car after work. I swapped my reeking-of-pizza button down shirt and black slacks for one of my vintage dresses. A mint green confection, or a pink and white sundress. Something from the ‘50s, blue with red and white polka dots, or a slinky black number that a ‘30s jazz singer would have worn. And I sat at one of two bars, drank whiskey and Coke, or brandy old-fashioneds, or gin and tonics all night long. I waited for my friends to arrive, and I drank and smoked and entertained myself with one of the items I always had in my bag – a book of poetry by Dorothy Parker or Edna St. Vincent Millay, a deck of Alice In Wonderland tarot cards. And sometimes, someone would find me intriguing. I swear, I wasn’t a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but… I was a redhead in a retro dress (usually with a strand of fake pearls, too) sitting in a dive bar, smoking pastel-colored cigarettes, reading sonnets and tarot cards. Christ. Often, someone found me intriguing, chatted me up, and I wound up with yet another lover. I was a destroyer, destroying myself with booze and love. I was a wrecking ball. Eric Bachmann, accompanied by that barroom piano, sang: And you laughed and you danced, and it let you feel fine for a while. Hanging out with the kids who you knew soon would fall out of style.

I’ve left two songs out, dear diary. I did it on purpose, because they are the two that hurt the most. They are also the two that heal the most. The kind of songs that make me weep, then tell me to dry my tears. “You Must Build A Fire,” oh, it is one of the saddest songs. It begins with only two guitars (a finger-picked lead and that god damn lap steel again), and Eric’s voice is so plaintive, sounds like it’s about to crack, and he sings: Oh, gracious love, you were so kind to me. You only broke my heart, let my arms and legs stay strong. So I could swim upon the open sea, searching for another love. Floating along aimlessly. I haven’t told you about Carmine, yet. Carmine was a musician who looked like a magician from an old-time carnival. The year before, he’d ruined me in a worse way than any other lover ever had. (As a friend put it, he was one of the ones who fucked me up so bad I was pretty much ruined for anyone else.) He ruined me, but I let him back into my life. That summer, we got together. It was supposed to be closure, but of course it just opened everything up again. He said: “I want to be with you. I want to try again.” I said: “Okay, yes, let’s start over. I want to be with you.” He said: “Only if you break things off with all your other lovers. I want to be your only.” The nerve, giving me an ultimatum like that when he was even more of a notorious libertine than I was. And the song sang: I had someone, a love I thought was true. But sometimes you just get tired, and you must try not to die. And give your love, though no one may receive. You must build a giant fire, for the whole wide world to see. It sounded like that whole heartbroken, hot summer. Oh, where are you, love?

The title track, “Dignity and Shame,” is a piano ballad that told me: To be sure, there ain’t no cure. There could be no one to save you. It is the track I return to over and over, more than any other track on the album. Though my life has calmed down a lot in the decade since that summer, sometimes – that feeling comes, you’ve been here once before. That wicked feeling you don’t want to feel no more. And then, Eric Bachmann (get out my head, god damn it!) sings: You’re not the same as the day that you came. You can choose dignity, or shame.

I choose dignity. I carry my broken heart like a torch in the night. Little keeper of light, burning deep, burning bright in the dark.


Jessie Lynn McMains is a writer and zine-maker currently based in southeastern Wisconsin. She writes about nostalgia, desire, identity, music, wild girls, and her misspent youth.

Take me anywhere, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, or, Meditations on Feeding the Meanness Whatever It Takes To Fall Asleep

I wrote a poem about waves once and of course it was only ever about feelings. I know nothing of the sea. I wrote a poem about waves once — “the high moon it moves / me immobile no / just the water yes / and that salt taste” — when the moon was someone with very dark eyes. In high school if you wear glasses at drama club meetings then you must write about bruises, and it’s exactly the same. It is all exactly the same. The coming the swelling the color that fades. I wanted at some point somewhere to write comedy, and occasionally I did, but there is a vital pouring, there is a law of life and limb, and, first, it says, it says first, that a warbling parade of concessions must be made to the low slung ecstasy of everything that happens, all of it, again and again. It’s like losing baby teeth. That gummy horror, apples and doorknob string. Blue water wall, blood moon, skinned knees, ever fading. I liked The Smiths by accident before I knew that skinny boys in bad jeans would think it was cool to and by the time I had learned this I thought that they and Morrissey could all honestly just fuck off.

The waves were all the ways to be sad. Boring, lazy writing. Cycles, yeah. Okay. The slow creep that leaves the body bone tired. A heady loneliness like sandbagged lungs on bright busy days. That hate that hate, the acrid taste of it, the ache all over. At twelve I slept under a framed Breakfast at Tiffany’s movie poster like any girl with a cat and gloom and a wish to see herself as something graceful might, and I was never embarrassed but I already knew that when I got taller and took film classes I would never mention it, or that I would — ever more obstinate with age — but only to incite a rise from anybody who quoted Orson Welles and mistook himself for smarter than me. It was Truman Capote who told me about the mean reds, then, the fear. I reread In Cold Blood at Christmas. I don’t claim to make sense. I swim now largely through clear water and without the murk I used to lounge in — performing, luxuriating to pretend you are not drowning — and I have always been strong in the water, but when I wake up any day, it could be any day, it is, with the sensation that I should run and run and run more until I’ve escaped my skin that is doomed beyond reason, and which, anyway, itches, then I know it. I know it’s the mean reds.

Holly Golightly: You know those days when you get the mean reds?

Paul Varjak: The mean reds. You mean like the blues?

Holly Golightly: No. The blues are because you’re getting fat, and maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid, and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?

