“Emily’s never going to get into Harvard if she doesn’t stop watching so much MTV,” my mother remarked to my fifth-grade teacher, a plump and disinterested middle-aged woman whose gaze bore cumbersome into our parent-teacher visit. This is one of the only things I remember about my elementary school education, along with the wall-less classrooms that were meant to inspire communal education, but made my ten-year-old mind assume that our family’s move to Northern Westchester meant a severe blow to our financial means. My entire life, I’ve been staving off a true grasp at reality.
I never would have dreamed of getting into Harvard, much less applying, though my best friend did, and is currently swimming with a slew of industry sharks in the heart of Los Angeles. Look at that, mom. I was not nearly what one could classify as “academic,” though I felt safer with the dorks, because they weren’t shaving at age seven or having sex at age eleven. So I existed during the day within the confines of future biophysics PhDs, eating lunch in the counseling center with a girl named after Jane Eyre who traced her veins in blue ink, and eventually weaseled my way into an esteemed university by developing trusting friendships with the psychotherapists in my high school, whom I would entertain by filing papers and making up problems.
But when the school day ended, and I had killed enough time in a rotating series of extra-curricular activities, (Banana Splits, a place for children of divorced parents to sit and ogle at each other; this was when only forty percent of the nation’s marriages failed), I’d go home, and immediately turn on MTV, with popcorn and chocolate milk at hand. Confession: I was also a fat kid, but who wasn’t, in suburban America, with two divorced working parents and only Total Request Live and a grossly active imagination to keep them company?
I grew up on pop-culture. I consumed it, obsessively, drawing earnest life conclusions based on Britney and Justin’s romantic turmoil, finding humor in the confusingly fast content of a Missy Elliot music video. I started to predict which bands would explode, based on VH1 pop-up videos and that three-chord psychosomatic appeal to wondrous and digestible emotion. These things were never shameful to me; they were just a part of my afternoon routine, and they helped me learn to socialize with the normal kids, who dressed me up as a leather-clad Ginger Spice for age-thirteen’s Halloween, sending my mother into a near cardiac arrest. I craved this kind of pop-culture normalcy, because with a hyperactive brain and a family that could easily substitute for the cast of the Royal Tenenbaums, without it, I had no chance of fitting in.
Though I wasn’t embarrassed by being an MTV junkie, I was also obsessive about literature; I used to stay after class to talk to my teachers about the Buddhist perspectives in Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories, writing papers for fun on books like Viktor Frankl’s A Man’s Search For Meaning. I would write faux-TV scripts for The Office, and I would write faux-theses on Camus’ positive denotations of existentialism. None of this seemed out of the ordinary to me; it was the best way to understand both the primitive and highbrow elements of being a human, to keep myself grounded in authenticity and merge a dualistic nature.
Growing up, I was only really happy doing three things: writing, playing the violin, and watching the X-Files with my future Harvard-bound best friend. Even in orchestra, I would write stories underneath the sheet music, usually Tim Burtonesque fantasies that revolved around a world of animated food products, in order to play with more conviction. I tried to drop out of high school, because the pop-culture world became stifling, an exaggerated reality that forced kids to participate in mindless behaviors, and the intellectual world seemed to have no grasp on the emotional reality that plagued those of us who couldn’t afford an SAT tutor five years in advance. I thought if I dropped out of high school, I could play the violin, and write movie scripts, and spend half the year teaching in Costa Rican squatter camps.
Instead, I wrote an essay about eating a hot dog on the Staten Island Ferry, somehow got into a creative writing program, and spent the next four years doing illicit substances in the basement of a Baltimore fraternity house, crying to Cat Power, and putting out cigarettes into the beer cans that lined my fire-escape existence. I guess this is when it all kind of fell apart.
But all the while, there was one Fitzgerald quote that sort of defined the parameters of my future: He knew he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there, he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.
I knew, instinctively, that I would eventually have to break out of a retroactive lifestyle, one sketched entirely by becoming too vulnerable to mean kids and a bizarre family, consequently hiding inside chocolate and Behind The Music reruns, of becoming too vulnerable to strange men and bad habits, and hiding inside ambient music and more bad habits. Eventually, I’d have to claim some sort of responsibility for myself, and more so, for my writing. So I moved to Tennessee.
After taking jobs in law firms, (a four-day stint), contemplating equity research analysis, and half-completing applications for a post-bac in psychology, I quietly came to terms with the fact that the only things I’ve even really been decent at are writing and music. I tried on a couple of different professional outfits, but quickly stained them with the overflowing ink of my hyper right-leaning brain.
Eric Masse best described my feelings about being a pseudo-starving artist in Nashville, (I use this term lightly; I still frequent the Whole Foods hot bar at least once a week), when he told me that we’re living here at “its tipping point, where you’re doing it yourself and kind of succeeding.” There is a beautifully collaborative spirit about this up-and-coming southern metropolis, one that comes with a charming hodgepodge of accents, and a sense of union in the sometimes-lonely practice of building artistry out of ambling experience. When I moved to Nashville, I became infatuated with the music scene; artists like Torres, Escondido, and Foreign Fields helped to guide me in my personal discussion with life- they were building something uniquely theirs, and their compositions proved steady and confident. Through promo CDs and Monday night concerts, the Nashville musicians quickly stepped in as replacement counseling center therapists. Except now, the answer is always to build something out of nothing, not to follow a baby-boomer concept of the American Dream.
I appreciate fully the generations that have given me the privilege to starve, to write, to publish my work for free and bask in the narcissistic tendencies of an artist who is suffering through her Millennial identity. And on some level, it bothers me that a young pop-culture enthusiast didn’t translate into the 9-5 career woman, whose contentedness could be found in a Law and Order rerun and the tender kisses of a man dressed in a suit and tie. But I’ve wondered; if I grew up in the cookie-cutter, cardboard cutout houses of a 1950’s Staten Island, the way my father did, would I have assumed a more normal identity, tried to fulfill a destiny that wasn’t shrouded by the seduction of a creative spark? If I had grown up on a farm in Middle America, two hundred years ago, would I not have existed entirely in the lustful thrusts of my imagination, have dreamt of one day moving out west to swim in mines of Gold?
I’ve always wanted to understand people and to appreciate them; I forgive quickly, and forget just as easily. Music writing affords me the chance to do this, to get inside the psyche of a artist, teach myself their language, and float, effortlessly, through the contents of their songs. I can only purge my emotions and make sense of the chaos that is happening around me through music, and through writing. For me, a highly fortunate Gen-Y, it’s really the only way to survive.