I spent most of the afternoon trapped on a train today. Normally, this does not bother me much. Public transit is nice. I can't be shouted at for loafing; I am on a train, so clearly I have left the house and gone to do whatever thing needs doing. But I also can't be expected to do anything about it right at that very moment, as there are a limited number of things one can tend to on a train, and I can't do anything to make the beastie get where it's going any faster. I am In Transit, and everyone can kindly fuck off for a little while.

When I feel lousy I also feel like rabbit-punching everyone around me who wears a backpack and has a poor sense of personal space, so I had my earbuds jammed resolutely in. I had a lot of Very Loud Things turned up Very Loud Indeed in an effort to ignore all this. Very loud. Louder. Why is it not getting any louder? WHY HAS MY MUSIC NOT BEEN ENLOUDENED. WHAT DO YOU MEAN THAT IS AS FAR AS THE VOLUME CONTROL GOES. THE OTHER PEOPLE ARE STILL HERE.


A lot of my Very Loud Things are blatantly NSFW, at least for anyone who doesn't work for cheery smut peddlers like I do. Even at home, I tend to use headphones. I still get the nagging feeling that I shouldn't let the grown-ups catch me listening to this stuff, despite knowing 1) I am a grown-up, and 2) they've heard it all before. My parents were slightly too young and entirely too nerdy, respectively, to have been caught in things like the punk movement, but I'm aware that the oldies station on the radio is not a good representation of what they listened to in their youth. There is a distinct shortage of prog rock epics about hobbits, for starters. I'm also pretty sure that Van Morrison released more than one song. My father stuck mostly with folk and swamp rock -- he was big on CCR and Pure Prairie League, he liked 3 Doors Down when I sent him some, and he thought Joan Osborne was the most adorable thing with the nose ring -- but my mother bought Like A Virgin and Rhythm Nation 1814 completely on purpose. She was probably very entertained when I learned all the words as a small child, with no idea what half of them meant.

My point is, I know perfectly well that they have all heard "Darling Nikki". They probably know enough of the lyrics to sing along when drunk.

The funny thing is, when I was in a position where I might possibly have a reason to not want my parents knowing what profanities my generation of musicians were howling about, I didn't listen to anything of the sort. My block-out-humanity-on-the-train playlist hit the Placebo section, and it occurred to me that when I was in high school, I would not have liked these guys at all.

I was aware that the band existed, more or less; I remember having seen photos at some point, and just to give you an idea of how miscalibrated my brain has always been about these things, I don't recall ever reading Brian Molko as anything but "unusually pretty dude" and "only mildly overboard with the eye makeup". I was born in 1981, and rockers have been wearing jewelry and eyeliner literally my entire life. My references for troweling it on were Tammy Faye Bakker and Boy George, and Molko doesn't carry himself like he's in drag in either stills or video, so you know. Shrug.

[The haircut probably helped. I don't know if he started it or if he was just wearing it for the same reason everyone else was, but that pageboy was the exact haircut you got if you were a young man in the mid-'90s, and you wanted your parents to be angry. Not because it was girly. The haircut was so popular among boys at the time that most girls avoided it if they didn't want to come off as androgynous. I think it annoyed the Olds because it was part and parcel of the slacker-grunge uniform, and God knows a lot of the older generation thinks Generation X/Y is full of entitled layabouts.]

I would have been very squicked by all the sex and drugs, in those days. It was not that I really had any objection to those things as concepts, but they were incredibly uncomfortable things to talk about. I had exactly zero people around me who would have been safe or sane about it. Most of them were teenagers, who are safe and sane about nothing, and my mother generally seemed to think she was a teenager, which was worse.

Luckily, I wasn't very interested in boys in high school, mainly because I wasn't very interested in high school boys; there was little risk I would ever have to bring a boyfriend back to Meet My Parents. I had discovered anime, and I thought the idea of pretty men was intriguing, but I knew better than to ever mention this to my mother, because she'd want to gossip about it. There are few things in this life I want to know less about than my mother's dating history, and I got more than enough even when I was actively trying to get her to shut up.

Likewise, my parents were always very clear that they didn't have a problem with us kids trying a bit of beer/weed/something else equally harmless when we got into our late teenage years, as long as we did it at home. I would rather have swallowed my own tongue than tried to get high with my friends in a house that contained my mother. She'd want to join us. The year I turned twenty-one and was home from college for the summer, I finally resorted to telling my mother I would buy her beer too, if she would just promise to drink it in the other room, where my friends and I weren't. It only sort of worked.

Beyond that, Placebo was... weird. It wasn't quite as hypocritical as it sounds, although it was exactly as screwed-up and self-loathing as you'd assume. I was so beaten down at that point that I had come to the conclusion that the only way you could be weird and still survive in peace was to just keep your weirdness very very very quiet, so it didn't annoy anyone enough to make them do something about it. It was one thing to be strange by yourself in a corner; I've no idea if I'd have liked Molko, if we'd been fifteen in the same time and place, but I doubt I would have minded him. (I suspect I wouldn't like 15-year-old him if I met him today. I'd probably want to slap him for all the same reasons I'd want to slap 15-year-old me. You can sympathize with someone and still have the urge to hammer sense into them with an actual hammer.) But being that blatantly weird on stage, encouraging other people to be weird with him -- he had to know it was going to make people angry, and I couldn't fathom him doing it unless he was trying for that. Anyone who was working that hard to make people angry, I reasoned, was probably pretty angry themselves, and I wanted no part of that.

