Musical Month Week 4: A Lovely Tribute

MS FLEMING: “Veronica? Jason Dean told me you just committed suicide!”
VERONICA: “Yeah? Well, he’s wrong about a lot of things.”
MS FLEMING: “Oh… I threw together a lovely tribute, especially on such short notice…”
“Dead Girl Walking (Reprise)”

After writing a post a while ago on how media consistently screws up its depictions of mental illness and suicide, I got to thinking – are there any examples of media that does the depictions right?

And ruminating on it a bit, I came to the conclusion that a great piece of media that does discuss both of these topics in a way that is constructive without glorifying either is the musical “Heathers.” And since it’s musical month, what better time is there to talk about it?

I’ve wanted to talk about this musical for a while. In fact, this post has been sitting in my drafts for months. I initially wanted to discuss JD’s morality as a character, and that’s a still a topic I find fascinating and worthy of discussion, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to continue a discussion on suicide depiction in media, a topic that really deserves further conversation.

Besides being just an overall entertaining and amazing musical, “Heathers” also has a lot to say about mental illness and suicide. Especially how our society as a whole tends to handle both topics, and how it harms the people actually in need. In my opinion, you can easily read the events of the musical as an allegory for our world’s honestly garbage treatment of real people with mental illness and suicidal thoughts… teenagers in particular.

So, let’s meet the main players in the musical, shall we?

Veronica Sawyer, A Teen for All

Let us begin with our humble protagonist, Veronica Sawyer. At the beginning of the musical Veronica is your average everyday high school senior. All she wants is to finish up her final year of high school and jet off to an idealized college life. She doesn’t want to stick out. She just wants to survive until her “freedom” arrives.

She is also most certainly the audience stand-in. Her point of view on events, at least in the beginning, most certainly aligns with how the audience would see them. This is aided not only by her role as a “typical” teen, but also by her personality. She is cynical, smart, and witty, allowing her to have the moral upper-hand on most other characters. So, the audience not only understands her well, but also can take her side morally.

For the rest of this analysis, always consider Veronica the audience stand-in. This is especially important when looking at the other major player in “Heathers”.

Jason Dean, Romantic Rogue

When Veronica first meets JD, it’s incredibly easy to see why she would fall in love with him. He’s dark and mysterious, and seems to represent a part of Veronica that wishes she could dismantle the school system and society that has tortured her for years. He’s a loner with an almost comically tragic past. A mother who died when he was young, an abusive father, and no friends to speak of.

And considering Veronica is the audience stand-in, the musical expects the audience to fall in love with JD as well. Why wouldn’t they, really? He’s a sympathetic character with a dash of mystery and intrigue. So when Veronica makes the decision not only to fall in love with him, but also to quote-unquote “fix him,” the audience is probably right there with her.

However, JD is not what he seems. Well, okay, he is actually what he seems exactly. He’s the romanticized ideal of troubled teen. However, it’s that ideal that is the focus. He’s just an ideal. The ideal that you can take someone with such a sad and troubled past and fix them with love.

So, at first, when JD begins taking Veronica along with him on his mission to fight against “society,” the audience roots for the both of them. And even when that fight claims its first victim, Heather Chandler, there still isn’t much moral ambiguity. After all, Heather is the “mythic bitch” of Westerberg High, someone known for her cruelty to others.

And how do they cover up their first victim in their quest to dismantle the “man?” Why, a forged suicide note, of course.

“Me Inside of Me”

PRINCIPAL: “Heather Chandler’s not your everyday suicide!”
COACH: “We should cancel classes.”
PRINCIPAL: “No way, Coach. I send the kids home before lunch, and the switch board will light up like a Christmas tree.”
MS FLEMING: “Our children are dying! I suggest we get everyone in the cafeteria and just talk and feel together… I’m telling you, we all misjudged Heather Chandler. This is the most beautiful suicide note I’ve ever read.”
“Me Inside of Me”

The suicide note Veronica forges for Heather’s death reeks of martyrdom and meaning. The letter becomes the focus of Ms. Fleming’s attempts to convince her students to reveal their feelings and discuss them. What happens instead, though, is that the entire student body comes to the conclusion that Heather was secretly a tragic figure, who died so others could be happier. And Ms. Fleming, for all her outward desire to help her students, seems more focused on the attention she is getting for spreading Heather’s “message.”

In the meantime, keep in mind that Heather’s death was not at all a suicide. She was murdered in cold blood by JD and Veronica, who go on to commit two more murders under the guise of suicide, this time football stars Kurt and Ram. Kurt and Ram’s supposed suicides lead to a revelation of the suppressed homoerotic desires of their fathers once Veronica forges their suicide note saying that they “died because [they] had to hide [their] gay forbidden love from a misapproving world.”

Once more, the suicides of teenagers is used to derive meaning for those left alive. Kurt and Ram’s deaths are seen as symbolic of the need for acceptance of LGBT identities, and leads two men to stop denying their feelings for one another. Like with Heather Chandler, Kurt and Ram’s deaths aren’t seen as the tragedy they are, but is rather shown as a positive decision they made that improved the lives of others around them.

And again I must stress – these deaths aren’t actually suicides. They’re murders. But in the frenzy of celebrating the “positive effects” of these suicides, everyone ignores the actual problem lurking beneath.

“The Tiniest Lifeboat”

As all this fake suicide goes on, two actual suicide attempts are more or less glossed over by the Westerberg community as a whole.

The first, Heather McNamara’s in “Lifeboat” and “Shine a Light (Reprise)”, is brought on by the bullying of Heather Duke, who calls her “pathetic” and tells her to “kill herself”. How much help is given to Heather McNamara by the supposedly mental health-conscious community as a whole? None. Nada.

(It’s also symbolic that the scene where Heather Duke tells Heather McNamara to kill herself is a reprise of the earlier song where Ms. Fleming urges the children to share their deepest fears in an attempt to prevent future suicides. Clearly, her efforts are not at all working.)

The second is Martha’s, the constantly-bullied former best friend of Veronica. After crooning out her sadness over the loss of her childhood innocence in “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” she leaps from the Old Mill Bridge holding a suicide note.

