Lauren Theisen: "Isn't it great?"
“It’s really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that’s raw. Isn’t it great?”
- Abbie Porter
That’s how Greta Gerwig’s character describes early punk band The Raincoats in Mike Mills’s “20th Century Women.” They’re not a pretty-sounding band, and they’re not talented either, but they’re not supposed to be. They want to be raw and passionate and energetic and always and forever stay that way.
The narrator says, when Abbie moved to New York, “She learned to dance when she got sad.” In her performance, Greta Gerwig dances to badass punk songs like a prototype of Molly Ringwald in “The Breakfast Club,” swinging her arms and bouncing off the ground with a furious yet elegant energy. I watch and I’m envious. I don’t recommend trying to copy her unless you really want to tire yourself out.
I can say that because I’ve tried to dance like Abbie, because I’ve turned my iPod up to full volume and blasted The Jam and The Clash and Talking Heads and other punk bands you can dance to and tried to let go of my feelings through their songs. I’ve done this before and after I’ve come out as trans. The night a long essay is due and the day after I turn it in. After a great night or a terrible night. It doesn’t matter. I think I’m always going to be doing this, turning to music against my better judgement to solve my problems, looking to dance my way through stress. I’ve tried to make Siouxsie Sioux or David Bowie and Byrne or The Menzingers or just any artist with strong enough vocals coupled with a decent bass line and aggressive enough guitar be my therapists.
It doesn’t work. Music never really heals you. I’ve known that, at least part of me has, ever since I tried to ease pubescent heartbreak in 9th grade with a Dashboard Confessional CD. I think there’s a slight loss of loneliness through the lyrics and vocals, some fulfillment in moving your body until it’s exhausted. But whatever freaks me out is always still there when the headphones get quiet again.
I like to think I’ve actually gotten mature enough that I don’t look to music to solve my problems. I pray, and I breathe and I try to break a situation down into manageable pieces. Sure, maybe I’ll put on The National, but only as background music while I work on whatever I need to. Music can calm me, and it can make me feel great for three-to-seven minute at a time, but it can’t fix anything about me.
But I still need songs in order to connect with the rest of the world. The new Father John Misty record is about me and you. That new Kendrick you’re hearing? That’s about us, too. And Abbey Road. And 1989. Your favorite record is about me, whatever it may be. And I hope my favorite record is about you. The way I write and think and talk about these songs, I’m putting in all the emotions that I feel when I hear them, trying to show these artists to you with a piece of me still inside. It’s still the best way I know how to communicate.
I put so much of myself into every song I hear. I’ve changed my hair, my clothes, even my name — but I know that my love for my favorite songs is constant. Even though I know they can’t love me back, and that odds are I’ll never create anything with a fraction of their power. I know that I’m never going to write a song like “Town Called Malice” or “And She Was” or “Train in Vain.”
So why am I here?
There was a night last summer, when I was only out to a few people, and when my burden felt like it was trying to jump out of me in a daring escape every single lonely evening, when I listened to Against Me’s “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” (the song) over and over again. That track has always fucked me up, has always captured my pain so acutely that I can’t handle it, that I basically fear its power. In listening to it on repeat, I tried to make myself numb, trying not to be the kind of person who feels slashed to her core every time she hears it. I wanted to be immune to Laura Jane Grace’s diagnosis of our condition. I didn’t want her song to affect me like it did.
It never worked. I still feel awful and powerful and present whenever I hear that song. And I’m so glad. I’m so glad that another person’s art can have that kind of effect on me, because it must mean that, deep down, we all have within us the unfathomable potential to stir the most intense feelings possible in someone else.
This is ridiculous to admit, but one of my honest-to-God greatest fears is getting to a point in my life where I can’t enjoy new music, where I’ll be stuck listening to whatever the equivalent of classic rock radio is in 2040. I’ll be raving about how Kendrick Lamar will always be the greatest rapper of all time, how no pop star can top Carly Rae Jepsen and how no punk band could ever match The Menzingers’ energy and power. I never want to be stuck like this. I always want to be able to hear what’s next.
If I get my way, music will always fuck me up. It will always push my heart up my throat. It will always make me smile or cry, or make my body tremble with anxiety and joy. It will always force me to a point beyond comprehension, and it will always make my body dance and move in a way it physically shouldn’t.
The passion I have for the greatest artists will always exceed my capacity to describe them. And whatever name I attach to the art that builds me up, whether when I plug my now-discontinued iPod classic into a computer it says “Adam’s ancient iPod” or “Lauren’s life-sustaining music device,” I look at those songs and I feel ready and OK and at least somewhat prepared for my life ahead of me, even if I can’t even begin to picture it. Isn’t that great?