You know, The Smiths are not my angst. When the Zooey Deschanel movie happened and everybody who was never alt to begin with got all twisted up, I didn’t mind. Britney Spears knows me better. Carole King absolves my sins. There is not a band or a noise or a wall of feeling  vibrating anywhere on this Earth that I’ve cried along to more than Rilo Kiley, because Jenny Lewis’ sadness is as obsessed with vanity as mine. The Smiths lack a certain sloppiness in all the maudlin groaning which I require so as to feel forgiven if I cry on the bus. I wouldn’t want to tell Moz a single secret. I put “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman on a CD that I made for a small sun-soaked soccer player from a small seaside state, and when she played it, sitting on her pink bedspread that may have been orange, she peeled an orange that may have been a tangerine and got the juice in her hair, pulled the strands flat, smooth and sticky, said, “so, where are you trying to go?” Lorde hadn’t happened yet; I think she was thirteen. If Lorde had happened I would have chosen “A World Alone” for somewhere in the middle meat of that tracklist. Lorde hadn’t happened yet but now that she’s here I’ve remade my thousands of lists about running away to no place in someone’s passenger seat and none of them are without – “I feel grown up with you in your car / I know it’s dumb.” I know it’s dumb. I don’t like anybody to know I love The Mountain Goats as much as I do, lest they get the idea that I’d be interested in their roommate’s diy folk project, or their feelings at all (because the hideous secret is I’m probably interested in both), but “Jenny” is the only song in the world some nights when every bit of me is screaming to move and go, to be moved somewhere at a high howling speed. When John Darnielle describes, in his half-singing, the act of leaning forward and inhaling the scent of the motorcycle driver as they speed away (“I sank my face / into your hair / and then I inhaled / as deeply as I possibly could / you were sweet and delicious / as the warm desert air”) something lurches. I purse my lips to an involuntary rosebud, flex my throat to force away a long wet breath, my wind knocked out of me all over again each time. I put “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” on that CD for that girl and her peachy Clinique skin and I gave it to her just before the sky went dark outside and nothing in the entire world had ever been more beautiful to me than to learn that she had never heard it. The Smiths are not my angst and I don’t need them, except. Except, except take me anywhere I don’t care I don’t care I don’t caaaaare. I know.

When I remember Holly Golightly I remember some part of the performance of myself that I like to forget or pretend to. I think of Audrey Hepburn and in the face of all sense, I’m worried. It seems impossible that Audrey Hepburn was ever happy when she looked so like a deer. When all her elfin angles were doomed before she could ever have known, but, then, didn’t she, to be reproduced on the t-shirts worn of pure and precious acned misfits for the rest of all time. I watched all her movies in a week once trying to love any of more than Breakfast At Tiffany’s, for style, in my fitful girlchild moves toward an idea of becoming an aesthete, but there was, there is, always only Holly for me. Holly Golightly is too frightened to be more than selfish, bad, and mean in her black sheaths, that trench coat, in the long-lashed sleeping mask you can buy a likely shoddy replica of online. Holly Golightly is froth and bon mots bathed in luxury, and this curled all around a hard stone of anxiety at the core, a precious stone that slices and stings. She can’t name the cat or end the party. I can’t keep my hands still. The mean reds make me useless, that heart rate gone thready and wild. Dragging my knuckles along brick buildings street side, uh huh, uhhuh, uh huh. On and on til morning. Mourning. The big bad jitters, marblemouthed. I never feel the need to divorce myself from all my wanting, wanting to be, to do, to go, blinking too fast for anybody to ever think you’re neat or easy. I don’t mind the way the mouth of my heart is often frothing. I take it and give it for what it is, most days, but when I am afraid, too, then the whole dance gets desperate.

“Driving in your car / oh please don’t drop me home / because it’s not my home it’s their home / and i’m welcome no more”

To claim, to say, “to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die” is too much for me on most days, on good days, clean days. The romanticizing of death is shameful past tenth grade. I cannot abide this song in good faith. I can play it at bars for a laugh, but I would not, should not, allow it in my bedroom, in my earbuds and daydreams. But when I’ve gone edgy, it’s barely enough. The dread, it resurrects my poor taste. The fear means I could swallow all the salted soppiness of life itself, a universe swirling between my hips, and still lean and pucker and snarl for more. Take me anywhere I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care.

I am very well and when I am not I shop for thick-soled shoes I might stomp things with. Fear is gauche, really, and I don’t talk about it. I count my steps. I run on hills, lick at my own and other lips. I think so often — and when I do, I make myself put away my pens so I don’t write down anything that will embarrass me someday decades from now when the eager young academics pore over my personal effects and marginalia while at work on a hotly anticipated biography — about drivers ed. I took drivers ed when it was cold outside and, in drivers ed, a retired state trooper with a pointy white crew cut, and thick leathered skin a hundred winters couldn’t have taken the rust from, stood in a small green room across from a vegan restaurant in a warehouse near the mountains and told us to remember when a crash happens, the car stops moving, but the bodies inside continue forward at the speed it was traveling. I am allowed to drive and that’s funny because I heard nothing after this. If I stretch across the floor and listen hard to this stupid song, if I get so full of air I’m barely breathing, then there inside the silver in between I can feel like I am flying at ninety five over hot gravel while I stay perfectly still. An object in motion stays in motion. I think so often about the simple artfulness of that science, the uncomplicated beauty. Ever onward, always moving, I’m going, I’m going. There is a light and it never goes out. An object in motion stays in motion. Driving in your car, I never, never want to go home. But, of course, I always wear my seatbelt.

