The first time I remember somebody making a joke about how MTV stopped playing music videos was pre-puberty, sometime in the mid-1990s. TRL was a new thing. 120 Minutes was still on. If you went to sleep after midnight and woke up before 8:00am, as I often did then and still do now, you could sleep and wake-up to music videos. But in a sense you could see the end coming, the transition to Jersey Shore and scripted television, MTV becoming just like any other network out there. I hated shows like The Real World and Road Rules because they took away, I thought, from the network’s identity, they got in the way of my desire to see the marriage of music and film. But reality shows are cheaper to produce than music videos, and the “human” drama of what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real is easier to program than a day’s worth of clips that are all three to five minutes long.
I’m frequently nostalgic for MTV, which is a mystery about myself that I’ve yet to solve. Just the other day, I was telling a friend of mine that I think the music video is incredible because of its short stay in the zeitgeist, how in the span of a generation we managed to invent, perfect, and discard something. Only the music video hasn’t been discarded. Look at how many people talked about Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video a few weeks ago. Remember that the launch of Beyoncé’s surprise self-titled record came with a fleet of music videos. Paul Thomas Anderson directs Fiona Apple and Joanna Newsom microfilms. Björk is still out there, wrangling Spike Jonze away from middling acts like The Arcade Fire. And, lest I forget: Kanye. Fucking. West.
What I really like about the music video as it has migrated to the small-screens of our laptops and cell phones, as it sometimes has the ambition to be shown in movie theaters in limited release, is that bands like The Mountain Goats are more likely to be given a chance to make cinema, to mingle these two genres like best friends swapping blood so they can call themselves brothers.
The Mountain Goats recently came through Athens, where I live. Towards the end of the show they played “This Year,” which, like many Mountain Goats songs about addiction, depression, and reaching bottom, is a big crowd favorite. At the 40-Watt Club, standing in the back, I watched the crowd chant andsing along and pump their fists, volume rising and rising until cresting, as I suspect such audiences do, on the lyric “twin high maintenance machines.” It comes at the end of the song’s second verse, John Darnielle-as-protagonist singing about playing video games “in a drunken haze” until Kathy, a girl he’s interested in, shows up, at which point they begin to drink together. It’s a curious thing, watching a live crowd and noting when their emotional peak comes for a song you’re really familiar with, and it seemed wrong, at the time, that this lyric, two people locked in a pattern of mutually-assured destruction, was it. After all, once he and Kathy are done drinking, the kid leaves and wrecks his car. Here is a song I’ve always read as a narrative of bottoming out, that I’ve always sang myself as a resolution to survive that process and emerge stronger. My connection to the song has grown stronger, deeper, as I’ve done the same on several fronts. It was a surprise that the band was playing it, so there I was: sing-shouting with everybody else, trying not to cry. It was the end of a frantic five-day stretch that I’ve already written some about in this space, a cathartic release of the elation and fear that I had experienced at once, in an unending barrage of sensory input. I sang this song a lot to myself before I came out, in the dark of various apartments, when my mood ebbed lower and my sleep got shakier and I needed something to remind myself that there was a tomorrow and a day after that. Each time, I crested on the lyric “there will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year” because I had to believe that was true.
“This Year” opens with the line, “I broke free on a Saturday morning” and they work in opposition to the video’s imagery, particularly the narrative about the band (guitarist/vocalist John Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes, and drummer John Wurster) being abducted by masked assailants and dragged into a house, where their gear is waiting. But “This Year” isn’t about breaking free so much as it’s about captivity, how a person can feel like a spider trapped under a glass, dreaming of escape but “ready for the bad things to come.” The captors in this video are well-scrubbed psychos of the Funny Games variety, and what they want is a show. One of them mans a soundboard. One of them shines a bright light into Darnielle’s eyes. We cut back to him, bleeding and dazed, but the light compels him to sing. To perform though he is trapped. To perform because he is trapped.
The protagonist of the song is 17 and drunk. I spend so little of my time drunk these days that it is growing harder and harder to remember that I was, very recently, a person who drank in order to cope. But I am still a person who spends much of her time afraid and meditating on that fear. It’s the house in “This Year” that I am drawn to, how it is in a state of ruin and improvement at once, how it hints at the happy lives of its occupants though it has been invaded by cut men wearing gold chains and rabbit masks. Until recently, April, when I started sending my first nervous e-mails about how I couldn’t sleep and why, I doubt anybody knew I was afraid of anything. If there was a crack in my façade, it was the drinking. But I was drunk so often and engaged with people in spaces where drinking was expected so I think people thought of me as a guy who liked to have a good time. And I did, because I had nothing to look forward to when I made it back to my apartment, which was always in a state of ruin unless I was expecting company, in which case I spent the day cleaning and cooking for them in a way that I still can’t manage to do for myself. I was perpetually traumatized, but my performance suggested otherwise.
Now my fears have turned outward. I am learning what it means to be a woman in public, and that’s a different kind of performance, a fear that has layers, the first of which is discovery: That kid turning his spotlight on and compelling Darnielle to sing. I’d marked the weekend of the wedding in Chicago off as the time for me to start “going full-time,” and I was wearing makeup and a cardigan and a bra that made my boobs look really good as I drove my dog to a friend’s apartment in Clemson. A cop clocked me going five over the speed limit on an empty stretch of road and tailed me to an area where the speed limit was 10 miles per hour lower, at which point he pulled me over and turned the spotlight on the side of his cruiser on. I felt myself readying for a performance, swallowing my identity as best I could. I’ve never particularly liked police officers, but until then, wearing plum lipstick and a shirt that marked me as transgender, I’d never had a reason to fear one of them either.
Here’s what the officer did: He took my license and compared the picture of me on it to the me sitting in the car. He looked at the license for a while. He said, “Why do you look different?” He told me I was speeding. He looked at my license again and asked if I had the vehicle’s registration and watched me go through my purse for it. He listened to me say something about maybe going five over in a 65 zone and looked at the sign a little down the road, near the Wal-Mart, that said 50, and he said he could check his radar gun if I wanted to. I didn’t want him to, but he made a big show of it – this policy where they check radar guns for accuracy – and took 45 minutes to complete the check.
All of this is normal (or at least I assume it is; I wouldn’t know), but I’d never been more terrified in my life. No cars passed us on the road. The Tractor Supply Company we were stopped in front of was closed. My car was shot through with some high-intensity spotlight and things were taking longer than normal because my appearance surprised him. I had a lot of uncomfortable premonitions in my car. I came up with excuses for how I looked. I remembered my mom telling me that I might some day want to “go back to being a man” and thought it would be wonderful, in that instance, to have been a man at all. But nothing happened. The ticket was ludicrous but I was working with the thought of that being the best-case scenario. I was trapped like a spider under a glass. Most people kill spiders on sight. Still, I grit my teeth and move forward despite my anger and fear. To Clemson. To Chicago. To Athens and beyond. I am going to make it through this year. And the next. And the one after that. Eventually, I suppose, one of these years will contain my death, but not before I am long secure in the knowledge that when I get to Jerusalem, I will have earned all of that feasting and dancing.
Colette Arrand lives in Athens, Georgia, where she is a student at the University of Georgia. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from No Tokens, The Atlas Review, CutBank, and elsewhere. She's much less sad at her website, fearofaghostplanet.com.