I’ve spent a lot of time watching men’s mouths. Matching vowel shapes. Anticipating the intake of breath and the clip of the final consonant. To be a backup singer is to make the principle sound good. I do not distract. I do not show off. I harmonize. If I’m doing my job, you’re looking at me, but you’re listening to him.
You know, him. The man with the microphone.
I recently started teaching two of the guys in my band to sing harmony. I still can’t believe that sentence—that I have a band, that we book clubs and go on tour, that three incredibly talented, good-looking men stand behind me while we play songs that I wrote. They listen to my ideas and write instrumental parts; they practice on their own time, and then, in front of breathing, beer-drinking concert-goers, they let me stand up front at the microphone and sing the lead.
I even have a woman who sings backup for me. She watches my mouth and breathes when I breathe and she makes the principle sound good. I don’t have to explain anything to her about her function as one-who-harmonizes, but I’m finding that with the guys I have to explain everything. They get frustrated that they don’t intuitively know how to sing harmony—and, sure, it’s a skill that takes years of practice—but it’s also something that seems to go along with being raised a girl. It occurs to me that a little girl will sing more harmony because harmony is what’s expected in every aspect of her life. She’s watching his mouth. She’s adjusting to make him sound better. Even if you can’t nail the tune, I tell the boys, it’s most important to start when I start, stop when I stop, and match my vowel shapes. They don’t understand, so I say it again, “You have to sing without listening primarily to yourself—you should be listening to me.”
For most of my life my father worked in the music industry as a producer, so I spent a good chunk of my childhood haunting concerts I didn’t care about. That’s the rule, right? No matter how cool your dad’s job is, it’s a developmental imperative that you think it’s stupid. He took me and my sister to hear Diana Krall in the park and Point of Grace in the amphitheater, and these women spun on the stage like ballerinas in a jewelry box—poised, pressed, shiny. I was sharply aware of the glamour and nonsense of women who looked so smooth onstage and so jagged afterwards, up close, with their raccoon eyes and nicotine teeth. I recall being small and making a rude comment about the haircuts of the Manhattan Transfer while visiting their dressing room. Even as a very young know-it-all, I knew this was not my scene.
Then at thirteen, I found myself at the Warfield in San Francisco for my first rock concert. I didn’t know the band or anything about their music. I was merely tagging along with my friends, following someone else’s musical taste into a club, just as I had with my dad. We were four, barely-teenage girls, crammed between groping couples and old people sneaking hits off a palmed joint, and when it got hot on the dancefloor, I had to tie my windbreaker around my waist—yes, my windbreaker, because it was 2003 and I was a kid from the burbs. The music was loud. The lead singer of the opening band spit beer on us, and when my slippery jacket was finally jostled to the floor, it was swept away and tossed into the air, back and forth like a beach ball. Between bands I tilted my face to the ceiling and tried to get fresh air. Everything was covered in sweat. I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about.
But then the fuss found me. The Hives came on in their crisp suits and bolo ties, Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist working the gaunt, contortionist look, literally swinging from the ceiling at one point, overwhelmed with his own internal fire. I had never seen anything like it. I thought my heart was going to explode. It was like the most head-spinning first kiss, like losing track of the surface of the ocean beneath the crush of a wave. Someone had let these men get up on a stage and amplify something profound and personal and internal. They played wildly; they shouted; they soaked through their clothes. Pelle called us “goddamn fucking hippies,” and we screamed for more.
Once I’d gotten my feet and stopped spinning and smiling and feeling wonderfully high, I started to cry. I could not possibly have articulated it then, but I knew, at thirteen, standing in my Chuck Taylors, my windbreaker flying across the room, that this was not something I’d ever get to do. The swaggering and the sweating and the bellowing, playing your guitar until your fingers bled, mouthing off into a microphone—it broke my baby heart to find out that there was something so sublime in the world and that I’d never know what it felt like. I went home and was depressed for days. How do you become a rock star? How do you ask other people to play your music, and then how do you ask other people to listen?
It wasn’t at home that I got the idea that I couldn’t be Pelle. Our walls were decorated with pictures of Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney. My parents insisted that I play an instrument from the time I was four, and they encouraged me as I butchered the piano and trumpet and guitar and electric bass. My mother comes from a large Mennonite family, and they like to kick off their meals with the doxology sung in four-part harmony—women sing in this family. Women sang in that house. We watched a lot of The Lawrence Welk Show, and everyone knew Norma Zimmer was in charge.
But still. Surrounded by a host of strong, singing, female role models, there was a lightness to them that I didn’t see in myself—not just in the mirror—but that I didn’t resemble deep in my chest. Those pretty words they crooned were not the harsh, ugly things that tumbled out in my own poetic efforts. I wrote deviant things. I kept secrets. I worried that I harbored the insurgence of those spindly, craggy rock n’ rollers within the soft arms and round belly of my grandmother. The two parts could not be reconciled.
I spent my high school years as one of those loose, dramatic choir kids. I embraced my station as an alto, high priestesses of harmony, and met the girl who would be the other half of my first band, a comedy duo called Pretty Girls in High Heels. We were awkward and inappropriate and very bad at guitar, but we’d write joke songs about our friends and perform them in public. Poorly. And to the great offense of almost everyone who was referenced therein. There was something significant, of course, in the name we chose for our not-so-serious band. We grew up in the age of Britney and Christina and Beyoncé. We knew that we weren’t sexy or edgy—we were not pretty girls in high heels—and so our musical aspirations, like our music, were just a joke.