KHCP, Track #3: “Isn’t Life Crazy”

punkpicnic01Lately, people have been calling us old school / but youth is an attitude, fuckers
-10-96, “Isn’t Life Crazy

Dean Dirt [Dean Lipke] was the frontman for Kenosha punk legends 10-96 (10-96 is a police code, meaning that the officer is dealing with a mentally disturbed subject). From my earliest days as part of the scene, I had people tell me: “You want to know the real Kenocore shit? You have to see 10-96.” I mean, they started in 83, and were still going strong in the mid-90s, and that alone says something good about them. When an underground band keeps going that long, you know they’re doing it because it’s what they love to do. That intensity and drive is worth more to me as a fan than all the record deals and critical acclaim in the world. I only got to see 10-96 once, in early 1998, and they ripped the place apart. Bone-shattering drums, throbbing bass, blistering guitars and songs with that pure hardcore rage, they had it all. Dean, especially, impressed me, because he was pushing 40 and still had so much ferocious energy. He dove into the crowd and put his whole heart into it, screaming: Theyve been trying to put us down / but weve got too much heart. Youth is an attitude. Punk rock, don’t stop. That was the only time I got to see 10-96, and I never met Dean – he passed away in November 1998. But Dean and his music have been a huge part of my life. 10-96 are the Kenocore band I listen to more than any of the others. Also, I still run into people who played in bands with Dean, or knew him from being part of the scene. To this day, they tell wild stories about him, and it’s like he’s still around. Though he passed away 17 years ago, he touched enough people’s lives that his presence is still felt. If you spend enough time in Kenosha, you’re bound to hear so many stories about him that it’s like he’s still around.

In early 2009, I was down in Chicago visiting a friend of mine. We’d both recently had our hearts broken (mine by a punk boy from Kenosha!), and decided the best cure for it was to put on our reddest lipstick, get wasted, and slam to some good old-fashioned punk rock. At the club, we drank shots of whiskey and pitchers of beer, and watched the opening band set up. “Wait a second,” I said, “I recognize those guys.” It was Pistofficer, a Kenocore group of drunk punks. I laughed. I would run into guys I’d known since 1998, guys who were friends with the fella I was trying to forget, guys I often saw at the bar, guys I used to do drugs with. A few songs in, they announced: “This song is for a friend of ours who passed away.” I turned to my friend, said: “If it’s someone from Kenosha, it’s gotta be someone I know, too.” Sure enough. “This one’s for Beautiful Bert,” they said, and played “The Bert Song.”

Beautiful Bert [Brian Phillips] fronted many bands over the years, including The Luscious Ones, the BB Slags, and the Crotch Crickets. I heard tales of his onstage antics – heard that the things he did while performing rivaled the likes of Iggy Pop and GG Allin – years before I ever saw him live. The stories did not lie – on stage he was gross, he was in your face, and he was unforgettable (I once saw him shove a microphone in his butt crack. Unpleasant, yes, but definitely unforgettable). Even without those antics, he would’ve been a frontman to watch. He had a demon scream and a guttural growl and a larger-than-life personality that had nothing to do with his large size. Speaking of GG Allin – Bert knew him, and GG sometimes played drums for Bert. I’ve never been a GG fan, but that’s punk history, right there.

He passed away in early 2008, but I did not know about it until that night in 2009. It surprised me that none of my Kenosha friends had thought to tell me, and I found myself mourning a year late. I mourned the punk scene’s loss of yet another phenomenal frontman, and I mourned his presence in my life. We weren’t close friends, but he was one of my favorite acquaintances. Sure, he could be a drunk asshole on occasion, but who among us has not been a drunk asshole on occasion? And he could also be a total sweetheart. He’d walk into the bar, share a crazy story and grace me with his charming missing-toothed smile, and when he’d ask me for a cigarette, I’d give him two, just because. He had passion, and he lived it. After Pistofficer’s set that night, my friend and I stepped outside for a cigarette. I poured the rest of my pitcher of beer onto the cracked pavement, in memory of Beautiful Bert. As Korye wrote in Art is Dead zine: “Bert was basically my punk rock idol. I knew I’d never get to meet Joey Ramone or Johnny Rotten, let alone hang out with them and shoot the shit. I had Bert.”

Sure, he could be a drunk asshole on occasion, but who among us has not been a drunk asshole on occasion?

In the decade between when I first discovered Kenosha punk rock and when Bert passed away, I became a full-fledged part of the scene. I saw 10-96 and The Luscious Ones. I saw Pistofficer, URBN DK, Despite, Human Order, and a hundred other bands that I’ve forgotten. I went to shows in basements in town and in barns out in the county. I went to the Punk Picnic almost every year (back when they held it in a tiny picnic hutch by the lake). I went to shows at The Port, and Hattrix (the CBGB of Kenosha). I did drugs with the boys in the bands, kissed every punk rock boy and girl that fell into my lap. The music got inside me, and then I lived inside it. By 2000, most of the Kenocore people knew me by sight, if not by name. I remember walking to the gas station with my girlfriend, to buy cigarettes, and the clerk recognizing me. I was hard to miss, with my bright-red Chelsea cut hair, and I had a Despite patch safety pinned to my hoodie. “Oi!” he said. “Kenocore!” We accept you! Youre one of us!

Six years later, at a time in my life when I thought I’d given up punk, I was visiting my Kenosha pals. As I sat, sipping my whiskey, an older KHCP dude approached me. He didn’t know my name, but he knew he’d seen me at a lot of shows (and at the bar) over the years. That night, I had on a vintage dress and a clutch of fake pearls – not your usual punk rock girl ensemble – but he never once questioned my right to be part of the scene. In fact, he looked at my tattoos and said: “You’ve got an anarchy tattoo and a Clash tattoo. You’re like, an old school punk and shit.” I smiled, because if this man who was at least a decade older than myself and was in a band with former members of URBN DK thought of me as an old school punk, I guess that meant I was. I smiled, because, despite my vintage dresses and my protests that I was no longer a punk – save your breath, I never was one – I couldn’t shed it that easily. You can give the girl an accordion and some fake pearls, you can have her stop going to as many shows…but you can’t take the Kenocore out of the grrrl.


