For the fifth time that night I rewind the cassette and hit play. “And now, the one you’ve all been waiting for … Color Me Badd with All 4 Love.” The music starts and I thank the stars I was able to catch the song on my clock radio tape recorder. I sit up straight in my bed as the lyrics kick in, swaying to the music and taking a deep breath. “I’m so glad you’re my girl, I’ll do anything for you,” I sing. I’m 11 years old and I’ve never been brave enough to sing in front of anyone. When I’m alone, I feel like I have this untapped well of talent just begging to be unleashed. I close my eyes and pretend I’m singing in front of the whole school, everyone in awe of my sweet voice.
I’m mid-note when my mom opens my bedroom door. “What are you doing in here? Go to bed.” In the dim light cast by my nightlight, I see a lingering smirk on her face as she leaves. I think she’s laughing at me. I imagine her sitting in front of the mirror and combing her hair as she embarrasses me in front of dad; snickering about my crappy voice as they get ready for bed.
That moment in time unfurls and wraps itself around my neck for the next 16 years. Whether I’m in church or at a Christmas party singing carols – my throat won’t open up all the way when I try to sing in public. I pretend I don’t care and sing in a warbling monotone. There’s no joy in it for me.
“You HAVE to sing, dude. Come on!” Cory is practically jabbing me in the chest. We've only met in person once before but that doesn’t really phase him. He’s the ultimate avatar of peer pressure. He also has a singing voice that makes girls blush. Damn him.
“Fine, just … give me a bit. I’m not nearly drunk enough yet.”
He grins and saunters off to the living room to watch the other rabbitcon attendees pound through a Weezer song. Every six months we congregate at Julian's home to shut out the real world and be kids again for a weekend. Knowing the recently released Rock Band would be in full effect, Cory has been building me up toward this moment for months now. I return to the mini-bar for some more liquid courage. My palms are sweaty. Even after all these years, I still feel the sting of being caught out when I was a kid.
The night wears on. Biding my time, I play boardgames and try to keep as far away from the living room as possible. Eventually, people filter out back to the fire pit for the promise of smoores and a break from all the noise. Soon the house is nearly empty and I approach the mic stand like it’s going to bite me. I pick up the controller and start flicking through the song list, trying to find something easy. I glance around nervously -- Cory never said he had to be here when I sang.
A couple bystanders walk in and take up the instruments. The drums are manned. I can feel their growing impatience as I painstakingly go through each song on the list. I listen to the preview of Gone Away by The Offspring and figure it’s as close to yelling as you can get while still calling it singing. I hadn’t heard Sean Sands sing “Rebel Yell” yet -- so I didn’t know better.
The atmosphere in the living room is the opposite of electric. We’re late into the night and everyone is tired. No one knows or cares about how big a deal this is for me. It’s about as perfect a situation as I could hope for. I start the song and take a deep breath as the music ramps up. The lyrics come tumbling across the screen and I suddenly feel backed into a corner. I open my mouth and croak. I cough to cover it up. I try again and this time I manage to make it through a line. And then another. And another. When I get to the chorus I close my eyes and try to push past that choking anxiety and actually put some more of myself into it. I sing the words by heart and I feel that old tightness around my throat start to give way for the first time.
Just like that, song is over. I look around at the bland faces of my tired fellow rockers and feel a surge of excitement. I sounded awful, of course, but I did it. “Let’s do another,” I say with the same confidence I imagine a first time bungee jumper feels after recovering from their first leap off a bridge. Eventually Cory catches me singing too and it’s not a big deal. 16 years of pent up performance anxiety all washed away with some plastic instruments and a little help from my friends.
A few years and a few rabbitcons later, I finally convince myself that I'm ready to clutter my living room with plastic instruments and a mic of my own. Rock Band 3’s release arrives and I run out the door to buy The Beatles Rock Band Limited Edition bundle along with the new game. This is the first set of plastic instruments to enter my house since the original Guitar Hero. Bemused, Karla helps me unpack all the instruments and get everything setup. We settle into a long night of taking turns playing the guitar and singing. It's not something we've done just the two of us before and I revel in singing just for her and our disinterested cats.
Eventually she begs off and slips upstairs to get ready for bed. I flip the disc over to The Beatles and pull up Dig a Pony. The music starts and I smile as I think of that earnest kid sitting in his room and singing his heart out. I grab the mic, close my eyes and pretend I’m singing for him.