Lucy Dacus — “VBS”

California has a Bible Belt all its own—the Central Valley, a segment of the state’s interior stretching from Black Butte Lake in the north to Kern County in the south (where I was raised), just north of Los Angeles. A region rich in agriculture. And churches. In high school, a girl I met in driver’s ed asked me: I’d love to show you the faith sometime. My Bible school has one opening left. Will you join me?

I declined.

Lucy Dacus’s “VBS” (short for vacation Bible school) yanks me back to that time, makes me question if or how my life would’ve changed had I said yes that summer day. Though I rejected the invitation, Dacus’s confessional spirit detailing romance, drugs, self-discovery—all of which sits steadily at the core of teenagehood—is relatably poignant in its innocence.

“In the Summer of ’07, I was sure I’d get to heaven,” the track opens, shifting its focus to a camp mate, a love interest she is trying to save: “Back in the cabin, snorting nutmeg in your bunk bed, you were waiting for a revelation of your own.” A boy whom Dacus shared is based on a former boyfriend “who loved Slayer and weed more than Jesus.” 

Certainly, being a teenager is not without its embarrassments, its moments of squirming humiliation. But as humorous a picture Dacus paints, there is a troubling anxiety weaving its way through the track that tells us that maybe, just maybe, things aren’t going to be okay. That as much as we want these teenagers to return home buoyant and full-hearted, their camp experience is ultimately fruitless, and she is no more able to save herself than her death-metal-loving boyfriend. “All it did,” she sings, a voice dipped in cream, “was make the dark feel darker than before.”

The song is neither, I don’t think, a strict condemnation of Bible schools, nor is it a dismissal of religion. It’s a necessary saunter down memory lane, a nostalgic reminder of a time when self-discovery felt impossible; that day when you realized the adults in the room might not have it all figured out.

Jumpin Jive

I can’t remember the last time I watched an awards show on television. There was a brief period in my twenties when I enjoyed the glitzy fashions that took place on the red carpet, the cameras zooming in on extravagant jewelry or the intricate beading of a gown that cost more than my rent. The GRAMMYs were no exception. At the time, I was working in the entertainment industry and scoffed at the idea that a musician’s merit lie in an institution that seemed to reward popularity over talent. I didn’t hate all of it, though: I enjoyed Little Richard’s performance in 2008, Daft Punk with Stevie Wonder in 2014, and who could forget the soy-bomb incident during Bob Dylan’s performance in 1998.

On Sunday night, minutes before bed, I did my usual doomscroll through Instagram (I do not recommend this) and read that Megan Thee Stallion had performed a medley for this year’s GRAMMYs. As usual, the comments about her performance jumped out at me first: “I pray for our daughters!” “Disgusting” “Train wreck of a performance” and my personal favorite, “What am I supposed to tell my 12 year old?

While we can only hope that woman told her 12 year old about body autonomy and the rigorous schedules and training of background dancers (let’s not hold our breath), nothing about these responses were a surprise; the outrage, as always, is as punctual as a clock. Out of curiosity, I watched the clip, expecting to see something blasphemous, criminal. 

And then I nearly fell out of my bed. A reference to the Nicholas Brothers!

At three minutes and fifteen seconds in, two women tap dance, side by side, on a white staircase that seems to be a nod to the Nicholas Brothers dancing during Cab Calloway’s ‘Jumpin Jive’ in the 1943 film Stormy Weather. They descend down the staircase, one by one, hop over each other and end in the splits position before Megan Thee Stallion continues singing her hit, “Savage.” Granted, these two female dancers were not, as Mindy Aloff writes, “catapulting themselves over each other’s heads” quite like the Nicholas Brothers were wont to do. But even the set, a grand staircase lit beneath large lighting fixtures, further cements the nod to the famous tap-dancing duo, whose high-flying performance in Stormy Weather was filmed in one take.

Considered to be the best tap dancers of their day and “one of the most beloved dance teams in the history of dance,” it’s thrilling to see their influence spread into other genres of Black music and performance. Yes, Megan Thee Stallion’s sexuality is often at the forefront of her music. It’s not for everyone. But if we’re so laser-focused on empty outrage, we are going to miss out on the references and nods she is giving to former legends, an homage to Black ingenuity and talent that electrified audiences for years, a piece of history that too many have forgotten. Now that is a conversation to have with your 12 year old.