Don’t Play that Song: Meditations on my Mother, Beautiful Mistakes, and Sounds of a Queer Childhood

The first time I heard Aretha Franklin sing, my mama danced freely and carelessly, looking like something unrestrained, like a body with no fear. And she left me in wonder.

I had been avidly watching Disney Channel’s “Sister, Sister,” a show centered on seperated-at-birth twins played by Tia and Tamara Mowry. During one episode in particular, Tia and Tamara broke out singing Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” As I watched the two sisters sing and dance, and before Aretha’s song finished playing, my mother got home from work. What was usually a routine walk from her bedroom to the living room (to greet my brothers and I) to the kitchen (to greet my father and to start cooking dinner) became something else. After dropping off her belongings in her bedroom, as she did every evening, she crossed back into our living room only this time she began to dance right in front of the TV screen and, as she made her way into the kitchen, she turned the ground she walked on into a dance-floor as if the grid of cream cemented tiles in our house could shift into a new pattern. Wearing her badass black heels and a loud floral dress, my mother graced my brothers and I with a dance that, for me, recorded steps that I might learn to follow someday. Whenever I hear Aretha’s voice today, it doesn’t go without my mother’s movement.

Something about my mother’s dance demanded the respect Aretha’s voice asked for. You see, when I was growing up my mother carried so much of the labor that took place in our household. She would wake up at 5 AM everyday to see my father off to work and to make him breakfast, wake each of my brothers and I up for school, prepare our lunches and (if time permitted) have dinner cooked so that my father could microwave our meals, clean and/or do laundry, and get her hair and makeup ready. She would complete all of this before 7AM and I never quite thought about all the work she continued to do at her 8-5 office job. When she would arrive home, she would get right back to cleaning, or would prepare dinner (if she had not had time to make it in the morning), or if my father had not helped cook when he had gotten home from work. Never once did my mother come home after a long day and sit to watch TV. Only my father did that. Only my brothers and I did that. I hardly know how my mother survived those years.

Although my mother prided herself on that work ethic, I also felt that rarely did she ever receive the kind of respect and praise she deserved for it. It was simply expected of her. My father, my brothers and I, took her for granted and it was Aretha’s song that helped me begin to see the domestic structure that we had normalized in her everyday routine, her everyday movement. It was Aretha’s song that helped me imagine my mother might find an other choreography and that she might move beyond the gendered demands my larger Mexican american familia had imposed on her since her childhood. When Aretha sang, my mother’s dancing confirmed a kind of liberation I felt was possible within Aretha’s voice and that my mother’s body knew and carried within; and in that rhythm, I imagined many other women who might be listening to her when they too got home from work; and in that rhythm, I imagined other children watching “Sister, Sister” who were also interrupted by beautiful dancing mothers who found a glimpse of reprieve from the life that at times had left them unrecognized.

Something about that song confirmed something else in me: a kind of allegiance to my mother that I already had before I heard the song, but a kind of allegiance to my mother’s pain that was suddenly given words and sounds. According to Emily Lordi, what characterizes Black soul music like that of Aretha Franklin’s, is the artist’s ability to turn the experience and pain of gendered and racialized oppression into a stylized form of survival. Outlined by Aretha’s song, I’d like to believe my Latina mother was given over to another possibility for surviving the world and that my mother, with each step she took, scored steps I didn’t yet know the meaning of as a queer boy living in a male dominated house.

It’s not enough to say that my queer ear fell in love with Aretha’s voice. For Christmas that year I asked Santa (my mother) for her CD. The year was 2001, so you can imagine how “out of time” my childhood request for this music was considering that Aretha’s CD found its home next to Britney Spears, NSync, and Christina Aguilera. When my fourth grade teacher, Mr. Valdivia mentioned that our final assignment for the class required that we sing a song in front of the entire class, I already knew what I was going to sing. When word got out that I was singing Aretha, I stuck out like the “out of time” CD living in my stack of music. A few weeks before I was going to perform RESPECT, a group of girls asked me if I was still going to sing Aretha Franklin’s song. I proudly confirmed that I was indeed planning on singing that song. My excitement sank, however, when I came to realize that they were asking me this to confirm something the boys were asking about me during lunchtime: “Is José gay?” In an attempt to hide and mask whatever singing this song might mean to them, I tried to sidestep the entire situation and looked for another song to sing.

Instead of demanding the kind of respect Aretha and my mother’s dance had been teaching me, I changed my song only to make the beautiful mistake of selecting a song that could only be described as still queer. I got this song from another show I had been watching regularly in the early 2000s, Lizzie McGuire: “The Tide is High” by The Atomic Kitten. I had decided that I would instead sing this song in front of class because I believed that they thought maybe my being gay had something to do with the “out of time” song I had originally selected. It probably goes without saying that even though I re-gendered the song by changing The Atomic Kitten lyrics from “girl” to “boy” and “man” to “woman,” the gendered cover I created with my words only further exposed me as I sang the following:

Ev’ry girl wants you to be her man
But I’ll wait my dear till it’s my turn
I’m not the kinda girl who gives up just like that, oh noThe tide is high but I’m holdin’ on
I’m gonna be your number one, number one, number one.

There’s something painfully interesting to be said about how I experienced my sexual difference around the experience of feeling “out of time” with my musical tastes compared to those of my peers. I didn’t escape this “out of time” feeling by switching from “Respect” to singing “The Tide is High” since even the Lizzie McGuire show’s rendition of the song sung by The Atomic Kitten is a remix of various older versions performed by Blondie, ABBA, and originally–as I recently discovered–the Jamaican all male group, The Paragons. As it turns out, the re-gendering I did to the song was already the original lyric form of the song.

I find this fascinating. Not that I had the lyrics “right” the first time, but the layers of time embedded in each new performed version of the song and in each version’s collision in time and space with me in my attempt to get it “right” for my peers. For those of us who grow up queer we fail to meet time and to be on time with what is acceptably heteronormative. That failure, we also come to learn, is a beautiful misstep filled with detours that make other worlds and choreographies available. And I think that maybe this being out of time thing, this slowing down time, this being behind the times, is something I inherited from my mother and her steps. When my mother got home that night I heard Aretha, she claimed time she was quite literally “out” of; she delayed dinner time, she broke her routine and fed me seconds I didn’t know I was in need of.

When I learned of Aretha’s death last year it reminded me of the world she opened up for my mother to move. And it reminded me of the world my mother opened up for me. I spent the entire day listening to Aretha and I fell in love with another song I’d heard before but have only now really come to appreciate after her death, “Don’t Play that Song for Me.” I love the title. I love the way the song is all about not wanting to hear a song that reminds you of someone you lost, someone who gave you heartache, at the same time that the song insists on wanting to remember and wanting to feel the pain all over again. It makes me think about what I’ll now feel when I hear RESPECT, a desire to hear it and the pain it also brings to hear it. It makes me think about all the songs of hers we will play and remember because now we know that we can do so much to pain if we played it like time.

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