screaming music essay illustration dec 2015IN JOURNALISM, “–30–” is used to indicate the end of a story. It’s an anachronistic glyph, one that evokes images of a cigarettes-and-whiskey-burnished newsroom that doesn’t exist anymore. No one is completely sure of its provenance. These days, it’s mostly used as a poignant little wink in headlines or tweets about a reporter or editor who has retired or died. A person whose identity was defined by what they did.

I turned 30 on March 16, 2015. There was no maudlin existential crisis. I was ready to leave my 20s behind. I felt I did them up right. I looked forward to being in my 30s — that decade defined by stability, confidence and not giving a fuck.

In September 2015, ELLE did an issue called This Is 30, in which many well-known women I respect and admire wrote about what they learned when they turned 30. There were a lot of insights about confidence and being right with oneself.

Mostly, these essays filled me with anxiety. My only epiphany about turning 30 up until that point was that I am much more chill about putting stuff in the dryer.

But for me, the ending of my 20s dovetailed with the end of my career as a music writer. I was ready to move on from that, too. I was burned out and, increasingly, I was resentful. I had turned something I loved into work. Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life, so goes the needlepoint philosophy. Here’s a 30-something epiphany for you: that’s bullshit.

I hadn’t anticipated exactly how much of my identity was bound up in what I did for a living. Suddenly, the first few months of my 30s felt less like a time in which I felt confident and in control, and more like a second adolescence.

Who was I without music writing?

• • •

BEFORE I WAS a music writer, I was a music fan. I grew up in a musical household. My parents were scenesters in the 1980s, and a local band used their basement as a rehearsal space. My dad was always a voracious music nerd — still is — and unlike my classmates’ parents, mine listened to new music.

Still, as a child, I had terrible taste in music. I had a Spice Girls poster on my wall, displayed unironically because I was 12 in 1997. I legitimately liked Aqua’s Barbie Girl. When I was eight or so, the older son of my mom’s best friend allowed me to choose two cassette tapes as part of his Columbia House 10-tapes-for-a-penny order. My selections were Snow’s 1993 album 12 Inches of Snow — ordered only for Informer — and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik, a title that sounded sort of dangerous and therefore, I reasoned, made me seem mature.

Later, I discovered an old box of my dad’s cassette tapes, which lead me to the Ramones, Bowie and Talking Heads. My musical world was blown open. By Grade 10, I was deep into grunge which lead me to Riot Grrrl and my nascent feminism. It was the best kind of rabbit hole, and it all felt thrillingly new to me. I spent hours — days — in my room, listening to music.

By the time I was in high school, and I was actively seeking out new music — this was the era of Napster and burned CDs, after all — and I fancied myself as something of a tastemaker at school. The Strokes, The White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs: I was an early adopter and cheerleader of them all.

Back then, I felt I had to aggressively broadcast my love of music to the world because otherwise HOW WOULD PEOPLE KNOW? When you’re a teenager, opportunities to express your fledgeling, self-made identity exist absolutely everywhere. Your bedroom walls, your clothes, your locker. I cut out pictures and band names, and made collages to cover my agenda planners and binders.

In 1999, perhaps the most important signifier of all was your Hotmail address. Back then, having your very own email address was a big deal. It felt like freedom. You didn’t have to use your real name; you could be anyone, anything. These addresses were often just amalgams of hobbies and favourite numbers. An improbable number of people used these Hotmail accounts well into adulthood; I was in a Starbucks recently and overheard a grown woman on her phone, telling what I assume was her financial institution that her email address was dancer_chick_16@hotmail.com.

My Hotmail address was alternagirl_@hotmail.com. Alternagrrrl must’ve been taken.

The fact that ‘girl’ was spelled correctly actually says a lot about me. I wasn’t cool or rebellious. I was literally a virgin who couldn’t drive. I valued good grades and structure. A real Lisa Simpson type.

I had an idea about how I wanted to look (Kim Gordon-meets-Kathleen Hanna, basically), but had very limited funds — and, to be honest, guts — to execute it. So, my style at the time was composed of stiff, too-big band T-shirts intended for men — or too-small faux-vintage graphic Ts from Gap Kids promoting fictitious trucking companies. I was too nervous to dye my hair a “crazy” colour, like blue. So, I settled on a deep red, a shade that, in reality, wasn’t too far off from my natural brown but to me seemed “daring” and a “departure.”

But the dye I used was L’Oreal, not Manic Panic. My T-shirts came from the mall, not from vintage stores. My “style” was, at best, a clumsy, not-quite approximation of how I wanted to dress, hemmed in by my own fear of going all out. I was always Angela Chase, desperately wanting to be Rayanne Graff.

I remember one Christmas or birthday in Grade 9 where I received all music-themed gifts — including a bright-green journal from Claire’s with the words ‘Rock Star’ emblazoned in rhinestones on the cover. “Everyone thinks of you as the Music Girl,” a friend noted. This was an amazing compliment. Being regarded as the Music Girl was very, very important to me. I WAS ALTERNAGIRL.

