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Deep Throat #6: On Being and Unbeing a Singer

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I stepped out of the dormitory elevator with my full laundry basket and almost dropped it. From down the hall came a noise so loud and relentless I winced. The walls shook, the air shimmered, and I, who had considerable experience standing on stages with an entire symphony orchestra blasting Beethoven or Wagner in my immediate vicinity, wondered if my ears were going to bleed.

I started down the hallway toward the source. Given the booming bass and the shouting my brain struggled to parse into words, there was no point in knocking politely.

“What the hell is that?” I shouted at the manically grinning Midwestern transfer student who opened the door. She had come to conservatory from a big state school somewhere in the rectangular states and the consensus was that she was probably very conservative. Possibly, I thought as an eyeball-vibrating exultation of rhymes slammed my ears, the consensus was premature.

Running for the cover of my own room at the end of the hall, I tried to make sense of what she’d hollered back at me. Run-D.M.C.? I had no context. AK-47? WD-40? It sounded closer to the former than the latter but honestly I had no clue. I opened my windows, the better to let the familiar cacophony of voices, trombones, bassoons, and pianos from the practice rooms across the street soothe my shell-shocked ears.

After a few minutes, the penny dropped: it was 1990, and what I had just heard was hip-hop. Should you think that this was perhaps a bit late in the game for even a nerdy white girl to have encountered hip-hop up close and personal, you are entirely correct. But I was more than just a nerdy white girl. I was a nerdy white girl who had been training and working as a professional classical musician since the age of 7, an upbringing that swaddled me in cultural bubble wrap to a degree that made the rules set by some of the fundamentalist parents I’ve since encountered look downright laissez-faire.

It’s not that anyone forbade me, as a young classical musician, to listen to hip-hop. But there was no place in my life I would’ve encountered it. Nobody I knew listened to disco. Or country. Or R&B, or soul, or…even to very much rock and roll, really. Thanks mostly to my mother’s second husband’s record collection, I was acquainted with an earnest white subset of mostly non-hip-gyrational artists like Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, and the ubiquitous Beatles. But otherwise it was the classical music of those anxiously hoping for upward mobility, all the time, everywhere.

There was such a thing as pop music out there, of course, and naturally I encountered it. But I was also made aware, so fervently and consistently that I can’t recall ever not taking it as writ, that pop music was not really music, that pop culture wasn’t really culture. It was silly, it was trite, and no one who was serious about music, or culture generally speaking, took it at all seriously.

Except, of course, that this isn’t true. Not at all. Goths and punks and rock ’n’ rollers, boy-band fanatics and showtune queens and metalheads… comic book fans and square-dance mavens and Jeopardy buffs…people take popular culture tremendously seriously. They shape their tribes around it, and sometimes their lives.

This didn’t matter much when I was in grammar school. But the older I got, the more I was expected to actually have some skin in the pop-culture game, and the less acceptable I became when I didn’t. At the same time, the older I got, the more I was expected to toe a certain line with regard to classical music. Classical music, like every old art in which history’s elites are venerated, is a grand old lion of a military general, valiantly fighting a defensive action in the culture wars. When you are raised and trained as a classical musician, you learn very thoroughly, and on pain of being humiliated and shunned, where your loyalties are supposed to lie. Which mine mostly did.

I tried to bridge the distance between my worlds, in social self-defense. But the gulf between the place where I sang Mozart and Debussy with people my parents’ age and the place where I went to public school and tried to make friends with kids my own was vast. At thirteen I hid in my attic bedroom listening to America’s Top 40 on my clock-radio, volume turned down low. No one could know, lest they tease me. It was pointless, of course. I could fool no one just by knowing what had been Number One that week. And anyhow it turned out that the girls I desperately wanted to be my friends were devoted to Duran Duran. I gave up my furtive trysts with Kasey Kasem, learned how to act like I agreed Simon LeBon was a demigod, and thus made myself tolerable enough that the girls in question let me sit with them at lunch sometimes.

By such fits and starts my pop-culture poseurhood progressed. To impress a girl I had an enormous crush on, I braved the alien turf of the rock’n’roll record store for a Siouxie and the Banshees album and snuck out of the house to hear The Psychedelic Furs. Later I subscribed to Rolling Stone and The Village Voice—both of which were largely incomprehensible to me—on the theory that the jazz musician I had the hots for would find me more appealing if I were, y’know, a little more downtown. No surprise: these walks through the valley of the shadow of popular culture did not cause anyone to whom I was attracted to acknowledge my existence in any new and exciting way. Nor did I get any closer to downtown, except by accidentally taking the wrong subway. But I tried.

