Emily entered my classroom the year before the concert. The teenager in me was awed by her. Found her painfully cool, wanted so hard to be her friend. Thick, dark, wavy hair fell down her back. She wore braces, ripped and cuffed jeans, black Converse hi-tops, and the band’s T-shirt twice a week. In winter, a denim jacket. Her standard uniform. I interpreted her reserve as self-possession and maturity. She was quiet in class. She volunteered answers often, ventured wise observations and insightful questions.
As her teacher, though, I saw the occasional misfiring synapses and gaps in understanding. A flawed public education system cited bilingual Mexican parents as the cause. I wondered what Sid Vicious’s teachers thought of his writing. Where standardized tests placed Debbie Harry’s reading level.
Triangulation is the ideal strategy to determine the location of fanaticism. Reject trilateration due to its dependence on distance and fluid geometry, whether the points be Los Angeles, New York, London, Berlin, or any of the infinite number an airplane or tour bus travel between. Reject multilateration for similar reasons. The difference in broadcast distance from sex to adolescence and sex to thirty-something adulthood is inconstant when emitted from the sparkle of youthful celebrity, the brief window of time when a body just recognizable as that of a man maintains the unchanneled exuberance and limitless potential of a boy. Sphere of influence is ever-expanding and -contracting as venues change. This contributes to the imprecise nature of multilateration.
I found frequent excuses to play music during class. Sometimes freshmen made requests. They hadn’t learned the routine yet — hadn’t learned me yet — and when they asked I made no secret of the fact that the music was not for them.
On occasion Emily looked up from her writing, eyes wide and wondering and betraying a complete innocence of entire bodies of work, genres of music, and said, “I really like this.” And each time a warmth exploded in my chest.
In compensation, I played Emily’s favorite band from time to time. When I did an involuntary yelp escaped her lips. But my love for her didn’t transfer to their music.
Triangulation is preferred for its calculation of angles. The angle of a jaw, narrow but precise. The angle in the crook of an elbow, cradling a bottle of wine, drinking straight from the neck. The angle at which a singer peers from under waves of dark curls: in acute angles at the floor or at feet in photo shoots, in obtuse angles at the ceiling, sky, or an interviewer. Account also for the angle from which a thirty-one-year-old views a sixteen-year-old, account for the various angles of nostalgia.
In a sudden blow, Prince died toward the end of my year with Emily and I cried for two weeks. I played “Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry” on repeat during class. When Emily looked up at me — those eyes! — and said, “This is Prince? I love this,” I became ill with the impulse to vomit Purple Rain into her mouth like a mother bird.
I loaned her my copy and she returned it the next week.
She loved it, she said.
An internet search for the band’s singer produces images of un-self-conscious cool, often draped in decades-old metal merch. Not a teen, but a contemporary. Wearing ripped tees and ripped jeans. Head-to-toe black or cloud-like sweaters or baroque frills and costume jewelry. It’s uncertain whether his style is ironic or if he has wandered into the realm of meta-irony: ironic in the fact that it is not meant ironically. Meta-irony is probable.
I listened to Emily’s favorite band again in the fall of a new school year. I’d kept their most recent album on my iPod, unwilling to delete it, feeling I’d missed something distinct and apparent. That fall it clicked into place. Driving through tunnels of foliage for hours at a time, it clicked into the hole Prince’s death had left in my heart. Like a sticky puzzle piece made of marshmallow, rolled in glitter. Again and again and again I listened to that album. It was every possible permutation of the pop music I grew up on. It was Michael Jackson and Phil Collins; it was Peter Gabriel and Huey Lewis. And most importantly, it was Prince.
I played the album between classes, shooting it into the hallway, and plugged it into my ears while grading. I counted down the seconds of the school day before I could connect my iPod in the car and soar down the two-lane back roads of my commute. Windows down, heart pumping to synthy beats, stomach flipping and freefalling as the car crested hills. The normally viscous voice occasioning pummeled spoken words or the impassioned rasp of exerted effort.
Interviews with a singer who takes himself too seriously insisting the band should not be taken too seriously are enthralling. Equally enthralling is the ire they inspire. Enthralling is a dichotomy of innocent inexperience and fervent conviction, of naivete and wisdom. Enthralling is a man in his twenties uplifted and riding the wave of a teen audience’s hormonal heat, teens who hardly understand the ravenous state of their bodies, how to channel it.
Enthralling is the fact that some never work this out.
A month later, a Google search on a whim resulted in my holding two tickets to their concert. I procured her mother’s permission before offering one to Emily. I felt pride at the thought of ushering her into the world of live music. For no small amount of money I could give her a glimpse of the men she spent her nights dreaming about. And that she didn’t mind being seen with me at the venue flattered my vanity.
Leading up to the concert, Emily texted me every few days, and eventually every day. She, her mother, and I had exchanged numbers among ourselves when we met to discuss logistics. Emily sent me pictures of the singer, linked me to interviews with him, counted down the days until the show.
