first round game
(15) tnt, "10,000 lovers (in one)"
(2) skid row, "18 and life"
AND WILL PLAY IN THE SECOND ROUND.
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Then vote. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/3.
jennifer gravley on skid row's "18 and life"
Write the March Shredness Essay You Were Born to Write in Two Easy Steps
1. Harden your heart.
Hello, I am a cold person. My therapist assures me I did not come out of the womb this way, but I think back to childhood, not wanting the hugs and kisses of my elderly relatives, rejecting the advances of dogs who wanted to be petted. All my grandma’s friends knew that my sister was the nice one.
When I was a kid, I thought I was scared of people, that I preferred being inside to outside, that I didn’t like animals. But when I was a little older, I learned that what I was was cold. I remember the church matriarch, distant kin through some number of convolutions, tugging at my arm when yet again I didn’t go up for prayer, trying to move me physically if she couldn’t emotionally. Arms crossed, head down, I rooted myself to the bench. She told me my heart was cold. She told me I had a heart of ice.
For the nearly three decades, “18 and Life” has chiseled through that iciness. There’s a particular sadness to the songs of adolescence, a particular urgency to the nostalgia that has everything to do with those isolated moments that told us who we were, that turned us into who we are.
2. Watch the video.
I watch the video I didn’t watch in 1989 in the mountains of North Georgia. I was fourteen years old and listened to the radio on an otherwise despised alarm clock. I had seen MTV only in the houses of friends whose families mine considered rich.
The men smoke in their cells, the opening chords setting the camera’s pace. Black-polished nails on a guitar briefly overlay the bars, but soon Ricky comes into view, his arms folded. He looks blankly up and to the left, as if he might be in social studies, bored and angry. His brown mullet is the hairdo of every boy I knew and every older boy that I didn’t. He is, even now, nondescript. The camera turns to him and overlays his face with that of Sebastian Bach.
1. Harden your heart.
I am good at this. I have hardened my heart before.
When I heard the word cold, the words heart of ice, I thought, That’s the way to do it. For years I had been practicing, steeling myself against these good people who used my body against me. I couldn’t instruct my face not to burn, my heart not to pound, my skin not to sweat. But I could tell my mind to ignore it. I could tell my heart not to feel it. I could separate myself—that trembling, snotting girl could not be me because I did not have feelings. I could bear being in that holy space.
2. Watch the video.
The video says: You’re looking at Ricky, but that’s not who you are. You’re on the outside. You’re Sebastian Bach. Look how pretty you are! Your hair is blond and long and straight. Your voice—you have one!—it’s the voice of an angel.
1. Harden your heart.
One thing I didn’t have the language for and wouldn’t for years: I was, of course, already depressed. I spent my best weekends never changing out of my pajamas after Friday night. I cried. I knew had a lot more living to get through before I could get out.
2. Watch the video.
Before I know anything, I know that Ricky has a heart of stone. I watch his father push him through a door.
1. Harden your goddamn heart.
Does he feel anything?
2. Watch the video.
The video says: He isn’t good enough on the inside.
The video says: You’ve never gotten out in any meaningful way.
1. Harden your heart.
I once made a mistake and tried not to be cold. After year after year of revival after revival, chance after chance to believe, to fall in line, to be who everyone who loved me thought I was born to become—I thought it might be easier to try.
I had no idea what to do, what I was supposed to do, what I was even supposed to be asking for. Everything was an uncomfortable charade. I didn’t feel an urge that told me when to run up the aisle so I tried to gauge the social clues for an appropriate time—when the altar call had started but not gone on so long that it would end. I did the same with when it was time to get up and leave the altar. There was never a moment when I had given up because I had never been trying. I had been waiting it out, head down on crossed arms on the mourner’s bench. There wasn’t anything I was struggling against except myself and the people around me.
2. Watch the video.
Sebastian Bach closes his eyes and wails. Ricky tears away part of a building. The video says: Shake your beautiful blond hair. The fatal shot is fired. The child blows a child away. The video says: You’re on stage! Shake your beautiful blond hair for the audience.
1. Harden your heart.
I am cold. The video says: Tell yourself. I know fourteen-year-old me isn’t some separate self contained within me, some iteration I can follow decision, circumstance, and lucky or unlucky break back to. Still, I am nostalgic for her. How can I not long for that feeling of shame and despair and defiance? Sometimes I want to attend church again, just for my heart crushing itself—
The video says: Everyone who loved you as a child thinks that there’s a hell and that it’s for people like you.
—but the only version of that past I can get back to is the version that lives in my hard cold heart, the version that is me, living.
2. Watch the video.
Ricky’s further into his cell, his back against the wall. The door is open. My heart says: He is telling himself he doesn’t have feelings.
Watch the video end with Sebastian Bach. Like all the best lovers, the video made me see myself as something I’m not, the instrument of emotion instead of the emotion itself, made me feel like I have control—the very best story—but I don’t. I’m not Sebastian Bach. I’m in that cell, and so are you.
