High School Trauma for Pop Stars

I once saw a story where Christina Aguilera told about her high school prom experience. She already had her first hit with “Genie in a Bottle” and was no longer attending regular classes. But one of Aguilera’s girlfriends found Aguilera a prom date at her old high school. So, Aguilera hoped for a somewhat normal experience for her age of attending prom, just as she was on the border between being a teenage student and pop star.

Everything went well at first. She had fun with her girlfriends and her date. The other students were on the dance floor. Then, the DJ put on “Genie in a Bottle,” and all of her former classmates stopped dancing and went to their seats. Aguilera felt embarrassed and heartbroken.

I can imagine both sides in the story. There was Aguilera trying to hold onto normalcy for a few hours longer before her life became completely insane, and then she was rejected and scorned by those from whom she sought acceptance. But I also understand teenagers being teenagers and making a stand against someone who had effectively placed herself on another plane, one they would never reach. Therefore, they refused to play a part in some rich and famous person’s fantasy.

I thought of that story recently when re-watching Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home (2005). One of Bob Dylan’s high school classmates told a story about Dylan performing at a high school talent show. Dylan banged on the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis, belting out a rock and roll song. His Minnesota classmates did not know what to think and probably did not react the way the Dylan had hoped. The principal pulled the curtain while Dylan was still singing, thus ending one of the first public performances by the future icon in humiliation.

I know we often ascribe too much to childhood events. But I still cannot help speculating how Aguilera’s experience shaped her, just as our high school experiences shaped us. Similarly, in a October 10, 2011 New Yorker article, “You Belong With Me,” Lizzie Widdicombe recounted how Taylor Swift went through a similar period of exile in adolescence when her friends turned on her as she started becoming famous. Despite her success, like Aguilera, she still felt the sting. To get back at the mean girls, during her sophomore year of high school, Swift bought a silver Lexus convertible because in Mean Girls, that was the type of car driven by Regina George, who the girls in Swift’s high school idolized.

Just as in those cases, I see a little of the teenage Dylan, facing rejection from his principal and peers, standing on the stage with his older self years later in 1966 in Manchester at the Free Trade Hall. As Dylan listened to a crowd booing his conversion from folk music to electric music, he might as well have been playing for his principal and high school classmates when he (or someone in his band) requested, “Play it fuckin’ loud.”

Dylan found his high school revenge in an expression that was better than buying a car or anything else money can buy. While the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone” ask the listener, “How does it feel?,” there is never an answer back from the song’s target. But we know from the roar of the song what the singer is feeling. Redemption.

Note: The above Free Trade Hall performance later became misidentified as the “Royal Albert Hall” performance. Bonus Trivia Question: What legendary group mentions Royal Albert Hall in a famous song?

What do you think of these high school stories? Leave your two cents in the comments section.

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  • The Unsatisfying Ending of Scorsese’s “Silence” That Is Still Perfect
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