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.

And We’re Rolling

Tina Turner onstage, 1972

February 2021 has been a good month for Tina Turner: She was nominated for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and HBO announced a documentary on her life that will debut in the spring.

I first learned of Tina Turner at twelve years old, when, on a dare one summer, my best friend and I snuck into a sold-out screening of What’s Love Got to Do with It at our local cinema. Not the first R-rated film I had seen as a preteen, yet it was one that stuck with me for days and weeks afterward. The Turner’s lopsided marriage in particular, as there are plenty of scenes that display Ike’s brutality. In the film’s final scenes, an uninvited Ike visits Tina backstage, just minutes before she is to perform. He pulls out a gun. And then she reminds him that an audience awaits her and her alone—a room full of people have “come to see me,” she says, emphasizing her presence and talent can both exist and thrive without him.

It’s a good film, though one that a twelve year old has no business watching. And whether the film relies too heavily on creative liberties is another discussion. But in the days of Sam Goody and Tower Records, I was on a hunt to get my hands on what I could of Tina’s music. My family was no help. “Private Dancer,” my father told me, “Are you asking about that song?” No, no, no. The legs, I told him. The river. The job in the city. How to say this without admitting I snuck into an R-rated film? It seemed we had different versions of Tina.

A still from “Private Dancer.” Did you know Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) wrote this song?

On a bright day, riding my bike through an alleyway, I discovered a discarded mound of cassette tapes. On the spine of one was written “CCR.” Illegible handwriting dotted the insert. I took two tapes, brought them to a friend’s house. With a nose ring and blue hair, the friend’s older sister scoffed as we tried to decipher the lettering. “CCR is Creedence Clearwater Revival,” she said, and shot me a look of pity. We played it, loud, on a Sony boombox, and there it was: the job, the city, the man, the wheels, the river. 

Much has been written about Ike & Tina Turner’s rendition of “Proud Mary,” which in 1971 went to number four on the Billboard charts—their biggest hit as a duo. It was Tina who heard the original first and fell in love, enough to suggest the band record their own take. Ike wasn’t sold (or open to suggestions), but Tina got her way. By 1970 they had been performing the song on the road and finally got to recording their own version.

Often, cover songs are cheap imitations, so we relish when they transcend the original into a new and inventive interpretation. What makes Ike & Tina’s “Proud Mary” so revered is what strikes us from the beginning—Tina’s voice, smooth and controlled, ushers us into a story, warns us, like the captain of a ship, of a bumpy ride ahead—she and her band “always do it nice and rough.” At the helm of the song’s movement, she also steers its creative control, summoning layers of backup singers and guitar and bass and horns, all of which give the track texture and depth, a feature that befits her raspy vocals. 

In a 1993 Vanity Fair cover story, Tina is described by the late Bob Krasnow as someone who “could be your girlfriend, your sister, your best friend—she can fulfill all these emotional niches,” but during a performance, “she has the power to stimulate you…” In the same breath he describes a time when he visited the Turners in Los Angeles and was surprised to find Tina “in the kitchen with a wet rag, down on her hands and knees wiping the floor, wearing a do-rag on her head.” Bless his heart, the man had one version of Tina in mind—the sex symbol onstage, not the mother mired in domesticity. 

But it’s easy for me, as I’m sure it is for others, to hear a multifaceted Tina in her work, especially in “Proud Mary,” where she functions as the guide, the lead singer, the performer in a short dress with her trademark legs at play, a sonic fury whose physical presence elevates the song’s arrangements, alters its context. Like Aretha Franklin’s cover of “Respect,” Tina’s rendition feels like a bespoke incantation for women, a piece of music to lift, authorize, propel one of our own to the front of the room. Not someone who is there to fulfill anyone’s emotional niches, but there to let us watch her fulfill her own. A petite figure of legendary proportions from the state of Tennessee. But even women in myth face adversity. And to think Tina performed with such alacrity like she did on “Proud Mary,” night after night, on album after album, when her personal life and well-being was holding on by a thread.

It’s not that I think CCR’s “Proud Mary” isn’t good, or great—certainly, it has the legs to stand on its own. Yet when I listen to Tina sing—about leaving behind the familiar, working to make ends meet, finding a community of hope—the song strikes me as less of a cover and more of a personal journey through life that she understood, lived through, and emerged anew on the other side.

At the Two-minute Mark

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers — “Don’t Come Around Here No More”

Watch out, Alice

In an Atlantic article published in 2017, it is pointed out that for many people, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was their first introduction to Tom Petty’s music. As a child of the early 1980s, this is certainly true for me, as it’s the first Petty tune I ever heard, and it’s still my favorite track on Southern Accents. While the song’s instrumentation differed greatly from his earlier radio hits like “American Girl” and “Refugee,” the accompanying music video made it that much stranger: As Petty is up to no good as the Mad Hatter, the Alice in Wonderland backdrop is deliciously creepy and weird, especially when we see Alice lying on the dinner table, her flesh turned into a frosted cake that Petty slices and serves to his bandmates. It’s a great song with an equally great video.

