Sunday, October 15, 2017

I Am Not Special & Neither Are They

The first time I ever got catcalled I was 15. It was outside a concert, by a man at least twice my age. I don't remember what he said, just the ice cold fear that swam over my body when I realized how he was looking at me. When I was in eighth grade, I read Tina Fey's memoir Bossypants. In it, she dedicates a chapter to how when women are asked when they first felt like grown women, they hearken back to their first incident of public sexual harassment. That night in February 2013, despite the fear that overcame me, for the first time in my life, I felt like a woman. Not like an adult with any autonomy or agency, but like a woman, with a woman's body, a woman's body that men would claim and comment on from that day forward.

These days, I get catcalled at least once or twice a week. Sometimes, it's benign ("hey, beautiful, give me a smile"), sometimes, it's invasive ("nice ass"), sometimes it's direct ("give me a blowjob" - once that was actually screamed at me from a car), sometimes it's just bizarre ("Girl, I wanna take you to South Florida" - yeah, that one actually happened too).

When the harassment started, I was two weeks shy of eighteen, and no boy had ever even looked at me. I was so anxious around them, so inexperienced, so insecure. I was a kid. A prime target.

He lived on my floor. I thought he was the cutest boy in the hall, but I was surrounded by cute boys in the music school, so I rarely thought of him. I heard he hooked up with another girl on our floor. He didn't seem like an option.

The first weekend of the year, two weeks after we moved in, he got stoned out of his mind at a party a bunch of us went to. On the encouragement of a fellow partygoer, he began to aggressively hit on me. We were standing in a circle of all our floor-mates, plus a few strangers, and all I could do was giggle nervously as he leaned into me, as he made comments about my body, the body I still didn't feel like I owned. I had never felt so...physical. So defined by the body that carried the code-red thoughts I was having. After a few minutes of discomfort, I literally ran away. I recognized the symptoms of the panic attacks I started having the previous year--my throat closing, the sound of my heartbeat in my ears like a kick drum, the cold sweats. After hiding on the other side of the backyard for a while, I ran into some of my other friends and slowly reintegrated into the landscape of the party.

The next night, the boy came into my dorm room with a bunch of other people (we were kind of the social room, much to my chagrin). He stayed after everybody else left so he could apologize to me.
"I didn't want to make you uncomfortable," he said.
"I was just really, really high," he said.
"But I do think you're beautiful," he said.
I choked out giggly replies, anything to get him to leave. I remember thanking him. I remember smiling because finally, at long last, a cute boy thought I was beautiful.

It wasn't over. For the next three weeks, he came into my dorm room almost every day with a flimsy excuse. He sat next to me in dining halls. He liked all my Instagram posts, including the hundreds of photos I'd posted before we'd ever met. I remember watching in amazement as my notifications updated, surprised at his boldness. He would untie and retie my shoes, tug at my clothes, play with my hair. I never asked him to stop, just froze and waited for the touch to be over. Sometimes, I think (I hope), I ducked from his hands, only for them to find their way back to me. More than once, he would make me eat or drink whatever he was eating or drinking. I would say no, and he would beg, and beg, and beg, to the point of making the other people at the table uncomfortable, and I would just giggle like an idiot and submit, eating or drinking whatever it was. During one of his many visits to my dorm, he put food directly into my mouth while I was still asking him to stop.

The symbolism was not lost on me. Every weekend, he asked me to go to parties at his frat house, and I would decline. If he didn't listen when I turned down his offer of potato chips, what would happen when something else was on the line?

So how did it ultimately stop? I tried everything. He was the king of doublespeak. He would tell me and my roommates that he "really liked me" and "just wanted to get to know me better." But he would tell his roommates and the other guys on our floor that he was just after me because I was "playing hard to get." A couple times, his roommates told him to back off, and he would reply, "no, trust me, she wants it." I cringe as I write those words.

The only thing that got him to let it go was when he stumbled on some of my tweets. I had written a thread about him, without naming him publicly:

I don't know what came over me, this digital boldness that I so clearly lacked in real life. But while we were eating in the dining hall one evening, he located the tweets and read them out loud. I tried to laugh them off as a "general feminist rant," but I could see his face fall. He knew they were about him.

And all at once, the advances stopped.

My roommates were relieved, partly for my benefit, mostly because they were probably just tired of hearing me talk about it all the time. The girls on my floor gave me daps for my #feminism. The guys on my floor told me to apologize. (??!?!) Yes, they said that our friendly antagonist was upset because "I'd hurt his feelings" and that I should say I was sorry. I recognized even then that apologizing would be absolutely insane, so I didn't. And I don't think we ever spoke again.

Last year I invited a boy up to my apartment. We'd talked all night at a party, a Halloween party where I'd spent most of the night with my shirt half-unbuttoned. I thought maybe he just wanted to keep talking. He didn't.

"Is this gonna happen, or...?" he asked.

"Um," was all I could say.

"I mean...it's 3 a.m.," he said. "And you're wearing...that."

I blamed myself. You did a shot, he could see your bra, you touched his arm like a video vixen, you invited him up to your apartment, what did you think was gonna happen? The panic rose again, the cold sweat, the heartbeat rhythm section, the tightening spiral of my throat.