Neither Martha nor Heather McNamara succeed in their attempts to kill themselves, and I think this is an incredibly important fact to understanding what “Heathers” has to say about suicide.

Think about it. Thus far, the only two actual suicidal teens fail in killing themselves. Meanwhile, three teens who supposedly succeeded in killing themselves were not actually suicidal. But because they were the ones who actually died, society as a whole pays attention to them and them alone, while people like Heather McNamara and Martha slip between the cracks. Unless you’ve already succeeded in killing yourself, the world of “Heathers” doesn’t care about your mental health.

And Now Back to Our Protagonists

Remember back when I told you to remember that Veronica stands in for the audience? Keeping this in mind, let’s examine her role in the events of “Heathers”.

Veronica, while not being the one to orchestrate the murders, is very complicit in all of them. She is the one who forges both suicide notes, and she keeps what she knows of Heather, Kurt, and Ram’s deaths a secret from the powers that be.

And JD, on the other hand, sweet, troubled JD, is the one to mastermind it all. The musical purposefully writes him to be likeable in the beginning of the musical, so even as he murders people in cold blood, the audience goes along with it. He’s sweet! He just has a troubled past! He loves Veronica! It’s all okay. And Veronica, our audience stand-in, loves him too.

But keep in mind, remembering that she’s the audience stand-in, this implicates the audience as just as complicit in these deaths as Veronica is. They trust JD too, at first, and they give a silent cheer when he slays the “mythic bitch”. Perhaps they’re impressed by his and Veronica’s cleverness when they fake the suicide notes. And maybe they chuckle a little bit at the humorous nature of Kurt and Ram’s deaths. Either way, the full weight of what has happened never really sets in.

Like the rest of the community of “Heathers,” the audience is lead to focus more on these fake suicides than the actual mental health of the still-living teenagers in the musical. Martha and Heather McNamara’s suicide attempts, though heart-wrenching and accompanied by beautiful musical numbers, are mere blips on the overall plotline. And Veronica herself is not around to witness either. It’s only at Veronica’s lowest point in “Yo Girl” that she learns of Martha’s suicide attempt, and it’s only during the last song that she makes peace with Martha once more.

So what does this have to say about the nature of suicide and mental health in society? Well, it’s the sad truth that society as a whole doesn’t really pay attention to the still-living teenagers struggling with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. For those who have already committed suicide, it’s easy for society and media at large to grieve and make something meaningful of it, but “Heathers” points out that very little is done to prevent those still living from meeting the same fate.

In an exaggerated microcosm of our world, the adults of Westerberg High are tricked by two teenagers into romanticizing the murders of three teenagers while ultimately ignoring the actual suicide attempts of two still-living teenagers.

So what does this say about our world and the people in it? What does “Heathers” say about mental health and suicide? Well, it stresses prevention. It points out that we live in a world where it’s far easier to provide commentary after-the-fact. It shows how easy it is to ignore the still-living mentally-ill people at risk for suicide in favor of trying to draw some selfish meaning from the deaths of those who are already gone.

It’s also a kickass musical with a great plot and musical score. Social consciousness and overall quality… what else could you ask for?

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Day One

The following is kind of an experimental type of blog post. I’m not sure how often I’ll do this sort of thing – but this particular topic felt like it needed to be written in a more narrative style than I would normally use on this blog. It just all sort of came together this way. I hope you all enjoy something a little different.


 

My alarm clock is set for 6:30, but when I wake up and check the clock, it’s 5:00.

Somewhere in my sleep-addled brain, I mix up the numerals for six and five, and I’m saddened that I only have a half hour of sleep left.

When I wake up for the second time at 6:00, I’m confused how a half hour could feel so long. It usually works quite the opposite. I wonder if, perhaps, I forgot to set my alarm.

When I wake up for the third time, it’s to the sound of the alarm I did indeed set. I blearily shove myself out of bed to the sound of my sister Maddy shouting for our dog Sam downstairs. He’s under my bed – I know because when I fell asleep he was on top of it, and while he sometimes tolerates sleeping the whole night in my room, he never tolerates sleeping the whole night on my bed.

I open the door to let him downstairs – appeasing both him and my sister – and I get dressed. I look at the one open box on my floor, the one open duffel bag, and the various other scattered items I left for myself the night before.

I am aware, slightly, on the edge of my consciousness, that today is the day I’ve been thinking about for months now. Years. A lifetime, even. It is a fact known to me in the same way I know there is a chocolate-frosted donut waiting for me downstairs in the kitchen. The same way I know I’ll have to go downstairs and pose for first-day-of-school photos looking like I just rolled out of bed, which I did.

Just simple facts of the day. Step one, wake up. Step two, get dressed. Step three, get packed. Step four, leave for college.

When Maddy’s bus comes, I stand in the driveway with my parents, holding Sam. He dislikes being held, and would much prefer to board the bus with Maddy, or sniff the lamp post, or do literally anything other than sit still in my arms.

I wave goodbye, and it is all very normal. Save for the fact that I am not boarding my own bus, it is normal. We all go back inside, I eat my donut, and the normal begins to fall by the wayside. We finish packing, we get in the car, we drive away, two and a half hours.

We drive past familiar sights and unfamiliar ones. At one point, we pass a high school with students pouring out of every door – a fire drill. I feel strange that I’ll never take part in a high school fire drill again. I see a girl wearing a giant gray shawl, and I think about how she picked out that shawl for school that day, or the day before, and how she’ll be going back into the school in a few minutes to a math class or a history class. It’s all too much all at once, the knowledge that I’ll never experience that again. And then the school is gone.

We arrive in Bloomington, and it is as I always remember it. It is beautiful, and imposing. Welcoming and frightening at the same time. I’ve seen a lot of it many times, but it’s streets and buildings are still more or less a mystery to me.

We drive down the temporarily one-way street to Teter, my new home. It is also as I remember it, the most familiar part of campus. My dad and I walk to the front desk while my mom starts to unload the car onto the sidewalk.

