I wrote this essay for an online literary journal that publishes essays about people's favorite albums, only they didn't end up taking it. Lesson being: Think hard before you decide to write something specifically for a publication. As this piece is pretty specific I'm not sure it could be accepted anywhere else. So I'm posting it here.
Want One – Rufus Wainwright
Oh What A World
The album starts with someone humming a familiar tune. It’s Bolero by Ravel. Then a tuba comes in.
Men reading fashion magazines
Oh what a world it seems we live in
Straight men, oh what a world we live in
Why am I always on a plane or a fast train?
Oh what a world my parents gave me
Always traveling but not in love
Oh but I think I’m doing fine
Wouldn’t it be a lovely headline?
“Life is Beautiful” on the New York Times
When I hear this album for the first time the only men I had ever loved were straight and unattainable, like my roommate Bryan, who introduced me to the album.
Wainwright sings the same words over and over again the same way; the song is a mantra, but each time it starts again it is made more powerful with the addition of more voices and instruments. On the last time through, on the word beautiful, the instruments seem to float away and a choir of Rufus Wainrights begin to hum softly, falling back down over themselves. The song ends just like it began. The mantra is a call to awareness, of where you were and where you’re going. Now this piece is about to start.
I Don’t Know What It Is
I don't know where to go
But you got to be there
My first years of college were lonely and I didn’t feel like I belonged with anyone until I met Bryan and his girlfriend Tracy. And despite the sexual frustration it felt good to be close to people. Tracy took to calling me ‘secondary wife’, and it was my duty to take over as Bryan’s partner if she died in a freak accident. Tracy still references my honorary title from time to time, now the two are actually married. Bryan is one of those smart, kind, naturally athletic men with a beard, so my attraction to him was not unusual – but honestly I loved Tracy more than Bryan. We met in the English department, outside the advisors door, trying to get information on the writing program. The advisor didn’t have time to talk to us but we walked over to the Registrars Office and declared anyway. The real reason I was so close to Tracy was because she shared the same crippling insecurity as me; we both never thought we were good enough, for anything. But where I crumbled under my lack of self-worth Tracy laughed. She owned her insecurities and they made her strong.
Bryan brought this album home not too long after my twenty-first birthday, when he and Tracy took me out to my first bar, a small cantina that gave you endless free chips and salsa. That bar became our regular place, where we would go get drunk and talk excitedly about whatever we were studying that quarter over pitchers of sangria.
This song repeats the phrase vicious world over and over again. The album has several songs about being spurned by lovers, which I identified with despite the fact that at twenty-one I had still not kissed another man. Just because I didn’t know what it meant to lose love didn’t mean I didn’t know what it was to want love (or sex, I’m not sure I knew the difference).
In my non-fiction classes I started writing about my failed attempts at finding a connection with another man. Over and over I would tear apart small moments, examining the way a boy would look at me, or try to describe the way it felt to almost kiss someone. Over and over again I would come back to boys who constantly eluded me on campus. I thought that to be desired by a man would validate me, would cure me of the years of self-loathing. One of my writing professors told me that I needed some space from these boys who constantly appeared in my writing, that I didn’t know what this desire meant. But I couldn’t. The only thing I really wanted was to close the distance between me and another man.
Now of course I can look back and take in how consuming it was, the desire, the perceived rejection. I can see it clearly now and how really, I was the most vicious thing in my life. The world is still vicious; I just stopped being so self-centered.
Movies of Myself
Start making my heart say something that it doesn’t want to say
Throughout the album Wainwright breaks the convention of verse/chorus, Oh What A World is all chorus, Movies of Myself is pretty much all verse. I liked the break in convention. In classes I was learning to write lyrical essays, essays which break the linear A to B convention. Like this essay. You didn’t have to do things the way they had been done for centuries. You don’t have to write anything the way anyone else has if you want to. If you want to you can just repeat a few key words and phrases so people get what the point is.
And all these pretty things
Don't say you don't notice them
The Internet might call Wainwright’s music ‘chamber pop’, pop influenced by classical music. It seems high brow and low brow at the same time, much like my reading preferences, I like books that might reference what the Odyssey is, but there is no way I am ever going to read the Odyssey.
After Tracy and Bryan moved away I became friends with people who were into music, who had opinions on which Wilco album was the best and would say things like, “Listen! Did you hear that?” to particular verses of songs. None of these friends were really into Rufus Wainwright, so I would just listen to him by myself. This album might have the most plays out of any album I have.
Go or Go Ahead
My first love, not my first boyfriend, told me that this song made him think of us. The song is kind of about drug addiction, but he said that on the night we first slept together it was stuck in his head as he walked over to my apartment from a house party across the street from me. Really the song is about disappointment. When we broke up, there were months of crying, and this song would tear me up, not because it was the song that he thought of when he thought of us, but because the phrase:
What has happened to love?
I still don’t like to listen to that song.
My phone's on vibrate for you
I’m going to jump ahead for this song and tell you about a guy I was hooking up with just a few years ago, he would text me on the on weekends to hook up. I usually would sleep through my phone buzzing but the anticipation of touch made me sleep lightly. After he broke things off I still anticipated his texts for months. Just because the object of desire is gone doesn’t mean the desire disappears.
