It was late, and I could feel myself sweating through my cargo pants. The dance floor was crowded, but the music was loud enough to drown out my fears of being perceived. Not even an hour beforehand, my roommates had painstakingly applied wings of black eyeliner to my virgin eyelids. I had shaded my lips an embarrassingly naked color, and had a girlfriend paint my nails a nude pink. I got lost in the tight mass of people, briefly going outside for a breath of fresh air. After a panicked five minutes of searching, I found my friends again near the center of the small floor and embraced the claustrophobia. I waded closer to the guy I just met. I could only think of one thing–do I ask him for a kiss? I leaned in closer to ask him his thoughts on PDA. He said he was down for it, and we escaped to the wall.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to be a woman. No, I’m not transgender, at least I don’t think I am, but women’s fashion has always fascinated me. On the playground of my all-boy Catholic elementary school in New Orleans, when we played Star Wars, I was Princess Leia. I don’t remember particularly how I acted, but I complained about whatever plot was gestating in our little minds then, embodying the nagging girlfriend, the damsel in distress. I spun around in her sleek white dress, hair done up around my ears in figurative cinnamon rolls. I was a princess in my psyche. Only I knew how I looked in a dress. And boy, did I serve.
When I realized I was gay, on the cusp of high school, I withdrew into myself. I put on this kind of facade. Peyton: a straight guy, who just doesn’t like sports. Or his classmates, although some of them are okay. I discovered music. Pop music. That ambient nuisance that fills the space where conversation should be on a road trip or what lubricates the shopping experience at a mall or what sneaks into your brain at 3:00 AM on a school night when you should be sleeping. But it wasn’t just any pop music I was listening to—it was art pop.
I can technically trace back the roots of my obsession with music to car rides with my mom, where we didn’t listen to pop radio, versus those with my dad, where we did. But in the murky depths of suppressed memories, there is a rock on which I moor my music obsession. When I was a tween, say 11 or 12, I found Björk’s Biophilia on the iTunes music store, which I was prone to wander around while bored. For some reason I still don’t fully understand, I became obsessed with the music on that album, which sounded like nothing I had heard before. I’ve always been an introvert, and music has always provided an escape from awkward non-relations with my peers. Admittedly, my introversion was more acute when I was at that young age. And discovering my sexuality as puberty hit in tandem with my maternal grandmother’s passing. I was close with Grand, as close as I could be with another person then, and her absence still doesn’t sit right with me.
It took until, I wanna say, 9th grade for my parents to clear out and sell her house. Maybe it was the fact that I couldn’t understand death then or perhaps it was the ennui of suburban life in northern Louisiana, where she had lived, that caused me to actively seek an escape from reality. At one point, the emptiness of her big house and the realization that I would never experience its comfort the same way again hit me, so I hid in between my earbuds and set my mind on Pokémon and Skyrim. I began checking Pitchfork‘s website obsessively. I would take a Best New Music rating to heart and force myself to understand whatever album got the red stamp of approval that week, even if I couldn’t truly enjoy it. While religion failed to salve the wounds of social awkwardness and familial death, I looked to celebrities as saints. I made my own holy trinity. Björk. Grimes. St. Vincent. These are the women who raised me. I took their word as Gospel, just as much as I did Pitchfork’s. Whatever they said I had to agree with, and if I didn’t or I couldn’t understand what they meant, I wrestled with it internally, mulling about some tossed off tabloid fodder like deep philosophy as I went about my day. I distinctly remember the night I learned Grimes did drugs. I cried, and my mom told me, quite plainly, “You don’t know her.” And I didn’t. (Still don’t.) But back then I couldn’t decipher between the personaes celebrities presented to the public and the “real” person underneath. I looked to these women for guidance on how to operate in the world. It is no understatement to say that Björk Guðmundsdóttir is the reason why I privilege emotion over logic in my calculations of different social situations. Grimes taught me that I could be as nerdy as I wanted to be and no one could tell me otherwise. And St. Vincent taught me elegance and pretension.