"We could go to the bed," he said (ew). "Or...I could leave."

"You should leave," I said.

And he did.

He told me he'd text me.

He didn't.

I tell these long-winded stories to express solidarity with all the women harassed and assaulted by Harvey Weinstein and other serial predators like him. But maybe even more importantly, I want to reach out to girls harassed and assaulted by trusted authority figures, by friends, by family. The guys in these story are not special or unique. They are devastatingly average college guys who did a devastatingly average thing. People, but men especially, are so quick to say that rapists and other sexual predators are shocking or rare. But they're just not. I am lucky that nothing serious happened to me. These guys thought I was too much work and gave up. Had they been more determined, our stories might have had different endings.

If you have ever been harassed or assaulted, you are not aloneWe believe you. No matter where your story falls on the spectrum, it's not your fault, and it's not okay. I didn't owe that guy an apology. If you spoke out or fought back, you don't owe them an apology either.

If we allow harassment--if we condone the behavior of people who don't listen when we say no--we allow assault. Rape culture is built on the backs of the stories that don't merit expulsion from the Academy, the slippery slope of "it was just a joke" and "why are you being so sensitive" and "it could have been worse." That's why I'm writing this. Because I didn't get assaulted. Because I have stared the monster in the face. Because I felt its breath on my face. Because I didn't know what it looked like, walked by it on the street, said thank you when it flashed its teeth, let it get close, struggled to get away even when I didn't.

You are not alone. It's not okay. It's not your fault. We believe you.

#MeToo

Monday, October 2, 2017

False Alarm Symphony of Classical Conditioning

It's around 12:30pm on the first Monday in October and I'm sitting front-row in the psych lab I seriously considered skipping, and after a weekend of staying out too late both nights, I am taking a sorely needed day of vocal rest--not even the 9-hour sleep I got last night is going to save me--and I'm checking my email, I've got one from The New Yorker, because I am liberal swine, and they've hand-delivered me a series of articles on the Las Vegas shooting from last night, plus a handful of others on gun violence and terrorism the Trumpian response thereto, and I'm half-reading those while I half-pay attention to a lecture on classical conditioning that began with a Simpsonian preamble in which Lisa pits Bart against a hamster in an Olympic relay of conditioned tasks, and I scribble down phrases like unconditioned stimulus and conditioned response, and my TA puts us into groups and I frantically sign-language that I am without speech for the day, which my partner doesn't mind, she'll talk for both of us, and eventually the class has settled into that din of group work and I can turn my attention back to the thinkpiece on Jason Aldean and his grief-stricken fans when someone behind me says active shooter, and I think to myself well yes, of course they're still talking about it, I'm still reading about it, it hasn't even been a day, until one of them says but my roommate is there, at which point I realize my TA has left the room, and other people are also murmuring active shooter and when my TA reenters it's to say that I'm sure you guys have heard by now, but there's an active shooter on campus, we need to lockdown, let's move the desks, does anyone have a belt, stay away from the glass pane in the door, and soon the lights are off and we're all crammed into one side of the room, phones buzzing like tuning instruments, like the first movement of the symphony, the frantic messages from loved ones trying to squeeze out through the speakers before we can even pick up the phone.

In my lifetime, I have seen more mass shootings than many countries have in their entire history. Columbine happened when I was a baby, Virginia Tech when I was in elementary school, a whole slew of others in my adolescence and college years--Sandy Hook, Aurora, Charleston, San Bernardino, the Pulse nightclub, so many others I'm forgetting, and last night in Las Vegas, the nth time a terrorist massacre has been labeled "the deadliest mass shooting in US history" like a horrifying Guinness record where the evil keeps outdoing itself, over and over and over again.

I live in Los Angeles, and I was born and raised here. Our emergency training, outside of fire drills, always included earthquake preparedness, you know, growing up on the San Andreas fault and all. I don't fear them because I know what to do when they start. Feel the quake, get under the desk or the table, move away from glass or anything that could fall. I don't remember when lockdown drills started. I guess they were always there. In middle school, one of the security guards would enter a classroom in the guise of a shooter and we were meant to practice our teachings--belt the door, if we could, before he entered, and if he managed to get in, distract him, throw desks, throw chairs, jump on his back if need be, do not be a sitting duck, do not be a target, do not go quietly into that good night. A shooter never came for me, so the fear remained. I have a feeling that if (or, more grimly, when) he does, it will remain then, too.

And I do mean he. White men have carried out more mass shootings than any other demographic in the United States. The argument has been bandied about by my liberal peers for years, but it bears repeating, that brown skin and Islam do not a terrorist make, that if we want to start calling it what it is, we need to stop assuming its name will always be Osama or Omar, we need to name it Adam and Dylann and Eric and James.

I love that we knew what to do in that room while we waited for the all clear--and it did come, for the record: this story ends with a false alarm so serene it was less siren and more soft ska--but I hated that we knew what to do. I hated that we moved into position and belted the door shut like choreography, I hated that my family kept calling to check on me, I hated that less than 24 hours from a tragedy we were staring down the barrel of another one, even when my gut told me that it was a false alarm, I hated that I had to wait until I knew for sure, I hate this conditioning and I want to wash it out, I want to wash the blood off the flag, I want to wash the gun lobby down the drain, I want to Australia these shootings out of the future because I know there's no way to erase the past.

