We were on our way up to the theater last weekend–to watch Rent -oh my heavens how much do I love that you enjoy musicals the way that I do! –and you plugged your iPhone into the car’s USB port, just like any other time that we spend time in the car together. Tunes start to filter into the air and, just as we merge onto the freeway, Queen’s “Under Pressure” begins.
I learned several years ago–you must have been 11 or 12–that we would have our best conversations in the car. I think this is one of those side-effects of teenagering. If we sit across a table from each other doing something as threatening as eating a meal together, silence will reign. But the car provides an intimate canopy for conversation, facilitated by the fact that we are both looking ahead at the road and the traffic (not at each other), figuring out where we’re going and why. I remember one evening in particular a few years back; we were doing a mom-son book group that summer and you’d wanted..I’d wanted?…one of us wanted to read To Kill a Mockingbird. And so we did. On the way home from the lake and the fireflies and the music hanging yet in the humid air, we talked about the scene that bugged us, the one where Scout is trying to make sense of Miss Gates who with one breath denounces Hitler and with the next vilifies and dehumanizes the African Americans of the town. Scout invites Jem’s help in figuring Miss Gates out; “Jem was suddenly furious. He leaped off the bed, grabbed me by the collar and shook me. ‘I never wanta hear about that courthouse again, ever ever, you hear me? You hear me?'” I asked you what you thought; why did Jem get so angry, and at Scout? You said to me,”Mom, I get it, because sometimes you say something, and I get so angry and upset. And I know that what you said isn’t the thing that made me angry, but I can’t help myself.” There are many small moments like this that remind me of how self-reflective you are.
Singing in the car to the music that you choose is a fairly new phase in a long history of car journeys with you. I mean, I used to get to design our playlists. Do you remember that time we did a day trip to Minneapolis with Will and Natalie and I put on Taio Cruz and all of you started singing in the back seat? Or, heavens, I can still hear you all shouting along to Katy Perry’s “Firework.” I’d try to sneak in my Joni Mitchell or Aretha Franklin tunes, but those were not compelling in the face of y’all’s bubble pop. But don’t get me wrong–I danced in my seat too.
Now you have playlists, including a long one on spotify called something like “good music oh yay” which ranges from The National to Hamilton, from Kendrick Lamar to Twenty One Pilots, from Joy Division and Journey to The Killers, Bruce Springsteen, Pentatonix, Enrique Iglesias, BETSY. I think you get a kick out of introducing me to music. Clearly, though, you also get a kick out of showing me up, because the other day you opted to play someone else’s “greatest 80s” playlist and, I swear, you knew those songs about as well as I did. (Which means that we both knew about 25% of the lyrics, and had fun mumbling through the rest.)
“Under Pressure” came on as we drove towards the Orpheum to see Rent. You’ve been singing “Seasons of Love” for months now, and the tickets to Rent were a gift from me for your birthday in April. Rent is a rock musical that tackles the painful effects of the AIDS epidemic (it started on off Broadway in the early 1990s) in a society that persistently and insistently disenfranchises and marginalizes poor, queer, brown people. It finds strength and voice in facing death, recognizing the unfairness–the social inequality–of mortality, and making love and art emerge from those ruins. As Mark says late in the musical, “The opposite of war is not peace; the opposite of war is creation.” It is also a musical of people under pressure and, as I watched the people on stage, I couldn’t help but think of the lyrics to “Under Pressure”:
It’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming let me out
“Knowing what this world is about” is both this big existential crisis (a Sartrean cry of loneliness) but also–also also– a recognition of structural inequality: people on streets, people pushed out onto the streets. And Rent gets at the heart of all that: people on streets, people pushed out onto the streets. Also just like “Under Pressure,” Rent believes in love, in giving love ” one more chance.”
I don’t study musicals. I just love musicals. And I think that one of the reasons I love them so very much is because even as many (more than you might think!) confront pain, grief, destruction, social inequality, racism, classism, and sexism, the structure of musicals works toward redemptive finales, toward tentative resolutions. Powerful anthems and/or show-stopping numbers tend to close out shows. You don’t get soloists and ballads at the end; you get many voices, harmonizing. You get the collective, figuring out together what it means to move forward. You get the world after Hamilton dies, considering the meaning of the personal amidst the big sweep of History; you get all the friends, except Angel, remembering how Angel’s love and generosity transformed their possibilities; you get Evan Hansen writing to himself, with the company joining in, symbolically providing a community where before he felt alone; you get all the Alisons singing together in Fun Home as they “fly away.” “Look at me fly away!” Even the “quieter” musicals seem to demand redemption through some sort of collective process.
Here’s the thing that I feel I know and that I want to share with you: singing together with people makes life and contentment and futurity feel more possible, no matter how you’re feeling before that gasp of air that precedes that moment when you join your voice to someone else’s. Here’s what I think you don’t know about me yet: I sang in church choir throughout my childhood, and what I loved the most were songs with soprano descants that I would float my way through, pretending that the harmonies emerged from my throat out of pure joy, not planning. When I got to college, I auditioned for a number of a cappella groups and got into the newest one at Stanford then, Everyday People. You know, I was never the biggest soloist. At the time, I really wanted to be and sometimes felt bad that I didn’t shine the way I wanted to. Now, I look back and realize how much I learned and gained from harmonizing and keeping beats and ooohing and aaahing around others’ voices.
The first definition of the word kinship is “blood relationship.” But the second definition is, broadly, “sharing characteristics”; the synonyms are words like “rapport,” “affinity,” “harmony,” and “closeness.” M’hijo: singing with other people puts you in kinship with them. It makes you work with them towards a common goal–whether that’s having fun, sounding “good,” or something else entirely.
You and I, we are kin in all these ways. We belong to each other. We sing together in the car, tripping over lyrics and laughing at each other; more often than not, we hit chords together and glance at each other in satisfied glee. Together, we make music that makes my face move into a smile before I even realize it.
I tell friends that I hear you singing all the time: in the shower, as you do your homework in the living room, as you make yourself breakfast. The house will be quieter when you go off to college. I’ll probably start singing all the time, trying to fill the air. So, just call me. As you fly away, whenever you’re under pressure, when there are bridges you’ve burned, call me and sing with me. I’ll be there. Our love doesn’t fix the world. But it makes the work we need to do within that world seem that much more doable. I go out into the world every day hearing your voice in my heart; there is so much more inside me now.
1. Let’s say it started with Hamilton, since it is the first music we saw together. I never want to forget that for months–months–we sang along and learned the lyrics and absorbed as much Lin Manuel Miranda trivia that we could. Listening to Hamilton led to scouting out other musicals on spotify. Somehow you found Heathers and American Idiot. We went to NYC to see Hamilton with the help of a conference. Once there, we walked in and out of the Richard Rodgers theater as if in a dream; the older couple behind us remarked during the intermission, “heavens, how do people know what they’re singing? It goes by so quickly?” We giggled to ourselves because we knew how people do it because they were us: singing along to the soundtrack every time we got in the car. Hamilton is still a touchstone for us–a stage and experience that led to the joys of sampling, hip hop histories, other musicals, U.S. histories, discussions about democracy and slavery and the Continental Congress.
2. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 1960, 331.
4. We each listened to all of Dear Evan Hansen on our own this week, after the Tony Awards.