by Matt Caprioli
From Fall 2017
I mutter Latin whenever I have a bad trip. The habit began when a fuckbud offered me synethic weed. I didn’t know it was tampered hemp until spiky purple waves crawled out of the sofa. I staggered to my bed. I lay down and hugged myself, rocking back and forth. I tried to think of something comforting. Opta ardua pennis sequi astra was the first thing I heard. “Optaah,” I slurred, “Ardua. Penis.” I giggled. “Sekay. Astra.” It’s from The Aeneid. They choose hardship who follow the stars.
Another time, I was driving away from a quasi-boyfriend and crying. Desperate to relieve my melodrama, I made the mistake of buying from my former fuckbud, the same one who gave me laced weed in the first place. Again, I saw malodorous purple. I pulled over on the Glenn Highway, the main route leading north out of Anchorage. I reclined all the way back. I muttered et ameris, amabilis esto. Ovid came up with this one. To be loved, be lovable.
For a long time I thought this was a liberating credo. To be loved by people, all you had to do was be nice. Armed with such a thought, human relations morphed into geometry, as charming and as simple as a teeter-totter: smile a lot and people will like you.
Years came and went and at some point I started to question Ovid’s proclamation. I wondered if Ovid wasn’t presenting a gentle dictum so much as an ultimatum. To be loved, be lovable, which is to say be lovable, or you won’t be loved. He wasn’t sharing a secret key to happiness with et ameris, amabilis esto. He was observing a fact. People would not love you until you gave them a damn good reason.
I was so convinced that I couldn’t be loved. My father, the Sergeant, told me so; then my first boyfriend. My mother, a devout Pentecostal woman, taught me love was grace: all you could do was repent and hope the spirit would visit you one day. The first time I took 300 dollars in exchange for sex, I didn’t have to question my worth. As an escort, the hundreds of Benjamins I kept piling up in shoeboxes were proof that I was loved.
Sophomore year of college, I lived with my mother in a two-bedroom cottage on the edge of Anchorage. The walls were slathered in thick, lime green stucco from the 50s, which made hanging posters difficult. Fortunately, there was a wood panel in my room that could support anything I taped on it: album covers, magazine articles, and the $1.99 miniature flags of Italy and Denmark — all the places I wanted to be instead of Alaska.
Obama’s face hung in the center. From the July 2008 Rolling Stone cover, back when the covers were large as Moses’s tablets, Obama smiled with gaze cast down. To the right of Obama was an interview with Sia, the Australian pop singer, from Out Magazine. She smiled at the camera wearing bunny ears. Nowadays the magazine would kill an intern to have her on the cover. But in 2009, she was an indie bric-a-brac relegated to a column where she was asked to name five fun things to-do in Sydney. In Alaska, few of my friends knew who she was. Those who did said she was weird. Her biggest hit, “Breathe Me” was too raspy, melodramatic — annoying.
I couldn’t articulate why I was drawn to her music, but I did sense that she was struggling, like me. A kind math teacher asked me once if I ever considered conversion therapy. My family took me to churches where the pastor suggested that the recent string of gay teen suicides was God hinting that “the homosexual populace” should stay in the closet. In a high school of 2,000 students, I was one of three openly gay kids. I still have trouble recalling the exact dimensions of my loneliness: the physical pain of asking during each waking moment, would I be loved if I were known?
Until I was out at 16, I thought of suicide frequently. Sia went through a similar bout in 2010. Her trials were distinct from mine, of course, and in several ways worse than mine (will we ever quit ranking misery on an ordinal scale?). Her diagnoses were bipolar depression and Grave’s Disease. She was addicted to Xanax and OxyContin. She wanted to stop living. She wrote a note for her dog walker and the manager of a cheap hotel: “I’ve killed myself and I don’t want you to have to suffer seeing my dead body.” I wrote a similar note the winter I was 19. It ended up being the first time I traded sex for money. A man on a dating website introduced himself as “Gu$.” I agreed to meet him at the Weston. Before I left, I wrote a note to my mother. It wasn’t as dramatic as the note I wrote at 14, when I tied several sheets around a banister and saw myself stepping over the railing. But the states were similar: I no longer gave a damn what happened to me. I wrote this note to my mother on a Vanity Fair subscription offer before I went off to meet Gu$:
Hey Mom, if you’re reading this I’m probably dead. You may know how I died. I’m so sorry for any pain that causes you. I just honestly see nothing wrong with it. Please don’t miss me much and enjoy your life. You’ve been annoying me a lot lately, but I hope you know I love you more than anything. I owe you a lot, even though I’m very bad at showing my gratitude—I love you forever.