But there’s a moment in the music that has always felt a little out of place to me, a moment I have always relished. It’s at the two-minute mark, when Petty’s voice begins to quaver. As he sings, “I don’t feel you anymore/ You darken my door,” the sitar no longer sounds as playful, the percussion no longer feels as buoyant. It’s a line one could say to their lover, mother, best friend; coupled with Petty’s unique vocal style, (I won’t say limited vocal range—he lacked nothing) it feels that much more melancholy. And the “darken my door” phrase could easily find itself at home in a John Milton sonnet. In fact, I thought for sure it was lifted from Shakespeare, but no—according to An American Glossary, Volume 1, its first known usage was by Benjamin Franklin. And while Petty may or may not have been aware of this, of course it was Benjamin Franklin, because it just doesn’t get more American than these two.


Broadcast — “Corporeal”

Trish Keenan, the vocalist for the British group Broadcast, passed away in 2011 after contracting pneumonia, just a few weeks after contracting swine flu. “Corporeal” is how I like to remember her best: a steady, low-pitched voice singing of life’s fragility, layered atop a twangy guitar riff and undulating distortion.

It is a track so textural you can feel the hum of her voice in the back of your throat, the pluck of the guitar on the fleshy pads of your fingers, the harsh buzzing of the synth in your teeth. It’s a song of the body, for the body. Nearly two minutes in, Keenan’s vocals stretch and rise, the reverberation doubles and thickens her voice into a viscous honey. And here is where I always thought she sounded like an angel. Or at least, the kind of angel who would be assigned to look over someone like me. Rest in peace, Trish.  


Sonic Youth — “The Sprawl”

“The Sprawl” is the third track on Daydream Nation, the 1988 album that garnered Sonic Youth rightful territory on the indie-rock map. Inspired by William Gibson, bassist Kim Gordon takes its title from Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, where the Sprawl is an enclosed metropolis stretching all the way from Boston to Atlanta. But in her memoir, Girl in a Band, she writes that the lyrics were influenced by Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro, a novel that centers on nuclear fallout survivors: As she penned the lyrics, she was “thinking back on what it felt like being a teenager in Southern California…feeling all alone on the sidewalk…the sun and good weather so assembly-line unchanging it made my whole body tense.”

This tension has always made sense to me. Growing up in Central California, I remember how oppressive the heat could be, at times the rows and rows of palm trees and dirt roads formed a searing, static landscape, where nobody dared to walk around their neighborhood or run errands on foot when the car could get you there faster—and with air conditioning.

(In Camus’s The Stranger, the protagonist, on trial for murder, explains to the judge why he killed a man: the sun was really hot and in his face. Everyone in the novel laughs at this admission, but had the trial taken place near Death Valley in California, I’m sure the judge would’ve understood.)

No matter Sonic Youth’s New York roots, I love this song because it’s so California, so Kim. Her Los Angeles imagery isn’t Hollywood or the beach: it’s a shotgun house, a river, old machinery; a city in jeopardy from becoming an overdeveloped site of commerce—inevitable once she spots a “big sign down the road.” At the two-minute mark, the song begins to build in shimmery layers of guitar and cymbals, allowing her space to craft her storytelling as she sing-talks about her childhood. “The Sprawl” is the perfect title when you consider it clocks in at 7 minutes and 42 seconds—the longest track on the album. It’s a song that seems to point out consumer culture (“you can buy some more and more and more and more”) but isn’t interested solely in condemning it, either. Instead, Kim places us within her youth and invites us to consider our surroundings, guiding us through the past and into a future we might not want to live in.

Soft, Softer, Softest

Photo by Phil Nicholls

It’s fitting that a write-up about Hole’s 1994 album, Live Through This, would be my first blog post, considering this year marks the 25thanniversary since its release. And today is also Courtney Love’s 55thbirthday, so why not? The truth is, I’ve been trying to write something for months about this record—an album that served as a soundtrack for my awkward teenage years, a time in my life when I felt both isolated and undesirable, before I realized that I could find solace, even acceptance, in music.

In the spring of 1994, it seemed there was no escaping the publicity machine and accolades behind the record—Rolling Stone and the Village Voice placed it at the top of their year-end lists, and Entertainment Weekly jokingly called Courtney Love the “brattier sister of Johnny Rotten.” But as a fourteen-year-old girl growing up in a conservative area of California with few friends, I was convinced that every piece of music on this album was written just for me. And it made sense that only other young girls my age would be able to discern which lyrics were meant for girls like us and which lyrics were meant to offend those who were probably too old and boring to appreciate or understand their meaning (translation: our parents).