When LAPD tweets that there is no danger, that we can all go home, my TA tells us to forget about the lab, that we'll figure something out. On the walk out of the building, every conversation I overhear is a phone call to a grandmother or nervous chatter about what could have been. This, too, is part of the conditioning: the aftermath of the real or imagined violence. Imagined: sighs of relief. Email blast/Facebook post/tweet that it's all alright. Real: the rote message from politicians I could probably recite from memory about thoughts and prayers. Funerals for the deceased and healthcare bills for the injured bankrupting the "lucky."

I have not been the victim of gun violence. No one close to me has been, either. That statistic should not be an outlier. The voice behind these marks and dashes is a coastal elite who reads The New Yorker for fun. Colorado and Nevada went blue in 2016. But South Carolina went red. So did Florida. With a single Google search, I found a website literally called massshootingtracker.org. Is this the new normal? Just another in a long line of conditioned responses?

Break the habit. Make Pavlov roll over in his grave.

https://www.house.gov/representatives/find/

Monday, July 17, 2017

College/University/Quarterlife Crisis Playlist

Hey friends! I feel like I haven't written about music in a while.

Since I am halfway through college, it only feels right that I curate playlist for you based on All The College Feels. I might revisit this when I graduate in 2019 (zoinks), but here are tunes for all the various college moods I have encountered so far. Feel to apply these songs to yourself if you are not in college, and are merely a young person in a time of extreme emotional upheaval.

Enjoy!

1. night before I left home: "What Would I Do Without You" // Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors

2. first day / night in the dorm: "This House Is A Hotel" // The Wind and the Wave

3. first party: "No More Parties in LA" // Kanye West

4. first college crush: "ILYSB - STRIPPED" // LANY

5. missing an old high school flame (not really relevant to me but maybe you guys had social lives prior to the age of 18): "Miss You" // Alabama Shakes

6. REALLY FEELING YOURSELF: "Got Body" // Lion Babe

7. experiencing fall in a new city, or in the same city in a new way: "Rylynn" // Andy McKee

8. when it's late and you're walking home from a confusing romantic encounter: "If I'm Unworthy" // Blake Mills

9. going back to school after summer vacation for sophomore/junior/senior year: "Old Friends" // Pinegrove

10. self doubt: "Family Happiness" // The Mountain Goats

11. skipping to class when the weather's good: "OctaHate" // Ryn Weaver

12. General Sadness: "Woods" // Bon Iver

13. General Joy: "Biggest Fan" // Will Joseph Cook

14. realizing that you're better off without them: "Girls Like Me" // Will Joseph Cook

15. realizing you're not: "Hourglass" // Catfish and the Bottlemen

16. realizing you have to cut someone out of your life if you're ever gonna get over them: "Petrolia" // Donovan Woods

17. regretting that time you didn't speak up: "Something" // Julien Baker

18. for when you survive something you didn't think you could: "Loudspeaker" // MUNA

19. for when you haven't survived it yet but you want to: "I Wanna Get Better" // Bleachers

20. late afternoon done-with-classes feeling: "Love on the Weekend" // John Mayer

21. last day of classes before summer: "Emotions and Math" // Margaret Glaspy

22. the end of a good friendship: "High And Dry" // Radiohead

23. long-distance relationship feels (again, not for me, but for people I know): "Bless The Telephone" - Labi Siffre

24. weird being back home again: "Hometown Hero" // Andy Shauf

25. college movie montage, dancing with your friends in a well-lit backyard: "When Did Your Heart Go Missing?" // Rooney

If you can think of emotions I missed, songs that fit these moods, or some combination of both, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Till next time!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Turtles All The Way Down, Four Months Out

DFTBA.

If you are not subscribed to the vlogbrothers YouTube channel, and if you never have been, you might not know what that stands for. It's an initialism (because acronyms are pronounceable, fact c/o of a vlogbrothers video) that stands for Don't Forget To Be Awesome. It is the official (or perhaps unofficial) motto of the nerdfighter community. (Nerdfighters are people who are fans of vlogbrothers, the content creators therein, or the community therein. I think that's enough definitions for now).

When I was 14 years old, this book called The Fault in Our Stars came out. A good friend of mine was kind of obsessed with the author, this slightly sub-middle-aged white guy named John Green, and she insisted that I read both The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska, this John Green guy's first book. I was a reader in childhood, having developed nearsightedness due to my predilection for reading in the dark after my bedtime by flashlight (at least that's the explanation my mother gave me). However, recently I'd found myself frustrated by books. I would tear through middle-grade chick lit (that's the best way I can describe these terribly formulaic books with dull characters and contrived plots that always involved two straight/white/able-bodied/middle-class best friends falling in love) when I found it, but other than that, I wasn't reading as much as I used to. I can't really remember what I did with my free time. I guess I was writing songs? I think I was mostly playing The Sims 3.

I digress.

In any case, I was in ninth grade and on the precipice of Maybe Being Cool, and this friend was one of the cooler girls in class, so I bought TFiOS (hip shorthand) about two months after its publication and read it over spring break in ninth grade.

I read it in one three or four hour sitting, and I cried. Like a lot.

