I’m Never Gonna Dance Again: A Love Letter to George Michael

I still remember the first time I saw him. It was by the pool. It was the early eighties, and his tiny white Speedo told me everything about him that I needed to know. He was hip, shared my taste for laid-back, sporty summer fun, and he knew how to make his Coppertone-tanned body speak the language of youthful cool. He was George Michael in Wham!’s “Club Tropicana” video; I was seven and he was. my. man.

The sensual weight of his masculine thigh emerging from his swimsuit awakened something in me. I remember the shadow of soft-looking hair on his honeyed skin and the way his leg muscles rhythmically jiggled as he tapped his foot along to the song’s beat, “fun and sunshine—there’s enough for everyone.” I wasn’t the only one that noticed that there was something different and special about Wham! right out of the gate. That something was George Michael, and he was lusciously, meltingly sexy…to me, to his ostensible commercial target audience of pop listeners, and to gay men. He was certainly my first sexual crush, but his dimples and his playfulness somehow made him more than just sexy; he was achingly loveable too.

This combination of sexy and safe, the PG-13 sweet spot for teenage fandom is what band managers have been trying to get right since the sixties. If you want details, P. David Marshall offers an incisive analysis of this cultural phenomenon in Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture (1997). Over the years we’ve seen this recipe play out again and again through boy bands like The Monkees, Menudo, New Kids on the Block, Boyz II Men, and the Backstreet Boys. But George Michael so thoroughly exceeded this musical category that even to my elementary-school self, the mention of these comparisons seemed insultingly dissonant.

Looking back, something I found deeply appealing (that I wouldn’t be able to articulate for a few more years) was that Wham! videos, and later, Michael’s first solo album, told us that it was ok to like sex, to feel sexy, and to enjoy looking at the bodies of beautiful men. Men! …As in, not just women! This was revolutionary in the early years of music videos and MTV. In the eighties we were inundated with images of the sexual woman-as-object, the dehumanized woman, the woman as animal/mannequin/prisoner/toy. Just start with Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible” video and see how many others you can count that fit within this trope in under a minute. I’ll throw in some dry ice and shadows and light playing on vertical blinds to help you get going. But when you watch Michael’s videos from the “Make it Big” andFaith” albums, what you get is a pretty seductive inversion of what Laura Mulvey famously called “the male gaze” in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” (1975). In other words, instead of looking through a man’s eyes at the objectified bodies of women, George Michael’s videos let kid-me look through eyes like my own, eyes that found both erotic and romantic delight in every inch of the singer’s face and body. He allowed himself to be an actively-engaged male sex object, happily participating in the coy seduction, offering us the dark allure of his eyes and the ripples of his sleek chest during the Wham! years, and then replacing those with the denim-clad ass-shake of the “Faith” album. I guess the burgeoning feminist in me found this sex-positive objectification of Michael totally thrilling, and what’s more—it allowed me to imagine a future where my own sexual pleasure wouldn’t depend on how I looked in a neon string bikini. In Michael’s videos, women’s bodies just didn’t matter that much, they were much less interesting and received far less airtime than every inch of his own gorgeousness.

Of course, savvy fans already hear the strain of irony in these claims, since Michael’s later solo career was marked by his attempts to undo the iconic sex symbol status he had earned for himself. Setting his “Faith” jacket ablaze in the video for “Freedom ’90” and turning the camera away from him and onto the strutting bodies of supermodels seemed to rebelliously invert the inversion he had accomplished earlier. Moreover, once his LA bathroom indiscretion led him to publicly come out as gay, the complicated roles of women as love-objects in his songs and videos took on new layers of meaning for fans that hadn’t already read between the lines.

But, to me, none of it mattered. I had already spent a whole childhood’s worth of incipient sexuality lusting for one man, with more than a handful of personal milestones matched to the sound of his voice. In the bedroom of my friend’s cool big sister, I learned about what was “in” and played My Little Pony to the tune of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” As part of my fifth grade elementary-school graduation, my friends and I performed our own choreography to “I Want Your Sex.” (God knows what my teachers made of that performance. Perhaps the benign neglect of the public school system worked in my favor in this instance.) In high school my summer camp’s theme song was a Mad-Libs style anthem re-written to the tune of “Faith,” and as a senior I wielded my class status by forcing everyone else in our lounge to listen to “Freedom ’90” on repeat. Years later, in my mid-twenties I recall experiencing a feeling that, at the time, I believed was the closest thing I had ever felt to the sublime. I was driving across the country taking my life and my stuff to grad school and on a pastoral winding hillside in Wyoming, I found myself belting along to the entire “Make it Big” album while the man I loved at the time slept in the passenger seat next to me. I remember the feeling cresting like a wave in my chest that life may never get any more perfect than what I had experienced during that singular album-long moment of crystalized joy.

