Dig it, The Dancing Queen
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If you were living in Seattle in 1987, you may have been a victim of a pernicious auditory phenomenon that humiliated everyone exposed, whether participant or observer. No class action lawsuit was filed, no one speaks of it, and except for a few cassette tapes there is little evidence of its existence. But I was there. I pulled the strings.
The horror took place at the strangely compelling Seattle Center Food Court. Perhaps you only wandered in for a hot dog, but became mesmerized by the faint music and the white ethereal lights glowing from the second floor, or maybe you had the urge to sing along to a Whitney Houston song and actually sought me out to make a recording at the Singing Depot.
Maybe you read the lists of song selections on the wall and noticed me behind the counter with my unfortunate blonde ringlets falling over my slumped shoulders like withered sausages. My large hair was desperately trying to escape from the enormous black headphones that engulfed my head and squished my glasses. I was a teenaged Singing Depot D.J. and I was proud. I wanted to record you singing your favorite top 40 hit.
I was probably behind the desk reaching forward to adjust one of the many shiny, dazzling knobs and buttons in front of me on the control panel. None of these buttons actually worked. I didn’t let that bother me. Most of the time I convinced myself that this was all practice for when I would tour with the Rolling Stones.
“I’m going to hire you because, um, well you just seem to really want to work here,” said Phil, the only other employee.
I remember a look on his face that I couldn’t place at the time. I would now recognize it as pity. I couldn’t understand why Phil was not more excited about this job. It paid $4.35 per hour and involved sitting around trying to look cool. He said the owners in California were always late with our paychecks and I would never get a raise. Ever. “Great!” I said. That’s just show business. If I had a job like this, I could make sacrifices, I thought.
“You’ll also be working here all by yourself, most weekends, and half the people who come in here are drunk idiots,” he said. “Great!” I said. Poor Phil probably wasn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate the job.
After the tour of the small store, Phil said, “Have fun.” He would not reappear for the next two months.
Not long after starting the job, I noticed that customers were not taking the Depot as seriously as I was. Their only task was to sing off-key using laminated pages of song lyrics and then take their cassette recording and go away. But sometimes they got distracted.
Sometimes they laughed right at me. Sometimes they would puke in the recording booth. Sometimes they would want to record a song, but would end up standing around belching and making fun of the masochistic selections: The Oak Ridge Boys, Hall and Oates, Captain and Tenile.
I couldn’t blame them, but why were they mocking me? I was a professional. I believe I’ve mentioned the headphones. They were attached to a really long cord that allowed me to either sit or stand and turn around quickly to face either one of the two recording booths. I adjusted the knobs with the intensity of an air traffic controller moving two planes toward a runway.
But soon the monstrous voices of the food court shoppers began to wear me down. You can only hear the Whitney Houston lyric “How will I know if he really loves me?” so many times before the brain chemistry is permanently altered. Like Whitney, I started feeling kind of uncertain. I found myself contemplating how soothing it would be to rip out the cords from the wall and shove my fingers into the electrical sockets in an attempt to kill myself. People would probably just think I deserved it so I decided against it.
The job was starting to make me cynical about music and people. If Phil came back, I was going tell him how irritated I was that so many drunk idiots and irritating families in Seattle thought they could sing. But Phil was smart; he was long gone.
An ability to rise above a fear of looking and sounding stupid is something I have seen other people master and something that after almost 20 years since employment as a Singing Depot D.J., I have found completely elusive. What is the genetic formula that allows a person the ability to unleash an uninhibited assault on the senses of innocent bystanders? And why didn’t I have the confidence to torture other people with my own voice? Maybe singing ability, like a sense of humor, is something that everybody, sometimes erroneously, thinks they possess.
I decided to test my own voice and to see if I was just too hard on myself, and by psychological default, on others. Late one night after downing eight coffees, I turned off the lights and locked myself in the stuffy recording booth with nothing but a sheet of lyrics to ABBA’s Dancing Queen. When I played back the tape of myself that night, it didn’t sound so bad.
The next day I waited until a group of customers stood glancing at the hideous musical selections and deciding whether or not to give me $10 for basically nothing. With a small expectant grin, I pressed “play” on the stereo. I whispered the lyrics to the chorus as the plangent sounds of my own voice screeched and hissed from the cheap speakers:
“You are the dancing queen. Aaaahhaaaaa. Young and sweet, only seventeen. You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life. Wooo ooo ooo. See that girl! Watch that scene! Dig in, the Dancing Queen. Ahhh ahhhhh,” I wailed with an unexpected confidence.
I was the dancing queen. I opened my eyes and watched expressions of the customers like a movie director looking back at the sea of faces in a dark theater. I saw pleasant relaxed looks melt into grotesque sneers with raised eyebrows. These expressions seemed strangely in direct response to my singing. I wondered if I should turn off the tape. No, I was just too critical of myself and I needed to learn to withstand the fear of what others may think.
“Wow,” said one of the men standing next to the front desk, “That girl needs singing lessons!” “Yeah,” said his wife, “Is that supposed to make us feel better about our own singing?” “Oh, she stinks!”
Ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha. Ha.
The headphones came off along with a chunk of my hair as I jumped up. “No! That’s me!” I cried. They looked sad for me and for their comments and quickly shuffled out of the store, deciding not to drop $20 for the pleasure of their own humiliation.
I removed the tape from the player and gently set it into the trash bin and never thought of touring with the Rolling Stones again.
Diana Wurn is Über's dancing queen.