Jessie Lynn McMains is a writer and zine-maker currently based in southeastern Wisconsin. She writes about nostalgia, desire, identity, music, wild girls, and her misspent youth.

this is a torch song

Photo by Chris Darling
Photo by Chris Darling

You think I’m not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.

-Margaret Atwood, “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing”

It is an old story, and it goes like this: women and girls aren’t allowed to be fully developed humans with all the myriad contradictions that being human entails. This is even further complicated by things like race, class, and sexual orientation. The more minority groups you belong to, the farther away from “human” you’re considered to be. Society sees your identities as things that trump your humanity. We see men and boys as the baseline, the standard issue human. That changes somewhat if they are men of color, or poor men, or queer men, but as a whole, to be a man is to be human. Which means that they get to have their complexities. They can sleep around and still be good guys. They can be angry, and instead of it being something frightful and monstrous, the world lauds them for it. If they write dark poetry and do drugs and live like a vagabond, rather than having it mean they are damaged, it makes them the sensitive, brooding heroes of their own stories.

It is an old story, and it goes like this: women don’t get to be the heroines of their own stories. Women don’t get to be complex, or flawed (when women have flaws, the flaws are all people see). Women get to be archetypes and muses. No matter what archetypal role you are cast in, it is a tiny, bare room that you are not allowed to leave without being punished in some way. You’re either a raging harpy or a sweet little thing. You’re either a slut or a good girl (prude). On top of that, you can only act out your role in certain prescribed ways. If you embrace it too much, take it too far, you’ll receive punishment for that, too. It’s all well and good if you’re the strong, powerful woman who doesn’t take shit from anybody and doesn’t need a man. But be careful about being too strong, too powerful, shunning men too much – because that means you’re cold, a bitch, a dyke. And it’s fine to be the sensitive, emotional girl who cries a lot and wears her heart on her sleeve. But if you’re too sensitive, cry too much, are all bared bloody heart, well then you’re damaged, crazy, playing the victim.

It is an old story, and it is wrong. There are women (there are so many women) who are the heroines of their own stories. There are women (there are so many women) who sing their stories, whether those stories are made of power or pain, and demand the world listen. “I am human,” they sing. “Hear me roar.” But the world still wants to put them into one of those little rooms, and to punish them for trying to sing their way out; to punish them for being too, too much. It is such an old story, such an old song sung by so many women that it’s almost impossible to find the beginning. Who was the first sad lady singing of her scars and sorrows? Who was the first who penned an anthem declaring herself queen, goddess, force of nature?

I can’t find the beginning, so I begin with the music. I put the records on and I listen to the voices of these women, and as they sing they appear before me, flickering like footage from an old film. There is Billie Holiday, Lady Day singing the blues with flowers in her hair and veins full of opiates. With her golden reed of a voice, she sings her own pain – good morning, heartache – and the deeper pain of topics no one else will touch: Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. There is Nina Simone, with her barrelhouse presence, belting out the words to righteous anthems: All I want is equality – for my sister, my brother, my people and me. Then she turns her gaze inward, and sings the loneliest lost-love ballads – I drink much more than I oughta drink, because it brings me back you. When I listen to “Lilac Wine,” I hear that sad, damp, drunken night in her voice. It sounds like smoke and tears. Next come the ‘60s girl groups and girl singers, sashaying in their short skirts, with their thick eye makeup and their teased-up hair. The Flirtations sing about how it’s nothing but a heartache every day, but it’s the kind of heartache you can dance to. Then, The What Four turns the tables, saying: “I’m Gonna Destroy That Boy.” It’s a psychedelic rave-up about using your feminine wiles to get what you want. He’s gonna fall so fast it’s absolutely frightening. And once that boy is yours, well, there’s Lesley Gore to help you remind him: “You Don’t Own Me.” I get goosebumps when I listen to her pleading – just let me be myself, that’s all I ask of you. I’ve had similar conversations with boys I’ve dated.

Speaking of no one owning you, there is Nancy Sinatra, menacing and sexy in her spike-heeled boots, singing: one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you. Ouch. And then there is Janis Joplin. She’s hard to pigeonhole. People try to cast her as the damaged woman – all the drugs, the sex, the sorrow – but as soon as they listen to her sing, they realize she is so much more than that. She isn’t a conventional beauty, but she is so herself. She decks herself in rags and feathers, beads and scarves, loves men and women, and exudes such a wild sensuality that they can’t help but love her, too. And her voice, her voice. She draws from the deepest well of womanly sorrow, and sings the blues in such a raw, pure way. Well, the fevers of the night, they burn an unloved woman. But there is strength behind it all – she’s gonna show you, baby, that a woman can be tough. Take another little piece of my heart, now, baby, she yowls. Break her heart, but what you cannot do, is bow her down, who has been loved by you. Joni Mitchell is often perceived as the archetypal Sensitive Girl With An Acoustic Guitar, singing sad, pretty songs. I hear something different. Yes, the songs are gorgeous, and often melancholy, but it is a wry, knowing melancholy: Constantly in the darkness, where’s that at? If you want me, I’ll be in the bar.

And here’s another woman that can shoot an ex down with a few words – Carly Simon, saying: you’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you. Then along comes Dolly. She’s got a skintight, spangled outfit, big breasts, and even bigger blonde hair. She’s built like a brick house, and she’s got a personality to match. You can call her a blonde bimbo and she’ll just wink at you, then sing a song that’s a sly up-yours to the boss who controls your “9 To 5.” Then she’ll turn right around and plead to a woman who’s competing for her man’s love, in such a way that it sounds like she’s almost in love with her rival: Your beauty is beyond compare, with flaming locks of auburn hair. With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green. Pat Benatar also has a rival in the game of love, but her rival is her love interest, and her song is her battlecry: Knock me down, it’s all in vain. I’ll get right back on my feet again. Hit me with your best shot (take another little piece of my heart). Then Joan Jett appears, strutting her way into my rock’n’roll heart. She’s dressed in leather, her hair bleached platinum or dyed jet(t) black, her eyes ringed with eyeliner, and she holds the world in her unwavering gaze. She is an outspoken feminist, she is unapologetic about being a lesbian, and she doesn’t really care if you think she’s strange. She ain’t gonna change. She doesn’t give a damn about her “Bad Reputation.”