Memories like these also have helped me understand that although my love affair with George Michael may have begun as a purely sexual one, it was able to grow into something much deeper because of his incredible talents as a lyricist and composer. Michael’s ballads, like “Father Figure,” “One More Try” and “Careless Whisper” live in the ghostworld of haunting regret. He brings an irresistible pop sensibility to the repetitive spiral of raw longing that defines many of our early experiences of love and loss. Combined with the intimate appeal of his tremendous emotional aptitude, was the fact that this sexy-as-hell man seemed to be in the throes of a breakup with someone that the lyrics allowed me to imagine each time as an intelligent and complicated woman. “If you are the desert/ I’ll be the sea/ If you ever hunger/ Hunger for me/ Whatever you ask for/That’s what I’ll be” he desperately croons to the lover who wants a “Father Figure.” Then, in “One More Try” the roles are reversed and Michael, himself, goes from being the father to the child. “So you think that you love me/ Know that you need me/ I wrote the song/ I know it’s wrong/ Just let me go/ And teacher/ There are things/ That I don’t want to learn/ And the last one I had/ Made me cry/ So I don’t want to learn to/ Hold you, touch you/ Think that you’re mine.” My heteronormative teen projections allowed me to consistently picture Michael singing to a woman…maybe some more beautiful, complex version of the woman that I hoped to become, but still, a woman that he seemed to respect and care for deeply. For me these were entanglements worth aspiring to.  

Equal and opposite to Michael’s ballads were his playfully upbeat pleasure anthems. Combining openly unchaste lyrics with a kind of puppy-dog tenderness, Michael’s songs always seemed to have coy winks and sloppy licks folded into them—part camp and part youthful bravado. “I’m Your Man,” now a viral sensation from Michael’s groundbreaking car karaoke session with James Corden, woos listeners by insistently bopping into our hearts, “Baby, I’m your man/ You bet!/ If you’re gonna do it, do it right, right?/ Do it with me.” There’s a similar kind of goofy romantic inevitability that courses through “Freedom” from the “Make it Big” album: “But you know that I’ll forgive you/ Just this once twice forever/ ‘Cause baby, you could drag me to hell and back/ Just as long as we’re together/ And you do[…]/I don’t want your freedom/ Girl, all I want right now is you.” Listening to George Michael’s up-tempo hits gave me a new way to imagine adult relationships. It was a way I’d rarely seen represented in other types of pop culture, but it validated my existence as a thinking female person with real emotional and sexual needs. Michael didn’t sing to vapid babes. He sung—happily and eagerly—to women who had rich interior lives and things to teach him. Letting myself fall into the dreamworld of his songs always made me feel like he was mine, like we were a pair of old lovers, messily, irrevocably destined to drive each other nuts with our cuteness forever.

Now in the dark and terrifying early days of 2017, I’m feeling bereft, not only because last Christmas really was the “Last Christmas” for me to enjoy Michael’s perfect twinkling heartbreak wonderland in a pure way, but because we lost one more pop pioneer of gender-bending sexual freedom and queerness in a year when the departures of Bowie and Prince were already too devastating. I’ll keep George Michael and his soulful gravitas with me this year as I seek strength to fight the battles that too certainly lie ahead, but I hope I’ll also find occasions to dance again in that fiercely hopeful and defiantly sexy way that George Michael taught me.

Love always,

Emily

Dear Disturbed: A love letter I never thought I’d write

Let me start this love letter off with a couple things I dislike. Isn’t that how all good love letters start? Romance is lost on me.

Anyway, things I don’t like: most remakes and covers. I especially hate the ones that take themselves too seriously. Like, “Oh, look, I can make this song even better than the original because I am just that good!” No. You aren’t, you can’t, and stop trying. Unless you’re Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash. A girl’s gotta have some exceptions after all. Other things I dislike: most heavy metal. Like any other genre, there are some songs I can listen to, and even like, and I can appreciate it purely from an artistic standpoint, but it is just not my thing at all.

