Saturday, May 12, 2018

Remembering Shelby Starner: Music Criticism, Spoken Word and What We See When We Look in the Mirror

Last night, I participated in a wonderful spoken word fundraiser for a play called Mirrors by a sharp, thoughtful young actress and playwright named Kaitlin Gould. Listening to her talk last night, it was evident she knows more about the dangerous myths and misconceptions surrounding body image disorders than I could ever hope to know. That, in and of itself, made the event important. 
But this event was produced and emceed by another wonderful young artist (also producing the play) named Athena Louise Hyacinth, and it featured stirring poetry from Cecilia Belser-Patton, Jen Harris, Samantha Slupski, Asia Raine, and Nkenge Burkhead (all of them accessible, funny and moving, connecting me most deeply around how we learn to love ourselves despite the world’s—and often our loved one’s—discouragement). I want to write about all of these women more in the future. But I was distracted last night by my own job as a reader, so I can't say much more specifically. I thought I’d share, instead, what I wrote because it feels important to do so, even more so today than before I met all of these fine folk building unity and understanding around these issues.
When I agreed to do the event, I talked with Ms. Hyacinth about a musician I’ve been thinking about for 19 years, a musician who only lived 19 years. Her name was Shelby Starner. Instead of dusting off my poems, or even trying to write a new one, I decided I should do some of what I do best, music journalism, and write about Starner, not just in terms of our interview 19 years ago, but in terms of what she and her music still mean to me today.  

