Last night was the 2017 MTV VMAs and the artist Pink was granted the prestigious Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.
This was also a night in which I royally screwed up my third attempt (ever) at cooking dinner for my girlfriend. It was a cauliflower steak (a dumb idea to begin with—I mean “cauliflower” steak? Give me a break, vegan cookbook, please). I served it raw and so painfully over-salted it made the dead sea feel like a chlorinated swimming pool in the Floridian suburbs.
“You can’t even cook, you poor excuse for a lesbian!” The voice inside of my head screamed, at the tippy top of her self-righteous lungs. “You’re 31. Get. It. Together. Bitch.”
She lit up a cigarette and watched the VMAs as I crawled down a dark spiral of self-loathing. Ugh, that critical voice is right! She’s always been right! I’m a fuck-up. I can’t cook. I can’t clean. I can’t save money. I’m too loud. I talk too much.
I. Am. Too. Much.
And then like a beautiful bat soaring out of a bleak hell, Pink popped up on the static of my TV screen. As the recipient of MTV’s “Vanguard Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award,” Pink was to perform a medley of all the hit songs that span across her impressive seventeen-year career as a successful pop artist.
She started with the hyper rebellious anthems, the “I don’t give a shit what YOU think!” pop songs that got me through the oppressive hell that was middle school in the 90s. “Let’s Get This Party Started” and “Raise Your Glass” being two of them. She drove a lawnmower across the stage as she belted out the best breakup song ever, “So What.” She gave advice to her insecure, younger-self in a passionate, heartbreaking rendition of “F-cking Perfect.” Her first hit, “Don’t Let Me Get Me” was dramatically peppered through out her performance, making her even in her most wildly confident moments, seem more like an accessible human-being rather than an untouchable pop-goddess.
She wrapped up her performance with the most moving musical number of all her musical numbers: a powerhouse rendition of “What About Us” complete with a sexually and racially diverse group of modern dancers, whose raw choreography invoked so much emotion from deep inside of me, I swear I could feel the spirit of Sia, present, in my living room, watching in awe, right alongside me.
The mean voice inside of my head suddenly found itself silent. Dead. Silent. It was as if Pink had swooped into my head and put a muzzle on the mouth of my negative, nasty, inner-self.
As if it couldn’t get any more intense, Lesbian Queen Ellen DeGeneres presented Pink with her award and then Pink proceeded to make the following speech:
“Recently I was driving my daughter to school, and she said to me, out of the blue, ‘Mama … I am the ugliest girl I know.’ And I said, ‘Huh?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, I look like a boy with long hair.’ And my brain went to, ‘Oh, my God. You are six. Why? Where is this coming from? Who said this? Can I kick a 6-year-old’s ass?’ But I didn’t say anything. Instead I went home, and I made a PowerPoint presentation for her. And in that presentation were androgynous rock stars and artists that live their truth, are probably made fun of every day of their lives, and carry on and wave their flag, and inspire the rest of us. These are artists like Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Annie Lennox, Prince, Janis Joplin, George Michael, Elton John, so many artists.
“Then I said, ‘I really want to know why you feel this way about yourself.’ She said, ‘I look like a boy.’ I said, ‘What do you think I look like?’ She said, ‘Well, you are beautiful.’ I was like, ‘Well, thanks. But when people make fun of me, that’s what they use. They say that I look like a boy, or I am too masculine, too many opinions, my body is too strong,’ And I said to her, ‘Do you see me growing my hair?’ She said, ‘No, Mama.’ I said, ‘Do you see me changing my body?’ ‘No, Mama.’ ‘Do you see me changing the way I present myself to the world?’ ‘No, Mama.’ ‘Do you see me selling out arenas all over the world?’ ‘Yes, Mama.’ That’s right. So, baby girl, we don’t change, we take the gravel and the shell and we make a pearl. We help other people to change so that they can see more kinds of beauty. … And you, my darling girl, are beautiful. And I love you.
For a minute, I metamorphosed into my 12-year self, the younger me who didn’t fit in but also couldn’t conform, no matter how hard I tried. I felt adolescent pimples pop across my oily face as Pink spoke to her daughter. To us. To all of us who don’t fit into the norm (whatever the hell the “norm” is).
I remember when Pink first came on to the pop music scene. I was in the seventh grade living in the suburbs of Connecticut. My classmates worshipped at the altar of Christina and Brittany and Jessica and Mandy, but for some reason I never did. I didn’t dislike them, I just didn’t get what the big deal was all about. They sang sugar-pop songs in a baby voice whilst wearing fetish-y school girl costumes, had inhumanely long, blonde frizz-free hair, and batted their lashes in such an over-the-top “innocent” way that felt too jarringly provocative to be authentic.
