09 June 2010

Teenage Seagulls

Earlier, I remembered when I was in high school and went to see the movie Higher Learning (I keep slipping up and thinking High Art). I remember not very much about the movie, except it was the early 90s and the movie was meant to be a very consciously multicultural snapshot of a first year at college. You had the na├»ve white female student, and the black male ambiguously “angry” student, and white artist dude, and so on. Somewhere in there was a lesbian subplot, which I think I somehow knew about before, though maybe all I knew was that Liz Phair had a song on the soundtrack, and it was a time when I was very, very much a fan. I saw the movie at the Tenplex in Paramus, I think with Kristen, and when I think about it this seems strange to me, as I don’t remember that we were close enough friends that we would go to movies just the two of us. Maybe I’m remembering wrong. Part way through the movie the lesbo kiss happened and of course this moment was going to be so important to me, so privately so, not just the moment but the lead-up to it, and then in the lead-up, or maybe it was in the moment of, this group of kids sitting behind me got rowdy (I didn’t know them), yelled “Oooh, gross, nasty,” predictable and relatively mild epithets. I was enraged. I turned around and said something. What did I say to them? Did I actually turn around and say something?

I wrote an editorial in my school paper. What was it about? I started writing this to tell this story and now I realize that the specifics have all emptied out. I hadn’t written for the school paper before. Had I? The editorial was about outrage, it was about injustice. It questioned why homophobia was publicly acceptable. The article was not about me. I wasn’t out at all in high school, and, in my mind, writing this article did nothing to implicate me, personally, in what had happened or my feelings about it. The article was about an issue, one that had made me angry, as I felt it should make other people angry. It was not about me.

I think about this incident and my memory fails me. It fails because there was already an act of willful forgetting involved in it, a denial of myself, as if my action of writing about my outrage at the other teenagers’ homophobia could, in the act of being public, be made separate from me, my physical self that I carried through the halls every day, of a school small enough that I was known by most people, and where no one said the word “gay” unless derisively, or else hesitantly, about someone somewhere else. The article was a refusal to acknowledge the real source of my reaction in the theater. I was not outraged, but ashamed—of my body that had sat in that movie theater so privately eager and then made to feel shame for wanting it so much.

Sometime after I saw the movie I got the soundtrack and listened to “Don’t Have Time,” the Liz Phair song, over and over. The lyrics are vivid and obtuse, and the sound is pure ambivalence. The song starts out ambling, deceptively carefree—“There’s a little bridge now”—a possible escape, an opening, but she’s singing in a key too low for her, as she often did, so the last words in the lines get swallowed. She’s cynical, and self-consciously so: “If I could solve your problems/ what do you think I would be/ one stupid seagull picking Styrofoam up out of the sea.” The song pauses, then comes back in with more drums, a quicker tempo. She’s repeating the first verse and it could sound celebratory, but the celebration rings false, she’s rushing the words now and puts even less feeling behind them. The guitars shimmer in the refrain (I don’t think it’s a chorus) but her voice is pissed-off, boredly, “Don’t have time” for your problems. Why do I feel as if she’s talking not only to the “you,” but also to herself ? The verse-melody returns and now the bass plays high up on the neck, buzzing, and there’s a flip-off in the bounce of that bass, we’re in a boat bouncing on a tiny lake, nauseous with waves. “Don’t remember feeling older any worse than feeling wooden and alone.” Syntactically, the line makes little sense, but I knew what she meant with that line, trapped there in the small, shitty boat of the song. You thought you would feel better when you got older, and now look at you, older, wooden and alone. The song ends with nearly a minute of layered sound: crooned, dreamy melody low in the mix, guitar chord continually resolving and unresolving itself, shards of distortion that begin as an accent but sharpen, come forward. There’s a vision of something easier and an impatient itching to get there. By the end of the song the static has shaped itself into the cry of seagulls, taunting the people stuck on the ground, and taunting themselves for needing them.