I really wish I could tell you I modified that cheesy journal to say KILL Rock Star(s) which is a great idea I thought of just now. I filled it not with my own words because I didn’t have them at the time, but with lyrics. It was very dramatic. I made my bed I lie in it I made my bed I cry in it I made my bed I die in it I made my bed I lie in it…

I’m pretty sure when Courtney Love wrote the lyrics to Miss World, she wasn’t thinking that one day some soft-bodied, acne-speckled teenager with a bad box dye job would painstakingly copy them out into a bedazzled journal from Claire’s.

Or, I don’t know. Maybe she did.

• • •

OF COURSE, I had a favourite band.

For a long time — some might say an embarrassing amount of time, but fuck those people — that band was the Offspring. (I still think Smash is a very good album.) Eventually, I outgrew that band — the abomination that was Original Prankster did me in, even though the writing maybe should have been on the wall with Pretty Fly (For A White Guy). Before arriving at alternagirl_@hotmail.com, I toyed with offspring_punkchick16@hotmail.com, which is both unwieldy and untrue. (I wonder if Dancer Chick’s birthday is also on the 16th.)

They were replaced by a new favourite band. And that band was — is? — Pearl Jam.

I hesitate saying “is” because designating just one band as your favourite seems vaguely childish. When you’re a child, it’s easy to declare favourites, to form allegiances — likely because you have a certain number of choices based on limited experience. Although, to be fair, some of those favourites remain constants in our lives. I recently found a paper from Kindergarten. Favourite number? 8. Favourite flower? Tulips. Favourite food? Cheeseburgers. Twenty-five years later, and that’s all still true.

Favourites and preferences, on their own, do not an identity make — what does it mean to be a person who prefers red? —  but they are assertions of self expression, just like those Hotmail addresses. And a big part of my identity in high school/college was as a Pearl Jam fan.

Many songs off Pearl Jam’s 1991 album Ten were rock-radio staples when I was growing up — Even Flow, Alive — but I remember the night that I heard Ten properly. I was probably 15 or 16, and I was listening to it on cassette. And something clicked in my brain. These songs were big. They had heft, but they were still able to soar. They “hit me where I like to be hit by music,” to quote something Andrew W.K. said to me in an interview once. I liked that. Still do.

I’ve seen Pearl Jam five times in four cities. My first Pearl Jam show was on June 15, 2003 in Fargo, as part of the band’s Riot Act tour, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t breathe for three hours. I used to hang out on the official Ten Club message board.

I’m doing that thing insecure people do: rattling off their fan credentials. Because it’s never enough to simply say you’re a fan of something. You have to prove it.

Well, I have a Pearl Jam tattoo. A Pearl Jam tramp stamp, if you want to get specific. It’s of the now-iconic stickman, drawn by Jeff Ament for the Alive single. I got it when I was 19. Literally thousands of other people also have this tattoo.

I don’t regret this tattoo. Too-chatty massage therapists like asking me what it means. For a mostly ill-advised band tattoo, it has a lot of significance for me outside of the band. The stickman’s arms are outstretched and his feet are planted, so it’s a reminder to take up space. It’s a reminder to keep your feet on ground but to always keep reaching. It’s a reminder no matter what shit life has thrown my way that, I, oh, I’m still alive.

But it’s also just a reminder of what it was like to be a really big fan of something. Which, I’ve learned, is a terribly easy thing to forget.

• • •

IT WAS SPIN’s early-2000s heyday, when Sia Michel was at the helm, that made me want to become a music writer. The magazine was filled with funny, incisive and accessible music writing. I want to do that, I thought. I could do that.

And so, I did everything to make myself a music writer. While studying communications at a local college, I wrote a column called A Fan’s Notes, the name borrowed from the foreword of Pat Blashill’s book Noise from the Underground. I hosted college radio shows.

I got myself a regular freelance gig at Winnipeg’s only alternative weekly, Uptown Magazine. I wrote for Chart Magazine which, if you’re a Canadian music fan of a certain age, is a VERY BIG DEAL.

It was surreal, conducting an interview with, say, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem from my teenage bedroom, that shrine to fandom, praying a parent wouldn’t pick up the downstairs extension and obliterating any already-tenuous sense of professionalism.

Eventually, I became the music editor of that local alt weekly and got my own apartment. I was interviewing well over 100 bands a year, documenting Canadian indie rock in its 2000s renaissance. For most of my adulthood, I’ve been able to support myself solely as a music writer. Eventually, I was even good at it.

When feminism came into my life in my 20s, it radically changed both my relationship to music writing and to fandom. I began to notice how internalized sexism was making me a gatekeeper, questioning the legitimacy of other women’s fandom even though I had absolutely no right to do so — there was a time in my life when I could have been the author of that awful Joy Division T-shirt tweet heard ’round the Internet. I began noticing how female artists were treated in the press — if they got press, that is. I began noticing the way I was treated.

• • •

“What’s it like to be a girl in a band? What’s it like to be a girl in the music industry? What’s it like to be a girl at a record store? What’s it like to be a girl at a show?”

“What’s it like to be a girl?”