P. S: If I’m just missing, I went to the Weston to meet a “Gus” in room 1738 at 11:30pm. You can see our talk on www.adam4adam.com. You can use my computer, the password is ‘Giotto’
I wedged my note into spine of the bible, right before the Book of Matthew. If I did die, this would be the first place she’d turn to.
In my isolation, sexually and geographically, Sia’s music felt like the Voyager Golden Records, proof that somewhere in this universe was sentient life. Chord after chord, the whispery vocals — all the crackles – told me I wasn’t alone. One day I’d find people like me: confused and isolated, whose inherent qualities made it difficult to love themselves. I spent hours listening to her album, Some People Have Real Problems. I smiled, realizing how pathetic I was for not going out there and carpe diem-ing the fuck out of the world. Some people did have real problems. Still, I stared at the ceiling, listening to “Lullaby:”
Send a wish upon a star
Do the work and you’ll go far
Send a wish upon a star
Make a map and there you are
She was vulnerable, and despite everything her hope for the future was infinite.
When to be loved be loveable grips your psyche, you start being skeptical that anyone can love you. You become hardened to grace, less receptive to love because you feel you must perform flawlessly to warrant it. You, under this credo, constantly question your worth; when people approach you with goodwill, you can’t accept it.
Exhibit A: I was 17 and a guy I had a huge crush on stood on a balcony watching me play tennis in an indoor court. I ignored him, faking absorption in the game. I seemed to be fascinated with the white painted borders of the court. He waved at me a few times. I ignored him, and pinched the raw strings of my racket together. I couldn’t imagine anyone that handsome being interested in me. I ignored him until he stopped waving.
When you find people who are willing to pay 300 dollars for the chance to touch your body, the question that’s nagged you for your entire life — am I really worth anything — stops. The answer is resounding: yes, in this hour, you are worth quite a bit.
I only needed to take on two to four clients a week to make ends meet. Suddenly, in one hour I could make what usually took 40 hours — and by the end of it I’d have a charming new acquaintance and the fresh glow of an orgasm. Escorting gave me limitless time to do what I wanted. I spent hours in my new room (rather large for Manhattan) reading The Color Purple, Illuminations, and 1Q84. I met provosts and therapists, directors and hedge fund managers. I went to parties and restaurants that my background in Alaska would never have led me to.
I had mimosas on a Wednesday afternoon while all my friends were at work. Then I had gin and tonics with them for happy hour. I passed the night with a client or fuckbud, drinking martinis or Long Islands. I was surrounded by more people and money than I could imagine in Alaska, yet I felt something vital was missing. What I wanted, something like love, was nowhere to be found. Of course, I was looking in the wrong places. Later I’d read about reaction formation, the psycho(analytic) tendency to reel in anxiety by doing the exact opposite of what’s really desired. What I wanted and feared was love. As an escort, I could flagrantly garrote that desire by declaring love was of no consequence.
Sia first spoke candidly of her alcoholism on the Howard Stern Show (Bonett). The origins: a young singer asks a friend how to calm her nerves before a big show. The solution: booze. I never went to rehab, but I did use alcohol to forget my past and current problems. I botched interviews from being hung over and woke up in beds and subways I didn’t remember walking towards.
I am continually amazed how often we hurt ourselves. Sometimes I think humans function like the light spectrum. Life, a white light, strikes us in peculiar ways. At some point, almost always, it cracks us and we refract in a specific color. Some the blue of depression, some the yellow of alcoholism. For me it was the red of promiscuity. My reaction to pain was to turn to other men — clients and one-night stands. I ran through dingy apartments and five star hotels so fast that I didn’t have to ask what I was doing. Each client and fuckbud I met excused me from asking what I was doing, if I hurt, what had cracked me in the first place.
When I was 20, still trapped in Alaska, I played “Breathe Me” on a gay bar’s jukebox at 6pm. I didn’t have a fake ID but I was seeing the bartender, a John Stamos look-alike with blue eyes and a large schlong. There were three people: me, John Stamos, and a bitter twink named Dennis. He was the bar’s ghost and wannabe quip master. He was mean and worse when drunk.
The gentle piano chords started. I looked around the empty dance floor lined with mirrors. The bar’s blue lighting matched its somber stroll. By midnight the place would be shoulder to shoulder. I wondered what everyone would think of this song that meant so much to me.
