by ragini tharoor srinivasan
What did I know? In the span of three years, I’d gone from Alanis-Fiona-Tori-Sheryl to Tupac-Tupac-Tupac and now this long-haired fifteen-year-old wannabe guitarist was saying “concept album” and “counterpoint” and “Lars Ulrich, but only pre-96.” He was my cousins’ friend; I met him briefly in New York at a movie and then a jam session; we spent a couple years in the late 1990s on the phone having ludicrous and infantile phone sex and listening to—I didn’t even know what it was. It was loud. It was male. It was white. He said it was about the arrangements, and the stories.
I was a just-post-pre-teen Indian kid from the California burbs. I was a brown girl who mostly listened to her father’s music: Jethro Tull, The Doors, The Cure, Men at Work, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, mixed up with classic Hindi film songs. I was an older sibling who didn’t have anyone else to copy from. I was an eighth grader and then a high school freshman without a learner’s permit. On the weekends, I got dropped at Wherehouse Music in south San Jose and bought albums that came out before I was born or before I could read from a list generated by New York boy, who imagined himself a progressive rocker and me, his sultry telephonic muse. Queen. Metallica. Dio. Alice in Chains. King Crimson. Yngwie Malmsteen. Dream Theater. Queensrÿche. He told me to play the albums straight through, and I did, lying on my twin bed after school, approximating teen angst with Geoff Tate’s voice cutting through my chest.
What kind of man sang like this? And what kind of man listened to men singing like this? It was the hardest music I’d ever heard, and the softest. In “Best I Can” from Queensrÿche’s 1990 album Empire, Tate literally sang that he wanted to be the best man he could be, and I didn’t hear the irony.
I want to be a busy man / I want to see a change in the future / I’m gonna make the best of what I have.
Really? I listened over and over again. Every chord was sincere.
I want to write for a magazine / I’m gonna be the best they’ve ever seen / I know I’ll win if I give it all I can.
Over and above the quirky and earnestly expressed desire to participate in the literary public sphere (“I want to write for a magazine”), the song sounded like it was lifted from a 1980s-high school rom-com. I’m thinking in particular of the 1985 movie Teen Wolf, about a struggling high schooler, played by Michael J. Fox, who becomes the star of his basketball team (and gets the girl) after learning to embrace his inner (literal) werewolf. There’s a lesson there about the appetites of whiteness. My point here is that the theme song, “Win in the End,” has basically the same lyrics as “Best I Can.”
I didn’t know much about metal conventions, but I was smart enough to be jaded and Queensrÿche didn’t add up to what I imagined they should: badassness, metal studs, lyrical violence, shattered vocal chords. I didn’t know then how queer metal could be, the men with the Farrah Fawcett hair, the power ballads with Celine Dion’s range, the Cinderella’s-Ugly-Sisters make-up. So I focused on the ingenuously narrated politics of “Empire.” The pure, unvarnished earnestness of “Anybody Listening?”:
Is there anybody listening? / Is there anyone that sees what’s going on? / Read between the lines, criticize the words they're selling…
The opening lyrics of “Another Rainy Day”—“Don’t slam the door on your way out / Don’t leave without saying goodbye”—could have been from the second track from Ace of Base’s The Sign. I played “Silent Lucidity” like a private lullaby, half ashamed of the song’s saccharine drama, half waiting for the idiotic robot voice, half amused at the incongruence of the title:
I will be watching over you / I am gonna help you see it through / I will protect you in the night / I am smiling next to you, in silent lucidity.
It was an awful poem. Was it a hell of a song?
But then, there would be the metal scraping scars into the sentiment. Listening to “The Thin Line,” I never could tell if Tate was singing, “I walk the thin line for you,” or, “I walk the thin line / Fuck you.”
“Jet City Woman” confused me more. That rumbling train opener. The whistling, climbing start. It was a love song, wasn’t it?
Every time I leave you say you won’t be there / And you’re always there / Every time I cry your name at night / You pull close and say it’s alright.
Cuddly territory so far, but then—“the heat of your heartbeat / Echo in my head like a scream / What you do to me”—and not enough exclamation points for that question-howl.
Whenever I’m alone I’m thinking / There’s a part missing from my life / Wonder where I’d be without your love / Holding me together now I’m…
The ache in that “I’m.” And then: “but without you / I can’t breathe.” The “breathe” a scream.
There was no Wikipedia. I couldn’t look up these lyrics. I knew only what New York boy told me over AOL Instant Messenger, while punting my middle-school crushes offline. AIM was new then, having debuted in 1997 (after twenty years, it goes offline this December), and it offered many of us our first formative experiences of space-time compression and online anonymity. AIM concealed bodies, we had no profile pictures, but New York boy and his music were whiteness to me then. All earnestness and arrogance, entitlement draped in innocence. New York boy’s ignorance of my music, background, and languages were for him a badge of pride. I had to know Queensrÿche. Queensrÿche didn’t have to know me. New York boy was laughably sincere, too, dreamt of being the best guitarist and vocalist and man he could be. And of course he thought I needed to know exactly how and what he felt and dreamt. He wrote me emails like this:
I found out that my range is better than I thought. In the studio that day that we recorded, I could hardly scream high B. But today, I sang without screaming or going into falsetto, high fucking, D. So knowing this I am reassured, and I figure if high D is in my range, how hard will screaming or at least just hitting high B be? The solo is so fuckin powerful, especially since its backed up by the most passionate melody in the song, and then the ending is so fucking, ugh, it’s like a musical BITCHSLAP. I played the soft outro following the really heavy ending, Well, gotta go eat dinner, and relax my vocal chords, I love you babe, mail me back. And you know how it is, if you don’t have anything interesting to say, shut the fuck up.
I stopped talking to New York boy at the end of my freshman year of high school. Maybe the middle. There was no breaking point; things just petered out. He was boring, I finally admitted, in addition to pretentious and self-obsessed. He was proud of being unhygienic. He didn’t read. I was preparing for my classical Indian bharatanatyam dance debut that summer; I didn’t have time for his musical bitchslaps. For years, I would remember his birthday, though I wouldn’t call, and there’s still a photo of him somewhere in my desk at my parents’ house. He’s sitting in an armchair with one leg tucked behind his butt, long black unwashed hair draped over his shoulder, head cocked to the side, mild, unsmiling expression, the picture of feminine repose. High school kept happening. I got a cell phone, and a boyfriend in my own time zone, and a driver’s license. A few days a week, it was my turn to drive the carpool, a gang of second-generation Indian American girls on our way to Catholic school. We were often late, and listening to Geoff Tate of Queensrÿche. I don’t think they knew what to make of him. But then, neither did I.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is an assistant professor of English at the University of Arizona. California-born and raised, she has also lived in North Carolina, New Jersey, Illinois, Nevada, and now Arizona. She has never heard hair metal live.