• • •

A LOT OF music writing about women is obsessed with the idea of authenticity — see: the ongoing panic about Lana Del Rey and whether or not female singers write their own songs. That obsession with authenticity extends to female fandom. Are you a real fan? Prove it.

Women, generally, are made to do an awful lot of proving. It’s exhausting.

The more confident I became in myself and my career, the less I felt I had to prove — as both a fan and a music writer. My fandom became less performative, less aggressive, more quietly assured. I stopped wearing band T-shirts every day. I made a point of making my writing inclusive and accessible. I never really cared for that early-Pitchfork, you’re-not-cool-enough-to-listen-to-this-band affectation — an affectation that must come more easily when your credentials, real and invented, aren’t constantly called into question. I dropped the rockist snobbery. I flatly rejected the widely held cultural notion that music is A Thing For Boys. I dropped the wishy-washy qualifiers in my writing. My criticism became toothier.

I know what I am talking about. I am supposed to be here.

And a music writer was born.

It’s strange, at first, reconciling your identity as a music fan and as a music writer. Being a music writer — and critic, especially — requires some journalistic distance from the subject. And yet, being a fan was what got me here in the first place.

I’ve never had an “encyclopedic knowledge of music,” which I’m pretty sure is a sentence invented by boys. I still don’t. It took me until this year to realize I have something better: curiosity. That’s what made me good at the gig. It’s not enough to simply love music. You have to wonder about music — wonder about it enough to dissect what makes it good or bad or important or irrelevant. “Don’t write like a fan” is advice I’ve heard before, but I don’t know that I buy it. After all, hell hath no fury like a disappointed fan.

• • •

SOME OTHER THINGS I LEARNED AS A FEMALE MUSIC WRITER:

1. ‘Fan’ is a synonym for ‘girl’ which is a synonym for ‘bad.’

2. Female critics who write with too much enthusiasm lack credibility and authority. To write with credibility and authority is to write like a man.

3. You will spend a lot of time convincing people you are not a groupie with a notebook.*

4. Reviewing While Female: a negative review of a female artist means you are jealous, but a positive one means you have a gender bias. A negative review of a male artist means you have a gender bias, but a positive one means you want to fuck him.

5. Your musical knowledge will be met with shock, and it will be challenged, constantly and by strangers.**

6. Internalized sexism can be combatted by realizing there are plenty of seats at the table, and that there can be more than one Music Girl. And by rejecting lessons 1 through 5.

*Although, Pamela Des Barres’ delicious memoirs are proof that groupies with notebooks do excellent work, too.

**One time, when I shared some insight about a record with an artist, he condescendingly asked me, “Did you think of that all by yourself?” More than one time, I have been ignored in record stores, have had my T-shirt choices questioned and have been asked at various shows, “So, what’s your favourite record by [headlining band]”? This, of course, is never asked in a friendly, striking-up-conversation way. It’s always asked in a sneering, ‘gotcha!’ way.

• • •

WHEN MUSIC WRITERS leave the beat — if they leave the beat — they refer to themselves in several ways. Some call themselves a “recovering music writer” as though the job is an addiction or disease. Others use “ex” or “former,” a nod to a past self.

I use ‘retired.’ It still has a ring of finality to it, but it’s also open ended. You can always come out of retirement.

The decision to quit music writing didn’t come easy. This, after all, was a job I wanted with the kind of desperation you can practically smell. When Jessica Hopper, one of my all-time favourite music writers, released her cheekily titled book The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Rock Critic in 2015, I felt weirdly guilty, like I was letting down the team. The world needs more female rock critics, not fewer.

But I needed to write about other topics, flex other muscles. I needed to, to borrow a phrase from Carrie Brownstein, pull the rug out from under myself. I had gotten comfortable and complacent. So when a full-time columnist position opened up at the newspaper I work for, I knew I had to go for it. And I got it. Turns out the world needs more female newspaper columnists, too.

Suddenly, at 30, I’ve found myself back where I was when I was 21 — figuring out how to do a job I really wanted, and how to do it well. I have something to prove again. That feeling — I know what I am talking about; I am supposed to be here — eludes me more than it doesn’t these days. I am working on it. But I’m feeling that thrilling newness again, the way I felt when I discovered all that music for the first time. The tender pink skin under a scab.

Since I’ve stopped writing about music, I’ve also rediscovered my love for it. The fan in me has woken up.

• • •

WE LIVE IN a culture that fetishizes work, a culture in which “What do you do for a living?” is considered polite small talk. What we do for a living should be what we are passionate about. Because what we do is who we are; what we did is who we were. It’s not hard to understand why so many retirees feel directionless. Who are we without our work? In this framework, hobbies and interests somehow count for less, as though they have to be legitimized by a paycheque. I know so many writers who don’t consider themselves writers because writing isn’t their main source of income.

This year, I’ve been thankful for the chance to reconnect with my fan self, the person who loved the anticipatory moment the arena goes black before a concert or when the cellophane came off a new CD. The person who loved a bass drum she could feel in her sternum and amps that would ring her ears. The person who loved all of this so deeply she had to put it down into words.

I don’t do that so much anymore. But it’s still who I am.

Illustration by Nicholas Friesen