Jennifer Gravley writes mainly short prose, watches mainly bad television, and thinks Excel is really very useful. She has graduate degrees in creative writing and library science and thus frequently finds herself in search of employment. She is headed to Ragdale in September, where she will investigate something called a prairie.
berry grass on TNT's "10,000 lovers (in one)"
It sounds idyllic, right? You’d think, I don’t know, merely one dozen lovers would suffice for paradise, but this is hair metal—despite all of the feminized aesthetics it’s a subgenre whose lyrics were so often meant for teenage boys and their hormonal fever dreams. Ten thousand lovers, then! Crucially though, the speaker of TNT’s most notable song yearns for ten thousand lovers in one. A single woman whose passion is legion. Hyperbole is the way pubescence stretches desire, slows time, makes everything there is to want in life both almost within reach (one person to love!) but somehow so far away (who is as good as ten thousand people). But I wouldn’t really know much about how young men desire beyond what they tried to force me into desiring.
This is an essay about how hair metal aesthetics affected me—a trans woman—as a teenager. But like my own coming out, I need to work myself up to it here. I grew up with the music and imagery of hair metal, and I knew enough then to see that the way these bands wore women’s clothing & moved their bodies in such sexual ways was pointing to other possibilities than the normative rural masculinity that was already attempting to enlist me & subsume me. But the only vocabulary I had for this dynamic was that of drag. Biological essentialism constrains the imagination of children. Children in the Midwest aren’t taught about expressing a genuine self or about not conforming to binary gender roles. They’re taught that boys are one way & girls another. Anything that blurs the lines is just drag. Cross-dressing. Fake.
TNT is not like most hair metal bands. They began as a derivative power metal band only to take a turn towards pop, towards the feminine, on their 3rd album, Tell No Tales. Lead vocalist Tony Harnell’s voice is breathtaking in its range & control of pitch and vibrato. He reached Geoff Tate-level high register, & but his band’s music is & look is far girlier, not so much Queensrÿche as just some queens.
The cover for Tell No Tales features the band draped in a lived-in femininity. Some bands of the era performed in bustiers and fishnets and heavy foundation and blush and eye shadow and eyeliner and false lashers and setting powder and lip liner and lipstick—full drag. That’s not quite TNT’s look in 1987. Long, voluminous feathered hair? Yes, of course. But also oversized blazers worn with floral leggings or black denim cutoffs over black stockings or bohemian ruffled garments and Stevie Nicks headbands. But also light makeup. But also practical heels. Somehow this look registers then and now as more acutely queer than drag does. By virtue of its exaggerated performativity, drag takes the feminine (or the masculine, in the case of drag kings) and adorns it onto bodies that are routinely & systemically denied access to it. TNT’s look is more relaxed, less theatrical, and thus more fully realized. Not so much dressing and draping oneself with femininity as much as simply being feminine. Less acting, more actualization.
There are two music videos for “10,000 Lovers”. The original video is conventional for the genre: footage of the band is interspersed with a comic narrative about a teenage boy working a menial fast food job, daydreaming about sticking it to his boss & running away with a couple of hotties. The band enters the narrative’s physical space at the end in order to perform some slapstick (in this case, serve an exploding chili dog to the grumpy boss figure). It was made to play on Headbanger’s Ball. But I am much more taken with the band’s more obscure, minimalist second attempt at a video [embedded above].
Each of the members of TNT are standing on a tall black platform, their personal obelisks close enough to each other to perform as a band, but far enough apart to rule out touching each other. Between and around these lonely stages? Darkness. It’d be entirely black if not for the stage lights attached to lighting rigs aloft in the air. Gaps of nothing between each platform, a plummet into certain doom. The video contains just this single scene. The impact of such staging is immediate and obvious: the speaker of the song feels isolated by their desire.
This is the gut punch of “male socialization” for trans girls: that your entire adolescent and young adult life is about other people telling you what your desire “really” is and what your desire is supposed to be. For someone who is coercively seen as a boy to desire the feminine is an act only understood by normative society in the capacity of sexual conquest, of healthy heterosexual drives. Desiring closeness to the feminine is seen as a misdirected form of those impulses. “You don’t want to be a woman, no, you just love women so much that you want keep ‘em all for yourself! You’d love to have 10,000 women around wouldn’t you, you dog!” Toxic masculinity gets placed upon us as with normative boys but we actually do experience that socialization quite differently. If there’s any substantive form of male socialization experienced by trans girls who are closeted, or who haven’t quite figured out the extent of their gender nonconformity just yet, it’s one that isn’t felt or internalized or understood the same way as it is in cisgender, heterosexual boys. Normative boys are socialized to delight in sexual conquest. A young trans kid like me? I knew what was expected of me but instead of delighting in it I found it repulsive. And more to the point I found that the gendered expectations just didn’t understand me. I didn’t want to take a lover, let alone a bunch of lovers. I wanted to be the lover, yearned for. I wanted to pursue my ambitions as a woman, not pursue women. I wanted to be feminine, not control the feminine.
Alone on his dark tower on the soundstage, wearing a velvet jacket and light foundation, Tony Harnell sings a song about desiring this woman who contains multitudes. This woman who is fractional by thousands and thousands but who is also whole. But I’d like you to think as best you can how a young trans girl might feel about these lyrics. Placing herself into the role of the speaker, how the song hits a young trans girl who is herself isolated by what she desires.