Madonna descends upon me, seedy and holy all at once. Black lace and white-blonde hair, that cunning gap between her front teeth. She wears crosses to accentuate the difference between what she’s doing and what the world told her to do. She embraces, flaunts, her sexuality in a way few pop singers did before. She does what she wants, and encourages others – “Express Yourself.” Sinéad O’Connor also uses Catholic imagery in her persona, but in a different way than Madonna. She is, of course, famous for ripping up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. She still considers herself Catholic, but also hates the hypocrisy within the church. She, too, embraces her sexuality, but portrays it in a more mysterious way. Sinéad is a shaved head, elfin cheekbones, big, dark eyes. Her vocal range is at home with the fun, reckless love affair of “Jump in the River,” or the stark strength of an a cappella ballad like “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” And here is Tori Amos, the strange little girl-woman with red mermaid tresses. She might seem, at first, like she’s putting the damage on, but she is stronger than anyone when she sings “Me And A Gun.” She is also the queen of the breakup song, and girls, you’ve got to know when it’s time to turn the page. When you’re only wet because of the rain. Courtney Love shows up and steals the spotlight. She’s a goddess in her ripped-up dresses and smeared red lipstick. She knows that people hate her for loudness, for her abrasive attitude. She’s known all along that the world treats boy rockstars much differently than it treats girl rockstars. “You’ve got to be prepared…” she has said. “You will be a freakshow, a retching wretch, a sloppy drunk. He will be charismatic, vainglorious, a ferocious drunk and Dionysian.” (Men get to be the heroes of their own stories.) So many people hate her, but I love her. I love her even when she’s screaming at fans and punching paparazzi. I love her because she is the woman who knows what it’s like to want – to want fame, to want drugs, to want sex, to want love. To want everything so much it almost kills you. To want everything, even though when she gets what she wants, she never wants it again.

Then there’s Ani DiFranco, the punk-folkstress, with her steel-toed boots and her acoustic guitar. She is not an angry girl, though it seems like she’s got everyone fooled. Every time I say something they find hard to hear, she sings, they chalk it up to my anger, and never to their own fear. She’s just trying to finally come clean, and that is where she shines. Her songs are brutal, honest, and heart-rending, whether she’s singing about abortion, bisexuality, heartache, or anything else. And poor, maligned Alanis Morissette. It’s easy to make fun of Alanis, because for a time, she was the Angry Woman In Pop. She was the one in the public eye, howling about her pain. But I don’t see anything funny in lines like: It was a slap in the face, how quickly I was replaced. Are you thinking of me when you fuck her? Hell hath no fury like a woman who turns her heartbreak into a hit song. Then, there’s Fiona Apple. She can be the “Sullen Girl,” with a voice so large for her tiny frame, singing: he swept me ashore, and he took my pearl, and left an empty shell of me. Asking all of us: “How much strength does it take to hurt a little girl? How much strength does it take for the girl to get over it? Which one of them do you think is stronger?” She can also be the bad, bad girl, the “Criminal” who is careless with a delicate man. Amy Winehouse harks back to the soulful sixties, all teased-up hair and dramatic cat’s-eye makeup. She is the woman who feels too much, who feels guilty about her flaws: I cheated myself, like I knew I would. I told you I was trouble, you know that I’m no good. There is a certain power in declaring your own damage. Beyoncé is the feminist who displays the f-word behind her, twenty feet tall and luminous, while on stage. Yet she is still dragged through the mud for not being a “real feminist,” because she is a wife and mother, or because she is sexy, sexual. But she comes right back and says yes, she is a feminist, and a “Flawless” one at that. Bow down, bitches.

I also bow down to Nicki Minaj, her Minajesty. She owns all her facets – sexy and smart, man-eater and ‘one of the boys.’ People accuse her of being over-sexualized, or of being weird and unsexy, and she does not give a shit. She’s not trying to be sexy for you, she’s sexy for herself. She’s feeling herself: Bitches ain’t got punchlines, or flow. I have both, and an empire also. Lana Del Rey is Our Lady of Glamorous Sadness. She romanticizes self-destruction, but I romanticize everything, and that is why I love her. She is the “Sad Girl,” but on her own terms: Watch what you say to me, careful who you’re talking’ to. I’m on fire, baby, I’m on fire. And, finally, Taylor Swift arrives. She was once a twee little pop-country crooner, scorned for singing songs about her exes. Then she grew up, slicked on some red lipstick, and became one of the most powerful women in music. She uses her history as fuel: Got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane. But I’ve got a blank space, baby, and I’ll write your name. It’s a promise, and a threat.

All these women, and so many more that I didn’t mention – they reject the dominant narrative. They are heroines in their own stories. They are multifaceted. They show us that we can fall apart over boys and girls who have broken our hearts, but own our heartbreak. They proudly shout that they are sad girls for life. They say we can be angry and sweet, sensitive and strong. They are slutty good girls, and bad girls who have never slept with anyone. They are punk rock’n’rollers; they are girls with dirty bare feet and battered acoustic guitars. They are new wave divas and pop singers; they are MCs and soul crooners. They are country belters and torch singers. Touch them and you’ll burn.

Listen to the “this is a torch song” playlist on 8tracks.


Jessie Lynn McMains is a writer and zine-maker currently based in southeastern Wisconsin. She writes about nostalgia, desire, identity, music, wild girls, and her misspent youth.