I began by playing the opening track from her debut, From in the Shadows, a song called, “Fall.”
Then, I read her 2003 obituary that ran in the newspaper of the coal-mining town where she grew up. Here’s some of what it said:
Shelby E. Starner, 19, of Bartonsville, died suddenly from natural causes on Saturday evening, June 22. Born on January 3, 1984 in East Stroudsburg (PA), she was a daughter of Ray J. and his wife, Susan (LaRose) Starner, of Stroudsburg and Katherine (Haas) Benn and her husband, Allen of Bartonsville and had lived in Monroe County all of her life.
She was an independent study student planning to attend the University of Pittsburgh in August 2003. She was a writer and musician and her music has touched many people. Shelby was a creative, intelligent and loving person.
She is survived by a sister, a step-brother, maternal grandparents, and a paternal grandfather. She was preceded in death by her paternal grandmother, who died in 1999. [The year her album was released.]
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that memorial contributions may be made to Doctors without Borders ( or to the Shelby Starner Memorial Scholarship for Excellence in English.
                Then I read her a letter.
Dear Shelby….
When your father called me and told me you died, four years and four months after our interview, I didn’t know what to say, of one ever does. The piece I wrote about you obviously meant something to him, and probably you, because he tracked down my number and called me in my little Kansas City, Kansas apartment. This was in the days before I had a cellphone—no Facebook, no social media at all to speak of…It took some work.
I said I’m so sorry. I said how much I enjoyed talking to you, how much I loved your music. It was all true.
I may not remember all the details, but I remember a bubbly 15 year old girl on the other end of the line, a girl who’d met her idol Stevie Nicks and wanted to be Steven Tyler too. A girl when asked about Ani DiFranco not only described how much she admired her as a “musical crusader” but also as “a tough cookie.” I remembered a bright and shining light (not anything like the many flickering flames I’ve worried about over the years).
It was baffling that you didn’t live to see 20. You’d been spotted by Liz Rosenberg, the top ranking woman at Warner Bros who put all her money on Madonna, and you’d been signed to the same label. Your second record was to be a collaboration with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. You’d taken time off because your mother was sick. You’d taken time off to go to school. You were smart and talented and lucky and cautious and….
Now you were gone.
Somewhere there’s a tape of the two of us talking. I’ve saved it and tossed it from box to box over the years, but I don’t know where it is right now. What I know of your speaking voice is what I said at the time….
I describe our conversation as “refreshing,” and I call you “candid” and describe you as “every bit as unaffected and unflinching as [you seem] on record.”
I say you “enthuse”
I talk about your laughter, open and often…
I say “Starner’s spontaneous answers speak so naturally of universal life passages that it is easy to forget that the stages she is talking about may be a grade or two in school half-forgotten by adults.” But, I add, “it becomes clear that not only was she a precocious child, she also learned a great deal about life very early.”
You talked all about that in ways I could easily relate to. We were both children whose parents divorced in our childhood, so I got it when you said, “When I was really little, ever since I was two, I always wanted to hang out with the adults, and I always wanted to be like an adult, so I tried my best. And then I got to a certain age and I realized, ‘Wait, these people don’t try their best!’”
But immediately after, you began to tell me things that I understood in a certain way then…and understand in a different way now. 
You said, “I always wanted to be older when I was little, and some of it was because I was really, really, self-loathing in a physical way. People meet me and I’m so hyper and out-of-my-mind all of the time, they don’t assume that I had insecurities and I was completely out of my mind for a couple of years when I was little.
“In about third and fourth grade, I developed a body. I was already 5’ 2”, and I had curves, and everyone around me was little, and I was terrified. I thought I was deformed. So I would dress like a boy. I wore huge clothes to hide myself, not let anyone know that I was a big girl.
“I’ve always been shaped, you know, physically shaped, and I wanted to be with the adults because I felt comfortable with who I was and what I looked like.
You went on…
“I was a dancer. That’s what I always wanted to do. I took dance lessons from the time I was two and a half until last year. And I would come home after dance classes and cry, because I was not five feet tall, and I did not weigh 85 pounds. Every time I got a costume to do a show, I looked like the 10 cent hooker, and everybody else was like these pretty little ballerinas.  
“When I was in about 4th grade, I really got into the whole Aerosmith thing. I saw Aerosmith live on MTV, and I was just watching Steve Tyler fling himself upside down and backwards and swing around on stage, and I went ‘Oh my God, I want to do that!’ and everything just kind of snowballed from there. I don’t know how Mom felt about me running around the house singing “Backstroke Lover,” having no idea what I was talking about but singing my little heart out. [I’d quit piano before] but I guess I decided around that time, if I sat down and played the piano, I’m going to play Aerosmith, and I’m going to play Led Zeppelin, and I’m going to play the piano like nobody’s ever played it before.
“Eventually I just started playing things all on my own. You can teach anybody how to play Beethoven. Even if they don’t want to do it, you can tie them down and make them learn how to do it. But creativity, and really good records, the passion that is on records and in a live show, nobody can make somebody do that.”
So you made demos of 26 songs, and k.d. lang producer Craig Street helped you narrow that to 13. You made a beautiful record, ridiculously ambitious and, at-its-most-focused, absolutely devastating.
No, it wasn’t a hit. Most of the best don’t make a hit the first time out or ever, but you had international press, and you were working on a comeback....
And you and your body were at war with each other.
A 35 year old man talking to a 15 year old young woman, we probably had no chance of talking about our bodies, but some of what you told me I certainly see where I should have understood.  
We can start with my war with my own body. My childhood asthma put me in the hands of a pedophile savior. The doctor who molested me had to protect me from my body. I eventually combated that shit by getting all kinds of high and eventually even taking up my most banal enemy, cigarettes--strikes one through 87 in the war with myself.
I was also always the big kid among my friends. I was also more comfortable with adults. I also felt deformed. In a 2014 Journal of the American Medical Association Study, one in five young men were found to have serious concerns about their weight. I notice the bodies changing on the young men in my classrooms, and I wasn’t surprised when a student of mine wrote a paper, just a few years back, about how she wished she could find someone her own size to date. We don’t talk about it, and it grows when no one talks about it, but everyone suffers in a world where even the concept of what we should like can be commercialized. There are profits to be made from starvation and steroids; very few in positive self image.
I don’t want to go off on the politics of body image, although thinking about you this week has had me thinking a lot about them. My music writing started out political because music gave me a sense of my own power and a way to take on power issues in our society—big ones like apartheid and racism and free speech. But, eventually, my writing would start navigating the more subtle issues, the politics of the bedroom and our most intimate relationships.
I’m not sure I ever worked my way down, enough, to the politics of the dinner table, the bathroom and the bathroom mirror. Shelby (and everyone here tonight), you’ve got me thinking about that now—how the economy reaches down and robs us of our sense of control even over our own bodies, the one thing you would think we could call our own. Yes, indeed, “our bodies ourselves” is a revolutionary statement.
But let me end this by talking about why I wrote about you in the first place, Shelby, and why I’m writing about you today. In our celebrity-crazed culture, it’s easy to imagine most people have no idea what it meant for me to become a music writer, but it’s not that different than what it meant for you to become a musician. Music showed me a place where I could be myself, where I could be redeemed and proud and let my dim light shine brighter than I might ever have thought possible.
Since I couldn’t play piano like you or write songs like you or sing like you, I found my way to this culture of people who write about music as a way of making our own kind of music. That’s how we used to think of music criticism back in the day, sitting on our beds reading magazines—people like me were reading other people like me fashioning a verbal response to the call we heard in the sound of the music. There was a time it felt like another front in a counterculture. As deejays were to emcees were to break dancers were to graffiti artists in hip hop, the journalist was another voice in the heart of the culture. I hope, on some scale, it can feel like that in moments like this.
Anyway, contrary to the snotty image of the music journalist, I think most of us do it because music turned us on and told us to do something, and these were the tools we chose. I’ve written about music for thirty two years because I love music and because I love musicians. Because people like you, Shelby, taught me how to feel free and to live as my best self. Time and time again, you have all helped me find redemption, if even for a moment.  
Your would-be hit single sang about “being a woman and not a girl in this man’s world,” and that record reached across age and gender lines and helped redeem me. 
It hadn’t been easy to be a boy or find a  way to be a man in this world either. Music, and your work, showed me a way. My opportunity to promote your work, to tell your story, helped me find a way to respond to the power of the call I heard in your music. It’s a very human thing we’re engaged in, and it’s in service to the music. But it’s certainly imperfect. (There’s a reason musicians and artists often hate critics, and most of them are justifiable.)
But what we need to remember is what set us on our path—the humanity that ties us together. We need to remember what bridged the gap between us is in the yearning of the human voice. It wasn’t Aerosmith for me; in truth, it was more Shelby Starner, a whole string of musicians that brought me to you.
And the fact that I couldn’t do more, the fact that I didn’t know….Nothing about that is okay.
And it’s no comfort to say it simply shows how far we have yet to go.
At least we have your music I could say. 
I know some of why you made it, and it does live on...
But I’ll be damned if I say that’s enough.

(Thank you to CJ Janovy and Sam Bell for your advice and support.)