But who exactly were “girls like us”? Or girls like me, for that matter? That summer, I spent most days in my room with the radio blaring, head on the pillow and fingers tapping to the beat on my kneecaps, all while thumbing through magazines like Sassy and Vogue. I would make snacks of flour tortillas and jalapeños (don’t ask) and sometimes, when the 100-degree heat became intolerable, I would suck on ice chips and watch music videos on MTV. 

And there it was, as I turned on the television and sprawled onto the couch—the music video for “Miss World.” An alarmingly pale woman with blue eyes appeared onscreen, powdering her face and décolletage with such intensity that at some point you worried she just might disappear under a haze of white dust, a pool-blue barrette clinging to her bleached locks and a pout of thick red lips the only features that remained visible. 

You missed a spot.

And what exactly was she singing? That she’s a girl who cannot look anyone in the eye, is sick, and lies and lies and lies? It was strange and disorienting, and yet there lurked a lesson in there somewhere, as though she wanted you to recognize her blanching herself with a powder puff the size of a dinner plate was nothing more than an exaggerated performance of femininity, and if you concentrated solely on her excessive primping, you might not hear her voice swell with ache and despair. If some feminists believe that the higher the heel, the more repressed the woman, then Courtney’s morphing into a mid-thirties Baby Jane Hudson forced me to consider the absurdity of what women felt they needed to do to look and feel beautiful, be seen. The absurdity of whatever it was my mother implied when she reminded me to be a “lady” in social settings, the absurdity of my grandmother’s horror at seeing young women braless at the mall, the absurdity of stuffing my blouses with tissue so the world would see me as a woman, not a girl.

In the coming days, I would turn on the television and immediately change the channel to MTV while my father was preoccupied in the kitchen, a burning hope inside me that “Miss World” would flash across the screen so I could press the record button on the VCR; if I could pull this off, I could watch it over and over until each frame lined up in succession, a reel that I could burn into my brain and keep on loop, even after I left the house. But that hope never materialized, though on a family trip to Los Angeles later that summer, I finally struck gold: After a long car ride, my father stopped and parked our black Ford Bronco into a parking lot on Sunset Boulevard, the circus-like red and yellow lettering of TOWER RECORDS hovering above us.

We had stopped to eat, not record shop, but I asked, as casually as I was able, if it would be such a big deal to just look inside Tower Records. And there inside I zoomed through every aisle until I found a cassette of Live Through This, sandwiched between albums by Billie Holiday and Buddy Holly. (Don’t fret, I came to appreciate those artists eventually, too.) I don’t remember asking my parents if I could buy it. Certainly the album’s cover art—a winning beauty queen clutching a bouquet of flowers and sporting a tiara—was not threatening enough for them to deny me my newly found treasure. And success! My wish was granted.

On the car ride home, I gleefully studied the liner notes, absorbed every image and photo included in the artwork, and vowed to always keep its condition pristine. To misplace or dirty the cassette would be akin to injuring myself, and no matter how many other copies existed in the world, I knew my tape was special because it was meant just for me. I was going to keep it safe.

Nearly every night from then on, I would shut my door and bury myself beneath the covers, gingerly inserting the tape into my cassette player that I would cradle against my chest, the volume raised just enough to drown out my parents fighting in the living room. No moonlight ever made it through a crack in the blinds, but this way, with Hole’s music on repeat, the dark became a respite, an escape, my own little bearable hell.

***

There’s one track on this record called “Softer, Softest,” that I would always skip. By this time I had upgraded to a Sony CD Walkman, one of those portable devices with a smooth, silver sheen that had a row of buttons on one end, so that when I placed the Walkman face-up in my small purse, I could easily access the play/pause button. And without fail, when the simple guitar strum of “Softer, Softest” began, I would slip my fingers into the front flap of my purse and hit the skip button, eager to listen to the next track. I can’t remember why I disliked the song so much. Perhaps it was too slow for my liking—by this time I was seeking out the fast-tempo tracks of punk bands like X-Ray Spex and Black Flag. Plus, the album already had what I considered a ballad: “Doll Parts,” a tune of longing and self-doubt that became the album’s second single, and comprised of only three chords. 

