When I see that microphone, I want to grab it, tilt it back, open my mouth and have something wonderful come pouring out.
No. I really wish I could sing.
It’s almost unnatural.
And I don’t mean sing a little bit. Carry a tune just enough to get by. I mean, I wish I could really sing. Like, Jennifer-Hudson-at-the-Superbowl-sing. Yes, she was lip-syncing. But she sang it like that somewhere!
My obsession is mostly my mother’s fault.
When I was five, she took me to New York City to see Annie on Broadway, with Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead role. I can’t overstate how much that play changed my life. I. wanted. to. be. on. stage! Immediately! And it seemed like being able to sing was how you could make it happen. For months and months after the show, I acted out “I Don’t Need Anything But You” on the stairs in my house and sang “It’s A Hard Knock Life” anytime my mom made me clean up my room.
As I got older, my dream only intensified, again, thanks to my mother. On Saturday mornings, we would climb into her station wagon for a full day of running errands. And it was always accompanied by a cassette tape with her latest favorites: The Best Of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, Deniece Williams’ Let’s Hear It For The Boy and especially this joint:
You know how Biggie said I let my tape rock/til my tape popped? That was my mom and her R&B cassette tapes for the car. It was my job to twirl them back into place if they got tangled.
I fell in love with the melodic sounds of a beautiful voice. And it was something I could not duplicate, no matter how hard I tried.
In fifth grade I tried out for the chorus. The teacher winced during my audition. But somehow, I was still selected. (I found out later that she didn’t have a choice in the matter. Any kid who tried out had to be admitted.) And then, during the first rehearsal, as soon as we all started singing she stopped everyone in mid-song.
The teacher looked around the auditorium. There had to be at least a hundred of us. And she zeroed in on me.
“Aliya? Why are you with the altos?” she asked. “Get over there with the second sopranos!”
I hustled over to the other side of the room and she started the song over. I saw her look in my direction and wince. Oh well. I still tried out for every solo. And got turned down every single time.
I didn’t give up though. Even though I was always placed waaaay to the sides of the group when we performed. The only reason why she didn’t put me in the back is because I was so short that my parents would not have been able to see me. And my mother would NOT have been trying to hear that. She was the PTA president. So you know.
In 7th grade, there was a musical, “Schools Out!” And I was first in line to audition to be a part of the chorale.
The musical director was a short balding man who was a dead ringer for George Constanza on Seinfeld. He gave out sheet music to anyone who was interested and I spent a week learning all the words to every single song. The title song was my favorite.
Hip Hip Hooray, School’s Out!
Now’s the time for celebratin’
All the fun anticipatin’
Of the fun times that we have ahead
Playing games that’s all we think of
From the moment that we wake up
Til the time we have to go to bed!
Yes, I still remember the words. I could sing every song from the whole play right now if you asked me to! I think my sheer enthusiasm guilted the director into selecting me for the chorale. We actually pre-recorded our vocals in a makeshift studio he created in a utitlty room. I thought it was so cool to be excused from class with my other castmates and stand around a real microphone in a real(ish) studio while the director was recording us. Awesome.
But on the night of the play, as we sang over the vocals, I swear I didn’t hear my voice. I think that fool had my mic turned off in that studio. For real.
Finally, in 8th grade, I volunteered to sing at an assembly of some sort. I have no idea why the teacher agreed to let me sing. But I did. I sang Black Butterfly by Deniece Williams. There was applause. I don’t know if it was authentic or just polite. I just know The Sandman did not come shuffling onto the stage with a broom to sweep me off the stage. But when I was done, I knew one thing for sure.
I couldn’t sing.
I could carry a tune. I could mimic a song on the radio. I had a decent stage presence. I could flail my arms at the high notes convincingly. But I just couldn’t sing.
So of course in high school, the first thing I did was sign up for Chorus!
My teacher, Mr. James Gay, was very encouraging. He never said I couldn’t sing. But I wasn’t getting picked for solos either. Sometimes, he would come by and correct my posture, remind me to breathe in before taking a note. Sometimes he would shake his head and stop me. He would sit down at the piano and plunk out a note.
“Sing this note,” he’d say. Laaaaaa.
I would sing: Laaaaa
He would shake his head and pound the key again. Laaaaa
I would just sing the wrong note louder: LAAAAA
“Just keep trying,” Mr. Gay would say.
And I did. After four years in chorus with Mr. Gay, I learned how to harmonize. And I actually got better at hitting certain notes. Better still, I learned some of the techinical aspects of composing and instrumentaion that were just as important to good music as belting out a song.
Mr. Gay didn’t allow us to wail, gospel-music style. He didn’t appreciate vibrato and melisma. But that’s what I loved. I wanted my jaw to shake like Whitney Houston’s when she threw her head back and hit the last note on The Greatest Love of All.
Mr. Gay thought those histrionics were tacky and unprofessional. So I learned to appreciate a more subtle approach to singing. (Though I still practiced my jaw-shaking vibrato at home).
