Monday, April 20, 2020

Music Monday: My Shameika Edition

I know everyone is like, omg Fiona Apple! Fetch the Bolt Cutters! Omg! But, OMG FIONA APPLE! FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS! OMG! Here’s the embarrassing truth, I have always loved Fiona Apple, but because of time and age and distance (I mean it’s been eight years since her last album), I had forgotten how much I have always loved Fiona Apple. I pretty much wore “Tidal” and “When the Pawn…” and “Extraordinary Machine” to virtual nubs on my then iPod. (Gosh, remember iPods?)

But then, somehow, shamefully I forgot. So when Fiona started suddenly popping up on my pop culture radar again (first with that New Yorker profile and then with her surprise early release of her album) I started to foggily remember. And last week the day it dropped I downloaded it because, well, see all the omgs above. And then I listened to it. And then, boom, it all came back. And it came back in such a visceral way. And with each relisten to “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” it got better and better. Like that proverbial onion, it revealed itself. And, yeah, you may also cry.

Fiona has given us a chaotic, cathartic primal scream that remains oddly, unendingly joyful. Through time and grace and just knowing yourself more than in those younger years when we all struggled so mightily to see ourselves, Fiona’s music has captured a heady mix of rage, confusion, forgiveness, understanding, boldness, catharsis and who gives a fuck anymore feelings that are inextricably linked to the human - and particularly the female human - experience.

In short, this album is a gift. And it could not have come at a better time. In fact it may well be the pandemic soundtrack for so many of us.

And, if I may, I want to tell you a little story about listening to “Shameika,” the second track on the album and the first song to make me sit up and say, “Fuck, that’s me.” By now you’ve probably already seen the memes or heard the jokes about this song, with its chorus refrain, “Shameika said I had potential.”

It’s about those chance encounters in your life that change your whole trajectory. It’s about the people who probably had no idea how their words stuck with you.It also has some implied revelations about race and cultural understanding, which are a lot to unpack but equally important. According to Fiona, and her middle school teacher, Shameika was a real person. And, as the song goes, “She got through to me and I'll never see her again.”

In the fourth grade, our school took all the students on a one-week sleep-away camp experience in the woods. I’m certain it was the longest I’d been without my parents and my family up to that point. It was a rite of passage everyone looked forward to - hiking and singing and grilling hot dogs over open fires. I mean, there were bunk beds and everything. It was young person bliss.

I was always a shy kid, always. In grade school my parents were overjoyed when they got a note home about me talking in class, because I so rarely spoke up. Shy, see? I was also one of only one or two other Asian-American children in my grade level. Not just my class or my homeroom, but my entire grade growing up through elementary, middle and high school. I still know their names by heart, even though we were not friends. I’m sure they, like me, got the schoolyard slurs of “jap” and “chink” and the slanty eye gestures. I didn’t pay that stuff much mind then, thinking they were just part of normal childhood trash talk. And so many have had so much worse and so much more violence happen to them, I know that. But, yeah, that was still pretty fucked up in retrospect.

So, instead as many do, we try to disappear a little. I wasn’t boisterous in class. I did not want to be the center of any attention, for the most part. To persevere my plan was to be smart, be good and be quiet.

Then we went to camp and it was so fun - and a chance to sing at the top of our lungs along muddy trails with unself-conscious abandon. It rained on one of our biggest hiking days, and we went anyway. We came back drenched in waterlogged ponchos. Our hair was matted. I’m sure we were covered in muck.

High school kids were the camp counselors for the most part, along with some senior adult staff. So we looked up to them because, you know, high school kids - ooooooh, and the coolest counselor that year was Pam. She was exuberant and exciting and so, so cool. We all loved her. And, thinking back, maybe as a young gay kid who hadn’t even begun to realize she was gay yet I probably had a bit of a crush on her. But I’m sure she had never noticed me, even though we all wanted her too. Again, have I mentioned she was so, so cool?

Well, the day we came back from the rainstorm all looking like drowned schnauzers, we came into one of the cabins where everyone had gathered around Pam. We were drying off, trying to unwaterlog our entire existence when, seemingly out of nowhere, Pam noticed me. And she said while looking directly at me, as best as I can remember, “Oh, you look so beautiful.”

Now, perhaps on its surface a high-school kid telling a fourth grader she looks beautiful is weird. Maybe it is weird. But it’s exactly the thing I needed to hear. It made me feel so seen after so many years of trying to be unseen. Every shy kid secretly wishes she wasn’t shy - or at least this one did.

I know, I know we shouldn’t weigh our worth on the superficial. We are so much more than how we look or present ourselves to this world. But being told I was beautiful by someone not my parents or a best friend or anyone who already loved me, well, that mattered. And being told by Pam that I was beautiful, that I have never forgotten. I never saw Pam again after camp. But she got through to me. If we are lucky, may we all have a Shameika or a Pam in our lives.


Helena said...

Thank you for all the wise words Dorothy and so true we all need a Pam or Shameika and maybe we can also be them for someone out there. Have a good week.

Carmen SanDiego said...

That was a lovely story DS
I hope I’m someone else’s Pam

Anonymous said...

Love your posts. This one especially. Whenever we feel the urge to say something--something nice or kind or gentle--I wish we would heed it. We never know when we might be the Pam someone else needs in that moment.

Anonymous said...

Aside from her complex and interesting melodies, I have always loved Fiona Apple (and she has remained a major part of my playlists) because of her intelligent and intricate lyrics. She doesn't dumb down the words. At a time when lyrics are nearly monosyllabic, she actually uses precise language and makes it work. Super happy to see her putting out new music.

Unknown said...

Yes, you ARE beautiful, this remembrance is beautiful & Fiona is beautiful.

Anonymous said...

This was a really touching story DS:) Thank you for being you.