Sometimes, if you are very lucky, life comes along and makes you think wishes come true. Long-held, deeply embedded wishes that have lingered since childhood — since, say, you were 4 and dressed in your mother’s silky pink nightie that looked like a long glamorous dress to you and you were belting out Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” into a karaoke microphone attached to your Donnie & Marie record player. Just as an example.
Last night, life was kind enough to do this for me. I wanted to become a rock star. And it happened, for my 36th birthday no less.
See, I somehow stumbled into starting a band a few months ago when some girlfriends and I, after yet another round of karaoke — we do like karaoke an awful lot — joked, sort-of, about how we’d like to go legit. Have gigs. Instruments. Groupies — handsome, emotionally available, stable male groupies with jobs, preferably. But groupies, still. Turned out Melissa, who also happens to be a professional opera singer, had been playing the drums for a while. On a child-sized red drum set, but a drummer is a drummer. Kate, meanwhile, revealed she had been practicing acoustic guitar for years — you know, “More Than Words,” that sort of thing — quietly in her apartment. But she was looking for an excuse to buy an electric guitar. And while I once dabbled in guitar, my skills — and my dreams — lay more in being a lead singer. That was how I’d always pictured it while I crooned away on that Donnie & Marie microphone; and lo and behold, that was how it was finally about to be, 32 years later. In that moment, we became a band.
We called ourselves No Ambition, just to underline our intentions: No pressure to practice too much, no pressure to be perfect, certainly no energy to actually write songs or anything. We settled on ’90s covers as our oeuvre, because, well, who doesn’t love being reminded that they once sang along with “Roll to Me” on their car radio every day for a year before selling that Del Amitri cassette to the used record store? (Who among people of a certain age, anyway — that age being people who thought they were too old to make themselves rockstars.) And so it was that we gathered every once in a while in our tiny apartments to rehearse our small selection of achievable tunes — think “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Closing Time.” If someone couldn’t make a rehearsal time because of our very real, very demanding professional and personal lives — No Ambition is an ironic name for us in this regard, as two of us (Kate and I) work at a national weekly entertainment magazine and one of us, as mentioned, is a pro opera singer with a full-time office job to boot — it was no big deal. In our career lives, we are overachieving warriors. This was to be a place free of all that. We played when we could.
But we loved it. And we got better.
Not great, but good enough that we wanted to play for our friends. So as all of our birthdays fell within a month of each other, we used the occasion to guilt our nearest and dearest to gather in a spectacular loft space, provided for the occasion by a friend of a friend who knows how to throw a killer party, and suddenly we found ourselves on an actual stage. With instruments, a set list, and an audience.
And I have never been happier than when I looked out at the crowd as we finished a pretty damn punk rock, if I do say so, version of “… Baby One More Time” and saw their looks of sheer … what was it? Bemusement, for sure. Joy, I think. Enjoyment, I hope. I do know they gave me all of that, and more.
It’s not every day your friends can give you a dream — like, the kind of dream usually only Oprah’s producers can provide — for your birthday. But that’s what they did, just by being there as an audience, to make us a real band. It should be said, however, that — cheesy as it may be — we did it for ourselves, too. We couldn’t be a band without each other — or without the nerve to start a silly band with no intention of “making it” while two of the three of us are in our 30s and all of us have “better things to do.”
What has been perhaps more shocking than the sheer giddiness being in a band provides for us is the utter fascination and glee with which others regard the project. I suspect it has at least a little to do with the idea of 30-something professional women engaging in an activity usually reserved for teenagers in garages with too much time on their hands. But when pressed on the issue, one of our “fans” — a 20-something coworker of Kate’s and mine — said it had more to do with the lack of ambition underlined in our name. “There is,” she said, “always something interesting about people doing something for no reason.” Or, more to the point, for the sheer fun of it, no goals required.
I must admit I have a secret goal though. Yes, we have all admitted to fantasies of becoming some sort of novelty act among, maybe, middle-aged women with similarly repressed dreams, or at least becoming a cult sensation among New York tastemakers. My real goal, however, is to honor the memory of Debbie Gibson’s influence on my life. I was in 7th grade when her “Out of the Blue” album came out and changed my little life. Her songs, well, quite frankly — while I loved them, I also thought, “I could write that.” She was only four years older than I! Surely I could be her. I got a Debbie Gibson hat and bought her line of makeup (what I remember: Rock ‘n’ Rose lipstick), but more importantly, I started scrawling terrible rhymes in my journal while imagining tunes to go with them. (Sample lyric: “He was my first, by far the worst/He meant so much to me/But then it came, that awful day/On which he set me free.” I have no idea to what this referred. I had had no firsts of any kind, I promise you.) I even sort-of learned the guitar on a $48 instrument for which I saved up for weeks to buy at Service Merchandise.
But then New Kids on the Block came along — just a year later, though it felt like a lifetime then — and ruined everything. Don’t get me wrong, I loved them. I went to every concert. I had T-shirts and posters. I picked my favorite (Jordan Knight). But this was the beginning of years of idolizing not female role models who inspired me to follow my rockstar dreams, but of letting my, well, vagina choose my music for me. I went on to worship George Michael after that (and lust for him, too, despite the fact that he’d never, for sure, return my amorous feelings). An astronomical step up in terms of musical taste and quality, to be sure — I still really dig the guy — but still. I was enamored with his scruffy stubble and the sex that oozed from his voice, not with my desire to be him one day.
I unearthed my buried Debbie Gibson dreams when I made a group of friends in New York who were full-on karaoke nerds. We unapologetically love renting a karaoke room on a Friday night and singing the best we can for two or three or even four hours. We harmonize. We pitch-adjust. (Yes, there’s a way to adjust pitch on most karaoke machines if you know your way around the controls. Which we do.) I discovered a penchant for Joan Jett and Pat Benatar. I remembered: I can sing pretty well, and I can perform even better. This changed everything, from my walk to how I dressed. I traded in twinsets and slacks for skinny jeans and off-the-shoulder sweaters. I dyed my hair black. This was, of course, the confluence of a couple of major life changes — I’d also just canceled a wedding and ditched all dreams of a traditional happy wifey life. But I promise you that Joan was a major influence, at least when it came to style and swagger.
The band, which came along a few years later, only solidified what I’d started discovering after years of passively admiring male singers and bands, from my New Kids on the Block Days on through to my Green Day and Ryan Adams adoration: I didn’t want to date a rockstar. I was one.
Now I worship the holy triumvirate of Joan, Liz Phair, and Gwen Stefani. And would it be too un-rockstar sappy to add myself to that list? Or would it be exactly what a rockstar would do? I’m going with the latter. The best compliment I got of the night — which I’m certain it’s super-rockstar of me to share — came from the great and insightful (and very punk-rock, in my opinion) writer Jami Attenberg, who said, “Some people sing from their diaphragm. You sing from your vagina.” I think Joan, Liz, and Gwen — and even Debbie — would be proud.