NPR aired interviews with two imperfectly superb men this week.
When I was a teenager in rural Pennsylvania, I listened to mopey alternative rock made by white men. The squeak of fingers running over acoustic guitar strings helped tame my fluctuating internal distress over boys who didn’t care about me. I have an Elliott Smith tattoo on my left shoulder. The antidote for my agony was music by Ben Gibbard and Ben Folds, sensitive men singing softly about their feelings, ones who chose lady names—Guinevere, Emaline, Angelina—for their choruses.
The new music I listen to today, at 30, is only rap and hip hop and R&B and pop, all aggression and urges and bass and lush production. Driving around D.C., I tune my radio to WKYS and WPGC; the combination delivers everything I’m craving, Drake and tracks from Beyoncé’s December surprise, unedited for length, every fifteen minutes. Let me sit this a** on ya, because it’s radio. Sometimes Iggy Azalea and Katy Perry and Lorde singles get spins, sometimes remixes, sometimes go-go, sometimes go-go remixes. Day after day, I have more chances to learn lyrics so I can rap along in scattered couplets.
When Bey comes on, I belt out all the words, practicing for any next time I’m at karaoke. “Drunk in Love” was first to get airplay, then “Yoncé”/”Partition,” then “Rocket.” I love how the album feels like a story she had to tell, how some of the chapters are like anthems. I heard “Pretty Hurts” for the first time on 95.5 the other day and was so happy to belt it out: “Perfection is a disease of a nation.” Yes, Bey, yes! You sing the pain of women everywhere.
I love all the rap and hip hop in heavy rotation—Drake, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Kendrick Lamar. Well, most of it. I try to switch the station once I recognize Chris Brown, but “Loyal” is pretty catchy, and I like Weezy’s rap and the wandering hook, so I occasionally leave the dial alone. I also can’t seem to get into Trey Songz.
I’m the only one that gets the job done; I don’t know a n**** that can cover for me. At strategic times I’ve listened to the [EXPLICIT] version of this song, “Believe Me” by Lil Wayne with Drake, from the forthcoming Tha Carter V, through my headphones at work. I apply that line to myself, and same with the declaration on Drake’s single “All Me” that he’s achieved everything on his own: All me for real.
I love driving alone, music up loud in my old car, though I was once taught, in a self-defense class, how to approach an escape from danger through any of its four doors. In my Pontiac, I bounce to Wiz Khalifa’s “We Dem Boyz” even though it reduces women to our sex organs; with my hands on the wheel, my shoulders shake in time to “Clappers,” Wale’s tribute to a woman with a “big ole butt.” Wale and his music fill me with D.C. pride, though I will seethe for hours over any stranger’s comment on my own behind. I have practiced saying, “Respect women!” like I want to every time I hear a man catcall me or another woman, but I’ve never managed to get it out; I always just scowl, or pretend I didn’t hear. Sometimes I also pretend, like DJ Khaled (and Ludacris and Rick Ross and Snoop Dogg and T-Pain), that “All I Do Is Win.” It’s a nice fantasy to inhabit for a few miles.
I like the whatever, the IDGAF, the vulgarity in these sneak peeks of illusory lives reduced to sex, drugs, and money, the opposite of how I feel compelled to act in my routine every day. It’s incendiary when that connection happens, when I feel release listening to “No Mediocre” even though the title refers to “hoes.” It’s just me in my car, so who cares? No one can hear me yelling “bitch” over the scrambled censor, taking the word as my own on my way to the grocery store.
I like dancing to these songs, too, in my kitchen mostly, especially Bey, especially “Started from the Bottom” and “Ride” and “The Motto,” especially when I’m drinking wine as I cook. I haven’t been to a club since college, and for good reason—suddenly a man would be behind me, uninvited, his crotch against my butt, and I would have to tell him to stop. Then I’d be left with the ghost of his erection, and he’d go impinge on another woman’s personal space.
I didn’t know I needed Dance Dance Party Party so badly until I had it, every Tuesday from 7 to 8 in the back room of a rec center just a mile up the road from my apartment. The idea for this transcendent hour, called DDPP for short, was conceived in 2006 by two friends from New York City. Since April, my week has revolved around Tuesday, as sweaty as the sun.
My friend Chrystal first brought me along, and introduced me to her friend Lauren, one of the organizers, who sometimes changes out of her work clothes into black MC Hammer pants that billow and cinch at her ankles. Regulars trickle in and take turns climbing a ladder to help, wedging curtain rods in the wall’s indents to block the view from the room’s high windows. Someone moves the ladder to tape black construction paper over the unyielding fluorescent emergency light.