It’s a nostalgic, melodramatic song, “Breathe Me.” The music video is Sia pictured through thousands of Polaroids, live-action style. Waking up alone, moping around an apartment with paisley wallpaper, straining to dress for a walk outside. It’s delicate. It’s sad. It’s someone perfectly exposed.
“Booo!!” twink-Dennis shouted soon as the chorus hit. “What the hell is this? Why is she so whiney?”
Dennis didn’t look to me or John Stamos. His eyes were set on the shelves of liquor. “Get over it sister! Life sucks. We all go through shit. Stop adding to it with your mopey vocals.” He gesticulated around his nose as if wafting away a fart.
John Stamos laughed it off. I simpered, as if the razing of a song tied to my soul meant nothing. I sensed that twink-Dennis was wrong, that the song’s emotion — the truth of it — had touched a reality in him he had to shrink from. He did what any reasonable individual does when confronted with uncomfortable truths: he pushed it away. I’d think of him when I read, “Melodrama puts us on guard. We are the uneasy enemies of our own melodramas as much as other people’s” (Li).
I could not love myself so I turned to others. When no boyfriend could make me feel love, clients did. Once, a guy I wanted to date gave me an STI. He finished eating me out then whispered, more to himself, “and now you have gonorrhea.” A client, in contrast, gave me seven-hundred dollars to spend one evening together. We drank at The Algonquin, ate a steak dinner, and talked about Dorothy Parker. A hookup once felt my stomach’s lack of six packs, then affected a yawn, saying he just remembered he had a meeting first thing in the morning. A Sunday regular gave me a new hardcover book every time we met because he knew I loved to read. Everywhere I walked in New York, through bars, sex clubs, yachts and beach houses, a prayer coursed through me. On OkCupid, eye contact on the subway, roof parties, surprise concerts, my blood hummed with one aching request:
be my friend
wrap me up
In New York, I fell in love with more female artists. The past, it turned out, had just as many women struggling with self-acceptance through song. They sang against jagged judgments, to be released from the cruel bind of et ameris, amabilis esto.
I walked up Fifth Avenue in a daze. Nina Simone’s voice slid down my ears, rocking in a slow hymn sung for no one but the self:
any day now.
any day now.
i shall be
Of course I thought of Jack, the boy I wanted to forget, when Janis yelled at the apex of “Flower in the Sun,” the guitar sprinting off a cliff, her hair whirling:
don’t you feel me moving,
baby, don’t you hear me cry?
i know i hurt you, but lord don’t you know i cried,
i know i hurt you, but babe don’t you know i tried?
I liked the women who were beaten down just to stand up again and sing even louder. The silence they endured, the censorship of their full psyche — it was something that resonated with me as a gay man.
Walking up Fifth avenue I imagined all the women I grew up listening to. Often, they were judged to be too girly or precious or melodramatic–Britney Spears, Pink, Jewel, Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morissette, Sia, Regina Spektor, Santigold, Cat Power, Joni Mitchell, Karen O, Thao, Patti Smith–all the women who struggled to break out of the cast of their existence, they were each in my head, shouting and clapping with me up Fifth Avenue.
I loved Sia for insisting that a private struggle could exist publicly. I loved her for validating the process of coming out. She admitted her father’s emotional abuse in “Oh Father”. She recognized the struggle to express the internal in “I’m In Here”. She didn’t apologize for feeling so much in “Breathe Me”.
“Breathe Me” only has two verses, and the chorus is repeated three times. Then there’s a cymbal clash, and the rapid bassline takes over the melody, violins and cellos make a new soaring harmony, and the interval between simple piano chords widens. The music takes over for 90 seconds until the song ends. But live, Sia always adds some vocal heterophony. I see her struggle with et ameris, amabilis esto in how she handles the final 90 seconds of “Breathe Me.”
In 2007, she belts out painful screams, twisting vocals that border on metal. This was the year I came out to everyone and felt the isolating repercussions. In 2011 she ululates; it sounds like she’s swallowing her sobs; same year that my first boyfriend wrecked me. In 2016 her notes are elegiac and towering. By this time I saw that escorting for me was a crutch. I gained some sense of what was required for real love. I could accept myself just enough to recognize love in the form of a man my age, tall with kind green eyes, holding the door open to his apartment and asking if I’d like to come in.
I saw Sia in concert for the first time October 2016. My boyfriend joined me. I made him wear a blonde bob wig with me. I didn’t mind his discomfort and passed him a beer. This was my reward for going with him to a Giants pre-season game.