In my senior year of high school, Mr. Gay pulled me to the side after class.
“I have something special I want you to do at the Spring Concert,” said Mr. Gay. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow after school.”
I was like, YES! Finally! My big solo! All these years and it’s finally happening! I knew exactly what I would wear, a white gown my mother had recently worn to a charity affair. I’d tried it on the night before just to see if it fit and it did.
The next day, I went to Mr. Gay after school.
“Aliya, take a look at this,” Mr Gay said, pressing a sheet of paper in my hand.
I looked over the lyrics, nodding my head.
“Okay, I can learn this,” I said.
I walked over to the piano.
“What’s the melody?” I asked.
“No, it’s a poem,” Mr. Gay said. “I want you to read it while we’re changing backstage for part two of the concert.”
“Oh right,” I said, my heart breaking in two. “A poem.”
I read the dumb old poem at the concert, seething inside. And there were my parents, front-and-center, snapping pictures and waving. I wanted to say, don’t take my picture! I’m not worthy. I’m just reading a dumb old poem!
I still wore my mom’s gown though. Hmph.
I did no singing in college. At least not publicly. I kept my obsession a secret. Even from my roommate who quickly became my best friend. One day, a few weeks after our freshman year began, my roommate Victoria left for an early morning class. I had a few hours to kill.
As soon as she was out the door, I turned on Janet Jackson’s Control album. I sang along to the first few songs. And then my joint came on. I put my wrist band on, fluffed out my hair and got busy, singing to the top of my lungs…
You might think I’m crazy but I’m serious
It’s better you know nooooow
What I thought was happiness was only part-time bliss
You can take a bow
I grabbed the chair from under my desk, jumped on it, and then tipped it over, just the way I watched Janet do it a million times in that video.
And as soon as I hit the ground, I did my spin and saw Victoria standing in the doorway.
“I forgot my book,” she said.
“Oh,” I said.
She inched over to her desk, pretending not to notice the blaring music and me sweating and out of breath.
“I’ll see you later,” she said, closing the door behind her.
We never spoke about it. Until many many years later. And now she loves to tease me about it. My secret was out with Victoria. But with everyone else, I kept my obsession hidden.
Today, I am insanely jealous of people who can sing. If there were an operation I could have that would guarantee I’d be able to belt out a tune like Fantasia, I’d consider it. No, really, I would. I’m especially envious of regular people who can sing. Beyonce, Mariah, Whitney…they’re special. But when I go to a hair salon and the shampoo girl is effortlessly singing a beautiful melody while she’s scrubbing my scalp, I just want to die. It’s no fair!
So what do I do? Where do I go? Where do people who can’t sing go to sing?
Why, karaoke of course.
I traveled to Israel a few years back and met a guy named Jason. He does hip-hop karaoke events in New York City throughout the year. When I got the invite in the email, my eyebrow went up. Hmmmm.
I pitched the story to Vibe.com and headed out to Brooklyn to perform. For the details on how that went down, click here.
It was fun. But doing karaoke to a hip-hop track does not fulfill my passion. Karaoke is silly and fun. Something you do over drinks with friends. Or (ahem) at a wedding. But it doesn’t make me feel like I’m really performing. I’m just pretending. Along with a bunch of other non-singers. Boo.
Occasionally, I write about health and beauty. And I got a very interesting invitation from Suave last week. The company is relaunching a line of body washes and lotions. And the whole premise is loving your skin. So they’re inviting beauty writers to come and experience the new products. But there is a twist…
We are asking everyone to promise to be good their skin this winter by showing it some love with Suave! We figured what better way to express to someone (or something) your love than by singing a love song? That’s why we are offering everyone the opportunity to sing a love song and have it professionally recorded…of course you don’t have to sing if you don’t want to! We are also going to have delicious food/drinks and a massage therapist to give hand massages …. The whole event will probably not go past an hour/hour and a half.
Did she say singing? Did she say professionally recorded? The event is actually taking place at a studio downtown next week. I repsonded right away and said YES. I will be there.
But now, I am having second thoughts. Am I really going to sing? In front of people I don’t know? And if they are beauty experts they will probably all be cute and fly and well put-together.
I feel a little silly at being so excited about the prospect of singing in a real studio.
The Suave rep assured me that if I chicken out at the last minute, it will be totally fine. She also happens to be a Dear Reader of this very blog. And she offered to tape the whole thing so I could share it with you all—if I dared.
Ah, dear readers. Here’s where I am today. Dreaming about singing, once again. Wondering if I should actually get up there next week and belt out a love song for my skin. And then of course, post it here for my dear readers to see and hear.
The very idea scares the crap out of me. Which might be why I need to do it!
Dear readers…can you tell me what you wish you could do? Do you dream about being able to do back flips? Wish you could be a ventroliquist? Fantasize about being an Olympic diver? Or maybe you just wish you could whistle? Whatever your secret obsession is, I’d love to hear about it…
And if I do manage to get the nerve up next week, my dear readers will be the first to know about it…