In time I’d found that engaging with this content on my own led me down a rabbit hole of interviews, pictures, videos, etc., so Emily’s regular deliveries served me well. Left to my own devices I could lose hours at a time to the infinite digital lust so readily available for consumption by the general public.
Excitement to see the band live is not wholly unrelated to the singer’s predilection for performing shirtless, hair like a matted woodland creature caught in a steel trap. Alternately licking the microphone, blowing kisses, and thrusting his hips at the audience. Smoking onstage, cupping the mic, cigarette dangling precariously from the fingers. Consuming alcohol onstage. The singer is aggressively forthright about his drug use. The band’s music catalog is characterized by a ubiquity of songs about drugs, sex, or both. Even so, the undermining accusation that they are a “boy band” is undeniable.
Like pornography, the Boy Band is difficult to define but easy to recognize.
Drawing out “girl” for four counts, they are easily recognized.
At a Chick-fil-A somewhere between her home and the venue, I slammed my open palm on the tabletop and leaned in, whispering, “You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to.”
Emily giggled and leaned in with me over her strawberry milkshake.
“Have you seen some of the fanfiction out there?”
She nodded her enthusiasm and said, “Wattpad.”
It was all that needed to be said.
Fanfiction is an effective barometer. Invented by an age group whose children have perfected it. Startling is not fanfiction’s existence, but its persistence in finding new and inventive ways to sexually exploit the band. At its most mundane, fanfiction exerts power over the unobtainable: the band members as board game pieces being marched through meet-cutes and PG romances determined by the whims of the fan/author. At its most explicit, fanfiction often subverts idolatry entirely: the object of affection, often the singer, often in BDSM or orgy scenarios is feminized, manipulated physically and emotionally by characters that are avatars of the author. Characters that are avatars of the reader.
Our tickets placed us in a familiar location. Fifteen years earlier I sat in the same section of this same venue, maybe even the same row, for one of my first concerts. From these seats, my brother and I got our first glimpse of one of our favorite bands. When they dominated radio and nu-metal was nothing to be ashamed of.
We’d watched the singer and the rest of the band spin and ricochet off each other for hours. The singer was singing the words I knew, the words that escaped my mouth without thought, the words that were as natural to me as breathing. More natural, because I gladly sacrificed my breath to breathe them. But he was there. His hair was there, his skin, his sweat, his mouth, his face.
They were small, and not due to the distance. We sat close enough to see sweat and saliva and muscle; elevated enough to see everything at once, no one person blocking anyone else. Small in a different way. I’d expected them to crush the amps under their feet, to tower over the stage lighting. But they were small like people. Small like my dad would be if he were onstage. Small like my Algebra teacher or any of the cashiers at the grocery store. They covered the stage in a few quick steps but were none the bigger for it.
Again, this night, I was struck by their shocking smallness as the band took the stage.
Emily began to cry.
I felt vindicated.
In music videos, the singer, a shirtless waif à la Jim Morrison, clutches models rumored to be past or current girlfriends. Some videos are tongue-in-cheek, some earnest in their vague narratives. Some black-and-white, some in blazing neon. Tales of small towns, big cities, and girls with pretty faces, faces from a magazine. The singer feigns disinterest in the camera dodging in and out of his personal space, singer and camera engaged in a technical dodge and parry, singer and instruments locked in a vibrant dodge and parry.
Emily used my phone to take minutes-long videos of the show. In playback, only her screamed lyrics and intermittent shrieks were audible.
“You see his tattoo?” I yelled into Emily’s ear. The singer hunched over a keyboard for a primarily instrumental song. He was perpetually disheveled, tonight wearing a too-large button-up that started buttoning halfway down his chest. Hunched over, we could make out rolling green shading just beyond the opening of his shirt, or we knew what to look for well enough to believe we saw it.
Several songs later, I saw his hip laid bare through pink mist produced by an unseen fog machine, revealed when his shirt fluttered. I kept this to myself.
Then it was over.
Key to his appeal is a maudlin vulnerability unlocked by an array of substances. Stripped down ballads spotlight a voice cracking as though on the verge of sobs. Once, drunk during a show, he began to cry and wailed at a girl in the audience, I love you — you don’t have the right to love me! A slight frame casts emotional outbursts as cathartic expressions that are simply too explosive for this mortal body to contain. He is the Baudelairean clown of “The Venal Muse.” The antics are praised; the antics are forgiven.
After the concert we stood in the cold behind a barrier outside the tour bus. The bus, an enormous gold bullet, angled itself away from the barrier, the doors the band would exit and enter obscured. I wiggled my nose, numb at the tip. In packing for the show, I’d brought an extra scarf, hat, pair of gloves, and umbrella for Emily, but she was content in her denim jacket. Too high on the concert to notice the cold.
We stood for a couple of hours before the bus pulled away with the band on it, successfully undetected.
On the drive home I nodded along, dreamy-eyed, with Emily’s ecstatic reflections. When she gasped suddenly and grabbed her stomach, I thought she would be sick, that the excitement had finally caught up with her. She clutched at her jacket and turned to me.