But on Valentine’s Day in 1995, Hole was invited to play an acoustic set on MTV’s Unplugged, a special series where artists were invited to perform a stripped-down set of their music in front of an audience. The acoustic renditions of “Miss World” and “Doll Parts” were particularly beautiful and engaging, yet here was where I learned to appreciate “Softer, Softest.” Introducing the song, Courtney explained, “This is a song about the girl who always smelled like pee in your class. She was me…”

And she was me, too. There is a line in the song that directly precedes the chorus, a line that saddened me: “Pee Girl gets the belt,” which sounds as though Pee Girl were a young female superhero whose special power was simply wetting the bed, a skill that subjected her to lashings by whom I assumed to be her father. Watching Courtney talk about “Softer, Softest,” I understood for the first time that Pee Girl was none other than herself. And why didn’t I realize this sooner? So much of her work is largely autobiographical, and yet I never made the connection. Maybe because it was so personal for the both of us, considering that I wet the bed until I was nearly nine years old. In second grade, I remember secretly removing my white tights behind the blue handball court, hoping no one would smell the urine that had run down my legs because I waited too long to use the restroom during recess, flinging the tights into the trash bin, looking over my shoulders for any classmates who might catch me in the act. And my friend’s parents, who would wrap their daughter’s mattress with plastic sheeting whenever I would spend the night, lest I ruin the bed, a cacophony of crinkles beneath my small body as I tossed and turned in my sleep.

These were the memories that pushed me to keep “Softer, Softest” on repeat, a new appreciation developing with each listen. The track contained so much of what made Live Through This a kind of handbook for displaced preteens: themes of anger, loss, the desire for beauty and the struggle for acceptance. Courtney’s references to milk are especially pronounced in “Softer, Softest,” where milk has the power to comfort or destroy: it can be a life-giving force (“your milk turns to cream”), a rotten, contaminated substance (“your milk has a dye”), or a sexual threat (“your milk has a dick”).

But as poetic as I found the song to be, it became clear that Courtney’s persona was beginning to eclipse the music. She seemed to land interviews in every major entertainment magazine, and she was never out of things to say. I tried to keep up with the band’s television appearances as best I could, and what little allowance money I had was spent on magazines where the band’s music was reviewed.

At a garage sale I came across an old issue of SPIN where Live Through This received a high rating. Of course, the review began by mentioning Courtney, namely her acting stint in 1986’s Sid and Nancy. But even if Courtney was playing a role, she was still the biggest character of them all: the music critic likened her part in the film to “a Hole song,” the kind of tune that most would assume to be “about Love piping up for girls with bad reputations.”

I paused. Was this true? I wasn’t stupid—I knew her reputation preceded her, and she never made a secret of her demons and legal troubles. But I wasn’t a “bad” girl with a “bad” reputation: I was scared, timid, quiet, and uneasy in my own skin. I remember my mother asking, “What the hell do you see in this woman?” pointing to Courtney on the cover of a 1995 issue of Rolling Stone, a mop of yellow straw on Courtney’s head, her midriff exposed. The words Hole is a Band was splashed across the front, Courtney Love Is a Soap Opera printed directly underneath. I considered those words may have been true, but I didn’t want to fully divorce the music from the creator. I appreciated Courtney’s antics, I understood her rage, I accepted her faults. Why did everyone seem to think rebellious, wild young women were the only ones who could appreciate her music? I knew she could speak for us inhibited types, too.

Still, once I reached high school, nobody understood why I taped a picture, about the size of a Polaroid, of Courtney playing guitar on the front of my binder. It was an image of Courtney onstage that I ripped out of a magazine, she lying on her back during a performance at some music festival, her seafoam green guitar resting across her belly. “Tit shot!” a boy in my math class would always yell whenever he’d grab my binder, greedy for a closer look. Couldn’t he see the anger, frustration, or sadness in this image? There was beauty in the positioning of her body; she appeared uninhibited yet tender, passionate yet emotionless. But he only wanted to see her breasts. You just don’t get it, I would think. And that made me feel surprisingly at ease. It was like the image contained a special language, and only I and other girls like me could hear it.

A year later, after my parents divorced, I started my senior year at a new high school in a different state. I kept the binder with the torn out image of Courtney, but it acted more as a signal for other students to avoid me. During the second week of school, I walked past a girl with platinum blonde hair, carrying a binder like mine, except she had taped a large black and white photo of Courtney to the binder’s plastic sleeve. My mouth opened but no words escaped. I felt like I had finally found someone I could talk to, but we continued to pass by each other day after day, saying nothing at all. Sometimes she would smile at me in the halls and keep walking, and I always made sure that my binder and the image of Courtney faced outward, so she would recognize me, like our little secret code. I liked to imagine that she went home and listened to Live Through This after school, as I did, and that she too knew every word to “Softer, Softest.” Although I never learned her name before the end of the school year, we had established a connection based on our shared interest—a friendship that, although unspoken and fleeting, was nonetheless a camaraderie that offered us a respite from the outside world, a reminder that no matter how many times we felt ugly or out of place, we knew we were never alone. I’d like to thank Courtney for that.

Happy Birthday, C.