Grimes occupies a strange in-between place between the high art, celestial muse of Björk and the nitty gritty, take no shit glamour of St.Vincent. 2015’s Art Angels sent me into overdrive with excitement when I was in 9th grade. Her ADHD hyperactive gonzo-pop and the bizarre almost unintelligible concepts behind them provided sheer entertainment, like pure sugar and lollipops, for my teenage mind. Of all the songs on that record, the closer, “Butterfly,” spoke the most to me at the time. The monarch butterfly is my family’s personal symbol of my late maternal grandmother. And when I saw the song’s title for the first time, it made me believe in a God. How else could Grimes have intuited what a butterfly meant to me?
The thing you have to understand: a pop star isn’t just a person. A pop star is an archetype. Sort of like a saint, but not so revered that she can’t be denigrated. She exists as an icon, a tarot card, that reflects you back to yourself and spits you back out. She is the brand. And the brand is you. Your personal conception of Beyoncé is just as real as the woman herself. The pop star in your heart sings just as loud.
When I was younger/in high school and one of my sacred trio of pop stars announced an album, I would place all my weight on it. I expected the new record to hold the meaning of life, to the solution to all my problems. Everything would make sense once it dropped and I had the adequate amount of time to consume it.
The first album I ever did this for was Björk’s Vulnicura, her divorce record from 2015. I distinctly remember when it dropped. We were on the drive back from Alexandria, where Grand had lived before she passed. My dad was at the wheel, and I was in the passenger seat. I only had a sketchy cellular connection, but it was good enough for a silent gasp to escape my mouth. from the opening, melancholic strings of “Stonemilker.” I knew that this was a work of gravity my fourteen-year-old brain wasn’t developed enough to understand. I watched the passing night-trees blur into each other as Björk detailed the curves of heartbreak. The roadside grass slurred by in dark green furs. I looked down at the album cover on my phone screen. There stood a woman covered in the translucent spines of grief, wearing a stark black latex suit against an alarming yellow background. Her arms were outstretched in an almost inscrutable gesture of vulnerability. In the center of her chest was a deep red gash–the wound of heartbreak. Something within me sparkled. It was “History of Touches” rising up from the depths of loss like clusters of bioluminescent eels poking out of the sandy ocean floor. Something else within me thumped. It was “Black Lake,” the album’s 10 minute centerpiece, pulsing like a heart in the night. Its deep strings of pain eluded me like the black sands of a volcanic beach under my feet. “I am a glowing shiny rocket / Returning home / As I enter the atmosphere / I burn off layer by layer,” sings Björk in the song’s concluding moments. Though we sped home through the darkness, the car never pierced the banal pall of death that hung over those trips to and from Alexandria. Shrapnels of hot emotion weren’t yet thrown off the sides of our family. But still, I was subsumed into the chasm of Vulnicura. Björk disclosed the injustices against her broken heart in “Family,” before she raved through the oblique oblivion of “Notget.” A duet with fellow avant-pop artist ANOHNI, “Atom Dance,” provided an extended period of light relief, a necessary antidote to the other tracks’ heaviness, like a friend distracting you from a bad breakup. “Mouth Mantra” slid past me entirely, illegible to me even now, though I understand it is supposed to be words of encouragement. Finally, I reached “Quicksand,” and felt something like happiness again. I felt featherlight and breathless. For the first time in my life, I experienced catharsis.
Two years later, Björk dropped Utopia. Though I do not remember in such detail my first time listening to the album (I vaguely remember listening to it front to back alone on my couch at like 1:00 in the morning), I do remember how it made me feel. To this day, I look back on that album as a significant touchstone that has informed my creative identity and personal sense of aesthetics significantly. Well, at least what (sonic, visual) aesthetic ideals I find appealing and aspirational even if I don’t actualize them on a day-to-day basis, so to speak. It is fantasy as a weapon against oppression. A sort of high fantasia constructed against the confines of reality that allows you to escape–even if only for about forty minutes. Escapism is something I value highly in art, I guess. Erecting walls of blue feathers, weaving a matriarchal dome. Feminine hospitality, accepting strangers in a strange island as one’s own. Quite literally, one has to conceptualize each song as a part of a jungle-like island to understand Utopia‘s true nature. There, on that isle far away from reality, I nurtured a pop star of my own. Utopia is a virtual world of vital escapism. Vulnicura, the dissolution of a relationship I never quite had.