It was the first time since early childhood that I could remember a book moving me in such a poignant way. I was attached to the characters, I was absorbed by the plot, and the language! The LANGUAGE in that story was so compelling. I was picking up on subtext and metaphors in a way that I'd only ever done when I was forced to in English class. The book had reinvigorated my love for words in stories that no other book could have.

Then I took a brief reading hiatus.

The second half of my ninth grade year was me continuing to ascend the social ladder, however slowly. I still joked that I was a dork, but the truth of the matter was, I had friends from every rung. I was sociable with tech geeks, theater nerds, football players, and cheerleaders alike. I felt like people had stopped looking through me like I was invisible. It was largely due to my presence on the school newspaper, which drew both the ambitious popular kids and the ambitious nerdy kids to its ranks. Also, I had a boyfriend. We never kissed or held hands or even went on dates, but we hung out every day at school and told people we were dating. This was enough to get me at least a bit of social buying power.

(I promise this is all relevant to the story).

Then, at the end of freshman year, I realized that I was sick of having a boyfriend who did not kiss me or hold my hand or go on dates with me, and also didn't answer my texts or calls once school let out. So I called his house and dumped him over the phone. I spent the summer feeling sorry for myself, turning to the Internet and its thriving subculture of fame and infamy. Whenever I get heartbroken in real life, I fall deeply and inconsolably in love with fictional characters and/or celebrities who are too old for me. That summer, it was Jack and Finn Harries, Dan Howell, and any other British 20-year-old who made funny sketches and made me feel like I was loved, even though they were thousands of miles away, several years older, and had no idea who I was.

It was during this summer that I discovered a channel featuring two much older men named Hank Green and John Green (yes relation, they're brothers). Their videos were all at least somewhat informational, whether they be about politics, science, literature, or just about the personal lives of the men who made the videos. About five videos in, I realized that John Green of the vlogbrothers was John Green of TFiOS fame. I was elated! There were hundreds of videos on the channel going back to 2007. In between reading self-insert fanfic about the Harries twins, I would watch vlogbrothers videos, reminding myself to read John's other books when I got the chance.

When I returned to school, all the work that I'd done to become popular seemed to dissolve before my very eyes. Sophomore year was when we switched campuses, to the Upper School, and all the actual popular kids were going to parties with upperclassmen and trying alcohol and getting into real relationships. I was stuck in the past, pining over boys who only hung out with me so I would help them write their essays and obsessing over Tumblr and YouTube. I was also experiencing turbulence in my personal life unlike any I'd ever had before. It's so clear to me now that I was afraid of the social rejection and emotional darkness in the real world, so I holed myself up online, laughing while handsome young Brits wore wigs on camera and rewatching John Green speed-talk his way through a fake television show he titled "Hitler and Sex."

In the midst of this Internet-ing, I read that other John Green book my old friend had mentioned, even though she'd already begun the slow and painful process of outgrowing me (the death knell of our friendship was when she told me about having sex with her boyfriend in her car and my response was some combination of a prudish, judgmental face and an exclamation of "Ew!"). Looking for Alaska leveled me just as profoundly as TFiOS had, and with no social life to worry about, I was hungry for more. I read the other books that John Green had talked about on his channel--Fahrenheit 451 and The Great Gatsby, plus other works that his recommendations had led me to, like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Taming of the Shrew, and one of my all-time favorites to this day, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I was reading a book almost every week, downloading them to my iPad and going back to my old habits, reading by dim light long after I should have already gone to sleep. My schoolwork wasn't where it needed to be, but I was thriving. Awakened, even.

Though my junior year marked another ascent into minor popularity, I crash-landed my senior year, coming off a painful rejection from a summer romance and a position in student government that should have won me acceptance but largely isolated me from everyone but my fellow council mates and steady friends. College applications were stressing me out, I felt alienated from even my immediate circle, and I was worried about my social future. Though I was accepted to the only two universities I applied to, I felt inert and emotionally itchy. I descended back into what I knew best: books. I read more Vonnegut, bizarre stories by delightful authors like Graeme Cameron and Douglas Coupland, and of course, my current #1 all-time, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. After my brain literally exploded from reading Oscar Wao in all its sprawling, multilingual, multigenerational, magical realistic/science fictional glory, I devoured Díaz's two books of short stories, Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. I vividly remember those days in the spring of 2015, using my seemingly endless multitude of free periods to sit in the sweaty, iron-hot bleachers, nose burrowed in a book, ignoring the festivities of senior year around me. I was happier alone, laughing at Kurt's crude drawings and Díaz's matter-of-factness about love and sex, experiences I'd still yet to have at 17.

I graduated, and I went to USC, where within a month of starting school I met Junot Díaz and got him to sign my copy of Oscar Wao. I dealt with the Usual College Stuff, like homesickness (from half an hour away...I'm weak) and social anxiety and academic adjustments and figuring out what the hell it actually means to major in popular music. I stopped judging people for drinking alcohol and having sex, I stopped being afraid of parties (though I'm still terrified of boys...and rightly so), I stopped being disappointed in my real life because it doesn't follow a neat narrative (or at least I do it less now). However, I never stopped reading, and I never stopped watching vlogbrothers videos. I am a faithful nerdfighter, because that online community and John's books have seen me through some dark times.