This is a terrible love letter. It gets better, I promise.

So when I heard that you, Disturbed, a heavy metal band, had done a remake of the Simon and Garfunkel classic “The Sound of Silence,” I was intrigued and highly (and I do emphasize highly) skeptical. How does a metal band remake a classic folk rock song that’s already damn near perfect? Seems like rock and roll suicide to me. A recipe for disaster. A direct route to alienating your fans.

You see, Simon and Garfunkel is one of my favorite bands. I grew up listening to their records (owned by my parents because I’m not that old) on repeat. There are all kinds of memories twisted up in those songs. And “Sound of Silence,” of course, is an old favorite. This love letter could be to S&G. But it’s not.

I should probably get to the actual love part of this, so having said all that, I’ll just say your version of this song is kind of mind-blowing. I love when I go into something a total skeptic and come out a believer. This song reminds me that no matter the genre, amazing talent and musicianship will always transcend everything. I won’t say it’s an improvement over the original, because I think that’s an impossible achievement, but your interpretation of the song and the way you portray the lyrics made me look at the song in a new light. And that is no easy feat, considering the hundreds of times I’ve listened to this song through the years.

I have to say one of my favorite things about music is when bands do something completely unexpected and completely blow away my expectations. Like when a metal band suddenly gets vulnerable and shows a depth and range we’re not used to seeing. And that’s exactly what this song does. It’s a complete surprise. A thing that theoretically shouldn’t work but totally does on all levels. A rare and bona fide success in today’s music industry.

Going out of your comfort zone and taking a chance on something new and different is never an easy thing, no matter who you are. But when you do and something amazing and beautiful comes out of it, it all becomes worth it. It’s really a life lesson that so many are afraid to learn. As musicians, it’s hard thing to do. As fans, it’s a hard thing to do. As people just trying to live, it’s a hard thing to do.

So thank you, David Draiman and company, for the reminder that some risks are worth taking. Thank you for the reminder that not everything is always exactly as it seems – in the best way possible. Thank you for creating beautiful, thought-provoking music. I hope you win that Grammy.

Good luck!

Kellie

Dear Phil,

I wanted to tell you that I was watching the TV program Sunday Morning back in November and I saw you. I don’t just mean that I watched the interview, or that my eyes observed you on the screen while my ears listened to the Q & A. I mean I saw you. You looked…well…like someone who was not doing so good. Or, maybe like Blind Willie McTell said, “like a broke down engine…ain’t got no driving wheel.” Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean for that comparison to be read with a judgmental or cruel tone. I mean it to be read factually. I’m being straight with you Phil. You didn’t look good and the things you said about your issues with your family and your struggles with sobriety didn’t sound good. Again, no judgement. What I’m trying to get at here is that I’m worried about you. And, that you made me sad.

I first became aware of you in late elementary school or early middle school. Why? Because your songs were EVERYWHERE. In the drugstore when I was shopping for glittery nail polish there you were with your horns blasting “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven.” When I was walking through the mall with a friend going to buy Egyptian Goddess incense from this (now that I reflect back on it) strange centrally located head shop/kiosk again it’s you, belting out “You Can’t Hurry Love” with that sick sick early 80s production. At home, playing Kirby’s Adventure (muted) on my Nintendo Entertainment System after a grueling day in middle school while simultaneously listening to the local soft rock radio station “Another Day in Paradise” is played regularly. And finally, the place where I felt as though I always heard your music the most; at the dentist office. Leaving school for the afternoon, sitting on a scratchy blue pastel chair, reading a People magazine, thinking about what color toothbrush I will select after my appointment ends and “One More Night” is worming its way through my earholes. I’m going to be honest with you Phil, because I like you and I feel you deserve honesty. For a long time I categorized your music as “Dentist Office Music.” I labeled it that in my head and also out loud when talking to other people. I was dismissive towards “Dentist Office Music.” I thought it was light, lame and for adults in the midst of mid-life crises.