I’ve always wanted to be that pop star for one performance. Just one time. To rip the slit and reveal the inner girl inside this queer’s body, in all her weird, vulnerable, half-formed beauty. She doesn’t even have a name yet. But, as fate would have it, the alien had been kicking inside this fall and was ready to perform.
* * *
The clinician dabs the foundation on my hand.
Is that good enough? she asks.
I look blankly at the strange blob of liquid gel on my hand. My eyes wander over to my roommate, who is inspecting the foundation on his hand with a mixture of expertise and apprehension. C’mon, Jonathan, tell me what to do! I try to tell him telepathically. He lifts his head and breaks into that kind of smile that says I’ll take it from here.
Yes, this is perfect, he reassures her.
I vigorously nod to the clinician. Yes, thank you so much! My voice pitches up an uncomfortable notch. What am I doing here in Ulta Beauty? A vein is throbbing in my brain. I don’t know. The place is surprisingly empty for a Saturday afternoon. All lit up in the side of a mall in Philly’s Fashion District, its doors opened like legs, waiting for no one to arrive. Shelves upon shelves of various makeup products crowd your eyesight when you walk in. I return to the main aisle for foot traffic and wander over to the store’s back. Act normal. Know what you are doing. Be casual. Don’t look stressed. An electric pulse of urgency bundles itself up under my sternum, rising like Icarus to the center of my ribcage. Here I am in the sun I was never supposed to touch in the first place.
I accost a display of nail polish. Bewildered by what it had to offer and unsure of what I need, I put the blue-green box down and turn around to face the store’s exit. Pedestrians pass by, clearly enjoying the cool September weather. I blink. I turn again to face the front and start walking. Something gleams in the corner of my eye. I stop at another display, enticed by a 2-for-1 package of white nail polish and primer. I discreetly take one and put it in my bag and head over to the store’s middle. I’m looking for the most important item: lipstick. A pair of large lips with bright red lip gloss in between their smooth candy colored curves draws me in. I want to try a tester, but soon I realize all the bottles were liquid. Not going to risk making a scene here, even if no one else was around. Aimlessly, I dig around in the MAC section. Uncapped testers lined up in the display case mark my hand. After a good five minutes, I find this shade that perfectly accentuates my skin: 403, Daddy’s Girl. I look around in desperation for my roommate, who encouraged me along in the first place, and upon not finding him, decide to check out. I feel my cheeks flush beet red when I speak to the cashier. I decline the offer to become a savings member with my lowest voice possible (although there is practically no one else here in the store). After what feels like another eternity, I have purchased my first makeup for myself… To the tune of $79. I put what I had just bought in a plastic bag and made off with the goods like a thief.
A few weeks later, I return to Ulta Beauty. This time with my friend Wyatt, who knows about these kinds of things. A regular there, they smoothly get a worker to help me choose makeup products. Though I am still stressed, I feel at ease with someone who knows their way around a beauty store. Together, Wyatt, the worker, and I choose a starter palette of eyeshadow, an ink eyeliner, a wonder stick, a bottle of clear mascara, concealer, a pack of Morphe brushes, and a pack of makeup remover. Save the husband of another customer who I felt sense my nervousness, everything goes surprisingly well until we head back home.
At the turnstile, just as the subway is pulling up, and Wyatt is already through the gates, I hear a man behind me while I am struggling to get the sensor to accept my Septa card.
Ultra beauty, I hear him say, with an unpleasant drawl, that unsettles me.
I turn ever so slightly and see out of the corner of my eye a heavy set man with loose fitting, dark jeans and a red t-shirt with a lightning bolt logo. Swiping my card faster, I clutch my orange bag and shift it so the logo is no longer visible. Levis, the man says lazily. I feel his eyes on my jeans. I don’t have time to think about what I must look like to him: my Penn sweatshirt, light blue jeans, large Ulta Beauty bag in hand.