Somewhere in the last five years, I read An Abundance of Katherines (not my favorite), Paper Towns (used to be my favorite but TFiOS ranks supreme at the moment), and Will Grayson Will Grayson (absolutely ACES but technically cowritten with David Levithan so to me it is in a separate category). I've watched thousands of videos from vlogbrothers and Crash Course. I went to Vidcon in 2014 and met John in person for about five seconds, handing him my business card and a #JustinCarrWantsWorldPeace luggage tag before he was escorted to his next event by security. My love of language has blossomed into three young adult manuscripts, two feature films, a handful of short films, and hundreds of poems, songs, and essays. Though my inner and outer lives have changed substantially since I first wept onto the pages of TFiOS, I'm still anxious, and often. I'm still terrified of romantic rejection and I still put myself out there frequently and embarrassingly. I'm still a bookworm and I'm still a writer and I'm still a nerdfighter. And I think I always will be.

John Green and his books have a special place in my heart. So when he announced that his first new book in almost six years is coming out this fall, I was overcome with emotion. Turtles All The Way Down isn't just a book. It's a historical artifact from the future, a piece of my past hurtling towards me from the opposite direction. When I think of John Green's work, I think of my cringey adolescence, my weirdly small glasses and then my weirdly big glasses, my difficulty with my weight and my stunted social development. I think of the hours I spent reblogging fan art and GIF sets of real people that I'd mythologized into characters by watching their YouTube videos for so long. I think of my transition from Cute Little Girl to Awkward Bookish Teen to Real Human Woman. I was 14 when I read my first John Green book. I will be 20 when I read Turtles All The Way Down. The chasm between who I was and who I will be then is huge. Un-crossable by anyone but me.

Right now, we're a little less than four months out from the release of Turtles All The Way Down. Not much is known about the book, and I'd like to keep it that way. I'm feeling those tingly "no spoilers!" feelings I felt when I was in high school and enamored with the purity of an untouched literary experience. But as much as this book's impending release is inspiring a unique kind of nostalgia in me, it's also reminding me that I cannot go back. I cannot return to the innocent girl of 14 I was when I first heard John Green's name, and I can't get back the years I spent/lost/lived in between then and now. I can only move forward. I can only grow up.

This book, in all likelihood, will not live up to my expectations. It will not change my life. It can't, because though it will be my first time reading this particular book, it won't be my first time becoming infatuated with literature. I've done that already. I may love this book, but there is a difference between falling in love with someone new and falling in love for the very first time. Before I met books with sweaty palms, dress askew, tongue heavy in my mouth. So...come here often? Now, each story is met with a knowing smile, legs crossed at the ankles like they're supposed to be, no lipstick on the wine glass. Your place or mine?

Before this book comes out, and I form any opinions about the content or the style, I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to John Green. If not for his careful handiwork, if not for the immense trust that he puts in his young readers, if not for his heart-wrenching stories, I might never have been drawn to great books the way I am now. Thank you for caring. Thank you for writing even when your illness handcuffed you, tried to make you stop. Thank you for making videos about hard topics and silly ones. I may grow up, but I will never outgrow you and your words, John. Keep publishing books, and I'll keep reading them, no matter how old we both get.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Quiet Genius of SNL's 'Girlfriends Talk Show'

In a Saturday Night Live season populated by A-list guest stars and political comedy ranging from brilliant jabs to the harvesting of comically ripe but low-hanging fruit, most thinkpieces about the show are bound to be about how the show did or did not rise to the challenge of its endowed cultural relevance. In fact, I've got a blog post about one of those in the works, so keep an eye out for it. But one of my favorite recurring SNL sketches in recent memory is "Girlfriends Talk Show."

If you're not familiar with "Girlfriends Talk Show," it features Cecily Strong as Kira, a socially fluid girl-next-door type, and her best friend, Morgan, an irreparably awkward nerd played to perfection by Aidy Bryant. What begins as a fairly basic premise -- teenage girls having a talk show where they talk about the banalities of their middle-class suburban lives -- unfolds to delightfully nuanced effect in every return of the sketch.

If asked why a gender-balanced (or at least near-gender-balanced) writing staff/cast on a comedy show is important, look no further than the brilliant scripts behind "Girlfriends Talk Show," as well as the sharp comedic timing of its two stars. Kira and Morgan are rendered subtly and skillfully; though the too-cool guests that Strong's Kira brings on at the last minute to ambush Morgan drive a wedge between the two vastly different friends, the recurrence of the sketch provides the only evidence we need that their bond is impenetrable. There's nothing quite like the irrational, unconditional love of tween and teen female friendship. I can attest to this, and I'm sure the writers behind the sketch-- whether just Bryant and Strong or some other unseen collaborative partners--can attest to it, too.