Ah! But then…later in life…something began to shift. During my college years I had a long distance relationship with someone who was into music and film and there were certain guilty pleasures we would share together such as listening to Meatloaf albums and listening to you. They were considered guilty pleasures for both of us at the time because we were both very into punk music and going to see local bands play small/intimate/wild shows and certainly could never, would never, should never relate to “Dentist Office Music.” I remember driving from Philadelphia to Coney Island on a summer day trip with “Sussudio” blasting via the Hits compilation on compact disc and then on the way home singing along at the top of our lungs to “Easy Lover.” You were good to us Phil, even though we looked down on you. Forgive us for that. We were young.

So here’s how it happened, a couple of years ago, I reached my 30’s and suddenly things clicked. Your music made complete sense to me. I got it. I get it. Life can be really hard. “One More Night”…geez…did you poke your finger through the flesh and bone covering your chest so that you could dip it into the blood in your heart and then use it to write that song? Let the young punks reading this letter laugh at me, “Phil Collins, that guy’s cheesy.” Someday as their lives shift and shrink and crack just like the asphalt does on roads in locations subjected a full range of seasons, temperatures, and weather conditions year after year, I suspect it will become more and more difficult to point the finger and call your music “cheesy.”

I think what I love about you the most is your desperation. You can be so very desperate and I love that you aren’t afraid to expose yourself in that way. Like when you recorded the lyrics to “I Wish it Would Rain Down,” was there anyone else in the studio with you? Because you are basically screaming, desperately screaming, and I wonder how you would do that with other people around. Thank you for sharing your desperation.

I’m also concerned that because of how prolific and popular you are/were that people don’t see you as a legitimate artist. This concerns me. I think part of the problem is that you’re a balding white guy who looks like he would be more at home on a bar stool in someone’s local pub as opposed to a completely badass drummer who is responsible for the beat on “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

“In the Air Tonight” is one of those songs that has been so unfortunately overplayed that I think we all forget how amazing it truly is. I see you Phil. You are an artist.

I’m sorry that I know literally nothing about early Genesis. Zilch, zero, nada. Maybe the glories of that band and your contributions to it will reveal themselves to me in the future? Anyway, please excuse my ignorance. I can’t claim to be an expert in your musical career and contributions because, to be honest, they are too vast. I can tell you that for the past week I’ve been trying to convince my husband that maybe it’s you playing drums on Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch” and he keeps reminding me that both of you were in Genesis and that maybe you both like drums to sound that way. My response to him has been “doesn’t that make you wonder where the one ends and the other begins?” Can you explain that to me Phil? Did you both get into gated drums at the same time? I honestly do want to know.

In summary, please consider the following:

  1. I appreciate what you’ve created.
  2. I’m sorry that you were so successful that people grew tired of you. It’s a shame how humans have a tendency to allow and want for artists to work their fingers to the bone and pour out their souls repeatedly only to eventually say “Eh. I’m sick of that.”
  3. I think it’s worth a shot to try to work things out with your family.
  4. You’ve created something that so many people love and can relate to. Other artists do this, but you’re really good at it. Take time to appreciate that if you haven’t already.

Don’t give up. I’m rooting for you.

April

Dear Anohni,

This is a love letter to you, to thank you. It’s a love letter about November 9th, 2016. It’s about how you helped me. How I felt desperate.

Before the election, I first heard the album a few weeks before the election. Hopelessness immediately took me out of my skin and carried me to some beautiful dark rocky cave where I can hear water dripping and I have amethysts for eyes. Nothing has moved me like that in a long time.  I was nestled in the back of a van, driving around a foreign country. The song “Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth” is, to me, just like (just like!) an Anselm Kiefer painting called Sternenfall (Falling Stars). He lies bare-chested on a cracked earth floor, looking up at the night sky. The album as a whole reminded me of that Kiefer show, Heaven and Earth. I wrapped myself in the album, I kept trying to convey to others that they should listen to it. Hopelessness is like falling in love with someone else’s broken heart.