I realize too late in line that I need my student ID card out, and awkwardly struggle to wiggle it out of my wallet to present it to the girl behind the desk. She asks if I know my student ID number by heart, and when I tell her I do not, she tells me that I should learn it, but assures me not to worry, since she has it in front of her. The fluster that begins with the ID card continues through my embarrassment to the point where she presents my key to me with the caveat that if I lose it, it will cost $200 to replace it, my roommate’s key, and the lock itself, since the misplaced key could otherwise become a dangerous tool for would-be thieves. $200 is just settling on my ears when she reminds me that I get only two free lock-outs before I am charged $15 for every time I need someone to get me into my room or my building.

I take my key, numbly, and walk out. Dad takes the car and parks it, and Mom advises I go find my room. I try my darndest to, but every door I try to get into the dorm is locked, and my key won’t work. I see a keycard to my right, and I wonder if I’m supposed to use my ID card. But by then I’m too flustered, too convinced someone must be watching me with a mixture of pity and amusement (“Can’t even figure out a simple lock, what a freshman.”), and I walk back to my Mom. She reminds me that, indeed, the ID card is probably what I need to use, and I try again.

And, go figure, it works. And I find my room.

Boisen Room 219. My name is plastered on the door in the shape of Mr. Potato Head, next to my roommate’s, shaped like the piggy bank from Toy Story. I turn my key in the lock and it opens, blessedly, and I peek into my room for the first time.

At this point, I’ve seen quite a few rooms at Teter. I’ve toured the hall twice and seen countless pictures. But, even undecorated and untouched, my dorm is the prettiest of all of them. It’s cold – the air conditioner has its work cut out for it – but it’s mine.

My parents and I get to work moving my boxes and bags into my room. It doesn’t take that long, and thankfully we don’t have to take the stairs. Then comes the long process of decorating. Mom is adamant about moving our lofted beds out of the center of the wall to the corner of the room. I’m at first wary of the idea – first off, I’m not sure it’ll work the way she says it will, and second off, I’m not sure we’ll be able to move the beds. Dad proposes a simpler solution, but Mom has herself convinced, and soon we follow.

Mom is right, the beds moved into the corner give us far more space in the front of the room. The only problem is the way my bed – the top one – juts into the space where one of the two desks lie. It’s not as cramped for that desk area as I thought, but I take that desk anyway. My roommate isn’t here yet, but I don’t want to make her use this tiny space.

We debate where furniture will go with spirit for the rest of the morning, and we’re nearly done by the time my boyfriend Kirby texts me to inform me that he’s on a break from class and can have lunch with my family.

We meet him at the Indiana Memorial Union. It’s the first time I’ve seen him in two weeks – he came to live on campus early. We walk to Nick’s, and I notice for one, Kirby is pretty comfortable with campus, and for two, the two week absence has not at all affected our ability to talk about anything and everything. My parents hang back as he more or less leads the way to Nick’s, both of us just chatting.

It’s in that moment that I think that perhaps I was overreacting that morning about the stress this campus will cause me. It really is beautiful, and I have one of my best friends in the whole world right here, and all the restaurants on Kirkwood are delicious. Sure, I still have no idea where in the hell we’re going most of the time, but hey, Kirby figured it out in two weeks and so could I, presumably.

We eat Nick’s, and it’s good. It’s always good. We follow Kirby around to his dorm, Collins, and to the Wells Library as he fulfills tasks for class. And then we part ways, him back to class and my parents and I to Target.

We need light bulbs, wall hangers, and pushpins, but as we go on the list gets bigger. A whiteboard for the front of the door. Air-pop popcorn for the popcorn machine I received as a graduation gift. A bowl for said popcorn. Granola bars, a request from Kirby for his dorm.

Then, when we pass the shoe aisle, Mom is struck by a pair of simple black flats, and the buy one get one 50% deal prompts her also to buy me a pair of floral rainboots. As I try them on, Dad jokes that if I want anything in the world, today is the day for me to ask for it.

We head back to the dorm, and put finishing touches on the decoration. Dad strings twinkle lights over my bed. I decide where my posters should go.

By then, I’m sweaty and disgusting. The weather outside is sticky and hot and by the time we’re done, I want nothing more in the world than to try out the showers on my floor. Still, I pose for a few pictures, and suddenly, without much fanfare, my parents have left.

The room is so very quiet without them there. I gather my stuff together for the shower, and, unnerved by the silence, put on my record player while I work. All at once, my RA is at the door. My RA is a friendly, bubbly girl named Cat, and she strikes up a conversation with me about my “Hamilton” poster. We swap stories about how we both saw it in Chicago.

As we talk, more people arrive. There’s Brynn, across the hallway from me, who used to be in Marching Band and bemoaned how my former marching band beat hers pretty soundly last season. There’s Sarah, several doors down, who complains about how her top bunk is inconvenient to get up and down from. There’s even more whose names I’ve forgotten, because I’m not good with names. Cat lets me get to my “shower party” eventually, but not before inviting me and the rest of the group to dinner at Forest with her.

Eventually, I manage to get all my shower stuff together. As I’m grabbing my towel, though, a slip of paper falls to the floor. Surprised, I stoop to pick it up. It’s a photo of me and my family from my NHS induction ceremony two years ago. We’re all wearing blue and black, and Maddy is a little blurry, but it’s a good picture. Thinking it just somehow fell in with my towels, I pin it to my mostly bare bulletin board anyway.

I take my shower. It feels far better than any dorm shower should, although that’s probably because I feel like a ball of grease. I change clothes. I put on makeup. I feel a little less transitional, a little more normal. I return to my dorm to relax for a bit before I head to dinner with Cat and several other people from my floor.

Dinner is wonderful. It becomes clearer and clearer that the beauty of meeting new people in college is that more or less everyone is on the same page – a little out of their comfort zone in a new place and hoping to spend time with some friendly faces. Over my delicious Forest Dining Hall cuban sandwich, I get to know several people from my dorm, and laugh… a lot.

Throughout the meal, I continuously have moments of clarity, looking around myself thinking, “Wow, I’m here. I’m here, with people I’ve met today, laughing like we’re all old friends. I’m here.”

