Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
As an up-and-coming mega-artist, I am constantly hassled by co-workers and strangers asking me questions about my bubbling creativity. You know how it goes, because you also probably have latent mega-artistry hiding just under the surface. People ask questions like:
“Where do you get your mega-artistic ideas?”
“Will you please stop preening yourself long enough to flush the toilet?”
“When did you first know you were an artist?”
Well, maybe that second one isn’t asked so much by co-workers or strangers, but it is asked a lot. As for the last question, that’s what I’d like to answer today.
Let me take you back…. back to my childhood, growing up in ultra-tiny High Springs, Florida. It was closed off from the rest of the world in many ways, and only the flashiest popular culture managed to trickle down to our small town. This is the reason why (the *only* reason why) I was into the New Kids on the Block in middle school– because they were pretty much the only pop act that High Springsians were aware of.
Only after I moved to the relative metropolis of Jacksonville and was called a faggot for wearing my NKOTB T-shirt in a library did I realize how shut off I had been. Not only shut off from greater, less teeny-bopper musical acts, but also from mean little shits who spewed their homophobic prejudice at me, a genuine non-homo. Interesting that I had to leave a small town to encounter stereotypical small-town bigotry. But then, Jacksonville does have its small town elements, as well.
But back to High Springs. Media immersion there was like dipping your toes in a puddle, but there were a few privileged folks around that could afford satellite TV. My friend Mark’s family had a huge satellite dish, as they were relatively affluent. Once, while visiting Mark’s house, I watched one of my first music videos. The speakers blared “Love Shack” by the B-52s (whom I was not aware of at the time), and the TV screen showed images of long-haired rockers screaming into mics and shredding their guitars. Wow!
It wasn’t until years later that I saw the *actual* video for “Love Shack” and realized my error in thinking the band was a bunch of hair-rockers. Don’t call me gullible; there was obviously some kind of mixup with the video image and the sound, or Mark’s family liked to listen to music and play MTV with the sound turned off. If you’ve got a better way to transcribe sex appeal to the non-sexy music you normally listen to, I’d like to hear it.
Yeah yeah, I hear ya: “Is this story going somewhere?” Sure, what the hell.
When our middle school’s annual talent show was announced, I felt the first tremors of creativity in myself. It was like I had something I needed to share with the world, something no one else had. And it wasn’t just what I had to share, but how. I knew that I had a gift, a brush to paint with, a voice with which to sing.
So that’s how I decided to lip-sync the Beach Boys’ song “409” with Mark in the talent show. It was thrilling. It was exhausting. It was a lot more work than you’d imagine. I mean really, we all sing along to songs now, but have you ever tried to lip-sync in front of an audience, with everyone hanging on the words you pretend are flowing out of your mouth? I didn’t think so. And karaoke doesn’t count, that’s a totally different thing.
We didn’t have a lot of time before the show, so we went into overdrive, getting together a few times a week to practice. At the time, I was under the impression that the song was about a motorcycle. I have been under that impression until 5 minutes ago, when I looked online to find out it’s about a Chevrolet car, not a bike. Eh. If you’re interested, you can find the lyrics to the song here.
Sometimes we would practice in front of Mark’s parents, to get a genuine audience reaction. Overall, I think we were improving, but the occasional slip-up would send Mark into a pit of self-doubt. Once, after screwing up in front of his parents, he declared something to the effect that he didn’t think he could do it; it wasn’t worth it. At this point, his father began yelling, and I began sweating uncomfortably.
“Whatchyer problem, Mark?! I’ll tell you what your problem is: YOU’RE A QUITTER! Oh, look at my son, the quitter! Can’t ever finish anything, can’t do anything right! Born to disappoint his parents, that’s all you’re good fer!”
He went on like that for awhile, and I can’t really recall Mark’s reaction. All I can remember is feeling incredibly awkward, and being grateful that I did not have to practice our lip-sync number in front of my own, much scarier father.
We slogged through it though, and achieved a reasonably plausible lip-sync routine. We even had Hawaiian shirts to wear on stage. As the date of the talent show approached, I got more and more anxious, simultaneously impatient and terrified to let loose the raw creativity I felt burgeoning inside me. Could the audience handle it? Would we be passed over for the top prize because the judges wouldn’t want the other, lesser talents to feel wretchedly outshined?
Unfortunately, these questions will go forever unanswered. On the morning of the talent show, I woke up and found I could not speak above a hoarse whisper. The foul affliction of laryngitis had taken hold, and robbed me of my chance to shine. Never mind that I didn’t need to use my actual voice for the act; I couldn’t risk not being able to introduce Mark and I. Or what if we were called upon for an award acceptance speech? I couldn’t embarrass my parents by appearing onstage in such a state.
I telephoned my friend. “Mark?” I croaked, “I can’t do the talent show tonight, I have laryngitis. I can barely speak.” I tried to sound as pitiful as I could, and braced myself for the rush of disappointment I knew he would express.
“Oh really?” he replied. “Well, that’s good actually, because now I can go to my Boy Scouts meeting instead.”
I was crestfallen (it’s a word, look it up!). I couldn’t believe that my best friend would not even feign concern for me, so excited was he for the free “out” he had received. Our friendship deteriorated from there, and I never again had the nerve to lift a mic to my lips again and pretend to sing that sweet song.
Instead, I rechanneled my creative zest into the medium of video art, which is, admittedly, less well-regarded than lip-syncing. But sometimes you just have to go with what pays the bills.
OK, fine– video art doesn’t pay any of my bills! Why don’t you get off my back about this art shit and let me drink my beer, huh?