Behind her gimmicky wig, she belted out her top hits: “Chandelier”, “Elastic Heart”, “Cheap Thrills.” Her latest album was This Is Acting, twelve tracks she had written for other artists, all of them rejected. It was just like her to take that rejection and make art from it — make millions as well. Some Sia fans long for her old days, everything before 2011. But I love the new stuff. I love the unapologetic confluence of art and business, the willpower to enter and recalibrate an industry for the sake of one’s sanity. In one interview after she became a global star, she said “I’m just trying to work out a way to be a singer and to create cool content. I’m willing to do that as an entertainer. But I’m not willing to give up my actual self” (Wiig).
I didn’t expect her to play “Breathe Me”, a minor hit from 2004, a dud compared to the Billboard success of “The Greatest.” But then the piano started, the sound of someone walking on water. “Oh my god,” I grabbed my boyfriend’s arm. “Is this happening?”
“Help” – the cracked, aspirate H– a plea, a statement and an imperative. “I have done it again.” The MIDI in “Breathe Me” is harmonious and exact. Sia sings within this predetermined set, running with some channels, opposing others, at times flat out colliding with the melody. Performing live, a male dancer swayed in a business suit with gargantuan monster hands strapped to his back (made larger by 40 foot screens), stumble-walking, punching the air on occasion, wrangling with that credo—to be loved, be loveable. The intro of “Breathe Me”, to paraphrase one academic, is a convincing sonic portrait of someone going through a debilitating time (Lacasse).
It’s the voice of “Breathe Me,” really, that creates a sui generis rhythm. The voice runs forward or backward or stands still while the music prowls on. It’s like she’s trapped in a preset universe, just bouncing around, running into wall after wall. “Breathe Me”contains unrelenting hopes, fears; it’s a song with its own life, gifted with the agency of reaching great highs or tragic lows.
Behind the dancer were sky blue screens. The stage echoed the phrases, pauses, stutters built into the lyrics. Leading to the chorus, it’s like Sia is trying to hide her problems: “Overall, it is not easy to understand what Sia is actually saying, as if her character were in fact trying to (literally) elide her problem, to hide, in effect, in the very act of its expression” (Lacasse).
I’d used escorting, hooking up in general, as a way to forget love. In smearing myself around New York, my actions declared that I didn’t care, want, or need love. “Breathe Me”knew otherwise. It mirrored the unarticulated underbelly of my promiscuity: in the act of declaring I cared nothing for love, there was the seed of truth that love was all I wanted.
Toward the end of my escorting career, I wanted to obliterate all memories of my first love in 2011. I slept with four clients in less than 24 hours. In four hotels I dropped my jeans, unbuttoned my shirt, and crawled toward a smiling man greedy in his lust. They took me. The oblivion was delicious.
At the concert in 2016, I waited to see how Sia would handle the last 90 seconds. She could mimic the melody of the piano as she did in 2010. She could scream to the edge of control as she did on Lady Croissant, 2007.
What I heard flooded my arms with goosebumps. Her voice made a B5 sharp. It was controlled, elegiac, operatic. The dancer was walking in circles, in white light with his arms cast out, the image of grace.
Watching this, I saw the times I’d wandered through Washington Square alone, overhearing the self-confident crackles of young people in love. I wondered where I fit in the world. If I could ever make a spot within the spinning globe that would be mine and stable.
I glanced at my boyfriend, who was hunched over, elbows on knees, smiling at the performance. He knew about my past. It had taken me months to tell him, and I’d only done so when I was angry with him and thought we should break up. I’d thought my sordid history would be enough to cut the bond between me and this clean kid who grew up in one house, attended one college, got a good job straight out of it.
I preferred self-sabotage. Finding him was the best thing that ever happened to me, but I still felt that I wasn’t good enough for him. “Can’t believe you’re dating me,” I’d joke. He’d smile. “Don’t think like that.” But I couldn’t stop thinking like that.
I recall looking at his startled face when I said, “I have something to tell you.” I sat on the couch, and felt my stomach lurch. I told him rapidly. He kept rubbing my back. It felt like I had punctured an abscess. I was silent as my knees rattled. I waited for his judgment.
“Well,” his voice was soft. “I’m not thrilled by this. But I still love you. I still want to be with you.” My head felt airy. I had expected every other reaction but acceptance.
We flourished after that. For the first time in my life, someone knew me, the good and the perverse; he knew me entirely and chose to stay.
My face crinkled as she sang in this wildly high voice, embodying a character that lay within her but that had never materialized.