[Then, something happened. Something happened inside of me but  mainly outside and to other people much more vulnerable than I. I was in an empty bar on election night with my only friend in this new city, in Millie’s Supper Club in Chicago, IL. Just me, the bartender, the chef, and me and my only friend. We thought it would be called early, we thought it would be done. But one by one, things changed, and then I had to get out, I couldn’t see it called. I biked through Chicago, nearly got blown off my bicycle by the wind for my first time. I was like a drunkard whose homing beacon had gone off, I couldn’t think about anything but getting home before the election was called. I thought, he doesn’t deserve to have me as an audience, I shouldn’t have to watch this. But truly it felt like self-abuse to choose to watch it happen. Home, I played Pixies album Bossanova loudly on the record player, while playing Buffy the Vampire Slayer loudly on my laptop, took two sleeping pills, and tried to be unconscious before knowing. before knowing, I wanted to be unconscious. I didn’t make it. I knew. of course.]

I woke up and reached for you. Thank you for being there. Hopelessness became something so large, I still felt like I was in a stone chamber with you, but I also felt like I was doing a dead float out in the middle of a cold salty ocean. I was too sad, too shut down, to accommodate anyone else’s reaction. I couldn’t abide other humans, but you came for me.

I thought it was “expose” but it’s “explode” that’s so hard, Anohni, everything is so hard. So much harder than I thought it would be.

“I have a glint in my eye, I think I wanna die… I wanna die.” I’m sure you’ve spent your whole life listening to people talk about the peculiarities of your voice and how you move people.   

I don’t know how to be strong enough for this. I don’t know how to make my grief productive. I know that I have to and that I will.

“I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil.” This was when I realized something terribly different was happening to me from this album, it was vital that I be hooked up to it all day. It protected me, it was an ice float in the scariest few hours. Alone and sleeping on the floor of a new apartment that had cockroaches everywhere. In the morning light, you carried me. You didn’t force me to feel less numb than I did. You slowly opened me up though. You invited me into your heart and into the world.

I walked for miles, and then I rode a bicycle for miles and miles more. Up and down Lake Michigan, I biked and listened to Hopelessness. You gave me a place where I was allowed to be numb, I didn’t have to shout and scream, I could barely open my eyes let alone my mouth. You washed over me and I fell in love with you again. I fell in love again with your broken heart, you let me love my own broken heart.

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“Watch Me” – this is one of the most confusing tracks on the album, I cried for my own daddy. I cried for the childlike wonder of a day that didn’t yet know how terrible it really was.

I have a line of pimples and red raw skin under my nose because I’ve been crying too much. I wish it were colder, to freeze it into a snot mustache. Unfortunately, the day is excruciatingly beautiful and mild.

Why is the music in “Execution” like that? Why do you sing the words “It’s an American dream” like that? Why are you so creepy and sad and also make me laugh a little at how you sort of yelp it out like you’re dancing with you’re shoulders moving up and down.

I couldn’t offer comfort to anyone. I could only look around dead-eyed. I clung to you. Your music was the thing I held onto when I couldn’t feel anything, and also what is carrying me forward today as my heart slowly fills up with unstoppable rage and love. How did you make music for both.

Slowly, moving around this strange new city, I felt your music reaching across Lake Michigan, I started to remember some things. The first thing I remembered is that I have the biggest love, bigger and luckier than I ever thought I could have. We are strong. I can change my life, and I must, to respond to what’s happened. There are so many people who already live in a constant state of emergency in our country, now I am joining them in their fight.

There are so many for whom this election is not a wake up call, because they were already awake. And fuck anyone who writes that thinkpiece today. I’m ashamed at what I did not know. I’m so sorry.  

When “Obama” comes on, I suddenly remember how I heard this album yesterday, the days and weeks before, I think of Anselm Kiefer again. I think of the NSA, I think of the fear that surrounds us, the terrifying and wrenching complacency. I think about taking sleeping pills again.

Trauma. Trauma. I’m so afraid of what’s being unleashed. I have small white points of anger. I’m especially angry at these Slavoj-Zizek-bulshitters theorizing the broken system and arguing that Clinton is a more dangerous candidate than Trump. These people who’ve never had a vulnerable body, a vulnerable status as a citizen. These monsters. (me).

“Crisis” is so maternal, explaining with patience that is beyond me, wit that call-to-arms tippity tap drumbeat. Oh, Anohni. I’M SORRY. is it a marching beat, or are they little gears.

All day is like this. I try to feel some more again, I try to reach out. But I can’t. I can’t access my anger and my love, I can only feel afraid and a kind of animal mourning wracking my body. The album is not a triumphant path upwards and onwards, it’s a maelstrom, but somehow, you do carry me up and out of myself.

