I spent a lot of time as a teenager afraid. Afraid of what other people would think of me, mostly. Also, afraid of failure. But mostly, afraid of BOTH — failing in front of my peer group while they all laughed and judged me.
This is the story of the one time that I threw caution to the wind, and failed publicly in front of all of my classmates. Well, sorta.
I consider it the greatest triumph of my high school years.
Maybe even my entire life.
The story involves a ukulele, masturbation, and the high school Talent Show auditions. Intrigued yet? Good. Let’s dive in.
It’s senior year of high school and I am tentatively dating a friend from my circle. And he has a ukulele. A baritone ukulele, to be precise. Our legendarily chaste relationship is probably like most first voyages into dating: after school, we cut through a parking lot to hang out at his house, watch Fight Club, try to figure out how to kiss with tongues, and teach me how to play the aforementioned ukulele. It was somewhere during this time that we hatched a plan to audition for the school’s annual talent show as a duet act: he will play the ukulele and I will sing. But WHAT?
Ultimately, I choose the song. I am in high school and my rebellious anti-establishment streak is already firmly established. This song that I choose must be subversive, it must be funny, it must be unpredictable and leave the audience scratching their heads. I’ve already decided that “my brand” is to be the girl who does the thing that makes you wonder to yourself, “did she just DO THAT? why the hell would she DO THAT? well, at least it was FUNNY.”
You guys are gonna LOVE this song.
We rehearse incessantly. This is going to be GREAT!, we think. Or, at least, a triumphant disaster. I am cautiously optimistic that this will be so bizarrely offensive that it might actually come across as “funny,” as intended.
We perform for friends. They love it. I select a boa for the occasion. The day of the auditions arrives.
The actual audition is a very hazy memory, but I recall sharply what I felt like when I leaned in to that microphone. A real microphone. The first time I’d ever had a real microphone in front of my face. I am transformed, so I think, from a gangly, pimply teenage girl into Whitney Damn Houston! My partner begins to strum, and I am having an out-of-body experience. I belt the lyrics out in earnest while dancing like a Muppet on ‘shrooms. Let me be CLEAR: there is nothing, absolutely nothing sexy or lewd about this performance. I am twee and awkward, and I’m selling it. Right up until the final bow, all I can do is give it my ALL.
And I do! Much to the chagrin of the faculty advisors seated at the table below. The students on the talent show committee, however, loved it! “Could you, um, change the lyrics to the song and sing it differently?” one of the teachers suggests. I’m so buzzed from getting through it, I don’t even understand the suggestion. “What do you mean?” I squint into the footlights.
I’m sad/glad that no video of this exists, as it was way before cell phones were ubiquitous and YouTube and Snapchat and Instagram Stories captured every event that was even mildly of interest. Sad, because I’d love to be able to show you actual, physical, tangible proof that I actually did this and I’m not making it up. But on the other hand, I’m glad, because I’m sure this wasn’t actually as cool as I remember it, and it’s far easier to imagine myself coming off edgy and hilarious doing this through the rosy view of hindsight.
You might be surprised to learn that we did not make the cut for the talent show. Our refusal to compromise on our artistic choice was the revolver with which we shot ourselves in the foot. The EmCee, a popular student from my acting classes, tried to cajole us to crash the show, but I demurred. It was one thing to stick it to the man by waxing poetic about flicking my bean on the auditorium stage, it was another thing to risk getting in actual TROUBLE for breaking the rules. I like to think that a select few folks who’d been present for that audition never forgot the ballsy move we made, and my commitment to what turned out to be a terrible choice.
But the story isn’t quite over. That song wouldn’t be the last time I’d appear on a stage, as you might correctly assume. In fact, that song may have helped in some small part to launch my acting career! Up top is a photograph I dug out of myself the following autumn, starring in my first lead role as Bobbi Michelle in Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Despite having a debilitating sore throat the day of THAT audition, I brought my own ukulele this time (1st rule of feminism: get your OWN ukulele gurl) and strummed my way through the song again. I also brought a rabbit puppet for a monologue picked out for me by my high school theatre teacher. Well, this time, they picked up the special brand of weirdness that I was layin’ down, and I got the part. I was pretty great, too, if I do say so myself.
Now,whenever I hear the song, I remember being that young and that bold, even if for only those few minutes. Was it the most daring thing any teenage girl has ever done, in the history of ever? No, obviously. But it was the beginning of the slow journey of discovery that led me to learn that conquering my biggest fears would lead to the biggest thrills. I consider it the moment that I first established my “brand” of humor, and the first time I used my unique voice. I’m still proud of having done this dumb shit to this day. Maybe, like many people, I “peaked” a little bit in this moment? At least I’ll always have my memories.