Doors are closing. The automated voice of the subway echos. Wyatt catches the door with their body to hold it open for me.
Wyatt! Wyatt! They look over at me dumbfounded.
Finally, the card goes through, and I zip through that turnstile faster than I ever have before. Once inside the Septa, I noticed at the other end of the door a surprisingly attractive man, who said to us, That’s a nice friend. Too much adrenaline pulses through my veins for me to process his words. I just laugh nervously and make awkward eye contact. Unsuccessful, I stare off in the middle distance to his left. Eventually, Wyatt and I sit down. My brain throbs with a new kind of nervous energy. You gotta get home, gotta get home, I repeat to myself, refusing to look at anyone or anything but the disgusting muck on the walls.
Back on the street, I’m hyper aware of the people around us on the sidewalk, particularly the group of ostensibly straight men that stream around us while we walk. I hold my breath until we reach the corner where Wyatt goes off to their house and I to my dorm. Well, this is the end of the line! they say weakly. Yeah, I respond, I’ll see you around, warily eyeing the straight boys near us. Hit me up when you want to do makeup. Yeah, I say under my breath. And we split. I hurry up to my fourth floor dorm, eager to get out of the public eye and drop off the bag. Inside the room, I exhale, somewhat relieved, and set the big orange bag next to my floor lamp, where it sits now, waiting for me once I get the balls to beat my face.
* * *
It’s Halloween. My original plan is not to go out, but a panic of FOMO curdles up inside my chest. I sit in my room, blinds closed, laptop on, staring at the screen, unmotivated to do any homework and too sleep deprived to actually sleep. My mind churns with thoughts of what I’m missing out on. Possibility chews at my soul. Out there was a party I kept hearing about. On a last minute whim, I decide to go. I text my roommate and we plan to meet in the dorm after dinner. But I need a costume, and that’s when my eyes wandered over to the untouched $160 worth of makeup that’s been lying around for two months. That’s when it clicks. Tonight would be the night.
After dinner, I come back home and rush to my bedroom. I don’t change. The short-sleeved collared shirt, my long black cargo pants, and my pale blue sneakers would do. I clear away my desk and pull all the makeup from the Ulta beauty bag onto the fresh surface. I feel strangely calm, although a little part of me is giddy inside. I know exactly what I wanted to do. Lipstick. Eyeliner. Eyeshadow. Nails. Lipstick is the easy part, twice around and a smack in the mirror. I rub the edges to smooth out my now-bolded lips and joke to my roommate that my lips look unnaturally big like one of the Kardashians’.
Eyeliner, on the other hand, was another issue… I recklessly apply a black streak right across my right eyelid. I look over in a little hand-held mirror on my desk. This is no good. I wipe it away. Suddenly, I hear a commotion at the front door of my dorm. I poke my head out and see my girlfriends from down the hall. Next thing I know they’re all in my dorm helping me get ready for the night. They help me dab a thin layer of concealer under my eyes. Next, we broach what we want to do with my eyes. Eyeshadow? We look at the pallet on my desk and decide it’s too bright for what I’m going for. Instruct them that I want a thin wing right at the top of my eyelids. Painstakingly, Kaitlyn applies the line at the bottom of my eyelid. I try my best to keep quiet amongst all the jokes bouncing around the room, closing my eyes as still as possible. Jessica adds the wings. Michelle, while all this chaos is going on, paints my nails a soft shade of white. And the look is complete. After a quick round of selfies, I head out into the night with my roommate and a couple friends.
When we arrive, I quickly realize that, for the first time, I am enjoying myself at a college party. Gone are the inhibitions I once had about being–or appearing to be–an outcast in a social setting. They are tossed to the side. I feel a warm sense of empowerment dancing with the guy I just met, having shaken off the confines of growing up in a conservative environment on that damp October dance floor. Like my grandmother did before me, I take up my butterfly wings and, finally, let it all go.