I love to sing, but I’m absolutely terrified of anyone actually hearing me try to sing.
One of the random things I really look forward to whenever I go back home from Ann Arbor for a little bit is being able to drive. And it’s not the driving itself — I’m kind of an anxious driver — but the fact that I can queue up on my iPod all the songs I’ve heard and fallen in love with since the last time I came home. I can hear them with a full speaker system instead of just cheap headphones or laptop speakers, which is cool, but most importantly, I can try to sing along with them for the first time, testing my low-pitched monotone voice over the recordings to see if I can deal with how it sounds.
It wasn’t long after I got my driver’s license that I started doing this. When I would drive home at night, I’d put on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and crank the volume up as loud as it could go, screaming along to the lyrics with my scratchy, overjoyed voice, making an extra turn or two if the song was still going as I approached my street. “Like a Rolling Stone” isn’t a fun or happy song, but driving around my hometown on empty roads illuminated by streetlights, there would just be this amped-up feeling of freedom in my body that I could only try to satisfy by attempting to merge with Dylan’s music, inserting myself into his song while it overwhelmed everything around me.
I don’t think I ever even tried to sing at all until I was like 16. I was in something resembling a band that was really just three guys in a basement playing music and never actually doing any gigs, and I was mainly behind the drum kit. But we revered punk and underground bands from the ’70s and ’80s. Those singers always sounded like amateurs — a rejection of rock star hero worship — so I actually wasn’t much worse than them, technically speaking. Singers like Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols or Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening had these imperfect voices that encouraged me to imitate them. I’d turn the guitar amps way up and the microphone way down, because I wasn’t comfortable hearing my voice as anything more than a kind of barely intelligible noise mixed in with the other instruments. But the total no-holds-barred cathartic rush you get when you have a mic and can make all the sounds you want was immediately intoxicating.
So it’s actually not very cool to scream in public, or even in a house when other people are around, but there’s a weird sort of privacy when you’re driving by yourself. You’re surrounded by strangers and your identity is shrouded by rolled-up windows. It’s like being in a dream — this transitory zone where, as long as you’re a good driver, nothing you do and nothing you think affects anyone but yourself. It’s incredible, and now I sing almost every single time I have to drive solo. Occasionally I worry about the person in front of me seeing my performance in their rearview, but at night or on an empty road, it’s absolute bliss.
I have a special place in my heart for vocalists who really aren’t that gifted at singing. I already mentioned Calvin Johnson, whose ridiculously low and unmelodic monotone lines up perfectly with my vocal chords, and Johnny Rotten, whose spitting British fury I can do a decent impression of under the right circumstances, but my favorite is Craig Finn of The Hold Steady. Their record Separation Sunday was a huge breakthrough for my musical taste, and it’s still my number one in-the-car CD. Finn screams himself hoarse over the course of the album, ignoring tune and melody in favor of just yelling these hyper-literate stories of kids in Minneapolis. The dude doesn’t even seem in control of his own voice, as it cracks and takes these odd turns throughout. He’s like an English major at a party trying to get your thoughts on Nabokov, bringing his voice up as loud as it can go just to make himself barely heard. I’m sure it’s ridiculous and off-putting to some people, but I absolutely love it. Finn’s voice is all about passion and intensity — anyone with a fiery belief in what he has to say can go up to a mic and sing, regardless of talent.
Music is really the closest you can get to inserting yourself into someone else’s artistic beauty. You can’t act unless someone casts you, and you can’t be a basketball player unless you make a team, but I can try and do exactly what Taylor Swift does whenever I put on 1989. The illusion doesn’t quite work, since I can only dream of hitting most of her notes, but if no one else can even hear me, who cares? Really, the ability to sing along is just one more magical thing about music. Whether it’s Lou Reed or Madonna or even Young Thug if you’re feeling super adventurous, under the right circumstances you can put on their songs, lose your identity for a few minutes and slip into someone else’s amazing creation.