Lincoln Center employees are, not surprisingly, performing arts superfans. Everyone has their favorite. In anticipation of the August 1 Lincoln Center Out of Doors event NPR's Turning the Tables Live: 21st-Century Edition—a night of music and conversation highlighting a new generation of artists who are claiming center stage—staff member Matthew Karkutt offers his very personal reflection on one of the evening's featured musicians.
I had taken the train from Fayetteville, North Carolina, to New York City for my first New Year's kiss, which was meant to take place at a gay bar called Phoenix. By the time I arrived, my intended's face was locked with another man's, shattering my vision of a midnight kiss while confetti fell and chaps-clad men surrounded us with Bob Fosse choreography. Above, the disco ball spun a few beats behind Rihanna's "Umbrella," as if thrown off kilter by this suddenly saddened son. I may as well have been in my bedroom journaling to The Police's "King of Pain." Rihanna finished her jam, and suddenly the sound of strings descended from the heavens, a sequence of eighth notes across two measures that in my head whispered, "Hon, you better take two shots a whiskey and dance, ya hear?"
Carly Rae Jepsen had made her entrance through the speakers. Everyone cheered.
That night "Call Me Maybe," the year's viral hit about tweens figuring out their drama, became my pop anthem precisely because it and the crowd's response rescued me during my moment of drowning. What is music if not a lifeguard’s whistle on the dance floor?
As Carly's voice sang "I'd trade my soul for a wish / pennies and dimes for a kiss / I wasn’t looking for this / but now you're in my way," I felt a new space open up in which I've learned to love and feel comfortable. Why be miserable when you can be silly? Why not be both?
So...I fell to the floor and started to spasm. Gollum realness. Squatting, I did a limp-wristed dance combination influenced by Limón and Graham, one that raged among cosmopolitan gay legs attached to beguiled faces. By the end, an angelic Drag Queen chimed, "I see you, Frodo!" Wrong. But right.
I traded the heartbreak of losing my kiss for the spectacle and thrill of my own dance solo, screaming/shimmying to that man beast and his Adonis: "Dude, call me never. You're in my way. Happy [expletive] New Year." Kick kick turn. Hair flip. Mimed wretch.
That was the moment I joined the Jepsies of the Carly Slay Jepsen variety. We are fierce fans. Her music, I discovered, lands easily for a certain tribe: glitter, color, and sassy narrators easily felt, prestissimo. But something smarter, too: heavy feelings necessarily hidden by the hot air bubble of chewing gum that pops. The word Bazooka comes to mind.
Carly is part of a bigger legacy of artists overtly and slyly creating spaces for themselves and anyone near or off the margin. My first contact with this legacy began in my mom's Buick, where the tape deck wore through Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, Tracy Chapman's New Beginning, and Dolores O'Riordan in Everybody Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? Smart and resilient women with chops, they held me through the anger and heartbreak, the sometimes longing of growing up gay in the rural south—and the sometimes miracle of connecting across codes that remain a special language for queers unlearning our shame.
They led me to Lilith Fair, to the CDs of Lauryn Hill, Liz Phair, Warpaint, Indigo Girls, and later to the dance floor where Madonna, Janelle Monae, and Robyn dared us sissies to wink at our fellows and to imagine better. Carly's music imagines a "cut to the feeling" of goofy joy paired with love after great loss.
In Raleigh for her Gimme Love tour in 2016, I showed up with my besties and with many a southern gay, all having driven to the capital to sing and dance. I was not surprised to see fellow activists there, the need for levity almost eclipsed by the exigency of our state's problems. Almost. A belting saxophone solo in "Run Away with Me" announced Ms. Jepsen's arrival. Part siren, part bull horn, part Clarence Clemons, the call to gaiety was further announced by rainbow strobes and a set design of diamonds. (The Emotion t-shirt is a rainbow of smeared paint dribbling down a black background). Singing "I'll be your sinner in secret, when the lights go down," Carly invited us into the irony again: neither in the dark nor confined to being sad secrets, we danced out loud in the truth of her music, in our state and in spite of the hatred of our state.
We could out the hatred of our state by rewriting the hatred of our state. We were there to say that there are feelings and peoples more radical than hatred, even if only formed by a protective circle around a bathroom or a protective circle on the dance floor. Even if found in the embarrassed tween holding their iPhone's music collection beside concerned helicopter parents. Even when, as the tragedy of Pulse only months later would remind us, LGBTQ people's lives are under threat.
But for a night we could be at home together. Y'all means all. Choreographer Twyla Tharp has written that "Art is the only way to run away without leaving home," and I imagine Carly is in on that chorus when she sings "Run Away with Me."
Tonight, Carly joins Jamila Woods, Mitski, Phoebe Bridgers, and I'm With Her in Damrosch Park as part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors, in collaboration with NPR Music. Sometimes I'm inclined to wish that 2018 were 2012 or 2016, those other years I heard Carly. But resistance is never in vogue. We can out the hatred of our nation by rewriting the hatred of our nation. I'll be doing as much tonight, ready to dance as Gollum when my Rae of Light takes the stage.
Matthew Karkutt works in the human resources department at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.