From “Hopelessness” to “Marrow” you made me feel something…

“We are, we are all Americans now.” the saddest line of all, just as I start to feel, if not hopeful, just able to feel a bit more. It’s the end of the day now, or the end of the daylight. I take off my shoes and I’m standing with my feet in the cold lake water, on one of those very small beaches where the sand is really pebbles and seaglass. We are, we are all Americans now. I press the button to start the album again.

Thank you for sharing your heart, it couldn’t have been easy. For helping me hold my anger, and the anger of others. I will change my life. And I swear I will fucking kill anything that tries to obstruct our way forward. Okay, I’m starting to be able to feel anger again. You made this beautiful world for me to hide in today, but what I’d hoped would be my own shallow grave turned out to be a system of subterranean tunnels, this album you made… You gave me space for fear and cowering, and you showed me how to stand up with a hole in my heart.

Rosemarie

Dear Karen O,

I used to want to be you. I got close one night in 2004.

My favorite quote is, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” As a teen, I was pretty content being who I usually was: a reserved, well-behaved, shy girl with an occasional wild streak. Other than a cigarette here and there, the shoplifted Wet n Wild glitter nail polish, and that time I hung out of my boyfriend’s mom’s SUV and flashed a guy at a stop light, I was pretty tame. I spent a lot of time alone on Saturday nights writing poems and listening to U2. I did my homework on time. I got a college scholarship. I saved my money.

Then I heard the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell.

Those previous acts were of a curious teenage girl testing limits. But as a college freshmen, that Yeah Yeah Yeahs album took me deeper than simply shocking the suburbs.

The album sounds like what you sweep up after a really good house party—bottle caps, dried cheese cubes, a gob of chip dip, dust bunnies, and a surprising amount of glitter and thumbtacks. You let the dirt pile slip off the dustpan into the overloaded trash can. Then, you realize that you missed a whole section of glitter thumbtack dirt on the kitchen floor. But you let it go because it’s oddly beautiful and you’ve got better things to do, like write a poem.

Fever to Tell boasts fun-drunk yet composed songs arranged in such an order like they’ve grabbed you by the heart and dumped you next to them in a roller coaster car. Right out of the gate is a cluster of minute-and-a-half to three-minute songs that don’t need Adderall to have a good time. Song two, “Date with the Night,” defines how my friends and I spent many hazy nights.

You’re already losing your mind by song four, “Tick” (the way you screech “T- T- T- TIME!!!!!!”!). Your playful chorus on “Pin” is offset by the deceptively demure Nick Zinner’s fuzzy guitar filling in the few blanks between Brian Chase’s speedy beats. “Cold Night” told me that it wasn’t weird or wrong to straight up tell a dude that I wanted to have sex with him. Or maybe it was weird and wrong. Well, Karen O, I wanted to be wrong with you.

By “No No No” the ride starts to hug sharp turns low to the ground. During “Maps” we’re slow dancing. The lights come on with “Y Control.” We’re lulling ourselves to sleep with the mixed feelings and hard reflections of “Modern Romance.” We think we’re dreaming when we hear the sober words on the hidden track. “And, cool kids, they belong together.”

“Modern Romance” is perhaps my favorite Yeah Yeah Yeahs song for the reason I admire you, Karen. I like when pieces of art and people are layered and dynamic. You’re an example of the vastness of a woman. You’re someone I wanted to be like when I was 20 years old.

When I bought a ticket to your February 2004 Cleveland show, I really hoped that you would do “Art Star.” On that sticky and sharp, spit-in-a-stuffy-old-man-face track, your voice is perfect. Slightly off key at the just right moments, sour-sweet yet strong, sensationally gritty when you scream, hilariously adorable when you mutter, “It’s a mad house.” I scribbled, “I’ve been screwing on the tracks of abandoned train stations” inside my dorm room closet. Your persona on that EP to me was the goddess Kali breathing fire on my old idol, Bono.

And the show was awesome, of course. Your pure joy was invigorating and dazzling. You giggled, you growled, you sweat, and got bruises. You went hands-free with the mic by shoving it in your mouth. You were off the wall. And, I loved every ounce of it as I jumped, bobbed, and screamed along with you.