When I return to my dorm, it’s with an odd feeling of peace with my new surroundings. It’s almost like nothing is real. I drift aimlessly around my dorm a bit – getting through the entirety of Walk the Moon’s “Talking is Hard” and Bastille’s “Wild World” on my record player, finishing up the book I had been reading, and chatting with the people who walked by my open door every so often. A little after 7, Kirby texts me and we agree to meet in front of Wells Library.

I sit at one of the tables outside for a few minutes. I’m proud of myself – I didn’t have to use Google Maps to find the library this time. It’s a small victory, since the library is literally a straight shot down a sidewalk from my dorm, but I’m holding onto what I have. Kirby arrives, and we walk back to my dorm. I show him my room, and then we walk to Collins and he shows me his. Sitting in Kirby’s dorm room, I feel incredibly blessed for the icy air conditioning in Teter, compared to the sauna-like humidity at Collins.

Regardless, though, I hang out at Collins for a while. With the fan blowing on us full blast, Kirby and I talk a little. I realize that I’m exhausted and so we spend a lot of time just sitting, in a sort of quiet silence. We browse some of the Welcome Week events going on that evening, but at that moment the prospect of getting up and going somewhere seems impossible.

Kirby walks me back to my dorm at around 10:30. And it’s in that muggy, muggy night air that it hits me for the first time that I won’t be going back home anytime soon after this. It hits me like a falling piano – cartoon style – and the full weight is crushing. It’s all I can do to keep walking straight down the sidewalk.

We say goodnight. I walk back into my room, my throat and arms and chest all feeling heavy. I try and settle down, sitting on my bed with my laptop, playing games and listening to music idly, but I keep having to get down from my bed for things I forget – my earbuds, my medicine, a charger… finally, around midnight, I retire to sleep.

But the bed – it’s really comfortable. And even though I have to turn them off before I sleep, the twinkle lights on my ceiling emit a soft, warm glow in the hours I’m awake. And tomorrow, I’ll finally get to meet my roommate, and maybe I won’t be too tired to do any of the Welcome Week activities. And despite everything, despite how much I miss home, I figure it’s only temporary.

At some point, I’ll forget the tiredness and the muggy air and the two outfits I’ve already sweated through and will have to wash. Instead I’ll remember the people I’ve already met, and the people I will meet, and the energy in the air, tangible and unmistakable. And I’ll be able to focus on that one, most important fact.

I’m here.

 

 

In the News

It’s the end of senior year, so as befits my position as someone on their way out from… basically everything, really, it feels like I’ve been going through lasts at the speed of sound. Last marching season gave way to last semester of high school gave way to last jazz season gave way to last band concert and on and on and on ad nauseam. But I mean, it is my last year, so it makes sense that along with that would come a cornucopia of other lasts.

This week was yet another last for me: my last production week on the school’s newspaper, the Hilite. Like every other production week for me, it included coming in early to the newspaper room every morning to make changes to my spreads, copy-editing other spreads, and tweaking and re-tweaking every aspect of my pages until everything looked perfect for our Friday deadline. Unlike every other production week, however, I also was responsible for mentoring next year’s two new Perspectives editors as they learned the ropes and prepared for taking over my position next year.

Mentoring them reminded me of how I felt in their position next year, and it’s made me reflect on what this newspaper has been for me over the years. So because this blog has been an outlet for my nostalgia lately, I’m gonna talk about it.

Newspaper was the one thing I was sure I was going to be a part of, even before I started high school. Writing has always kind of been my thing, you know, and I thought newspaper would be the best way to put my skills into practice. Of course, like most things, I was horribly misinformed on what exactly being on staff of the Hilite would entail, but it didn’t matter at all my freshman year since I had no room in my schedule for the prerequisite class.

I was devastated by this, by the way. I was assured I would be able to take the prerequisite as a sophomore and join staff as a junior just fine, but I felt like that would paint a big fat target on my forehead that I didn’t really care about the newspaper or something. I think not joining staff my sophomore year like most people did did affect my time on the staff negatively in the beginning, but I also feel like my stress regarding this fact was increased a bit by the fact I was just overall stressed about my high school schedule.

Still, I eventually did take the prerequisite, and it was one of my favorite classes. Our advisor, Mr. Streisel, had a way of teaching that made me feel very capable of all of the aspects of media. The fact that I wasn’t great at the graphic or design portions of the class didn’t bother me at all. I knew for certain I was going to be a reporter and only a reporter once I joined staff, so there was no need for me to worry about photography or graphic design. I was a writer. It was what I was good at, and there was no need for me to diversify my talents.

And then I actually joined staff. And that idea very quickly vanished. My first few weeks on staff involved me sitting at a computer with the creeping feeling that I had no idea what I was doing and everyone else did. Everyone else seemed to have a purpose, a job, and I was just sitting there, twiddling my thumbs. My title was listed as “Feature reporter,” but I didn’t get a story assignment there for a few issues.

So, on a whim, I attended the planning meeting, known as a maestro, for Perspectives, the opinion section of the paper. I took with me two carefully researched column ideas and got to engage in several debates about the topics of all the columns going into that particular issue. In the frenzy, I received my very first Perspectives assignment, a column addressing the then-viral video “Dear Fat People,” where some JennaMarbles wannabe insulted fat people for eight minutes under the guise of “concern for their health.”

Getting my first assignment was one of the most beautiful things that had ever happened to me. Suddenly I had a purpose on staff, something to do while everyone else was working. I did exhaustive research and put a ton of time and effort into my very first column. And then, when it was published, I floated on air.

Since then, I’ve written a few regular articles but mostly my time on the Hilite has been spent dedicated to the opinion section of the newspaper. I found a lot of joy and purpose in taking part in these discussions. So, by the end of my first year on staff, I was encouraged by the current Perspectives editor to apply for her job. So… I did.

Being a Perspectives editor was great in a lot of ways, for sure. I loved being able to lead the discussions that I took such joy in taking part in as a reporter. I loved enabling others to speak out on their opinions. But, there were aspects of the job I didn’t quite love too.