I Want Everyone to Know: One Direction’s “No Control”

Con·trol (kənˈtrōl/): the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events; the restriction of an activity, tendency or phenomenon; the ability to restrain one’s own emotions or actions.

In 2013, I fell stupidly, blindly in love with a band of five boys from a British reality show put together by chance, luck, fate, Simon Cowell. I’d tried to avoid the inevitable. I listened to Up All Night religiously without learning a single member’s name except—naturally, obviously—Harry’s. I watched One Direction’s cameo on the iCarly episode while babysitting with an air of feigned indifference. I pointedly tried to avoid the gossip surrounding Harry walking a mile from my post-grad New York City internship hand-in-hand with Taylor Swift, a green-eyed monster flashing as I looked at the paparazzi shots on my co-worker’s desktop of the jeans slipping down his slim hips at the zoo. I could already glimpse Taylor writing “Wonderland” in the way her eyes (and mine) trained on the curls peeking out from underneath his beanie. It all culminated with bribing the 12-year-old at my Pelham sublet with the promise of a copy of Taylor Swift’s Red in exchange for One Direction’s Take Me Home. It was getting harder to avoid this worldwide phenomenon. Then—without warning—in a period of deep personal sorrow arrived the promo for One Direction: This Is Us. I knew it was unavoidable. I knew—and I made sure to forewarn everyone I knew as I bought tickets for the Friday premiere at my local movie theater—that I was surrendering to desire. I’m all yours, I’ve got no control, no control…

I saw This Is Us three times that first week. Powerless / And I don’t care it’s obvious… I could no longer pretend I was impervious to their charm, their dimples, their tattoos, their families, and their childish antics. Afterwards I went home and typed “Louis Tomlinson pranks,” “Harry Styles interviews,” “Zayn Malik fashion” and “Kiss You” into Youtube. I lost myself in Tumblr and found a community of witty young women (some of whom I now happily get to call friends) who much like me wanted to consume, digest, research, critique. I fell hard and swift for Liam’s soft (later sheared) curls, Zayn’s tongue-tied smile, Niall’s good vibrations, Louis’s lilt, and Harry’s candor.  I started the first of fifteen Harry Styles paintings. The pedal’s down, my eyes are closed / No control…

Nearing the anniversary of upheaval in my personal life, I decided I wanted to distract myself the only way I now knew how: One Direction. As I boarded a plane at Detroit Metropolitan Airport bound for London Heathrow, I could say I had fallen aggressively, obsessively in love with their pratfalls, their energy, their sound, their power. The all-consuming nature of the latest update via Twitter or Instagram. Flying 3,745 miles to see your favorite band without telling your closest friends and family felt reckless (albeit recklessly beautiful). As I settled into my seat and pulled on my Nice Hair sweatshirt à la Zayn’s, One Direction’s “Something Great” came on over the Delta speakers. For three months, I’d been cautiously planning this trip in secret, afraid that if I told people I’d jinx the respite I so desperately felt I deserved. That was the moment it finally felt real. Harry, Niall, Louis, Liam and Zayn singing, I want you here with me / Like how I pictured it / So I don’t have to keep imagining… I bit down on a smile as the plane took off from the tarmac and closed my eyes.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pW7W8hbdhX8]

Immediately when FOUR came out, I was instantly drawn to “No Control.” For the obvious reason that it was a Louis Tomlinson-Liam Payne penned track about waking up with an erection, among other reasons. I was less surprised that Louis found a way to boast about his cunnilingus skills than I am that Liam Payne—the boy who is afraid of spoons and who is not engaged but loves green beans, who learned from Louis how to give into unruliness and mischief—penned a track about morning wood. Every One Direction album has a few rock tracks that demand the listener’s attention. The guitar, bass, and drums hurtling the vocals forward. “No Control” is that track on FOUR. It’s grown up and downright sexy. The lyrical metaphors beg to be listened to as you get ready for a Friday evening out with friends hoping to turn the head of everyone at the club, bar, frat party. They’ve learned the power of suggestion: In the heat were you lay / I could stay right here and burn in it all day… While the song hints to elements of romance (lipstick stain, forgone innocence), it’s really about an all-consuming, overwhelming, burning need. Lost my senses / I’m defenseless… It’s about losing yourself in someone else, and being completely, happily captivated with the single-mindedness. Her perfume’s holding me ransom / Sweet and sour / Heart devoured… The vast, terrifying lure of desire, and the decision to succumb. I’m all yours, I got no control, no control… “No Control” is not subtle, but sex is never subtle. Especially with dudes in their twenties.

“No Control” is aggressive and shameless, and perfectly describes how listening and enjoying One Direction makes me feel on a day-to-day basis. There is very little I won’t do at this point to be caught up in the fervor and adoration of One Direction. I want all the information, tickets, pictures, t-shirts, socks, interviews I can get my hands on. I own FOUR on CD and vinyl. My iPhone case is Harry Styles fan art. I planned a trip to Florida under the guise of seeing my grandparents so I could drive to Orlando to stand in line from 3 A.M. onward at Universal to see the boys on The TODAY Show. I paid for last minute catwalk seats at Soldier Field, because it felt like fate to have made plans to be in Chicago the same weekend Bus 1 would be in town. Trash prince & club rat Louis Tomlinson decked out in a sleeveless tank and rolled Topman jeggings and/or Harry Styles in a barely buttoned Saint Laurent shirt with ripped Paige denim reduces me to incoherence, and for three minutes and twenty seconds I can listen to them tell me how I do the same. In the year of Girl Almighty, it is nice to hear One Direction sing about how loving me makes them lose their senses, how they’re all mine. I’m not the only one rendered powerless.