This friend of mine was also the child of a musician, and she knew what I knew—women are allowed in front as long as they are indisputably talented and pleasingly decorative. While our male classmates formed bands and played shitty venues and were allowed to try and fail, we made our already-failure into comedy. We knew exactly what we were not—we were not yet perfect. This is the rite of passage: When boys form a band, they make a lot of noise before the noise gets very good. It takes a lot of practice to learn to turn yourself inside out. But when a girl makes her first appearances onstage, it is always about how she looks. Hair and makeup, posture and grace. She doesn’t make a lot of noise, and no one assumes she has a point of view to express or that she’s struggling to learn to express herself at all. In fact, we ask her to please keep the inside inside, to make entertainment out of what is on the outside. The director of the high school musical told me: “You had the better callback, but you don’t look right for the lead.”
For as long as I submitted myself to the approval of casting directors, to cliquey college a cappella auditions, to the tyranny of music magazines, and to the authority of every Jack Johnson wannabe around the campfire, I continued to look wrong for the lead. And it broke me. In college, I hung up my identity as a performer and set out to look for mentors in literature. I once crashed a private reading at my university by Beth Lisick, whose most recent book I had read and reread like a roadmap for being a woman who just doesn’t give a shit. Afterward, I went up to her, clutching my copy of her memoir, and asked with saucer-eyed intensity, “Who gave you permission?”
Of course, she thought I was insane and asked kindly, “Permission to do what?” I stretched out my arms, at a loss. “Just permission. Who told you that you were allowed to do this? For your life?” I think she said something gracious about having supportive parents, but the wheels were already turning in my head. I was struck by the way she’d repeated the word permission as if she’d never been stalked and brutalized by the idea. It wasn’t just about looking wrong and not being able to have a music career because I didn’t see anyone who resembled me at the front of a stage. I had been blaming my body, but there was a deeper impediment. There was, in my mind, an unbreakable association between being pleasing to look at and being worth listening to. And no matter what I didn’t eat, no matter the laps around the east field track, I would never cross the magical threshold where I would be beautiful enough to receive permission. I had misunderstood the power of that casting director—the only person withholding permission was me.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I started to make peace with my body around the same time that I started writing serious songs and letting people hear them. I wish I could say it was some sort of holistic, enlightened revelation in which I embraced my physical self and was rewarded with a vast and fertile creative landscape. I wish I could say that I walked out of that book reading that day and wrote myself a giant permission slip and tacked it over my bed.
It was almost the opposite. I finally saw the hole into which I had slipped and the steep walls I’d have to climb. I deteriorated. I stopped sleeping. I refused to take care of myself—to eat, to change my clothes. I would stay up all night and then throw myself into the Pacific Ocean at dawn, freezing my body until I couldn’t move my fingers. Nineteen and I already felt ninety, brittle and exhausted, sucked under by a depression that I couldn’t shake or name.
At my most terrified, I huddled on the floor of my apartment and—as if this were the most natural response to fierce mental illness—I wrote a song. And it was a true song that said true things. It felt like I’d drilled a small hole in my troubled mind and that the ghosts were finally escaping. It was only then, when I first grabbed hold of that lifeline, when I understood the connection between this work and survival, that “looking right” became immaterial. It would be enough work just to learn to stay alive.
That was seven years ago. That first tiny hole became a fissure that runs the length of my body. I can trace my fingers along it. I can peel back the skin. I have spent every day since learning to turn myself inside out without hurting anyone. Without hurting me. And the desire of my bandmates to learn harmony has become an act of compassion, as much as an act of performance.
We played our first real gig as a band in April 2015. It was a forty-five-minute slot at a popular local venue, and we knew there would be a lot of people there, some were even coming to see us. One of my bandmates, the female vocalist, asked, “What do you want me to wear?” I’d been thinking about it for weeks. I told our guitarist that I didn’t want to do that female-front thing where I’m in a dress and heels and the guys are all casual. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said, only sort-of kidding. We arrived at the venue, the day of the show, without having made a decision about how we all ought to look. I wore jeans and a T-shirt for sound check. We rushed through load-in in the pouring rain, and I felt superhuman to be lugging amps up flights of stairs, smeared with water and sweat, finally rolling up my sleeves and working for this thing in a new way.
When we were all inside, the doorman walked up to the guitarist and handed him a wristband. “These are for you guys,” he said, handing one to our bass player and one to the drummer, “and then I can give the wives hand stamps in a minute.” He nodded at me and turned to walk away. Of course, it made absolutely no difference what I wore. Or how ardently I demonstrated that I could do the heavy lifting. I could have chosen the biggest prom dress, the tightest black leather pants. I could have added a baseball cap to my twelve-year-old-boy ensemble, and that man would still have assumed it wasn’t my band. Three dozen gigs later, I still can’t convince most sound engineers to do what I ask, and the club owners tend to shake hands with my male bandmates first.
But that’s me looking at the problem from the wrong angle again. What I wear to a gig doesn’t matter. I’ll never win the legitimacy that my male counterparts are handed without question, but that’s not why my wardrobe doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because the work of being a performer is to stand at the front of a room and transform—to offer the whole self, turned inside out, a body alive with violations, something grotesque made beautiful.
Sus Long’s band, Hardworker, is releasing their second album, Go Alone, in July 2017. For more information, see www.hardworkerband.com.