Once the room is prepped, Lauren lists the rules: no boys, no drinking, and no judgment, which rules out talking, though interaction in other ways—yelling, singing, stealing others’ dance moves—is encouraged. She tells us to spread out, move around the room, and take up as much space as we want. Everyone oohs once the light switch is flicked; the dark glows with jewel-toned beams from a strobe on a side table and a plastic disco ball strung through staples in the ceiling.
Instructions to intentionally occupy space pull hard at the past like the hook of a crochet needle. I have weighed 210 pounds and 140 pounds and what feels like every pound in between, and I’ve forced myself to throw up food I’d just eaten, an unattainable and incessant ideal over my bowed head like a halo. I am better now, increasingly comfortable in the body I have, but I’ve had to work hard to change the way I think about it. In the dark, in the absence of men, among deliberate women, for an uninterrupted hour, I feel unguarded and trustful.
Every week someone puts together a new playlist, created to span genres, generations, and profanities. The music booms loud from a lone, bulky speaker, the sound inevitably fuzzing after a few songs. Two or three times in the set, someone must twist the connection to clear up the track, the rest of us dancing through the static.
My first time at DDPP the playlist kicked off with “Walk like an Egyptian,” activating predictable dance moves and hand positions. We were plunked into “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, our hips swiveling, our heads and shoulders floppy. For the first seven songs, I glanced frequently at the others, gauging their reactions to song switches and tempos, watching their feet, still thinking about my own moves before I performed them.
It all made sense once I heard “Rock DJ,” song eight of eighteen. I know all the words to Robbie Williams’s biggest American hit, and then I was shouting them, disco-pumping my arm and pointed index finger across my body during the chorus, swiveling side-to-side to the verse, possessed. “Give no head, no backstage passes!” I yelled, my hands waving above my head in time. I was panting when it finished, having sprung into a nonstop routine I hadn’t practiced. I adjusted my bra straps, making a mental note to wear better support next time.
“Rock DJ” forced everything to click as Lady Gaga intended: Just dance. Spin around, or do a kind of rhythm-walk, or kick in time, or get real low because this time it won’t invite attention. If I wanted I could even take a minute to bend at the waist and hang, bent, stretching the back of my thighs. I felt unstressed and safe and supported, and realized what DDPP was giving the women who came every week. My body swung loose, the tight shaken free.
The introduction to “Free Your Mind” suddenly blared through: Prejudice, wrote a song about it. Like to hear it? Here it go, and then I was grinding down to the cowbell, knees bent, every word on my tongue. I wear tight clothing, high-heeled shoes; it doesn’t mean that I’m a prostitute, no no. Funky Divas came out in 1994, when I was eight years old, and I owned the CD, purchased by my unknowing mother. At DDPP, empowered by decades-old lyrics, I felt lucky to have been trusted to form my own worldview, so lucky I danced even harder.
When I left that first night, red-faced and so high on endorphins I couldn’t form sentences, I wanted to make a playlist. I wanted to be the one to infuse that room with just the right combination of grooves, to create the perfect range of beats per all sixty minutes. To put Weezy on there to get dirty to, but then maybe some Britpop, like Franz Ferdinand—I was very into that whole wave of newer Britpop bands in college. And then which Janet? Which weird, unexpected gem?
Chrystal, who is English, DJed my second DDPP, and began her set with Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” a bold but effective choice. We stomped through the beginning to the first iteration of the chorus, and lost our minds during the bass-thumping breakdown. The set continued with Kelis and Hot Chip and Groove Armada and Massive Attack. Chrystal played artists I’d never heard of, like Kaytranada, music with tempos that confused my rhythm, and even though we all had to figure out which way to move our feet, we danced. I was so inspired by her set’s perfect construction, its curveballs, how we swooned over “Would I Lie to You,” which I had thought was by Aaron Neville but is actually Charles and Eddie. (I remembered all the words; I was 10 when it came out, two years after Funky Divas.) When it was over, I knew I couldn’t wait to be a DJ myself. Just after Lauren turned the lights back on, I asked her to schedule me for a future date, and I was assigned the Tuesday after Memorial Day.
I immediately created two playlists and labeled them DDPP and FUTURE DDPP, and I switched songs between them as I mulled over my choices. I kept Alanis for weeks, then deleted her. (I’m still keen on the idea of a room full of women swaying to “All I Really Want,” but realize “So Pure” may translate better.) I added Tom Petty, then deleted him, which turned out fine because the week before mine, the DJ played “American Girl.” I deleted “Easy Lover,” even though I love it, because it’s five minutes long. I deleted New Order for the same reason, but not without hesitation.