See, I came on staff to write, but I quickly found out that being an editor meant not a lot of writing. More often it meant making graphics and designs, and for a while I felt like I’d made a mistake.

But then, partly spurred on by necessity (deadlines continued to loom no matter how confident I felt about them) I started to get used to the graphics and design aspect of my job. Towards the end I even started to enjoy it. (I’m not much of an artist, but tracing things in Adobe Illustrator is actually really calming).

And that’s really, in a nutshell, what Hilite was for me. Something unexpected, different than what I thought it was going to be. It always challenged me to try new things, and think of myself in ways I never could before. When I joined staff, I was intent on writing and only writing, staying quietly behind the lines and doing work every so often. When I left staff, I was an editor, mainly responsible for design, doing constant work every month.

Even more importantly, Hilite opened my eyes to the idea of journalism. I always sort of knew I wanted to write someday, and had considered journalism, but the idea had never been solid and real until I spent time on staff. It’s the reason I’m going to study journalism at IU next year. It opened the door for me to be an Ernie Pyle scholar… and sure, it was stressful and frustrating a lot of times. But I’m so thankful for it.

I’m going to miss it.

Gushing About Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-Kun

When I started this blog on January 1st of this year, I made a promise to myself that I would post something new to this blog every single Sunday. As of now, April 23rd, I have yet to break this promise to myself. I don’t plan on breaking this promise to myself, either.

Less ingrained into this goal, however, is that every Sunday post be well-thought-out and carefully written. Ideally, every week I would be churning out excellent new ideas or posts that took lots of time and energy to compile.

But listen, I’m gonna be honest here. This week and next week are gonna be… kind of crazy. I already have a pretty low-effort high-quality idea for next week, but as for this week I was kind of at a lost.

And so, I decided that for today I am going to kick back, relax, and talk about something I really love. And I figured, why not make this a thing? I think the idea of having a series of posts that involve me just talking about something I really love might be a good thing. This won’t be a review, especially since I haven’t really watched this anime in a while. I’m not gonna go too horribly deep into analysis, and there certainly isn’t going to be much constructive criticism. No deep life meaning will be drawn. You and I are just going to get excited about this anime together.

Thus, for weeks like these when I don’t have much time to get too critical, I’ll post one of these “Gushing About…” posts. Maybe it’ll be an anime, like today, or a band or artist, or a TV show or book or movie or… gosh, anything really.

I should say firsthand that I’m probably going to be too worried about spoiling anything – although, honestly, in this anime there’s not much to spoil.

“Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-Kun”, known in English as “Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun”, and hereafter referred to as GSNK to save my fingers, is a shoujo slice-of-life anime centering on the life of a high school student named Sakura Chiyo. At the beginning of the series, Sakura has just made up her mind to confess her love for her fellow classmate Nozaki Umetarou. In true shoujo style, she looks into the mirror, fluffs her cute red ribbons, pats down her uniform skirt, and marches into the classroom.  Nozaki stands alone there, lit only by the fading orange sunset outside. Sakura steps over to him, takes a deep breath and stammers out her confession, cheeks red and blushing. Then, silence. She waits for Nozaki to speak, everything hinging on his reply…

…And Nozaki hands her his autograph.

While, yes, GSNK is a shoujo anime, and unapologetically so, from the very first scene you get the feeling it’s self aware. The humor is all exactly like this. It sets up like a stereotypical high school romance would, but the charm of the series is how it breaks these stereotypes in absurd ways.

If you’re wondering, the reason Nozaki gives Sakura his autograph is very simple! While he seems like a regular high school student, he’s actually incredibly popular shoujo manga artist Yumeno Sakiko, an artist praised for “her” incredible knowledge of the hearts of high school girls. In reality, though, Nozaki wouldn’t know love if it kicked him in the face. He’s far more interested in creating shoujo manga as an art, and he devotes much of his life to people-watching and observing the world around him as inspiration for the next installment of his popular manga series.

Nozaki, still under the impression that Sakura is a big fan of his manga, invites her over to his apartment and has her help him ink his art, and thus, the over-arching motif of the series begins. Nozaki has a habit of employing his friends into helping him meet his deadlines for his manga, and as the series progresses, the cast of characters who find themselves at Nozaki’s, helping him put in backgrounds or do screentones or draw effects grows steadily. At the same time, the series focuses on the lives of these high schoolers, and their relationships with one another.

I think the best part of GSNK is the strength of these characters. As I mentioned before, the series is well aware of the trappings of its genre, and plays with the stereotypes in a way that makes it both familiar and entirely unique.

nozakura

Sakura fits the bill as a shoujo heroine to a T – she’s cute and tiny, she has her signature polka-dot bows, and she’s motivated by, among other things, an unabiding passionate crush on her fellow classmate. But at the same time, Sakura often plays the straight man in much of the humor. And while, yes, her love of Nozaki is often played for laughs, it’s pretty clear that she’s well aware of his shortcomings. She’s often the first one to groan at his naivete, or crack sarcastic jokes about his obsessive tendencies.

And on top of that, Nozaki is far from your typical shoujo romantic interest. He is decidedly masculine-looking, but he’s not even remotely charming. He’s obsessively focused on his work. (In fact, his relationship with his characters in his manga is perhaps one of the most relatable things I’ve ever seen in any show ever. You truly do become both malevolent god and doting parent to your characters…) He’s deadpan and rather stupid, and yet… Sakura loves him anyway. And for his part, while he obviously doesn’t understand her, he definitely respects her and relies on her.

While Sakura does do some pining, the two of them actually spend a lot of time together, and seem to be pretty close. Most of the time, Sakura and Nozaki make a pretty good team, and many of their scenes together don’t have to rely on the romantic tension to be funny. (Consider the iconic scene, pictured above, where they both forget their umbrellas and have to make a mad dash home – shielded by Nozaki’s school jacket. It’s definitely not played up romantically, but it is hilarious.)

wakaseo

The supporting cast of this anime also shines, although my favorite duo is absolutely Seo Yuzuki and Wakamatsu Hirotaka. Seo is Sakura’s best friend, and simultaneously the tough girl delinquent and a musical genius with a voice like an angel. What more can be said about her other than that she’s hilarious and the queen of my heart? Not much… well, except for her adorably hilarious relationship with her underclassman, Waka.