“They have organs,” she gasped, eyes wide as I’d ever seen them. “They have organs like my organs.”
There is jealousy here, but for no single person; jealousy for this new era of viral gifs and endless excavation. The 90’s didn’t have this unimaginable luxury of pillaging a band’s private lives. Nineties bands sacrificed a limited amount of privacy for the greater musical good, but this experience was different. The insides of their bodies weren’t known, turned inside out for the world to see, their crowded bottom teeth, the delicate pink of their gumlines, the fleshy rare-steak red underneath. The look of their drug-addled stupor, an intimate detail they can never witness for themselves. Smartphones didn’t capture their every misstep, every stumble, every faux pas.
The bands of my youth had the good fortune to never take human form.
Prince had come and gone, our time with him was complete, but this band filled the void he left. The void for jangly music, self-indulgent guitar solos, instrumental meanderings, lyrical narratives, explicit sex juxtaposed with poppy music. A singer who politely patronizes fans and critics, who operates in honesty and candor over humility because he fucking can.
A straight line connects Prince’s death to my sudden and unexpected fanaticism for this band. Or a triangle. A triangle encompassing The 1975, lines connecting myself to Prince, Prince to Emily, and Emily to my own nostalgia.
Young fans bemoan any chemistry between the singer and any actress or model or passing female acquaintance with whom he is photographed, whether that chemistry is real or simulated. Older fans know better. They know the negligible number of sparkling people predestined for beauty and success and the general inspiration of envy.
Older fans take what they can.
It is enough to know the exact pattern of the patchy, feral fur that disappears down the waist of low-slung pants.
It is enough to observe that, in and indulgent kiss, the voluptuous bottom lip overwhelms other lips.
It is enough to know that he exists, he is real.
At school, Emily and I spoke of nothing but the concert for weeks afterward. She had become a fixture in my classroom like the posters on the wall. She was in my room before school, during her lunch period, and whenever her teachers would allow it. Once or twice she visited my room during class changes and we accidentally talked through the tardy bell, deaf to it in our excitement. I felt guilty. I was the adult and I’d lost track of time, lost track of my responsibilities; how could I expect more from her? I wrote a pass for her to get to class excused, insisting, “I’m writing this because I kept you talking — that’s the only reason.” She nodded.
I knew it was only a matter of time before my resolve would be tested. The day arrived when the bell rang to begin class and Emily remained in my classroom, engrossed in conversation with my students, who knew her well. She froze, looked to me for a pass, and I refused.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I didn’t keep you this time. This was on you.”
I wasn’t refusing her; I was refusing for her. Couldn’t she understand?
She wore a light blue sweatshirt and a pink scarf that day, with her ripped jeans and those hi-tops.
She huffed and stomped out of the classroom without a word.
Regardless of his actions, his constant posturing, the singer does not realize that he belongs to his fans. He does not realize that he is no longer his own autonomous being. He claims the pressure as rebarbative reality, but this is a lie. He revels in the ability to command crowds of thousands, believes he deserves nothing less, believes he is the Beatrice of this Vita Nuova. Believes that the act of receiving such love bestows upon him a noble responsibility to his fans.
But he has exposed himself. When he cries onstage, when he confesses his love for the crowd, he has made himself the lover, not the beloved.
Do you not know? Do you not see that the opposite is true? Do you not realize?
It is we who own you.
Emily never entered my classroom again. Finding ourselves trapped in the same hallway, she would change direction or duck into a bathroom. My heart seized with guilt whenever I saw her.
I tried to comfort myself that I’d reset everything the day I refused her a pass to class. Boundaries were redefined. I wanted to tell her that I wanted better for her, that I’d done it for her. She was a good student, a good person, and my permissiveness did her a disservice. But I feared telling her so would invite further confusion. If our relationship was changed, it was by necessity. If I was “unfair” or, more probably, any number of venomous teenage epithets, so be it. It couldn’t erase the concert, what it had meant for either of us.
In objective truth, the singer’s head is bulbous, like a partially deflated balloon gripped lightly at the bottom. At most angles, his chin descends shapelessly into his neck. It’s obvious when he’s high, which is often, and there are permanent bags under his eyes hidden only with makeup. Their sophomoric stunts are boring: getting high in public with fans, smoking under their table at an awards show, forcibly kissing the male crew members onstage. Equally boring are elongated atmospheric tracks that permit the ultimate blasphemy of skipping them. The singer has the oratory powers of an evangelical preacher, but his ideas are the inflexible convictions of an adolescent who has been assured too often of his intellectual gifts.
This is reality. When the music falls away, when fans stop screaming, this is what’s left. In fleeting moments of lucid reason, he is human. Emily is a child, Prince is dead, and I am older every day.
A month before the concert, I’d told my best friend that I received permission from Emily’s mother to take her with me. She was a teacher in my department; Emily was her student that year. My friend made a good show of being as excited as I was, as only a best friend can.
She grinned and said, “You know… Emily will probably remember this for the rest of her life.”
I know it’s still true.