I weaved through albums of possible Robyn inclusions before deciding solidly on “With Every Heartbeat” for the roaming synthesizer, ideal for introspection, and the violin interlude, with the potential for ballet moves, or just rocking back and forth in place, feeling what the song brings up. We can keep trying but things will never change, so I don’t look back. Still dying with every step I take, but I don’t look back.
And it hurts with every heartbeat—Like something I would have written online, in my AIM profile in high school, my teenage feelings so intense I had to veil and display them with lyrics. I added CeCe Peniston’s “Finally,” from when I was a kid, and Miguel’s “Adorn,” for a soulful cool-down, and Julian Casablancas’s “11th Dimension,” for rhythmic prancing. I decided on Janet’s “If” last minute after weeks with “You Want This.” I sealed my playlist with SWV’s “Right Here,” the remixed version, a light breeze to carry us into the night. I must have listened to the whole thing a hundred times. It felt perfect; I was ready.
The day before my DJ debut, Elliot Rodger killed six people in Isla Vista, California, intended as retaliation for all he felt he’d been denied by women and society, all he felt entitled to and never received, as he explained in a widely circulated manifesto and video.
That day, triggered by Rodger’s swiftly ubiquitous hate, social media erupted with 140-character versions of everyday sexism tagged with #YesAllWomen. In the week that followed, I read through piles of messages marked with the hashtag. Most of what I read resonated in my brain and I felt simultaneously comforted and disturbed. I was pulled in by one note on how some women feel safer giving a fake phone number to a man than refusing to give one at all. I have given men I was not interested in my real phone number, figuring it was easier to just ignore the call when it came than to deal with delivering in-person rejection, too nervous to lie. I feel confident to handle things differently now, unafraid of hurt feelings, unwilling to be dishonest about my own, but as with body image, it has taken work to get here, and it is still a work in progress.
Over a million tweets were sent in #YesAllWomen solidarity in the few days after the massacre, and like its participants, I felt triggered by Rodger’s words. I see them as the extreme end of what my friend Cella referred to on Facebook as the “angry and entitled man-child spectrum that is so pervasive but barely recognized in our culture.” Since, it has been impossible for me not to feel gutted and personally affected, first by his hate, available to experience firsthand on news websites and blogs I visit daily, and then by the messages of #YesAllWomen, and then by the continued assault on women by laws that should aim to protect us instead. I keep thinking of the knot of sexism I’ve picked at my whole life, the misogynistic lore I’ve inherited, the incessant stream of judgement aimed at women’s choices.
I think of a friend of my boyfriend Jeff, who after a fun day of food and drink mentioned how confused he was by the person at his work who requested everyone refer to them using a gender-neutral pronoun.
“All that person did was be explicitly clear about what they wanted,” I said. He shrugged.
I think of work, ignored double standards like land mines among the cubes. I think of porn, how easy it is for me to find five minutes of James Deen, and what that must mean for today’s teenage boys. Jeff, who is 37 and strictly identifies as Gen X, told me he and his friends are grateful to have become adults, hormones somewhat quieted, by the time porn’s accessibility peaked. It’s hard enough now, he said.
I think of the all the transgender people who’ve been harmed and murdered, all the gay men who have been raped and abused to have life-altering violence ignored by law enforcement, every unreported rape, each little thing dismissed by racism, sexism, classism, all these unheard voices.
It’s not all men who are perpetrators of violence and misogyny, of these phobias. This is true. I love many great, respectful, empathetic men.
It’s not every man. But misogyny can live anywhere that any man can be. And that is why my locked car, my home, my friends’ homes, and Dance Dance Party Party are so sacred. They are private, for my personal consumption—anxiety does not build inside these spaces like it does with every flick of my finger over my mouse’s scroll wheel, like it does on the street at night.
I don’t know why I don’t mind—why I even like it—when misogyny is in my music. Perhaps because songs are catchy versions of what I’m forced to accept anyway. Perhaps because the songs aren’t hiding or masking their intent. Perhaps because on my radio, in my apartment, at my dance night, they mean something different. I started from a bottom, too, and I’ll dance to the top. I’ll pretend I can sing like Beyoncé and rap like Drizzy and cultivate fearlessness in spaces I know are safe, going back to their solace again and again.
Never met the bitch, but I fucked her like I missed her! We got down to Weezy the night I was DJ, all booty and boobs and bass. The week after mine, the woman who made the playlist chose Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” one of my favorite songs when I was a kid. I lost my mind on the dance floor, shouting every word.
“You really liked that one,” she said to me after.