I can’t contain this anymore… I love telling people I like One Direction. I like to watch them reveal their confusion over a 24-year-old proudly proclaiming she not only listens but loves their music, reveal their assumptions. Oftentimes, I try to tell people early. It’s a good barometer for if they’re worth pursuing romantically or platonically. I simply don’t want to associate with anyone who can write off the raw vocals and pop melodies that occur when these boys harmonize based on preconceived notions. Lost my senses / I’m defenseless… I have learned that I don’t need to justify that. Just as I do not have to justify an emotional response to “Fireproof” to walking contradictions in leather jackets & Strokes tees who think the only music worth discussing is fronted by dudes holding instruments with poor haircuts. In a time when I felt out of control, One Direction helped me to accept my own insecurities through their undying love for one another and the listener—as always, yours truly—me. They reinforced what I knew within—and what friends kept telling me—but what I occasionally needed to hear blasted on loop from my iPod eighty hours a week when family expectations and personal doubt weighed me down. That I’m an alluring “5-foot something” in a “little black dress” that deserves “to be loved and to be in love.” For years, I have been incapable of giving up control. I am not rash. I am measured, calculated. My actions are premeditated, belabored. I used to consume ten shots of Captain Morgan’s on party nights in college to allow myself to lose control and abandon the decorum I so firmly held to in my daily life. To speak freely to the boy with the thick black frames and swooping fringe from my art history class or dance wildly with my girls in a crop top without tugging it down self-consciously or catch the eye of the dude down the bar with the quiff and fitted Arcade Fire tee. I am learning to not hold my heart clasped so tightly in my palms, to revel in the vulnerability and the power that comes from exposure. And I don’t care it’s obvious… If Harry Styles can learn to rock confidence and sincerity with his skinny jeans, then so can I.

Stepping off the platform at Wembley Park last June, I saw Vans and skinnies, Topshop jumpers and glitter paint, lopsided headscarves and drawn-on chevrons. I let out a large breath. I was finally amongst fans that understood me, who didn’t need qualifiers to comprehend my love. I waited alongside little girls, moms and dads, trendy twenty-somethings through countless Olly Murs and Little Mix tracks for the lads. I’ve never been as breathless as I was when the five of them took the stage. I am so happy that I can’t control myself anymore in the face of this spectacle of pop. I feel so lucky to have shared wide-eyed, slack-jawed looks with girls around me as the stage music amplified and screams magnified. The stadium so loud it was silent. The night was gone in a blink of my itchy, sleep-deprived eyes. I could stay right here and burn in it all day… I longed again to experience Harry, shirt unbuttoned, and Louis, hand pressed to diaphragm, strutting down the stage to the screams of 90,000 while belting out “Little Black Dress.” Niall’s smooth guitar work and heartfelt introduction to “Don’t Forget Where You Belong.” Louis’s constant and ever present vocals. Zayn’s far-reaching and dizzying high-notes. Liam’s steady and calm thank you’s. Harry ripping open his shirt during “Best Song Ever” to delighted screams. Leaving the arena, everyone continued singing “What Makes You Beautiful” all the way to the Tube, police playing the song on their phones and into their bullhorns, singing alongside us fans. I don’t want to wash away the night before…

In the aftermath of an eventful 2015—to put it mildly—I am proud of us for focusing on the reason we are all here forevermore: music. It’s been beautiful to witness Louis—flustered, awed—on Twitter or The Late Late Show with James Corden expressing sincere gratitude to the fan base for promoting “No Control” to radio stations all over the globe.

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Much like Louis, I am in awe of this fan base and what it has done these last two months to singlehandedly promote “No Control.” London’s BBC Radio 1, New York’s Z100 and L.A.’s KIIS FM all playing “No Control” because fans decided if the label wasn’t going to promote FOUR, they would. Project No Control has helped to change the narrative in the media surrounding One Direction and Zayn Malik’s departure from one of loss to resilience. Radio stations playing a single that isn’t promoted by the band itself or their label is unheard of. Per usual, One Direction fans are intent on breaking new ground.

The press surrounding Project No Control—fan led movement causes radio stations to play One Direction song without management involvement—allowed the media to refocus the conversation on the boy’s music: their growing maturity, songwriting abilities, and real vocal talent. As someone who uses One Direction to engage and disengage, it’s soothing to be able to listen to “Spaces” again without reaching for Kleenex. Alongside the rest of the fan base, I impatiently waited for the guys to add “No Control” into their set list. Sitting on my laptop, loading the first video of One Direction singing “No Control” in Brussels, my hands shook in giddy anticipation of the live performance. I listened closely through the initial screams for Niall’s opening. I held my breath as I waited to hear Louis’s tenor reverberating through my computer. As the camera zeroed in on his coiffed hair, I felt a rush of excitement build as the chorus drew near. I watched his chest puff out, his hand settle on his diaphragm, as he belted, Waking up beside you I’m a loaded gun… A grin broke across my face as Louis found Liam on the stage, excitedly singing their track to each other with visible pride as the stadium shook apart.

One Direction started five years ago with a single performance of “Torn,” and I’m glad it’s not going to end with “Clouds.” As the On The Road Again tour kicks off this summer, I am gearing up for my tour dates. Planning out how to arrive and what to wear, saving pennies for expensive stadium draft beer, and mentally preparing to watch the four boys who have empowered me sing, And I don’t care it’s obvious / I just can’t get enough of you…


 

Ashley Hull wishes she was a mermaid, but she’s happier she’s managed to find her voice. She currently resides in Brooklyn. If you’re looking for her, she’s likely in front of a mirror applying lip stain while singing Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” under her breath.

KHCP Track #2: “Punk Life”

The punk life / it keeps me goin’

Pistofficer, “Punk Life”

Not too long after that night, I threw myself into punk with the fervor only a fifteen year old can achieve. I rid myself of the clothes I still had from my bizarre grunge-hippie phase, such as my flared jeans. (Because, as Joe Strummer once said: “Like trousers, like brain.”) I bought an Exploited “Punks Not Dead” poster at the record store downtown, and taped it to my bedroom wall. (This caused some hilarious arguments between myself and my mom, but that’s a story for another time.) And I wrote in my journal: “I wanna start hanging out in Kenosha. All the cool punk rock guys are there.”