There were any number of such forays into the terra incognita of contemporary culture, some of which, like gay bars, were even fun. But every moment of fun on the wrong side of the musicological tracks meant watching my step that much more carefully. I was in conservatory, walking the next stage of a lifetime path in classical music, and singing along to Sister Sledge while out with the gay boys would get me about as far there as singing Mozart had gotten me with the girls memorizing the liner notes to Seven and the Ragged Tiger in the junior high cafeteria.

My popular culture incompetence wasn’t limited to music, it just had its roots there. Deeply involved in a world with its own very strict set of priorities and schedules, I simply didn’t do the kinds of things other kids I knew did in high school or during my undergraduate years. I wasn’t in the band, the drama club, or the homecoming committee. Had I possessed the tiniest scrap of athletic ability or the desire to use it I still wouldn’t have had time for sports. I’ve heard similar stories from friends who grew up as practitioners of other life-consuming arts like ballet. For almost all of us, the fine Young American art of “just hanging out”—parties and movies and rock concerts and dating and road trips and getting high with your friends and that sort of thing—remains one of those weirdly exotic things, as curious and rare to us as spending time backstage is to everyone else.

Some might say I didn’t miss much. I’ve heard that a lot, often enough that I’ve sometimes believed it myself. But I did miss the hugely form-conferring experiences of being a teenager and a college student, American style. I was on a different path, where being culturally late-middle-aged regardless of birthdate was an enormous asset. I was, and it served me well. But it was awfully isolating.

The priorities of the classical music world kept my range restricted and my field of vision narrow.  No pop music, very little pop culture, keep your aesthetics European and nineteenth-century at the latest, venerate the canonical and the technically excellent. Those who play with tradition must still uphold it: choose your mavericks carefully. Sneer at the crossover successes, hold universally adored artists suspect. (Do not forget to roll your eyes at John Williams.)  Art is pure and happens from the neck up. Should you experience limbic system response, such as the desire to shake what I believe is vulgarly known as one’s moneymaker, make immediate use of the emergency exit.

It is as effective as any other set of blinders people put on themselves or others in the name of God or art or honor because these things, like love and allegiance and belonging, acceptance and knowing your place in the world, are worth a great deal. Sometimes they are worth being hobbled in a way that gives you a limp. Sometimes they are worth putting the blinders back on your own head. I felt the restraint and it chafed, left me sad and lonely and feeling as if I were stuck behind a window watching a world that was meant for people very different to me. But I did not even consider walking away.

I could’ve rebelled in earnest. I could’ve turned punk, become a rock’n’roller. I could’ve jumped ship for the Peace Corps, for pre-med, for a lesbian separatist commune. I could’ve tossed it all on the fire and abandoned the world of professional classical music not with a whimper, as ultimately was the case, but with a ferocious fuck you.

I never did. It was not always a comfortable bed but it was mine, mine since childhood, and I knew its textures and edges, knew just how far I could roll over without falling out. I stayed there for a long time, with the result that I often feel far less than adequate citizen of my place and time now. Inside my head it is usually about 1924. 1924 with access to the Internet and a political sensibility tempered by coming out into the Lesbian Sex Wars and the early years of the AIDS crisis. But 1924 nevertheless.

It did occur to me, some years after my inadvertent introduction to hip-hop, that my condition could be treated. I have done this with some success. I happen to really like living in the same world as everybody else and enjoy many of the things that pop culture has to offer. But culturally, intellectually, I am still not normal. Or popular. I find television confusing and have never owned a TV set. My reactions to pop-culture blockbusters like Twilight tend toward bafflement and I remain unclear just what a Kardashian is for. I’m at my happiest, and often at my best, when I’m letting my meticulously installed cultural weirdness off the leash to romp in some recondite intellectual or musical dog park. But if I do my homework, I can usually manage not to sound like I just returned from 30 years in a gulag.

I wouldn’t trade it, though, my odd old-fashioned symphony-filled 1924 cultural backwater. Being exiled to the fringes of the mainstream under threat of humiliation and excommunication was painful and shameful, isolating and lonely. But I will always carry the intimate knowledge of an artistic and aesthetic nation that existed centuries before me, and it is a thing that gives me enormous pride and pleasure. I can now visit that place as I like, whenever and however I wish, and it is a privilege and a pleasure, even though I now go there as an expatriate visiting home, iPod at the ready. You know, just in case the gravitational pull gets too strong, the air slightly too rare, and I need a little Run-D.M.C.

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Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Hanne Blank (www.hanneblank.com) is a writer, historian, and educator whose work lies at the intersection of body, self, and culture. Trained as a classical mezzo-soprano at New England Conservatory, Indiana University School of Music, and Tanglewood, she feels that those who cannot figure out what the connections are between her musical career and her literary one probably just need to go to the opera more often. She currently splits her time between north-central Massachusetts and Atlanta, Georgia. More from this author →