I can remember a series of summers in the late seventies, when I was a young boy. My teenage neighbors were among the first of the so-called “latchkey kids,” left home alone to fend for themselves with their mom off at work. It was a safe, quiet suburban street at the dawn of cable television, so they theoretically could have kept out of trouble. But they didn’t particularly respect the “quiet” part of this scenario, and every weekday afternoon during the hot idle days of summer, they would have their friends over. They’d party, and they’d drink, and they’d sing and party some more, and would do so with such enthusiasm that within a few hours they would be vomiting into the storm wells directly outside my window. I can’t really recall their faces after all these years, but I remember them vividly nonetheless. Mostly I remember what they sang, what they bellowed defiantly, as they puked in our yard.
The soundtrack to Grease.
As you might have noticed, with the Broadway season cut short by the COVID-19 crisis, there were no Tony Awards last night – and hence no obligatory post-Tony blog post for me today. Instead, the CBS network decided that the Broadway audience – their viewing public – heck, the nation – would be best served at this terrifying moment in history by singing along to the songs from Grease. In wallowing in nostalgia for something that was a nostalgia piece in the first place, a cartoon dream of the 1950s.
It’s perhaps not fair to Grease that I dislike Grease as much as I do; a piece that was originally dark and satirical substantially changed in its long journey from a Chicago storefront theater to Broadway, and became even more drastically altered in its 1978 film version. (You can read an overview here). And that final product, enshrined in that Travolta/Newton-John movie we all know, has some undeniably catchy songs. It also has a horrific message – that popularity is so important that it’s worth changing your whole identity to achieve – and ghastly gender politics. There’s not a lot of musical theater aficionados who have it in their pantheon, despite its popularity, and therefore you can probably levy a cry of “elitist!” at people (like me) who turn up their noses at it. It’s just fun, right?
Well, it wasn’t fun having those songs screamed by an army of teenagers aiming their projectile vomit at my house.
It’s perhaps also not fair to Grease, or to any work of art, to hold it responsible for its fan base. Yet through the long decades since, I’ve always heard those neighbors’ voices whenever I hear Grease. And maybe not their specific voices – it’s been many years since, and I have no idea what sort of people they’ve become. Maybe they turned out great.
But I know who they were, and I know what they represent.
People who grew up amidst relative privilege and comfort, whose response to those things was a nihilistic and destructive contempt. People who grew up in a suburban area that only existed because of the phenomenon of white flight. People defiantly clinging to a candy-colored myth of the 1950s as the image of what Real America ought to be.
Does any of this sound familiar?
And does it sound like this is what we should have been wallowing in last night, of all nights?
We are the stories we tell about ourselves. Even the silly stories. And not all stories reflect well upon us. Especially the stories told by drunken teenagers vomiting on their neighbor’s house.