Song of the Summer — The Mass Mediated Self Part 2 (and a happy ending)
London is my mecca. It’s a pilgrimage I make not only for academic reasons, but to renew my spirit every year. To bathe in the waters of the pool that is stirred by the spirit of cosmopolitanism, wyrd, and cosmic vibrations of the universe. Every time I come to London, something inside me resonates in a way that unlocks another piece of me that I’ve been closing up and hiding away in an attempt to protect my heart. Here, the purring of the city seems to make it possible for me to be present and vulnerable and to make genuine connections with beautiful humans who manage to go on to be significant fixtures in my life.
I left off in my last post having crawled out of the shipwreck of my marriage and landing on the shores of London to take refuge in the waiting arms of the metropol. Indeed, I have always felt somewhat adrift in the world. I can remember having felt this way for my whole life. Sometimes I’d just be taken by this feeling of intense homesickness — and it was never for a place, or for my parents’ home (I moved a lot as a kid, so nothing fit the bill). I just knew I wanted to go home. I would feel this way often in my marriage, especially after a screaming match that had gotten so vehement I’m still shocked no one ever called the cops on us.
After the exhaustion we used to make up. It was the only time my ex could ever emotionally connect — if I clawed all his defenses down first. But when I got tired of the cycle — fight, promise, fuck, fuck up, fight — I stopped being able to tender the same kind of emotional investment in the promises made and I would just leave empty. When he passed out drunk or just decided to disconnect I would go for a walk, escape to a friend’s house, call my mom, or take a box full of his empties to the Walgreens parking lot to throw against the wall and vent my frustration. And in those moments I just so desperately wanted to go home. But where the fuck was that?
London was where I came the closest to feeling at “home.” I came home to myself here.
This summer, though, I’ve had a more complicated relationship to the city than usual. It has always been a place of reprieve, and for the first time it was also bittersweet. I couldn’t put my finger on the right way to encapsulate all the happiness that I always find here, but also the difference.
I came across my summer soundtrack as I re-watched Season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. This season more than most others really spoke to me. I started watching after being scolded by a good friend, former student, and renowned mover in the art world told me I was missing out on a major piece of contemporary queer culture. He was absolutely right, and I caught myself up in a hurry. We both loved Sasha Velour pretty instantaneously, though I’ll confess to also having loved Eureka’s brand of bombast as well.
But I’m an academic, and Sasha’s gender bending approach to queer performativity hit an intellectual high note for both of us. I almost died when she suggested she was considering dressing as Judith Butler for the drag-parody of Match Game — Snatch Game. No one on the show seemed to really appreciate it, but queer theory nerds everywhere were losing their minds.
In fact, my drag race buddy had taken a Literary Theory and Criticism class with me at NYU, where I’d been teaching as a PhD student. Theory was how I came to understand not only my struggles with gender-based violence and oppression, but also my sexuality and gender. I have always been too big for a woman, too strong, too tall, too butch. But not butch enough to be butch. When I was an athlete I was able to get away with the tomboy thing, but after my athletic career ended, I suddenly had all these lady parts that I was *so* unprepared for. I was so uncomfortable in my skin, so uncomfortable in womanhood, so uncomfortable in femininity.
Reading Judith Butler and her comparison of gender to drag helped me to realize that all gender was performative. In fact, now that I teach my own Theory and Criticism seminar, I offer my students extra credit for dressing in drag on Butler day. They all come dressed as opposite genders, but I come dressed as a more traditional presentation of femininity. And suddenly it clicks: even normative gender is a performance. A selection of available conventions that I can put on to express my gender identity. Actually, my students really freak out when I show up looking “like a girl.” It’s not that they don’t know I’m female, but they are so used to seeing my gender non-conformity that seeing me conform to hetero-normative beauty standards (as best possible in this body) is really disconcerting for them. There’s more to it than that — a whole post’s worth, I’m sure — but the idea here is that Butler taught me my own gender was performative — something put together out of available tropes and material realities. Some of it I can control, some I can’t.
In that moment, I realized if I was gonna occupy this voluptuous lady body, I was gonna be FAB-U-LOUS. Maybe it’s because I was raised in Vegas, but I have a penchant for bright colors, loud make up, sequins, and (of course) rhinestones. And thus my drag persona b0mbasticca was born. I learned to be unapologetically myself — queer, gender non-conforming, a little butch, and a little femme — through thinking of putting on my face every day as “lady drag.” Dressing up as something I didn’t quite feel I occupied, so if it was gonna be a performance, it may as well be a goddam show.
As I enjoyed the familiar sounds of a particularly good season of Drag Race, I saw Meghan Trainor come on for one episode. And I remember really liking the song “Woman Up,” that Vegas girl Farrah Moan and Cynthia Lee Fontaine had to Lip Sync for Your Life to. It mashed up femininity and strength, indeed finding that strength in the very things that constitute “feminine frivolity.” But she sang about heels and mascara like armor, which is what we all know they are. And here we have two men, dressing as women, fake singing about the strength in all those features of femininity they themselves have just put on.
Lady Drag indeed.
RuPaul says “we are all born naked and the rest is Drag.” Can I get an Amen up in here?
So I sought out Trainor’s new album, confident it was going to have all the lady power anthems I was hoping for. After all, “All About that Bass” has been my best dance anthem since “Baby Got Back.” Though I’ll admit I did shake it pretty great to Nicki Minaj’s tribute, “Anaconda,” at Pride this year, to the raucous applause of several gay men.