By this time, too, I had traded in the late-90s look of low-waisted, boot cut jeans and crop tops for the post-post-punk, artsy New York City wardrobe I saw you wear in Spin. I had my thrifted red and black striped top, a tight mini skirt, drug store pantyhose I cut into capri leggings, and filthy Chuck Taylor high tops. And lots of red lipstick.

After that show, my friends and I tried to meet you by your tour bus. There was a boy there who wanted to apologize to you for freezing and forgetting the words to “Maps” when you directed your mic at him. He told us he was so embarrassed. But, we assured him it was all good, that you probably didn’t notice, that we were all just having a good time. Rock stars are usually considered cool in a way that you’re not supposed to do something embarrassing in front of them, or in a way that means they’re the opposite of square, that they don’t stay in on Saturday nights.

Personally, I still felt a little stupid milling around your bus. What was I actually going to say? What could I do in front of a person who I was trying to emulate?

I talked my friends into leaving. But, I really wanted to live the Karen O lifestyle, whatever that meant at that very moment. I reapplied my goopy, red liquid lipstick and pinned a big sloppy smooch on the grill of your tour bus. I have no clue if this is actually something you’d really do. It was totally something I would do.

I returned home from that show to learn that I didn’t get the summer job I recently interviewed for. I had no income in the near future. I just spent a bunch of money on snacks, gas, and tickets for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs show. Oops.

I brushed off the job rejection and probably wrote some poems. Maybe I listened to “Art Star” or Fever to Tell from start to finish. Maybe I partied that night after working on a final paper due for Monday morning’s class. But, I never became you. I became more of myself.

Angela

Dear Morrissey,

I love Your Arsenal.

I like to think I was raised by three things: a mom, a dad and MTV. My parents’ care shaped my character, while channel 14 on our cable box fostered my then-burgeoning lifelong love of music. For much of 1992, my version of an after school special was “Hangin’ with MTV,” a live program that invited artists into the studio to perform and take questions from the audience.

One Thursday afternoon, the show began with a quintet of retro-looking rockers playing a tune in which the singer sang affectionately to a girl he called “Fatty.” I thought, “How wacky is that? He loves her and is calling her such a name?” It was just the sort of slightly off-kilter thing that has always appealed to me in artistic expression.

The rest of the band, all as well-groomed and handsome in a 1950’s kind of way as their vocalist, played coolly behind him. After a commercial break, VJ John Norris introduced this man as Morrissey and explained that he’d be back later to play another song from Your Arsenal At that moment, my main priority in life became owning that album.

“This isn’t one of those bad tapes, is it?” my mom asked. The cassette I’d just pulled from the wall in my local mall’s music store featured a fuzzy sepia-toned image of a man, taut torso exposed, licking his one hand and positioning a microphone near his crotch with the other.

“No, see, it doesn’t have a Parental Advisory sticker on it,” I answered, my 13-year-old mind totally oblivious to the sexual innuendos oozing from the album cover. Even the title was aahemcheeky double entendre. All I saw was this cool, well-coiffed, and mononymous man, Morrissey, who mesmerised me for the first time only days before.

“Hmm, okay. Well, it’s your money,” my mom said. Still slightly suspect, she walked with me to the cash register, where I proudly purchased what I just knew was going to be my new favorite tape.

I don’t remember exactly what happened after that, but I assume that as soon as I got home from the mall, I went directly to my room, popped the tape into my boombox, and listened to it from start to finish. It’s just one of those albums whose songs are so expertly sequenced that they lead you along like a story. Two tough-edged tunes, the driving and surf-like “You’re Gonna Need Someone on Your Side” and the swaggering, “Jean Genie”-esque “Glamourous Glue” kick off the album, which veers down a rockabilly back road with “Certain People I Know” somewhere in the middle, descends into the marvelously mopey “Seasick, Yet Still Docked” and the melodramatic, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”-esque “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” and finally resolves with the skeptically hopeful “Tomorrow.”

Overall it’s an album that perfectly melds grittiness with glamor. The toughness of the new backing band, which had been recruited from the London Rockabilly scene, and the sonically muscular production from Mick Ronson (no duh where the Bowie inspo came from!), are balanced beautifully by Morrissey’s fay Britishness.

And it did indeed become a favorite from that day, so much so that I’ve now purchased it in three different formats over the years: cassette tape, CD, and vinyl. It’s never missed any all-time favorite records list I’ve made, and it even influences my own musical output to this day.