She desires herself. Not possession of herself but actualization of herself. She is the multitudinous woman. “Seems like I've known her a thousand years./ We've been together all through our lives./” Great chasms & pitfalls between the boy she’s seen as and the girl she is. To reconcile the two would be to fall, fall. But the two are always together, just out of reach. Stuck, alone, in a body and a social role that doesn’t work, the spotlight of it all leaving your skin singed. “Just a kid on a highway to nowhere./ Wishin' for my girl to be real,/ she would satisfy my soul.” The knowledge that your desire can save you but the suspicion that you could never make it real. That desire was first for you not about sexuality but about self-actualization. That you are the locus of your own desire, that you are what you desire, even, and that you are to blame for not attaining your desire.
Let me tell you how a single web search set me back a decade. I grew up in a modest rural town in Missouri. My mom was raising me & my little brother by herself on a teacher’s salary. We were too poor to have a computer in our home until the early 2000s, when I was in high school. But without access to the internet, a rural trans kid like me is not going to have any information about what they are experiencing. There’s no books in the library system that explain what gender dysphoria is. There’s no resources at school on feminist thought. Sex education at a Midwest high school was the heteronormative cage that you’d expect. There’s no community of queer elders in town. The only information on trans people is what you get from popular media. In the 1990s & early 2000s, all depictions of trans women on TV were ribald stereotypes of sex-crazed men in dresses getting into verbal spats on Jerry Springer and being asked about “the surgery.” Trans women were the plot twist in movies; mostly they were killers, & even when they were depicted with femininity they were always outed as the fakes that the camera’s lens (which is to say, society’s normative gaze) saw them as, occasioning grossed-out faces & lots of pantomimed vomiting.
The first time that I worked up the nerve to do a web search for “how do I know if I’m transgender?,” I didn’t find any info on gender dysphoria. I didn’t find the narratives and experiences of trans people that would give me the vocabulary I desperately needed to make sense of myself. Instead, I got information on the scientific-sounding pathology called autogynephilia—love of one’s self as a woman. This concept was theorized by sexologist Ray Blanchard, and developed further by J. Michael Bailey in his well-read pop science book, The Man Who Would Be Queen. That book came out in 2003, which was coincidentally the year I was 17 years old & realizing that something felt very very wrong about my body & the expectations placed upon it. Which is to say that autogynephilia was in the news & was being championed as a legitimate diagnosis.
I will try to quickly break down Blanchard’s absurd theory of autogynephilia. His thinking is that trans women are certainly not women. They are instead either 1.) very homosexual men, who want to be with normative straight men so they feel more comfortable being seen as a woman in order to fit into that normativity, or 2) they are perverted heterosexual men who fetishize the idea of looking like or being seen as a woman. Seventeen year old me, inclined toward science, read all of this & deeply internalized it. I had to reckon with myself: was there sexual fantasy involved in my emotional experience? The answer was yes. All of the fantasies that I would masturbate to, all of the images of desire playing in my mind, were of me as a woman. Literally all of them. Instead of trying to find counterpoints to the autogynephila theory, I just accepted that it was hard science & therefore correct. I didn’t have the maturity or the resources then to realize that, duh, it’s completely normal for women to think of themselves AS women when it comes to sex. I lacked the ability to see that I wasn’t the perverted man that I was scared of being or growing into, but rather my subconscious was giving myself a glimpse of the freedom that I needed to pursue. Autogynephila is bunk science that medical & psychological fields have come to nearly universally reject, and yet the cultural stigma of it still exists. I wouldn’t let myself search for other information or experiences for many years. I wouldn’t come out as transgender until 10 years from that first web search.
So I did not want to consider the exploding chili dog. I did not want to think about the comic triviality of TNT’s initial video for “10,000 Lovers” (though, even within its generic normativity, I spot a bit of eyeliner on our central figure of the all-American boy). I wanted to think about that stark second video, which captures for me the perilous feeling of being trans and mixed up by everyone else’s confusion about trans people. To be told that I wasn’t a woman at all, just a man who was turned on by the thought of being one & to see on TV the performative feminized aesthetic of hair metal musicians—whose lyrics and swagger scream masculinity in spite of the lace and the hairspray and the smoky eyes—reinforce that message & to have those same rock stars in drag be the closest thing to trans people I’d see for years. How[ ]alone I felt. Surrounded by great chasms, finally, ill-fatedly, I was told that I did not desire to be feminine. Really, says Blanchard and Bailey, I just wanted to possess the feminine to satisfy my urges. I was a sex pervert. A seventeen year old freak. A kid on a highway to nowhere. But through that pseudoscientific shame, part of me still knew the way life could be. Part of me still burned endlessly.
Berry Grass is a trans writer who lives & teaches writing in Philadelphia (before that: Tuscaloosa and Kansas City). Their essays and poems appear in DIAGRAM, The Normal School, The Wanderer, Barrelhouse, and The Tiny, among other publications. When they aren't reading submissions as the Nonfiction Editor of Sundog Lit, they are embodying what happens when a Virgo watches too much professional wrestling.