The album was that and more. It celebrated exactly the kind of femininity that I can get behind, in my punk-strong-doc-stomping-sequin-wearing femaleness. But it also spoke to so many of the things that make it possible to occupy that space. She has ballads celebrating bomb-ass best friend moms who teach you how to love yourself and the Friends who are your chosen family that support you through all your tumult.
“NO” is exactly the power refrain we all need for that incessant stream of demands for our time, attention, affection, sex, bodies, etc. You are entitled to say No. And as I said in the last post, without “No” there is no “Yes.” Yes is meaningless if it’s not an option.
My name is No.
My number is No.
My sign is No.
You need to let it go.
Nah to the ah to the no no no.
Seriously, women. Take time to watch this video (link in image caption). Not only does she sing all the woes of a man who won’t stop asking, touching, pushing with beat-pumping refrain of “no no no,” but in the music video she very clearly does not do this by downplaying her own sexuality or desirability. She’s quite literally feeling herself. It isn’t no to sex, or sensuality. Just no to you.
Other songs on this album include the self-love anthems I was looking for including “Watch Me Do,” that starts out with “I’m the shit, be quiet.I been on a low hater diet.” “I Love Me” puts self love in the simplest terms: “I love Me. I don’t mean to brag, I don’t mean to boast, I love all y’all, but I love me the most.”
“Me Too” really takes the cake here, though.
Who’s that sexy thing I see over there? That’s me. Standing in the mirror.
I thank God every day (uh huh) that I woke up feelin’ this way (uh huh). And I can’t help lovin’ myself, and I don’t need nobody else (nuh uh).
I could write a whole feminist review of this album that highlights how important it is for us to see this kind of femininity represented in our popular culture. Sexy, confident, capable, successful women who love their own awesomeness. And who wear sequined blazers (YES) or unicorn onesies. And we need philosophizing, gender-bending queens who blend masculinity and femininity into absolutely fabulous gorgeousness. What we see shapes what we think we can be.
Because I slay. Because we slay. Because you slay.
If that weren’t enough, though, what really seals this as my summer album, however, is the way that it pivots from this strong woman into ballads of vulnerability about the new love she has found — in this feminine strength.
The ways in which the be-sequined be-blazered Trainor can transition directly into these songs about love that are far from saccharine and yet speak to a genuine kind of care that — until recently — had seemed entirely foreign to me.
And that “until recently” is important. In “Kindly Calm Me Down,” Trainor asks “When my world gets loud, could you make it quiet down? When my head pounds could you turn down all the sound?” As a person prone to anxiety and panic attacks, I know this feeling of needing the world to quiet down. Often my solution is to make my world smaller by sitting in a closet until I pull myself together.
And relatively recently, I’ve found someone who will crawl into that closet with me and just wait.
When I lose my mind
Would you still remind me?
When I’m feeling lost
Would you come and find me?
This human’s presence in my life has been the single biggest supply of near Xanax zen to my parasympathetic nervous system. It’s hard to describe. I did a lot of work to be ok in myself. By myself. To be enough for myself. To not need someone else. And I finally got there some time just before Christmas this past year. It was hard fought, through a lot of anxiety, and even an uncharacteristic bout of depression. And two months later, completely on accident, this human stumbled into my life and turned it upside down again.
You see, I thought I’d come through. I thought I’d healed. And so, when this human turned up 11 months after I pulled the plug on my marriage, I thought, “well…it’s not exactly the timing I would have wanted, but how dumb would it be to pass up the love of my life because of an arbitrary amount of time I’m supposed to spend doing penance for my previous marital failures?”
After the first weekend together, my anxiety levels plummeted. For no real reason other than the effect this person has on me. Because somehow everything seems more manageable with them. Because they make me happy through and through.
But more than just happiness and love, for the first time ever, I feel my fiercest, my strongest, my queerest, most my self AND I feel like that is not merely accepted by my partner (or worse, barely tolerated, as it used to be), but that all those things that make me the most loud, the most raucous, the most rebellious, the most feminist killjoy, the most ME are exactly what this person loves about me.
They don’t want to contain me. They don’t ask me to be smaller, or to deny myself anything, or to make sacrifices. They want me to be free, and fulfilled. I am a better me with this person. More me. If it’s possible to be more ME. (Because ME is already a lot, tbh.)
So the album’s final song, “Thank You,” hits this note of deep appreciation for this new human (new to me — not a new-made human of course) that does all these new things for me that I’m *so* not used to: loves me deeply and expresses it, takes care of me, washes my hair for me, crawls into closets with me, listens to *every* feminist rant, supports the extravagant purchasing of red doc martens (because “how could you not? they’re so you!”), won’t let me go in the mornings, heaves a great sigh every night when I fall into their arms, twerks for me, makes me laugh, holds me when I cry, and calms me down.
I suddenly understand the depths of how intensely sad my marriage was, because of all the things that weren’t ever a part of the equation for us.
The bar was so low that, yes, I was really, really easily impressed by the basic human decency. But this partner is hardly basic, and “decent” doesn’t even begin to cover the goodness of this human — which I could literally write a book about. And maybe I will.
But the real thing here, is that I deserved better. And I’ve somehow found someone so beyond better that I have begun to rethink my staunch atheism. Like maybe “fate” is a thing. Or cosmic vibrations.
No one knows how to love me like you do. I could bring a dream to life all because of you.
And for the first time, London doesn’t feel better than what I’m escaping. It feels far. And the weeks feel long. And though this feeling of missing someone is new to me — and miserable! — in it is also joy. Joy in being me. I’m the shit. And joy in being us.
Because for the first time in my life, I feel at home.