While SNL thrives on political commentary, fake game shows and commercials, and original sketches that blossom into the ridiculous, "Girlfriends Talk Show" never veers too far into the implausible. While Kira's recurrent descriptions of her "older boyfriend" are deliriously specific and absurd, they do a remarkable job of coloring Kira's character in unexpected ways. Kira is the bridge between the painfully nerdy Morgan and the cool (or attempting-to-be-cool) guest of the week, not just because of her history with Morgan, but because her attachment to this clearly disturbed, age-inappropriate boyfriend with bizarre fetishes indicates deeper psychological wounds than her chipper personality will let on. When Morgan "brags" about being the shoulder to cry on for her mom's divorced friend, we get the impression that she is the support system for Kira, as well. Morgan is a fish out of water, and almost takes solace in her geekiness. Kira is just as lost in the world as her best friend, perhaps even more so, but she's better at faking poise.

"Girlfriends Talk Show" further establishes its credibility with its constant references to "best" friendship, an ever-shifting teen lexicon, and the air of desperation surrounding even the coolest of guests--Scarlett Johansson's character obsessively mentions her Mercedes, Jennifer Lawrence's refers to her visits to New York City at every possible opportunity, and Amy Adams' turn involves humiliating Morgan, though Adams' character has nothing to gain and Bryant's has everything to lose. The highlight of every iteration, in my opinion, is when Morgan completely loses her cool with the guest, so embarrassed and frustrated that she bombards them with nonsensical insults. (One of my favorites involves the phrase "bitch sandwich;" another is "roach warehouse"). Even when the awkward old soul wants to come to bat with snide commentary of her own, she is utterly incapable--which, of course, is why Kira secretly loves her in the first place.

I can't speak to authorial intent in this sketch--I don't know if the writers know exactly why these characters so hilarious, or just why the gimmick works even after multiple revivals--and I certainly don't think anyone would consider this sketch the height of cinema, or the height of comedy. But the layers to this female friendship are what make it work, and what make it so damn funny every time it comes back.

(Also, in case you haven't noticed, I was a Morgan. Let's be honest. I'm STILL a Morgan. Love to all my Kiras.)

Friday, May 12, 2017

Why "Malibu" Is The Whitest Thing Miley Has Ever Done

So Miley is back on the scene, and she's whiter than ever.

I'm talking less about the visual and sonic content of the video and accompanying track, and more about the 180-degree transformation she just completed, the one that critics of cultural appropriation have been sounding alarms about since 2013.

In case you forgot, here's a brief history: we met Miley Cyrus as Miley Stewart/Hannah Montana, who then dropped the Disney show and the fictional double life to Become An Adult. Slowly but surely, she progressed through the "Party in the USA" / "Can't Be Tamed" era, in which conservative parents began to vocally protest her newfound sexual liberation, and dove headfirst into "We Can't Stop," a party rock anthem replete with outright sexual imagery and drug use. I would've been 100% in favor of this progression--live your truth, Miley--if not for the disconcerting fetishization and commoditization of black bodies in her video, as well as the starkness of the cultural appropriation in her 2013 VMA performance and subsequent public appearances. In addition to flouting her affinity for weed--a drug that disproportionately lands black users behind bars while white users walk away with less than a slap on the wrist--Miley co-opted black dance, hair, and fashion in a way that seemed less like homage and more like theft. Like so many white artists, she put on black culture like a costume, a gag, a point of shock value, without acknowledging the very real struggles that black individuals face for doing and wearing the same things.

And now, with "Malibu," she's casting it all aside.

Defenders of Miley's image, the one that emerged circa 2012-2013, claimed that she was just finding herself, that it wasn't a race thing, that in the creative marketplace we are all entitled to craft aesthetics from existing institutions. That's a great idea, but it's a common, naive (and white) fallacy. She wasn't "finding herself"--she was profiting off cultural paradigms that subjugate the black people who create them but are seen as innovative when projected onto white bodies. And to say that something "isn't a race thing" ignores the larger cultural context that when black and brown people so ANYTHING, it is seen as racial. As political. It is a distinctly white luxury to say that something isn't about race. When I so much as straighten my hair, it is seen as a political statement, an indictment of my view of myself and my heritage. If I don't get to escape the politicization of personal aesthetics, then neither does Miley. Furthermore, the difference between black and brown artists "borrowing" from white culture--whatever that's deemed to be, as most cultural anthropologists find that term to be nebulous at best--and the inverse is that the oppression of black and brown communities inhibits them from profiting off that exchange in the same way that white communities do. No cultural exchanges take place in a vacuum. You must consider the power dynamics at play. Miley is a wealthy white woman. While being a white woman in America is still to be part of a disdvantaged community, the disadvantages are distinctly different from those of black and brown men, woman, and trans and gender non-confirming individuals. Miley will never fully understand those experiences, no matter how many times she twerks on TV.

So what's the issue at hand, really? Namely, that with the release of "Malibu," Miley has confirmed what black and brown women have been saying for years--that her "radical" posturing as a fraudulent member of the PoC communities was nothing more than elaborate costuming. She gets to shed her corn rows and put on a white dress and dance on a beach and sing about Malibu. Meanwhile, no matter how many delicate dresses or white sand beaches I frolic on, I never get to stop being black. I never get to stop hearing the condescending comments about how I "talk white" or the questions about whether or not my hair is real. I never get to stop being afraid of police, both for myself and for my brothers and father. I never get to stop worrying about how not only my gender will affect my future salaries, but my race, too (black and brown women make even less to a white man's dollar than a white woman or black man does).

With a single music video, Miley is back to being a delicate flower. Sure, white womanhood is a cage of objectification, but at least as a white woman, you're on object that society wants to protect.