So, Your Arsenal, for all the aural pleasure you’ve given me, I “thank you from the heart of my bottom.”

Richard

To those of you who are unfamiliar with the Old 97’s:

My friend John introduced me to the Old 97’s several years ago during a summer we all dubbed “The Summer of Rock Music,” although really our traipsing around to every show we possibly could lasted well into the fall and possibly winter of that year and into the following year.

The Old 97’s are one of those bands that I will always regret not having in my life sooner. There’s other bands and singers I could have written about here with whom I have been acquainted with for much longer, have been a part of my formative years, been with me through several physical and metaphorical journeys and blah blah blah, but sometimes a band just hits you at the right place at the right moment and effortlessly inserts itself into the soundtrack of your life. And that’s what the Old 97’s did for me. The truth is my years in San Antonio are some of the best years of my life, and the Old 97’s will always transport me back to hot summer nights in dusty dance halls, drinking Shiner and rocking out to some amazing live music. They provided the background music to my life in Texas.

I hadn’t heard very much of their stuff before I went to that first show in 2011. John made me a CD he titled “The Old 97’s Crash Course,” and that was my introduction. I was instantly hooked, listening to it nonstop leading up to the show. And I fell in love from the first chord they struck onstage. They will always be one of the best live shows I’ll ever see, no matter how many more shows I live to see.

I have no idea in what genre to classify them, and I think that’s one of the best things about them. Some of the songs sound country, some sound a little punk, some a weird mix of the two that somehow always works. And their catalogue of work is so prolific, they’ve spilled over into several other genres at this point. But lead singer Rhett Miller just calls it all rock and roll like he doesn’t really give a shit what box they fit into or if they fit into any box at all. And that’s pretty cool.

I saw them several times in San Antonio before I left the state for good – saw all the things you come to expect at a good Old 97’s show: at least one proposal during “Question,” bassist Murry Hammond singing a smattering of crowd favorites, Rhett drunkenly backing up Murry on “Valentine,” the time-honored and never-failing “Timebomb” at the end of the show (after what is usually a lengthy encore), and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Rhett’s hair that just keeps getting more amazing every time I see them (seriously, what is that?).

It was everything I could ever want in a band – raw and gritty, a little jaded with just enough cynicism to make it feel real, not forced or contrived or trying to be anything it’s not. Give me a band who claims “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On” as one of their few love songs and belts out the lyric “Love is a marathon – sometimes you puke,” and I’m instantly sold. Screw all that impossible love crap. I want real, and that’s what you get with a good Old 97’s song.

The real reason I was struck with inspiration to write this love letter is that recently, after not having the opportunity to see the Old 97’s since I left Texas more than four years ago, they finally came to my neck of the woods here in Virginia a couple weeks ago. San Antonio was the last time I had the chance to be around great music, to discover new bands and go see some amazing performances. I’ve been missing and trying to get back to it ever since.

So when I saw the Old 97’s were performing in Norfolk at one of my favorite venues, there was no way I was missing it. I went by myself, because screw it, right? A friend had to bail unexpectedly, and there wasn’t anyone else I wanted to take who I thought would appreciate them the way I did, and anyone who loves music like I do knows you don’t take just anyone to see one of your favorite bands. Besides, the Old 97’s feel like old friends. We’ve got history that now crosses state lines.

From the moment they stepped onstage that night, I was transported back in time those hot summer shows in San Antonio. It was a different vibe seeing them outside their home state in a way I can’t explain except to say that they understand Texans in a way they’ll never understand Virginians, but it didn’t make it any less amazing. And it reaffirmed everything I love about their music – the energy, the in-your-face lyrics, the big ole middle finger to the man, and a subtle ode to the working man (or woman) in all of us that always feels a little Dylan-esque to me.

My only disappointment was that they couldn’t play forever. There’s no greater feeling than going to a show and never wanting the band to stop playing. It made me homesick in a way I hadn’t really fathomed I missed Texas, so maybe this is a love letter as much to Texas as it is to the Old 97’s.

So come back soon, boys. This homesick pseudo-Texan will be waiting in the front row, hoping you play a little “State of Texas” to help me miss it just a little less for a while.

Love,
Kellie

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

Valentine

Won’t Be Home

A State of Texas