The dynamic between the two of them is sadly ironic – see, Wakamatsu is a first year basketball player who is constantly tormented by Seo, who often stands in and helps with the boys’ basketball rehearsals. His anxiety over these encounters leads to insomnia, to the point where there is only one thing that can lull him to sleep… a recording of Seo’s beautiful singing.

Of course, he doesn’t know the recording (which he got from Nozaki), is Seo. And Seo doesn’t know the effect her voice has on him. And so these two dance around each other, constantly coming close but never quite figuring out how intertwined their lives are. It’s frustrating but it’s also hilarious and is probably my favorite part of the whole series.

kashihori

Not to be outdone, the princely Kashima Yuu and her harem of devoted fangirls is constantly amusing, topped only by her relationship with the tragically short Hori Masayuki. They’re both excellent actors who love and respect each others’ craft, but they can never quite see eye to eye (both literally and figuratively). The audience is left somewhat to wonder whether what these two have is romance… or a rivalry… or just a really weird friendship? Who knows? Probably not even them.

mikorin

And of course I can’t forget Mikoshiba Mikoto, or “Mikorin” to his friends. He just doesn’t fit as well into a pairing as the other characters, but that’s a point I’ll get back to in a second.

Mikorin looks to be your stereotypical pretty boy cool guy “every girl loves him” type. Which is… true. Except Mikorin is also incredibly socially anxious, and often deeply embarrasses himself with the flirty things he tells girls. He’s far more comfortable playing otome games, and yet, regardless, he gets roped into spending time with his adoring fangirls anyway. There’s something very relatable in his endless cycle of shallow confidence and self-loathing, and he’s a loveable character for sure. (Plus, he’s excellent at drawing flowers for Nozaki’s manga and I’m SO JEALOUS ABOUT THAT MIKORIN TEACH ME HOW!!!)

But this brings me back to my last point in this (unintentionally very long) tirade. Yes, Mikorin doesn’t fit into a pairing quite as easily as the other characters do and yet… it doesn’t matter? One of the things I really appreciate about GSNK is the amount of time it spends developing not just the main pairings. It’s easy to throw together Nozaki and Sakura, Seo and Wakamatsu, and Hori and Kashima because their relationships are, well, ships. But there’s also great stuff between Seo and Sakura, whose yin and yang friendship is too precious. Wakamatsu looks up to Nozaki as a senpai, and often goes to him for advice. Kashima and Mikorin are rivals turned best friends! Sakura and Seo try to teach Kashima how to sing! Nozaki writes scripts for Hori!

While, yes, GSNK is a silly anime, it’s a silly anime with a lot of heart. It cares about its characters, and it expects the audience to as well. It’s legitimately funny, and smart, and basically the only anime that’s had me hurting from laughing so hard. Do yourself a favor and watch it. (And campaign with me for a season 2 because the manga has SO MUCH MORE CONTENT that would be INCREDIBLE animated so COME ON!!)

Anyway, thank you for indulging me in this… oh god, nearly 1,700 word rant about this anime. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled quality content next week, I promise.

Let Them Have Rainbows

I recently stumbled upon a YouTube series that, I’m gonna be honest, kind of made me upset. I’m not gonna name any names or talk about any specifics because I don’t really want this to sound like I want people to go and send this guy hate, but I’m sure you could probably find him just based on what I talk about here. Just don’t be dumb, I guess is all I’m saying.

But anyway, the series involves this guy browsing Deviantart and “critiquing” the fanart and Original Character (OC) art he finds there. He presents it as a service, a “what not to do” of sorts for creating art and OCs.

The points he makes are legitimate, I guess, but the biggest problem I have with it is it all seems way too obvious. It seems like he picks the art that is absolutely bottom-of-the-barrel rainbow pastel Sonic OCs done by young people. The critique he gives is repetitive and completely useless and unhelpful for anyone old enough to be watching his channel. Plus, even if the person watching was young enough to not be able to guess the obvious flaws he finds, he offers no real alternatives or suggestions to improve.

Lemme give you an example.

rainbows

Here’s a screenshot of one of the pieces this guy critiques (with all identifying names blocked out, of course). To you and to me, this character is obviously not a very well designed character. The colors are vibrant and clashing, the body parts are a mishmash of different ideas with no real purpose, and overall too much is going on to get any sort of clear image of what this character is meant to be. Tack on the obvious use of MS Paint and the subject matter of a Sonic OC and you’ve got yourself the most textbook “twelve-year-old who has just figured out how the internet works tries to create their own **super cool** character and falls flat” ever.

It’s so easy to criticize this piece of art because everything wrong with it is glaringly obvious. Even someone not familiar with internet culture, specifically Deviantart culture, would probably be able to tell that this is not a picture of a “good”, fully realized character.

But you know what? That doesn’t matter. At all.

I speak as someone who was that twelve-year-old when I say this, while kind of embarrassing and definitely not too fun to look at, this kind of terrible art is ultimately a good thing. So this kind of critique is not only so obvious that it’s completely useless, it is harmful and impedes a very natural creative process. 

I guarantee you, nobody in the history of the universe sat down to create their very first character, their very first story, their very first piece of art, and made a masterpiece. There’s this myth that pervades in a lot of creative circles that artists and writers and musicians and the like are what they are because of some natural talent or affinity for their craft. That’s… just not true.

Sure, there are people out there who are naturally gifted, but natural talent alone can’t carry anyone to success. There’s a correlation between natural talent and success (probably because having an affinity for something makes it more fun and therefore a motivator to practice that something more), but it doesn’t directly cause it.

For my own personal example, I am a writer. But that’s not really because I was born with a pen in my hand (or keyboard, preferably), it’s because I write… a lot. Every day, really. This blog, poetry, prose… I write constantly.

