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  • Eva Phillips

Rent: A Time to Kill Your Darling, Darling

There is a disturbing amount I can recall with impeccable and alarming exactness from the day I took my SATs (and I only took them once, partially because the experience was so harrowing). I was given extended time for the whole test, when, really, I only needed extended time for math for when my severe OCD kicked in and I would spend 38 minutes on one problem, allowing all the doubt I’ve ever harbored to pool out and cripple me, rendering me incapable of answering an otherwise simple algebraic problem that I was actually pretty good at (without the emotional baggage). Because I was on extended time, which, again, I only needed for 1/3 of the exam, I was forced to tortuously wait in the terrifyingly antiquated Home Ec room for the entire 8 hours despite finishing eons earlier. This meant I had ample time to listen to the girl in the back row with self-declared “debilitating allergies” sniffle like a fucking a coked-up anteater for 8 straight hours. But most of all, I remember being faced with the absurdly worded math question—something along the lines of “Juan has 3 tic-tacs per minute every minute for the one-half of a year, how many tic tacs does Juan consume”—and deducing that, well, Juan (who needs to talk to a therapy professional about his severe OCD) has of course consumed 788,400 tic tacs because half a year there are of course 262,800 minutes in a half-year, because of course there are 525,600 minutes in a year.


AND HOW DID I JUST OFFHANDEDLY KNOW THE NUMBER OF MINUTES IN A YEAR? HOW COULD I MEASURE, MEASURE A YEAR?


You plucky fucks

Because at a very young age, Rent fist-fucked my brain and left my gaping memory-craters forever-filled with the remnants of the lyrics of the soundtrack. Graphic? Good, it should be. I’m fucking scarred and why should I suffer alone (dragging you all to hell with me—a fun biproduct of my malignant narcissism).


I often wonder what it must be like enjoy the silence of solitude without having the pathologically addictive lyrics and plucky yet nihilistic (that odd balance only “edgy” musicals can maintain) instrumentation of Rent violently slam-dance it’s way into my futile attempts at placidity. Not a moment goes undisturbed. Thinking my butt finally looks fly as hell in Target underwear—“HOW DID I GET HERE, HOW THE HELL—PAN LEFT! CLOSE TO THE STEEEEPLE, ON THE CHURCH.” Having the gentle sun-dew dapple your eyelids, awakening you with hope and cheer as a chickadee perches on your windowsill—“IT’S NOTHING THEY TURNED OFF MY HEAT, AND I’M JUST A LITTLE WEAK ON MY FEET, WOULD YOU LIGHT MY CANDLE???” The seconds of peace after have a bowel movement that you can feel is going to positively change your waistline—“WHEN YOU’RE DANCING HER DANCE, YOU DON’T STAND A CHANCE, HER GRIP OF ROMANCE MAKES YOU FAAAALLL.” I’m not even afforded the autonomy of saying “might as well” and dancing the tango to hell, because the moment I listened to (and then consequently watched) Rent when I was 14, I didn’t have a choice but to succumb to the gritty, gay colonization that songs’n’styles of the musical besieged my consciousness with.

Written by Jonathan Larson and billed as a “rock musical” (which, sure, on a scale of 1 to Tommy, it’s like…a solid REO Speedwagon of a 6), Rent is the story of a group of pointedly diverse group of friends—African-American; cis white and straight; gender fluid/trans*; Latinx; cis white and straight; lesbians and bisexuals; cis white and straight—who struggle through Alphabet City impoverishment, creative ruts, relationship woes, and their own self-absorption all while chronically and spontaneously bursting into perfectly articulated songs. Friendships end. Painful performance art is staged. Romances dissolve over choreograph. A dog commits suicide (RIP Evita, I will always cry for you…IT’S A MUSICAL WITHIN A MUSICAL JOKE, WAKE UP, HOMOS). Also, of course, nearly every character is HIV Positive (truly, nearly everyone—Team America World Police, as problematically early 00s as it was in its satire, was not being hyperbolic with the song “Everyone Has AIDS”).


YAY! LIVING ABOVE OUR MEANS AND BEING ATTRACTIVE YAAAY!

