The Anti-Theme Song

This post was originally published by UnabridgedAndra:

Spaceman at Greyhounds show

Spaceman at Greyhounds show

Usually I’m not a fan of reality TV — I’m a storyteller so I like a good story. But with the launch of my novel, How to Talk to Rockstars, I’ve been watching “The Voice” this season. I’m attracted to the spectacle of rockstars-in-the-making, and one part of this process that unfolds in semi-realtime is song selection. I’d argue that once a song makes its way to the mainstream arena of a singing competition, it loses a significant portion of its mystery and innate cool. But then Kimberly Nichole, one of the contestants, sang “Creep” by Radiohead — a songs whose very premise is the polar opposite of cool — and it gave me pause.

Here’s the thing. I don’t really like the song “Creep.” It hits too close. I wasn’t popular in high school; I wore my outsiderness like a badge. And there are lines in that song that shake the soul of any outsider: “I want you to notice / When I’m not around / … But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo / What the hell am I doing here?” That, and it’s kind of a favorite cover song of geeks-turned-indie-rockers — people who can sing “I’m a weirdo” because the sting of that sentiment is distant but not forgotten.

I get the truth in it. How to Talk to Rockstars plumbs the depths of that poignancy. Main character Bryn, a music writer, is not an outcast but she certainly is a loner. It’s in music that she finds community, though even then her community is largely virtual or temporary. A roomful of strangers with whom she shares a concert; the faceless readers for whom she pens reviews and interviews; the rockstars she talks to over the phone — intensely intimate for the length of the conversation and then strangers again. When Bryn finds (or at least imagines that she finds) a kindred spirit in Jude Archer, one of the rockstars she writes about, she dares herself to pursue a real-life friendship with him. Still, much of their interaction is in her imagination, those squirmy, self-conscious conversations underscored by the suspicion, “I’m a weirdo.”

The weight of those words is a fist to the gut, a bruise continually pressed.

Whoooo you calling a weirdo?

Whoooo you calling a weirdo?

But when Kimberly Nichole, a powerhouse vocalist, sang “Creep” on network TV, the song morphed. The hot shame of it, the chilly loneliness it, was held up to the all-seeing eye of nine million viewers. Instead of being shunned as any self-professed creep would, Kimberly was voted onto the next round. That version of the song was ranked No. 12 on iTunes and viewed 68,687 times on YouTube during the week it aired. That’s not exactly outcast territory.

So what does it mean when a song like “Creep” is embraced by a huge audience? Is it possible that we share, in the deepest recesses of our hearts, a secret conviction that the song was written about us? Or is there pleasure in having that cache of self-doubt excavated? Does “Creep” prevail — 23 years after it was released as Radiohead’s debut single — because it’s such a masterful rock song … or because it’s such an exacting audit of the human psyche?

I do find hope in the iTunes/YouTube mass-embrace of “Creep.” Yes, the song has been covered by Amanda Palmer (a poster child for a being a bit of a creep, and not giving a damn) but also by the cast of “Glee.” Macy Gray performed it on the “Late Show with David Letterman;” it’s been featured in the “Stalker” series and on the film trailer for The Social Network. “Creep,” it seems, now bridges the hinterlands and the cozy suburbs.

But ultimately, even if an outlier song becomes a school dance staple, the kernel of anxiety and vulnerability lives on at its heart. You can take “Creep” out of the weird-dancing, nervy-dark Radiohead catalog, but not Muzak nor Broadway nor “American Idol” can take the stuttering, sweaty-palmed weirdo out of “Creep.” And it’s exactly that staying power, that soul-deep ache and fathomless echo of universal doubt, that I reach for on the page. Successfully? My inner misfit says no. Not yet. Maybe someday. Maybe, hopefully, fingers crossed, soon.

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