A lot of their young teenage fans seemed to be operating on that same logic, except they did want a part of that. They tended to wander around calling everyone else 'sheeple' and being aggressively strange to get reactions. Trolling, essentially. That thing that teenagers do. (There was a fair overlap with the Goth population, as I recall, which strikes me as funny in hindsight. Molko was fairly vocal about thinking the Goth movement was full of pretentious appearance-obsessed twats; he said as much when invited to a televised roundtable on the subject, and just to make his point extra hard, he had his eye makeup done in petal pink instead of the usual gunmetal and black.) I was absolutely terrified of attracting attention, because every time I did someone smacked me down for it, and those were not the sorts of people I wanted to hang around with.

It's been a long time since then. I've grown up a lot, and I can see how Molko turned out. All the horsing around and suggestive lollipop photos and turning up in a cocktail dress looks a lot different to me now. I'm not watching an angry kid try to get back at the establishment for everything it's been doing to him. I'm watching a kid who has probably been drowning his entire life finally realize what it feels like to come up for air.

Molko doesn't generally dwell on the details, but he's made it clear that he was not a happy teenager. The other kids thought he was "queer" and "a junkie" -- which he is, and which he arguably has been at some point in his life, but probably not in high school -- and he was not well-liked. It is one of the few topics I have seen him backpedal from when he thinks he's said a little too much to an interviewer who is a little too normal to get it. Everyone knows what it's like to not get the kind of emotional attention you want from a specific person, when your crush doesn't like you back or your father tells you you're a disappointment every year at Christmas or your spouse presents you with divorce papers. That one's universal. You eat a lot of ice cream or drink a lot of beer and hang out with people who are nice to you in the way you want them to be. It doesn't exactly make up for the disappointment, but you do have something to fall back on while you hurt.

Not a lot of people have had the experience of trying to get anything from anybody and receiving only 'well, we'd probably care about your feelings if you were just someone else', as feedback. You starve. You keep attempting to fix it, but honestly, you have no idea how or even why you're trying; as far as you know, there isn't any other way to be. That's just how life works. The impulse to try and change it is confusing as fuck, because intellectually it comes off like you're rebelling against the laws of physics and that doesn't make any sense at all, but it still won't go away. You are perfectly willing to believe that the problem is you, because you feel completely fucking crazy.

At some point, Molko clearly made the decision that he was better equipped to be openly weird and deal with the external punishment than try to hide it and deal with the internal pain. This sounds like a terrible choice, and objectively it is, but it's not one anybody ever makes unless they've already come to the realization that one of these two options is going to kill them. When you're in that situation, just putting your foot down and declaring that you get to choose which way you're going to break is a big thing. You do understand that you are making a choice between always being alone and always being a liar, but picking one is better than vacillating wildly between them and failing at both.

It's bewildering when you change environments and discover that that is not actually the choice you've made.

The ocean is very big, and water is very heavy when there has been a lot of it coming in from all directions and forcing you under all your life. The outside world is bigger, and air weighs remarkably little in comparison. I have seen people ask Molko why he started turning up for public appearances in dresses, and they all seem to be expecting an answer that's either political or artistic in nature. What they get in response is something like, 'I... think I thought it looked good on me?' with this baffled undertone of, 'I don't know, why do you wear things?' It implies that by that time, he had tumbled into a place where he could arrive wearing a skirt, and not get anyone pulling him aside by the elbow to hiss, "Brian, the fuck?" Suddenly, 'do I like the way this looks?' was all the thinking he had to do about it.

When you finally break the surface, you usually do it at a shallow angle. At first you figure up and out lies squarely in the direction of somebody likes me enough to put up with all the ways I'm broken. Then you adjust to thinking it's some people like my brokenness because they rebel against normal. It takes a while to figure out that straight up is actually the compass point labeled nobody much cares.

Knowing what I know now, I'm pretty sure most of the spectacle came from a kid who just wanted to feel pretty and shiny and sexy, however his brain thought that was going to happen, and not get punched in the nose for it afterwards. If you scare up some of the backstage photos from Velvet Goldmine, he looks absolutely ecstatic that someone has gone to the trouble of hunting him down and asking him to dress up like a glittery lunatic, for pay.

I would not have recognized that state of mind before I'd been in it myself. It's a lot like drugs, in that respect: It's difficult, if not impossible, to describe what it's like to have your brain turned upside down until you've actually done it once or twice. Fifteen-year-old me would probably have interpreted it as smugness at getting away with something he knew other people wouldn't like -- I'd seen that often enough in the other teenagers (and my mother, who is perpetually going on seventeen in many respects) to know what it looked like, and I generally found it uncomfortable to watch.

Now, not so much. There's probably an element of nyah nyah in there somewhere, because humans, but my overall impression is just of someone who is hugely relieved -- and kind of confused and overwhelmed, and maybe a still a little afraid -- but definitely giddy at finally being allowed to pull himself out of the water and breathe. The fact that he got very famous doing it is a complete accident, and probably the part he cares about the least.