February 11, 2021 | Arts and Culture
k.d. lang as a coming out lullaby
We listened to the same five mix CDs over and over again in the car. I have my parents’ playlists memorized to this day; I can’t hear Neil Young without thinking “Track 7!” I remember Roy Orbison’s “Crying” vividly, featuring k.d. lang in harmony with her vast, blue vibrato. “Crying” was the first song I’d ever sing, belted from my car seat at age four while we drove to Christmas Eve at my grandparents’ house. My dad leaned over to my mom in the passenger seat, saying, “She can really sing!”
k.d. lang, a Canadian singer-songwriter popular in the 90s and early 2000s, has a voice like denim and smooth ceramic. She’s like Frank Sinatra—if Frank Sinatra had twang and was really, really good at eating pussy. Her voice is expansive; she drops her jaw and the sound fills you right up. She wears suits (the three-piece kind) and once sported a shaggy middle part that fell just below her eyebrows. She’d push it up and away from her face when she sang a particularly big note. My mother introduced me to k.d., who would later introduce me to masculinity. The irony of this only struck me much later. I didn’t know what k.d. looked like when I was a little kid (if I had I’d probably have realized I was queer a lot earlier), but she’s made sporadic appearances throughout my 21 years of life. In the past month or so, she’s taken up residence in my Spotify library.
My mom and I got along. We weren’t best friends, but we understood each other. I told her about boys, and when I cried, I turned to her for a hug. When my first boyfriend broke my heart, she fed me the “there are a million fish in the sea” line, and I trusted her. I fell asleep as she played “Sweet Baby James,” her favorite lullaby, on the CD player I hadn’t used since 2009.
When I broke up with my prom date two years later, I told my mom I liked someone else. After two weeks of sneaking around with Cierra, my mom figured out that something was different from her perch on the living room couch.
“Who do you like?”
“I don’t want to tell you.”
“Is it a boy?”
Her face fell and my stomach fell with it and my brother’s tutor rang the doorbell and my mom made small talk with her for what felt like an hour and I sat on the couch and dragged my finger through the puddle of condensation pooled off of my iced tea, making Olympic Rings on the wooden coffee table, and when she came back, she said everything that any “What To Do When Your Previously Straight, Consistently Straight-A Child Decides That She Wants to Fuck Everything Up and Come Out” pamphlet would tell you not to say and I promised her I wasn’t a lesbian and she told me I had to tell my dad and I laughed because I would never tell my Republican, 65 year-old dad what my Democrat, 55 year-old mom couldn’t hear and then I went upstairs to my brother’s room and cried and he went downstairs and got so angry he threw a chair at the window and then he told me he would never forgive her and I went to my room and cried about making my family hate each other and when I stopped crying I heard k.d. lang playing from behind her slammed door (“Helpless, helpless, heeeeee-eeeeeeeelllplessss”) and I wondered why my mom was listening to a dyke.
We didn’t not talk for three weeks, we just didn’t talk. When my mom played music in the car, I pressed skip on k.d. I couldn’t bear the thought that my mom was thinking about k.d., which meant she’d think about lesbians, which meant she’d think about me. I really, really didn’t want her to think about me. Every time we were alone together, she reminded me to tell my dad because she “didn’t like lying to him.” So I stopped being alone with her, and she told my dad anyway.
My mother and I have never talked about the debacle that was my coming out, despite paying a therapist to practically beg me, every other Thursday for the past four years, to start the conversation. And it’s fine. No, it really is. She hugs me when I cry, and she tells me she loves me. We still listen to disco and we laugh a lot. I call her most weeks to keep her updated (and I often tell her as little personal information as humanly possible).
I rediscovered k.d. lang on a long drive in October. Somewhere in the back of my mind “Helpless” was playing, and I followed the instinct and clicked. I fell into her whirlpool voice easily, scrolled to “Outside Myself,” and closed my eyes.
I have been
In a storm of the sun
Basking, senseless to what I’ve become
A fool to worship just light
When after all, it follows night
I’ve been outside myself for so long
Any feeling I had is close to gone
I’ve been outside myself for so long, so loooo-ong….
There is no way to describe this that isn’t cliché, so I’ll just say it: She spoke to me. To be “Outside Myself” was a familiar concept; when I look at my body in the mirror, I place an arm over my head to show off my armpit hair and adopt a wide stance, my hips thrust forward. I pose and twist and dress this body I’m in, hoping a collared shirt, a thick belt, or bare fuzzy legs will embody my queer self in a way that feels seamless.
I’ve always been intimidated by dykes. Maybe it’s the softness of my face or my affinity for the color pink, but I don’t think I’ll ever look like k.d. in a suit. I see butch women and I am in awe of them—which means I keep my distance. k.d. let me in. She is strange and alone and full and empty at the same time and she does it all with that incredible haircut and very shiny shoes. I started wearing muscle tanks and ripped jeans, and I put my hands in my pockets a lot. I still don’t wear flannels; my masculinity is more of a neon goth David Bowie than k.d.’s dapper cowboy. It’s a work in progress.
I crave k.d.’s easy masculinity even if I don’t emulate her particular style. The clean lines of her crisp white button–downs and bandana neckties come through in her voice. She sings like an open plain, and I want to walk with her into the Canadian mist. I want to saturate the open air with an energy that protrudes and announces and demands. I want her pure sound; I want to be driving through the woods with my mother at age six, certain that I’d grow up to have spiky hair and a flat chest and wear a tux at my wedding. It’s more likely that I’ll wear a pink dress and four earrings and armpit hair, but I still want people to look at me and think dyke—not woman, not femme, not that-guy’s-girlfriend or I-want-to-fuck-her-later. When I listen to k.d.’s “Wash Me Clean,” I feel something like her hard, strong individuality pour over me with the waterfall of her sliding minor notes.
I made a playlist called “Dyke Sunday” for Sunday mornings, and I’ve been listening to it every day. The music feels like home and I, ironically, feel the presence of my mother. She was living in New York City when “Outside Myself” came out. Like me, she had short hair and a penchant for denim jackets, as evidenced by the pictures on my grandfather’s bookshelf. We look alike, with our leather pants, eyeliner, and loud, sharp voices. I hear k.d.’s songs like surrogate lullabies, songs I hope my mother will one day sing to me. She hasn’t done it yet, but k.d. can. Her dark, open vowels fill the void I pretend I don’t have. I hum along, “Constant craving, has always been…”
The other day I found two of k.d.’s albums on cassette tape in a thrift store. I bought both of them. One for me, one for my mom, for Christmas.
“Outside Myself” k.d. lang
“Me & My Dog” boygenius
“For Her” Fiona Apple
“Constant Craving” k.d. lang
“First Love/Late Spring” Mitski
“Gloria: In Excelsis Deo” Patti Smith
“Season of Hollow Soul” k.d. lang
“Moon Song” Phoebe Bridgers
“Pynk” (feat. Grimes) Janelle Monáe
“Brand New City” Mitski
“Night Shift” Lucy Dacus
“Georgia” Brittany Howard
“Let’s Call It Love” Sleater-Kinney