I wrote that because of the show I’d gone to, and also because every time I went to Kenosha, I saw some punk rock boy, all chains and dirty, ripped-up pants, loitering on the steps of some building or other. There were lots of rude boys there, too, decked out in two-tone creepers and porkpie hats, plus the skinheads in boots and braces. There were punks and rudies in Racine, but I didn’t know any of them yet, and for the most part it seemed like our coffeehouses and YMCA shows were overrun by emokids. Don’t get me wrong – I liked much of the music known as emo at the time (when I was being self-deprecating, I referred to myself as an emokid). I still hadn’t gotten over my crush on the emo boy. But I had grown tired of the Emo as a Thing. When you boiled down the complex noise and poetic lyrics, they were about how brokenhearted the poor, sensitive straight-white-boy singer was. At least punks have the tendency to be somewhat aware of the world and its ills, and the music reflects that. It’s more “fuck racism, fuck poverty, fuck religion, fuck you,” whereas emo is more “my girlfriend dumped me and I’m really, really hurt.” And at least in the punk scene it is somewhat acceptable for girls to be just as dirty, loud, and angry as the boys are.

And, well, I was more drawn to punk – to its aesthetics, its sound, its trappings. Crushboy notwithstanding, I found punk boys more attractive than emo boys. Black leather jackets covered in studs, tight black jeans with the knees all worn-out and shiny, and mohawks dyed unnatural colors, were sexier to me than ill-fitting thriftstore clothes, Mr. Spock haircuts, and striped Ernie shirts. Not to mention the punk rock girls; spiky hair that I wanted to run my fingers through, patched-up hoodies, little plaid skirts worn with fishnet stockings and big stompy boots and all that jewelry like armor… (Every time I saw a punk rock girl, I thought: “Do I want to be her or make out with her?” Usually, it was both.) I was drawn to the sound of punk, which had, to quote Rebecca Solnit, “a tempo and an insurrectionary intensity that matched the explosive pressure in my psyche.” And its trappings, the things that punks did when they weren’t playing music, those appealed to me, too – getting wasted, smashing shit. I know, those are some of the more boneheaded aspects of punk, but god, they were great outlets for the explosive pressure in my psyche.

I spent years trying to figure out why Kenosha had more of a punk scene and Racine had more of an emo/indie rock contingent. When you look at the towns, they don’t seem like they should be that disparate. They’re only ten minutes apart. They’re both medium-sized cities in southeastern Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Michigan. They were both once company towns – Kenosha belonged to the  American Motors Corporation (later Daimler-Chrysler-Jeep), Racine to Case and Johnson’s Wax. They’ve always had a rivalry – each town claiming that the other is worse – which seems silly to outsiders. Once, while I was riding the Metra train from Chicago back to Wisconsin, someone across the aisle from me asked if I was from Kenosha. “No,” I said, “Racine.” “Eh, not much difference, is there? They’re both dirty old towns.” In recent years, Kenosha has been revitalized in a way Racine hasn’t, but back in the ‘90s, they were both rundown. I eventually came up with a theory to explain the Kenosha punk vs. Racine emo thing. It was that Racine, being closer to Milwaukee, was more influenced by the Milwaukee scene (which, in the ‘90s, leaned more toward the indie/emo end of the spectrum). And Kenosha, being closer to Chicago – as well as being one of the stops on the Union Pacific North Line of the Metra (Chicago’s commuter train system) – was more influenced by the Chicago scene (which leaned more toward the punk/hardcore end).

But in 1997, when I wrote that journal entry, I didn’t care why Kenosha had the punk scene. I only knew I had to start hanging out there. And I did. I convinced my parents to drive me, or I took the bus. By 1998, I was driving there by myself. Over time, Kenosha began to feel more like home than Racine did. I felt at home in the half-dead downtown, walking the grey streets, gazing into empty storefronts. I felt comfortable sitting forever in one of the many 24-hour diners, where I drank coffee until I was twitchy and hyper; often, a punk showed up and talked to me, or at least gave me the punk rock nod – that silent gesture that acknowledged “you’re one of us!” In Kenosha, I felt like I was one of the punks, part of the scene. I felt more at home there because I didn’t live there, because I had no history, yet, with the people there. I could be who I wanted to be, rather than the person I was expected to be. I went to as many shows as I could. Sometimes, Chicago bands came up to play shows in Kenosha, and that was awesome. 1998 was also the year I fell in love with Chicago and the Chicago scene, and I couldn’t always make it to Chicago for shows, but I could usually find a way to Kenosha. I saw Chicago bands like The Arrivals and Deal’s Gone Bad, and local bands, raging hardcore acts like URBN DK, Pistofficer, and Despite. I lost myself in the pit. I flirted with yummy yummy punk rock girls and boys. I found the secret places to get wasted, and the older punks who didn’t mind buying a teenage grrl a 40 oz. bottle of malt liquor in exchange for some conversation. I gave them money, they stepped into a corner store and procured booze, then we ducked into alleys or sat on park benches. We drank and smoked cigarettes, and talked. I told them about my favorite bands, the ones that weren’t from Kenosha or Chicago, and they affectionately teased me for being so into pop punk. And they told me stories. Stories about how much wilder the Kenocore shows were back in their day, or stories about their brushes with the legends of Kenosha punk. There were two names I heard so often, they got burned into my brain: Dean Dirt, and Beautiful Bert.


 

Jessie Lynn McMains is a writer and zine-maker currently based in southeastern Wisconsin. She writes about nostalgia, desire, identity, music, wild girls, and her misspent youth.