And the reason why I write so much is because when I was young I idolized authors and I wanted to be one, so I sat down and I wrote. I wrote garbage.

The very first novel I ever wrote was plotless hogwash, a fanfiction of a show I was really into at the time with the names changed. The characters were flat and uninteresting and the story did nothing and went nowhere. And yet, I wouldn’t change a single bit of it if I had to go back.

Why? Well, because, at the time, that awful, horrible novel was something I was really proud of. It was an accomplishment. It was written in a month for NaNoWriMo, it was 50,000 words long, and I really poured my heart and soul into it. I loved those flat characters. I desperately wanted to tell that uninteresting story. It was my first foray into writing for the fun of it, writing because I loved it, writing not because I thought I was great at it, but because it was something that spoke to me.

It was bad, but it inspired me to keep going, to keep improving. It showed me that I was capable of making myself into one of those authors I looked up to. It’s a big reason of why I’m here today, writing this blog, writing every day. It’s the reason I’m… admittedly, pretty good at this whole writing thing.

So that’s why when I see people try and put down these young creators for making less-than-perfect art, it makes me really sad. I was really lucky to be surrounded by an accepting, loving community of people both online and offline who celebrated the art I created, even when it was bad. Now that I’m older I understand what made those early writings so terrible, and I’m mature enough (mostly) to take critique and use it to improve. But when I was younger and filled with idealism and passion, hearing the kind of snide remarks this youtuber makes would have destroyed me. I was just figuring out that creativity was possible for me, so I was miles away from understanding that I could also work to improve the things I made.  I would have taken these condescending statements as unchangeable fact, and I would have given up.

So, let young creators make these mistakes. Let them create flat, pastel rainbow vomit characters and MS Paint Sonic OCs. Let them create two-dimensional worlds that exist only in the space of one month and 50,000 words. Because someday those creators will grow up, and they’ll understand just fine that they weren’t born gifted. But with the proper support and encouragement, they’ll become so.

 

A Spring Break in Songs

For the last week, I, like the rest of the population of Carmel, Indiana, spent my Spring Break in sunny Florida. As with every year, it was a week of good food, relaxation, shopping, and music. And it is with that last aspect that I come to you to today. Here’s a quick little review of my Spring Break in the songs I listened to.

Green Light – Lorde

It’s a Spring Break tradition for all of the members of my family to choose songs and compete to see whose song shows up the most on the radio on our drive down to Florida. My pick this year was Lorde’s newest track, the dynamic and beautiful “Green Light”. I actually talked about it a bit in my Women in Music post, but it’s so good it deserves me discussing it again. I’ve been a fan of Lorde since she first popped into the scene in 2013 and her sound has only gotten better since then – more mature and emotional without losing that simultaneously real and artsy view on the world.

It didn’t really… win our annual competition, but I contend it won a moral victory, since I picked it out of pure love. (And the winner was my Mom, who picked some awful ZAYN/Taylor Swift song she didn’t even like…)

That’s What I Like – Bruno Mars

Dad didn’t win the competition with this pick either, by the way. But still, whenever it came on, despite the anger at seeing my dad get a point, it was immediately mollified because gosh do I ever love this song. Listen, I know I’m a hipster, and this isn’t the sort of music you’d expect me to love, but listen to me… Bruno Mars transcends genre with his charm. He’s just such a good dancer, and his voice is beautiful, and his songs are always so fun and danceable… and yeah, this music video makes me grin like an idiot whenever I watch it, what of it? I know all the lyrics to this song and belt it whenever it comes on, so? I guarentee there’s not a sane person in this world who would disagree with me.

Don’t Take the Money – Bleachers

Still, even as we’re competing for glory with our own picks, we always discover a few new favorites on the road trip down to Florida, and here’s the first of the few I’ll mention here.

It’s always nice to hear new songs from old favorite bands, and Bleachers didn’t disappoint with this summery track. I can practically picture a scene from a saturated teen romance movie set to this song. Not to cheapen the impact of the emotional strength of this song, of course, but it’s a good time.

We Got the Power – Gorillaz

And speaking of old favorite bands, there is no older favoriter band out there than Gorillaz for me. Gorillaz is basically the reason I have the music taste I do today (long story short, I thought the idea of a band of cartoon characters was the coolest thing ever when I was in middle school, which led to me becoming obsessed with their, erm, eclectic discography).

The car ride to Florida was not the first time I’ve heard this track off of their upcoming album, “Humanz”, but it was when this song really started to gel with me. I’ve never really thought of Gorillaz as the sort of band that makes perfect sense on the very first listen, but rather takes a few listens to fully grasp the concept of this song, and this one is no different. It’s definitely very bubblegum in its optimism, but that’s honestly one of its best features. It’s happy and hopeful and unashamed of neither of these facts, and that’s refreshing in a world of cynicism and criticism. The only issue with this song is its criminally short. Just a bit over two minutes…. give me more!

Watershed – Vienna Teng

Now, I have a confession to make. It’s a personal tradition that every spring break, I pick an artist I like and familiarize myself with their entire discography over the course of the week. In years past, this has been very successful (three years ago, it was Arctic Monkeys, two years ago it was Walk the Moon, and last year it was Saint Motel, all incredible bands I love). And I have loved everything I’ve heard from Vienna, (I talked about her in my Women in Music post as well, actually), but I unfortunately only had time this break to listen to one of her albums all the way through.

I absolutely intend to listen to everything of hers, and I’ll do a post on my favorite tracks of hers once I do, but as a nice little sneak preview, I want to share this incredibly haunting track off of “Inland Territory”, the album I listened to. This song is very different from the rest of the songs on this list, because it’s quiet and pensive and honestly… kind of creepy. But this is what I love about Vienna – she’s a storyteller. This song tells the story of mankind’s folly in the eyes of some sort of ancient power – a Gaia or a Cthulhu or something of the like. The quiet, withheld power of this song illustrates the dormant power of the narrator perfectly to a listener, and the lyrics are beautifully and terrifyingly written. I’m a huge fan.