Black and brown women don't have that luxury.

I don't hate Miley Cyrus. She's not a bad person. She's just white. And to be white in this country without checking your privilege is a dangerous thing.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

What I Learned in Boating School Is

(Just kidding. I go to music school, ya loons! But if you know what I'm referencing, please find me at Thornton for a high-five and maybe some loose candy in my backpack if I'm feeling generous.)

So. Another year under my belt. It feels insane that this is true, that I'm halfway done with college, that two of my four years in the popular music program are over and done with.

This year punched me in the stomach. It knocked the wind all the way out of me -- I got my heart broken, I doubted my ability, I doubted my love of the art, I fell back in love with music, I fell in love with some more people (who also broke my heart), I strengthened my friendships into the most meaningful connections I've ever made, I wept with my friends on election night, I closed the fall semester out with a song by The Who and finished the year with a Katy Perry tune, I started my own funny little record label, I met John Mayer, I ushered a new generation of pop kids into the madness of our program, I did it, I did it, I did it.

And so did you. Whether you just finished your last year in pop or your first, whether you're majoring in something else entirely, whether you don't go to USC or you don't go to college, you did it. Regardless of the things that have happened to you before this moment, they delivered you here, and you did it, and I'm proud of you, and you don't hear that enough. But especially you, the pop kids of the Class of 2020, I'm so proud. You took my advice and you passed the trials of this year with flying colors. You opened your hearts to each other. You opened your hearts to me. At a party towards the end of the semester, I remarked to one of my closest freshman pals that I'm glad he is my friend, and he thanked me for making his year so special. It warmed my heart in the best way. I always wondered if I was welcome in their circles or just this weird old crony looming above them and spouting Pearls of Wisdom. Turns out they like having me around.

So it goes.

To the popular music Class of 2021: get $@&$#! ready. But fret not: I love to give advice. ;)

When I wrote my open letter to the Class of 2020, I didn't know anyone was going to read it. But they did, and it gave me a platform to speak to a lot more people about what it means to be a popular music major at USC's Thornton School of Music. It's crazy and it's heartbreaking and it's the worst thing I've ever done and it's the best thing I've ever done and when I told my songwriting and performance professor that I cry three times a day I wasn't kidding because I just. Feel. So. Much.

You don't have to cry thrice daily in order to get something out of this program. But you have to keep your head up and your eyes open. You have to let the tears fall when they come. You have to let people in and you have to be willing to learn.

In keeping with the first post I wrote, here are things I learned after completing my second year in the program.

1. This is a logistical thing more than anything, but you guys know the women's bathroom in The Music Complex? As of this writing, the only stall other than the handicapped ones that is guaranteed to lock is the fourth stall from the door. Surviving sophomore year means paying attention to the little things.

2. Make friends with kids who can write horn charts. You're better off shelling out for a "thank you" cup of coffee than muddling your way through a chart you have no business writing. Ask your classmates. Heck, ask the older kids, there are more of us that know what we're doing (though, regretfully, I am not one of them). You're here to learn, and you should take full advantage, but you should recognize when you're out of your depth and need to ask for help.

3. You can play that second keyboard part, I promise.

4. Pop theory is easier than classical theory, but you still have to do the work. Capital wins the title of "professor who most wants you to pass his class," but you still have to show up, and you still have to do what he asks of you. Here's the deal, though: all the things that didn't make sense to you this year will suddenly click. I have no idea why or how. It just happens.

5. You have to try a lot harder in performance class this year. Look, I trust you. I believe in you. But with few exceptions, you probably didn't push yourself to your absolute limit this year. You might THINK you did, but you didn't. You didn't practice every day. You didn't listen to the songs on the treadmill, in the shower, on your walk to every class, for hours before you went to sleep. You didn't ask your individual instructor for help every week on your part. You did the work well. Sophomore year, you have to be better. Ya just gotta. This isn't going to make sense until it does.

6. Sometimes the only way to save your voice is to not use it for a while. Read into this as you will, but on a literal level (at least for singers), take a few days of vocal rest scattered throughout the year. Also, drink water, get 8 hours of sleep on nights when you don't have to stay up, warm (but not hot!) tea is your friend. Thank me later.

7. If you want to gig, expect to play for single-digit audiences. I have a blog post about this from a few months back, but I reiterate: this is the time to gig, and you will have to play for literally two people. It's okay and it's still fun and if you like performing, this is the only way. You will get performance opportunities for crowds of hundreds or even thousands, but if you're playing Genghis Cohen on a Thursday in the midst of pop rehearsing szn, don't count on more than a handful of extra-supportive friends in the audience.

8. Only go to parties where you personally know the host and the house. Okay, this is not a catch-all rule--if you're an extroverted person who loves going out, it doesn't really matter who's hosting it or where the party is. But if you lean towards the introverted side, or find yourself wondering what the point in all this Turning Up really is, then follow this rule. I go to my friend's apartments and kickbacks (or even, dare I say it, ragers) at Su Casa because it's fun to party at a place when you know where the bathrooms are. Literally and figuratively.