“Breathe Me”is a song for those entangled in self-destruction. It carries within it a latent hope of resurrection. Somewhere in the halls of her voice I heard the hope that transformation was possible; that was why she was singing — to call those forces that could make her new inside. She continued belting out high notes, realizing her potential, the pain now her beauty.
After a 12 step program in 2010, Sia started writing for other singers. From Beyoncé (“Pretty Hurts”) to Britney Spears (“Perfume”), she made millions writing taut pop anthems, often with a latent darkness behind them. She couldn’t believe how easy it was. In 15 minutes she could dash off a smash hit. She has several formulas: party songs (“Cheap Thrills”) love songs (“Diamonds) or victim-to-victory songs (“Titanium”, “TheGreatest”). In a Guardian interview, thinking of her past music, Sia said “I think I was a clever lyricist, but I don’t choose to be any longer. When I started to write for pop people I was like, wow, this stuff is incredibly simple. I mean, extremely rudimentary and almost naive” (Mossman). It almost seems like she’s figured life out. She isn’t beholden to fame, no longer in the clutch of to be loved, be lovable.
Yet I wonder about the victim-to-victor formula. True victors don’t need songs. They sit content in their tower, they ride their chariots through the city with a proud upturned chin. They are mute. It’s the obsequious who make florid orations. Real victors don’t have to proclaim themselves as anything; their bodies and privilege assert themselves forcefully.
I wonder if it’s really possible to go from a victim to a victor. Once you’ve been cracked, can a victory song ever make you whole again? You chant and sing and stomp your feet to be the person you envision. The transformation lasts only as long as the song. When it ends, so does your victory.
Winners don’t need victory songs; they simply bask in their glory. But the embattled can never stop singing. There’s always a question — who am I, is this real, who is controlling me, when will I be free? And it’s these abrasive questions that cause so much friction in their relationships, the hot heartbeat right before bed, the private tears and frustrations; but also all that beauty.
I’d like to say Sia and I are whole. Our struggle is over. We’ve won. We’ve completely scrubbed from our DNA the external commandment to be loved be loveable. We’ve risen above our craving for the immediate solutions of sex and alcohol. But if I continue to see clearly I see that that tidy transformation, the movement from point A to point B, is a lie. Those who have been cracked never stop repairing themselves. Often with art. Often in vain. These songs are blissful interruptions to a permanent condition. But is there any other choice?
“I will still make music,” Sia said in 2014. “I like to sing and I like to make records — and that part is fun. But I don’t need to be the star any more. I don’t need to sing in front of thousands, as I can sing in the shower. The accolades don’t nourish me — being with loved ones and my dogs does” (Bearns).
I find this a bit disingenuous.
I think Sia still wants fame. Et ameris, amabilis esto still courses through her, as it does for me. But now she fights against its total dictation. She only sings publicly when her face is covered by a wig. All her contracts stipulate she can quit a tour whenever. She still wants to be loved. I do too. Only now, we refuse to die for it.
Li, Yiyun. Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. New York, NY,
Random House, 2017. Pg. 56.
Bonett, Bobby. “The Howard Stern-Sia love fest you need to hear.” Hear & Now, Sirius
XM, 18 June 2014, blog.siriusxm.com/2014/06/18/the-howard-stern-sia-love-
fest-you-need-to-hear/. Accessed 24 Aug. 2017.
Wiig, Kristen. “Sia.” Interview Magazine, 27 Mar. 2015,
www.interviewmagazine.com/music/sia. Accessed 24 Aug. 2017.
Lacasse, Serge. “Slave to the supradiegetic rhythm: A microrhythmic analysis of creaky
voice in Sia’s ‘Breathe Me’.” Musical Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction,
Ashgate Publishing, Farnham, UK, 2010, pp. 141–155.
Mossman, Kate. “Sia: ‘Everyone in entertainment is insecure. We’ve been dancing our
entire lives for your approval’.” The Observer, Guardian News and Media, 31 Jan. 2016, www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jan/31/sia-everyone-in-entertainment-is-insecure-observer-music-interview. Accessed 24 Aug. 2017.
Bearns, Georgina. “Aussie songbird Sia has dealt with fame, drugs and near-Death …
now she wants babies and a real job.” The Sunday Telegraph, The Daily Telegraph, 25 July 2014, www.dailytelegraph.com.au/entertainment/sydney-confidential/aussie-songbird-sia-has-dealt-with-fame-drugs-and-neardeath-now-she-wants-babies-and-a-real-job/news-story/279c791a071b876cea99f1b6de847639. Accessed 24 Aug. 2017.