IN 1996, at age 20, after graduating the University of California at Berkeley with a double major of political science and women’s studies, I moved to New York City to attend NYU Law School. That feels like a lifetime ago, rather than half of one, but my years in law school were the real start of me becoming the person I am today, not because of anything I learned in class, but because all the new music I discovered at indie record stores within walking distance of my home. Kim’s Underground, Other Music and Rocks in Your Head felt like a passageway into a secret new world I hadn’t known about. Up until then, I’d been obsessed with 10,000 Maniacs (my very first email address was firstname.lastname@example.org). I found a passion for these sensitive singer-songwriters and post-riot grrrl bands on labels like Kill Rock Stars and K Records that I never came close to for torts or contracts. I didn’t want to play music (thankfully, since I don’t have any talent in that department), but I nevertheless connected with these artists on a visceral level that I think it’s safe to say changed my life. Through these songs and bands, and the connections I made because of them, I got the chance to be an extra in a music video, start a zine, make international friends, create my first webpage, and conceptualize an artistic life beyond the law.
1. “Polaroids” by Mary Lou Lord
I first heard Mary Lou Lord’s cover of Shawn Colvin’s “Polaroids” on the benefit CD Safe & Sound. If I recall correctly, I listened on a Discman (yes, just typing that makes me feel far older than 37), and when I got to this spare song, I stopped and replayed it umpteen times. Something about her voice, so sincere and raw, made me pay attention, then seek out all of her work up until that point. While I didn’t know exactly how big a lightning-bolt moment it was, I did know the song spoke to me in a way that nothing I was learning or doing until that point was. I was flailing in an academic environment that was utterly over my head and foreign, and here was a song that, while I didn’t understand every bit of it, was saying something to me about being lost and, hopefully, found.
I became such a big fan that I learned extremely rudimentary HTML and, with my free NYU student account, started a fan page and mailing list dedicated to Mary Lou, because they didn’t exist, and through that outlet met many other fans from all over. I even got to be an extra in her video for “Lights Are Changing,” shot in a New York City subway. But more than that, Mary Lou’s penchant for busking and covers meant I discovered so many other amazing artists, like Elliott Smith, who I met for a minute backstage at one of her shows at The Bottom Line. Her ability to take someone else’s song and turn it into her own has inspired my writing process and approach to creativity.
Sarge was recommended to me by a record store clerk I befriended, whose shop was only a block out of my way during my three-block walk from campus to my dorm. I started going in there seeking new music, yes, but also a culture, a community, something to connect to, and I found it in Sarge, and later, frontwoman Elizabeth Elmore’s band The Reputation. Much later, I named an erotica anthology Fast Girls after the song, and wrote in the introduction: “I named this book after a song called ‘Fast Girls’ by an indie pop/rock band called Sarge. That song is a feisty, punk-rock ode to a hot girl who is captivating in all kinds of ways. I’m sure you know a girl like that. Or a woman. Or a lady. Or a butch. Or a femme. Or…you get the idea. She’s the kind of babe who takes no prisoners, who owns her life and her sexuality and not only doesn’t apologize for them, makes sure you notice her and what she’s all about.”
Everything about that song spoke to me—the sense of longing, the possibility, the urgent excitement of meeting someone new and how they can usher you into not just a new friendship or relationship, but an entire new way of looking at life. That was what discovering bands like Sarge did for me, all the more so later when Elmore went to law school and managed to fit touring and recording in at the same time. The musicians I was discovering weren’t just talented at their instruments and songwriting; they’d all carved out creative lives that required boldness and ingenuity and individuality to make them work in the real world.
I’d walked into NYU Law School thinking my role models were William Kunstler and Patricia Williams, but while I still cared about issues like the First Amendment, I felt stifled, boxed in and confused at the seemingly myriad twists and turns the law took. It’s not surprising to me, looking back, that I wrote my very first erotica story the summer after I decided to take a break from law school (which wound up being a permanent one), about a famous-at-the-time fast girl, Monica Lewinsky.
3. “Words and Guitar” by Sleater-Kinney
I don’t remember which Sleater-Kinney song was my first; it probably wasn’t this one, because I think I learned about them right before Dig Me Out was released. But this song, a gem amidst so many others that galvanized me at their shows and blasting out of my 240 Mercer Street dorm room made me want to take action, do something other than sit in a law library studying words that were incomprehensible to me. It was almost impossible to listen to Corin Tucker putting every ounce of her extraordinary voice into this song, to watch the way Janet Weiss drummed and Carrie Brownstein wielded her guitar onstage at CBGB’s or Tramps and not want to find something to do with my life that I loved as much—or even a fraction as much. I took the title of another song from Dig Me Out, “I’m Not Waiting,” as my zine’s name, and while it was short-lived (three issues, I believe), that message, that we don’t have to wait for permission to go after what we want, is one I’ve found just as practical in my thirties as I did back then. I hope I would’ve gotten that message eventually without these songs, but I’m so glad I had them to lead the way.
Listen to The Official Weeklings Power Trio Playlist on Spotify.
what a waste of a college education.
any junior high school kid can write about sex.
and high school kids like rock music, too.