9. You might--read, will--have to miss Fun College Times for your career. This year, I started writing pop music professionally, and because the god of scheduling does not have time for my requests, my sessions have almost ~all~ been on Friday nights. Because of this, I have missed many a party, a hang, a jaunt to the roller disco. Most of those Fridays, I really didn't care, because I love being in the studio. A couple of times, I got out early enough to catch the second half or tail end of whatever activity was going on. But a couple times, I was seriously bummed that I was missing out on Typical Teen Experiences to advance my professional well-being. My advice to you is: go to the session. Play the gig. There will be more parties, more opportunities to talk to cuties of the preferred sex(es), and more late-night runs to McDonald's. I promise.

10. Shame is a social construct and you should not be ashamed of yourself. If you're not hurting anyone, you shouldn't feel ashamed of yourself. Whether it's what you eat, what career opportunities you're taking or not, or who you love, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Eat cake with your friends on the lawn in the back of the cinema school. Don't say "yes" to that house party show you know will be a disaster. Tell your crush how you feel regardless of how horribly it might go. As a person who struggles with anxiety, this mantra helps me a lot--shame is not mandatory.

11. You should have a meeting with Sean Holt. Maybe you're taking lessons with him, maybe you're in songwriting with him, maybe you only have him for performance, but--you should really sit down with him and have a meeting about your life/career. He knows what the $*@&#! he's talking about, and he cares about you already, even if you've never spoken to him. This goes for people outside this niche little program, too: talk to the Sean Holt in your life. And hell, talk to the Patrice Rushen, too.

12. Sometimes you won't be able to hear your part until you listen through different speakers. Take from that what you will.

13. Don't say "yes" to everything. This might run counter to the advice that some of our professors give--sorry!--but as a person who is both highly ambitious and highly anxious, I have a tendency to agree to things before I think about whether or not I actually want to do them. We're told we have to hustle, to grind, and it seems like the only way we're gonna make it in this industry is to say "yes" to every single offer we get. You might be the kind of person who can do this, but I am of the camp that you should wait an hour before responding so you can think about it. Do you want to sing background vocals for your friend on the night you were supposed to catch up on all your other work? Do you want to drive for three hours to a session so you can play a guitar solo that might not get used? Do you want to put together a band and find rehearsal times for a last minute gig at Parkside? There are no right answers to those questions, because it really depends on your personality. But for me, there are definitely times when the right answer to a job offer, however cool it may sound, might still be "no."

14. I think I gave some variation on this advice last year, but: go to sleep. I have a lengthy blog post about staying up late and what it means symbolically, but really what I mean to say is: skip the party. Leave the party early. Leave the party and keep hanging out with your friends but go to sleep before 2am. I know what you're doing. You're chasing some ideal night you had long ago that probably wasn't even as good as you remember it. Let go of the idyll. Get some rest, champ.

15. Keep a journal. If you know me in person, I've probably already given you this advice, but: PLEASE start keeping a journal. In 5, 10, 20, 50 years, you are going to want to look back at this time when you were young and beautiful and living the #college #life. But really, keeping a journal is an asset for so many reasons. Read entries from the previous months, weeks, and even days to find patterns you need help breaking. Cull unusual soundbites and concepts to write music, poetry, fiction. Transcribe stimulating conversations. Scribble over a whole page in dark ink until it bleeds through when you're pissed. Draw a big ol' pink heart with your crush's name in the middle. Worry and pour out all your circular thinking when you're having a panic attack (this works so well, trust me). I'm about to fill up my third journal, and my only regret is not starting sooner.

16. What you're feeling might not be love. Listen, I'm first in line to call every single infatuation "love at first sight." I write songs about people I see for three seconds in elevators. I have cried over boys I pass at crowded parties. I tell my friends excitedly that this new, sparkly person might be "the one." But so far, I've (almost) always been wrong. The elevator doors open, and they get off on their floor. The boy I was too scared to talk to leaves the party before I do. "The one" kisses somebody else. You, too, will get off the elevator, and leave the party early, and kiss somebody else. I can promise you that.

17. You have to forgive. You're going to make so many mistakes this year, over these next few years, throughout your godforsaken 20s. And your friends are going to make mistakes, too. Please don't hold a grudge. Please don't miss out on what could be a lifelong friendship because of a misstep, a single breach of trust, one drunk night. Protect your heart. Redefine the relationship. But don't cut people out of your life too quickly. Forgive other people. Maybe, when you screw up--and I promise that you will--they'll forgive you, too.

18. You can do this. No, really, you can. Sophomore year is hard. They don't call it the slump for nothing. If you had a great freshman year, this might be the time when things you thought you knew are called into question. If you had a bad freshman year, this is your next big shot to change the narrative, to make good on the as-of-yet-unfulfilled promise of college. But you have to keep reminding yourself that you're here for a reason. Your admission was not a fluke; you were chosen. You are not getting worse; you're just realizing that you were never the best to begin with (also, you're getting better, I promise). Hold onto your friends, your significant other, your family, however geographically distant they may be. Hold onto your mentors and your professors and your RA, for God's sake, if you've got one. You are gonna make it. This is your moment.

That's all I've got for you this time around. I learned a lot my first year, but I learned way more my second year. I can't wait for a long and restful summer, because after that, I'm a junior in pop...and I've heard season 3 is where things really heat up. ;)