Jessica used to talk about how she was saving herself for marriage. My friend Suzie was so inspired by Jessica’s southern Christian oath of purity, that she decided to the same even though she came from New York liberal Jewish stock. Brittany wore her blonde hair in two braids, fastened with ribbons, like a baby, even though she was in her late teens. Christina was a genie in a goddamn bottle. None of it spoke to me. None of it lit up the fire in my heart. None of it made me feel the intense feelings that music was supposed to make you feel.
In fact, the only thing the blonde princesses made me feel was blazingly alienated. Queer, not in the reclaimed cool way, queer in the “that’s like, so weird” way. Like a lesbian fish yanked out of the gay waters, flapping around for dear life in a dry, middle school cafeteria. Not only was all of their music boy-crazy, it all seemed to be about being a “good girl.”
Or being a “sweet girl” whose idea of being naughty was sucking on a popsicle in a too-small school uniform. Rebellion in my young-eyes had nothing to do with sticking my glossy lips around a frozen treat while gazing adoringly into a camera lens. I thought to be rebellious meant to be outspoken. To speak up for your beliefs and dress as your freak-self, no matter what they said. (“They” being the mainstream popular girls and the male agents/managers who represented them).
See, I was always in trouble for being a “distraction” to my classmates because I rocked slut-goth-punk attire, instead of pale pink non-descript Juicy Couture tube tops. I had radical opinions that frightened my teachers, even at 12. In eighth grade, I wrote a controversial 20-page position paper on the death penalty (I was vehemently against it) and had engaged in a notoriously heated argument in my “social studies” class with a pocket-sized pre-pubescent Republican about a “woman’s right to choose.”
“You’re just overwhelming,” my friend Pheobe once said to me in the hormone-laden school hallway. Overwhelming? Taking a stance on choice made me overwhelming? Wearing the clothes that made me feel comfortable in my own skin, made me overwhelming? Or was I overwhelming because I thought the concept of a “purity” ring given to a daughter by her FATHER of all people, was deranged and gross (does anyone else remember this creepy trend spearheaded by Jessica Simpson)? Or was it all the above?
I didn’t want to change the core of who I was, through my darkest hour I’ve always remained a wild individual, who feels physical pain when I betray my authentic impulses—but I also didn’t want to be deemed overwhelming, either. Brittany and Christina and Mandy and Jessica were not overwhelming. And they were the girls that masses praised and celebrated. I wanted to be praised and celebrated too. Don’t we all?
And then, just like that, Pink sprang into the scene.
Her song “Don’t Let Me Get Me” was an instant hit. I remember listening to it with my older sister in her Wrangler convertible. She was a fierce tomboy and cranked the volume up as high as it could go and loudly smacked her gum as we both basked in the misfit glory of the song.
“Tired of being compared to damn Britney Spears. She’s so pretty, that just ain’t me.” Pink crooned through the radio speakers. Was she inside my head?
A few weeks later I saw the music video for “Don’t Let Me Get Me” on MTV. She rocked a mohawk. The only time I had ever seen a girl rock a mohawk was on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan, back when St. Mark’s Place was still punk rock.
But Pink wasn’t on a grimy street in the village, Pink was on TV. On MTV. And she was beautiful, but she was different. Like me, I guess.
Kids in school always said her hair was too short, she looked like a boy. I heard through a family friend in the music industry that she had a reputation for talking too much. For being too wild and too opinionated. She didn’t talk publically about wanting to remain a virgin until marriage like her peers, she spoke instead about growing up misunderstood and depressed in Philly.
She never dulled herself down. She was the first pop singer from my generation that I could see myself in. Her ability to stay famous and stay true to her non-conforming roots, made me feel validated. It empowered me to never change because of them.
Pink never used her incredible flexibility to make herself smaller like the other girls did. Not once did she bend her body order to fit into Hollywood’s perception of a what a girl should look and feel and sound like. The other girls were skinny (literally and proverbially). Pink had strong muscles (literally and proverbially). And through it all, Pink got more and more famous.
Yes, Pink dated men, but everything about her ignited the queerness boiling inside of me. By being her unabashed self, Pink gave me permission to be me to be my unabashed self. And my unabashed self is gay AF. Unapologetically gay AF.
So thank you Pink, for using your platform to promote the mission of unwavering authenticity. Because of this, I don’t feel like a lesbian fish plucked out of the gay waters. I am comfortable wherever I go because I watched you navigate the plastic, high-pressure world of Celebrity, being your rawest, most real self.
And thank you for last night. You shut down the bitchy voice that tugs at all of my insecurities, the voice that incessantly taunts me for not being like most 31-year olds. I might not know how to cook, but I can write 2000 word articles like a boss, baby.
Just like how you taught me that there are so many different ways to be beautiful, you’ve also taught me there are so many different ways to be a successful adult.
“So, baby girl, we don’t change, we take the gravel and the shell and we make a pearl.” – Pink