The album is named Want, there is something vital about that, desire without an object.
Want was the first time I ever heard a man sing songs about being in love with another man. And I still think it’s one of the better ones.
But why'd you have to break all my heart?
I could have ripped apart and thrown into the river
Wonder if there's hearts that will deliver
Some of these songs will forever be tied to my first heartbreak after college, when my entire existence became want, all I could feel was an emptiness that needed to be filled. But now when I hear it I focus more on the fact that these lyrics are a little tongue in cheek and the combination of a brass section and a banjo makes it hard to take so seriously. The older I get the easier it is to write about my first heartbreak and all the ones since then and the ones I’ll probably end up with in the future.
You walk alone like a baby unborn
Like a father unknown
Like a pocket penniless
The little things distinguish writing. Details. These are what people appreciate about the writings they like. Even something as simple as switching the order of words is enough to catch someone’s eye.
I used to wear my solitude as armor; I would joke about being alone for the rest of my life. I was afraid it could be true, that I was a prophecy waiting to self fulfill.
Harvester of Hearts
It’s easy to feel like the source of your problems is the universe, that the reason you’re single is because there is someone out there is keeping you from love, feeding off your misery. A Harvester of Hearts. Maybe. Or maybe it’s easier to feel powerless. As a child I always felt weak, that I was not physically strong enough to do things. In classes I didn’t speak up because I did not think I was smart enough. In bars I did not approach men because I assumed I was not attractive enough. The last time I was in therapy I said out loud, “I don’t think I’m a good person.” My therapist pointed out that I seemed to have a very strong social circle, that my beliefs were at odds with my life.
Not every thing we don’t understand has a hidden meaning. I don’t know why my parents are still together, or why I kept loving men even when they told me that they didn’t love me. I don’t know why I fight with my boyfriend about cleaning the house, why there is something exciting about verbal sparring, why I sometimes say cruel things. If there is a Harvester of Hearts then they aren’t saying anything.
If a person should ever like a person
Then a person should be me
When I finally got through my first heartbreak, or at least got to the point where I could go longer than two weeks without bursting into tears, this song meant the most to me. I had moved to Seattle, and I walked around the city listening to this song as I made plans to quit the first ‘adult’ job I had got after college to go backpack New Zealand.
This song is the promise of change. This whole album is. That’s why I still listen to it after all these years.
Oh, how I'll feel
Oh, how I'll feel like a beautiful child
When I get to Want I sometimes turn this question over in my head again:
But I'll settle for love
Will you settle for love?
The first time I was in love, I-would-do-anything-to-keep-you-love, I was twenty-three. It was pretty late in the game. Love was a revelation to me, and I knew that it was the only thing that really mattered in the world, otherwise why would that expression be so trite? This song was my mantra, it was me singing to the world. Now I’m thirty, and I’ve been in love several times. These successive loves do not negate the previous ones, but I know now that it’s not the only thing in the world that really matters; a lot of things matter. I’m more ambitious now than I was before, or maybe just more focused, but there are a lot of things I want to do with my life, and a lot of places I want to go. Now when this song comes on and I hear that plea for simplicity it’s not me singing to the world. It’s me singing to myself.
When a song becomes a part of you, it becomes something to mark the passage of your life with, to identify what happened to you.
Tell me, will you make me sad or happy
And will you settle for love?
One fall I was standing at a bus stop, outside the campus dining hall where I worked. It had been a trying day, and I was going back to my apartment that I used to share with Bryan and Tracy and now shared with two girls who hated each other. I noticed that across the street from me was one of those trees that smolder red from the top down. A gust of wind blew several leaves off the tree right at me, and the shift I had just worked and the dread of going home drifted off with them.
But I was alive
And kicking through this cruel world
The actual the narrative space in these songs are so small, but they feel so expansive. This song takes place in the few minutes within waking up. Rufus sings about a group of people in an apartment in Manhattan, his awareness of being alive, and the absence of someone not there. I put this album on my iPod when I walk around Portland, and it still helps me have those moments.
Dinner at Eight
In an interview Wainwright said, “I’m afraid of my father, like all sons.” I was always frightened of my father growing up, afraid of his temper as a child, and afraid of his rejection as an adult. He was such much bigger in my mind than in my actual day-to-day life. The song sets Rufus and his father at a table together and lets a fight between them play out.
Why is it so
That I've always been the one who must go?
That I've always been the one told to flee?
When it fact you were the one long ago
Actually in the drifting white snow
You left me
After college my mother told my dad that I was gay; he had no strong reaction to it. I never think to go back to my dad and talk about how even I feared his rejection more than anything, though sometimes I write about it.
It seems a strange way to end an album, something so personal and direct. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have a reprise of Oh What A World, a return to the idea of coming back to the moment, of taking the world in. But the more I think about this ending the more I think it is a good ending. The album isn’t meant to come back to where it started. It’s meant to take stock of where you’ve been and where you’re going.