Owning It: Power Ballads and Anxiety about “Doing it Wrong”

By Daniel van Voorhis

It is the first day back to school, or the day of a job interview or meeting, or a first date. Maybe it is just going to a party with people who dig talking about things that intimidate you? We might be nervous on all sorts of levels. This anxiety comes from a number of sources. Will I fit in? Will I say the right thing? Will I be dressed appropriately?

As we start the new year, I want us all to take a collective deep breath over the kind of anxiety that we get from schools, churches, peers, etc.

A quick note about the general tenor of this column: if you go back in the archives of my articles you will find a number of times where I have written about the correct way to do something (tying a tie, wearing a hat, picking a shoe, etc.). Please remember that my very first article (check it out if you haven’t) was about the fun of breaking the rules. So if you find me too rigid and dogmatic, the difference between me and “that one guy you know” who has the “only acceptable” answers (my friends like to call these guys, the “oracles”), is that I think if you “break” a rule you should not only do it, but you should own it.

Despite a claim by one such “oracle” that my articles where racist (that is, only applying to wasp-y middle class readers), I think the guy who claimed this should keep rocking his own aesthetic. It may not look like one, but it’s a uniform, you own it. Rock it. I’m not making universal judgements that are inviolable across all times and socio-economic strata. We all have styles, tastes, uniforms, codes, etc.  Don’t pretend not to have one, and don’t protest too much about someone talking about them. If it’s not your bag to talk about a style, aesthetics and anxiety, you can wait until the next article is written by someone else about something more important.


Have the disinterested and those reading only to troll all left?

Alright, I’m going to tell you a story.

The other day I was doing some work at a little coffee shop that would probably meet whatever picture you have in your head if you thought of me (the paleo-hipster?), and Southern California, and an independent coffee shop. There were plenty of tattoos and tussled hair and heroin chic girls drinking chocolate frothy monstrosities (even the best coffee shops have to sell these ridiculous drinks now).

I was sitting at the bar because one of the guys pulling the shots was a friend of a friend and knows that we both roast our own coffee at home. He was letting me try a few things, and so I decided to plop my laptop down there. After some talk about “earthy” and “fruity” notes and the names of various South American provinces, I got down to work. I put on my headphones and started looking through playlists. There was a playlist I made awhile back when Whitney Houston died. I remembered some of her songs off of the Bodyguard soundtrack and decided to make a playlist with those hidden gems/guilty pleasures and other 80’s rock ballads from my youth. Richard Marx, Peter Cetera, Patty Smythe, etc… Absolutely nothing even ironically cool. I really dig these songs in the most sincere way. Pop music is almost exclusively bad poetry and repetitious chords linking chorus, verse, and bridge for a three minute cycle. The difference between Pavement and Cher is less than you might think.

Nevertheless, as I hit “play” on the playlist (listening with my Bluetooth ear muffs for headphones) I was waiting for “I Have Nothing” to start. It’s a great song. Whitney is shouting and pleading at the end with the most sincere and pristinely powerful voice. I love it. But it wasn’t playing. And then, when it was, it was playing too softly. So I turned up the volume on my computer. Still nothing. So I waited and tried boosting the volume again.

I hit stop and took my headphones off to troubleshoot the incident when I noticed people looking at me and smirking or smiling. I hadn’t paired the Bluetooth speakers to my headset and was blasting a Whitney Houston power ballad at the bar of a super cool coffee house, probably drowning out some Velvet Underground or Built to Spill they had playing.

I could have sheepishly made a joke about liking it ironically. I could’ve turned beet red and slinked out of the shop.

But I thought, “I’m a grown man in my thirties with a family, full time job and plenty of whatever kind of ‘cred’ some of these dudes are trying to flaunt.” So I looked over at the guy sitting next to me and caught the eye of the “friend of a friend.” I told them, “Sorry about that, I didn’t pair my speakers to my computer and kept turning it up.” I made no reference to the song, or to why I liked it, or how “’embarrassing” it was that I got “caught” listening to a Whitney Houston power ballad.

I think this is a metaphor for how we should embrace our business. You don’t need to go around preaching from the rooftops how enlightened and precious you are in your peculiar doctrinal system, or in your style or taste, or politics. Own it. Don’t get too defensive or angry if someone disagrees. Don’t feel like you need to nod vigorously when someone is talking about the real meaning of the Second Amendment or the proper reading of Article XI of the Augsburg Confession.

Also, don’t “own it” like the oracle who has the right answers for everything. Accepting that you might be wrong about everything from wingtips to deep social and existential issues is the first step in pleasant and fruitful conversation. In the meantime, if you dig something or have an earnest opinion, let it be known. Don’t hide behind ironic distance or too many qualifiers or constant apologies for what you believe. Own it. And then defend it. And then modify or abandon those ideas if need be. Take a deep breath and enjoy the conversations.

All the Best,

The Man About Town

Written while listening to Richard Marx Repeat Offender (1989)