Feel It Still – Portugal. The Man

But hey, it wasn’t just old favorite artists and bands returning for a glory lap this Spring Break, there were some new favorites too! My dad and I had a field day with the band name of this artist (Why the random period? What does it mean?), but neither of us could deny how gosh darn catchy this song is. It’s bouncy and driving and gets lodged in your head and tortures you for weeks at a time. It’s driven by a simple beat, and that’s all it needs to get rolling and never stop. I’m obsessed. Give it a listen.

Mexican Jackpot – Flagship

A song that got a surprising amount of airtime this break despite being by a band I’ve never heard of before, I nonetheless came to really enjoy this song. It’s calm and atmospheric, and undoubtedly pleasant. I can’t say I see much in the future for this band, since they sound exactly like about fifteen other alt bands, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy this pretty track.

Pork Soda – Glass Animals

And we return to an old favorite band. Oh Glass Animals, how you continue to amaze me with the weird stuff you can pull in your songs and totally get away with it. And yeah, this song is weird, from title to sound effects to lyrics, but there’s a strange sort of method to the madness. If you look into the lyrics (beyond the obvious nonsense lyrics), you’ll find a surprisingly tragic and poignant look into the decay of a once loving relationship. Perhaps the odd and nonsensical nature of this song plays to the idea that when relationships decay, it can seem chaotic and may make no sense? Or maybe I’m being too analytical about this fun song. Ah well.

Along Came Jones – The Coasters

One of these things is not like the others~ yeah, okay, I couldn’t talk about my spring break without mentioning the solid amount of 50s hits I listened to in my Grandma’s car. She always cracked jokes and apologized about forcing me to listen to her music, but hey, it’s kind of fun. I am a fan of all things vintage, even if that’s not necessarily the music. But it’s hard not to remember super, uh, unique songs like this one, and it sparked some interesting conversation with my Grandma about the nature of music throughout generations as we looked for thread to match my prom dress at the craft store. She and I might not see eye to eye regarding music, but no genre or generation of music will ever be perfect – all have their duds along with their masterpieces. So it’s pointless to be an elitist to someone else for liking a different type of music than you.

(Also, I think this song is funny, and it’s the only one I remembered the title of, to be honest.)

So there you go, a little auditory taste of my spring break. I hope everyone is returning from their breaks relaxed and rejuvenated, and even if that’s not the case, I hope some of these songs can help do the trick.

Taking the Poetry Plunge

When I started first semester of this year, I did so with an incredible excitement for one particular class. I had saved my Creative Writing class for this year, my senior year, a reward for having accomplished four years of hard work.

I looked avidly forward to talking about my most favorite thing in the world on an every-other-day basis. I know it sounds like the most stereotypically nerdy thing in the world, but the idea of getting graded on creative writing, my special talent, was incredibly appealing. I’d get to spend an hour and a half of every other school day doing the thing I love most in the world! What could be better than that?

Well… actually, there was just one tiny thing.

See, the course description talked about how I would be writing short stories (great), memoirs (great), and scripts (interesting and new), but I always froze around the last topic.

Poetry.

Like all young writers, I had tried my hand at poetry in the past, but it always felt clunky. Wrong. I could never express what I thought in the rigid meter and rhyme I associated with poetry. I dreaded having to bend my ideas around what words I could force to rhyme with each other. And while I was aware that non-rhyming poetry existed, I could never figure out the difference between that and excessively flowery prose. And anyway, prose has always just flowed more easily from me, more naturally.

And yet, and yet… when the poetry unit of class started, I found a surprising amount of freedom. Yes, there is structure and definite patterns to rhythm and rhyme, but there’s a method to the madness, to use a cliche. Even for the most strict forms of poetry, like sonnets, the structure made sense as I worked with it.

Well into my second semester I find myself returning to poetry often. I write poems almost daily. I have an entire full memo of poetry on my phone, and I recently had to start up a second, plus a smattering of word documents on my laptop filled with my musings. The class was only for one semester, yet the unit we spent on poetry has stuck with me for months afterward. Where I once hated writing poetry with a firey passion, I now consider it another method of relaxation.

Where did that change of heart come from?

Well, honestly, an epiphany.

See, for our final project in the poetry unit, we were tasked to create a book of poetry unified by one theme. Looking at all the poetry I had written over the course of our lessons, I realized very quickly that all of my favorite poems had been written for people. Not always the sort of things I would want to proudly present to them, but nonetheless written with specific people in mind. Thoughts for them that were hard to express, or ugly, or embarrassing, or conflicted.

When something was on my mind about anything, it was easy to sit down and pen a poem about it. It not only helped to clarify my thoughts and, later, talk honestly with the people the poetry concerned, it ultimately became a pretty good topic for my poetry book. Titled “Me and Everyone I Know” and filled with crude Adobe Illustrator drawings (I was still learning at the time), it became one of my most favorite projects in what became one of my most favorite units.

I often like to joke and say all of my poems are flowery subtweets, but honestly they really are. Poetry is a weirdly satisfying form of venting, of getting out the sometimes complicated thoughts in my mind. It’s a way of taking things that might be difficult to think about and lays them out in black and white. It allows me to focus on difficult things without obsessing, because I can always worry instead about the language choices and metaphors instead of the real life problems And, I don’t know, there’s something awfully romantic about feverishly scribbling a poem down based on what’s on your mind (even if it’s in the memos of my cellphone instead of, say, a worn leather notebook or something like that.)

Plus, poetry is, as a rule, kind of secretive. Sometimes there’s just stuff you want to be able to talk about, to be able to yell about, but that stuff isn’t the sort of stuff that can be said aloud. Poetry is great for that. It lends itself to vagueness, to deep symbols and metaphors and trying to find the most roundabout way of presenting an idea possible.

So I guess what I’m saying is, give things a try. They can surprise you. Even rigid rhythm and rhyme can be freeing for you if you give it the chance to be. I mean, I’m a great example of how a point of view can be changed once you give something a go. A few months ago I hated poetry, and now I’ve taken on a personal challenge to write one new poem every day for the month of April… and who knows, after I finish, I might post all 30 here!

…maybe.