And the fact that nearly every character has HIV, and the greater social and cultural implications of that fact that stretch far beyond the show, certainly cannot be ignored. Although there was some **SLIGHT** “improvement” in the general regard for HIV/AIDS patients in 1996 when Rent premiered, the consensus about and view of individuals with HIV/AIDS was, more or less, as castigatory and ostracizing as it was in the 80s at the epidemic’s inception. I won’t go into the gruesome details of the horrific treatment and collective abnegation of those diagnosed with the disease or the astonishing strength and resilience of the individuals who championed in the face of the literal plague. And I won’t because I cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, do it justice here. But what I will say is that that there was extraordinary importance in Rent, a production that achieved outstanding critical and popular success, having a cast of characters of different ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, etc., living with not only HIV (“people living with, living with, living with, not dying from disease” is pretty corny as far as lyrics go, but also profound in its refusal to take HIV/AIDS as a death sentence, as it was so commonly characterized), but, in the case of several characters, dealing with intravenous drug use/addiction and withdrawal. Rent helped to give a voice and humanize certain individuals living with HIV/AIDS and addiction—and, to be clear, the fact that they “needed to be humanized” as a concept is fucking deplorable, but lest we forget people generally are scum and can’t see past or empathize beyond their own privilege—and the popularity of the show indelibly shed light on communities and stories that were otherwise, at that point, unattended to.


Furthermore, I do not want to mince words about the monumental impact Rent had on me as a monstrously depressed 14-year-old (because I only had the money to buy myself the soundtrack when it was the movie soundtrack I KNOW I AM A POSER, WHATEVER). And I do mean monstrously, nonfunctionally depressed and suicidal. Of the cataclysmic nadirs of my relatively short existence, and there have been a few, that little chunk from age 13 to 16 is tied for second worst. My only solace was fixating on and obsessively listening to certain albums until I had every word, every beat, every measure perfectly memorized. Relentless memorization helped my mind get out of the ceaseless cycle of self-degradation and self-abuse and PTSD for a few brief moments out of my day. And of the albums I obsessed over the most when I was 14/15, my top three were “Mesmerize” by System of a Down (you know what, fuck you, Judge Judy, I stand with those beautiful Armenian men), Eddie Murphy’s “Comedian” (to this day, I can and eagerly WILL recite almost every word that I can say of the infamous “Ice Cream Man/Show Throwin’ Mothers” bit, and I still want to fuck Eddie Murphy, especially in that Zaddy Red bodysuit), and the soundtrack to Rent. In many ways, Rent saved me—not just by providing a positive queer text, but for being infectious and fun and easily recitable in a way that distracted me from the inexorably cumbersome sadness that devoured most of my time. Also, it was gay. It was very, very, very GAY. So unending props to the play, the film, and the soundtrack for that.


Yes, zadddddy

So now that the positives have been addressed, let’s just get it out of the way: much like the Republican-leaning, sickeningly-wealthy cis white gay male couple with bad botox, Rent doesn’t really age well. When you break it down, Rent was written by a cis, straight (or, at least, mostly straight) privileged white man who effectively presents the struggling, queer/edgy artist experience in such a way that could be easily commodified by a performatively-struggling-but-actually-comfortable demographic of young, vaguely open-minded (predominantly white) 20somethings. Rent presents protagonists living with HIV/AIDS who fit certain, easily digestible (and, in entertainment terms, profitable) models—cis male, white, glamorous-but-faltering career, and attractive (Roger); cis male, outrageously well-educated, an academic, and comfortable socioeconomically (Collins); cis-female, straight, easily fetishized career and body, and frequently appropriated by the cis men around her (Mimi). We are given one complex character—Angel—who represents communities/individuals most critically impacted by the AIDS epidemic, and most frequently neglected and/or vilified. Angel is a queer drag queen, although recent interpretations of their character sees them as trans* or gender non-binary; Angel is seemingly homeless; Angel is latinx; and Angel has a heart of gold and manages to bring all of her friends together and then FUCKING DIES. SHE IS THE ONLY ONE WHO DIES. WHO LIVES, WHO DIES, WHO TELLS YOUR STORY?? ANGEL DIES. EVERYONE ELSE GETS TO TELL THE STORY. EVERYONE WHO ISN’T A FREQUENTLY HOMELESS, LATINX DRAG PERFORMER WHOSE PRIMARY PURPOSE SEEMS TO BE BEING MAGICAL AND BEING THE ADHESIVE GLUE TO HER MORE PRIVILEGED FRIENDS. Like, I get it. The reality is countless tragic deaths occurred and continue to occur of individuals who are just like Angel. Trans* and queer POC, especially trans* and queer POC who are homeless, live below the poverty line, or are sex workers, are so staggeringly at risk for contracting HIV/AIDS (and were even more so late 80s early 90s) and are further jeopardized by the despicable lack of care they are treated with and treatment options they can access. It is very important to show and elevate those stories, and show the ghastly reality that very often is death. What is very problematic is showing and elevating stories like Angel’s and using the narrative arc of her death to allow the happiness and unity and survival of the privileged, cis and primarily heterosexual folks around her after she’s gone. It’s a kill-the-gays (or queers or trans* folx) plot device AND a kill-the-POC plot device that no one wants to call out because the script is deceptively replete with homos and presents sorta-diversity. But it is unacceptable and fucking irresponsible to not call Rent out for what it does to Angel, what it implicitly says about folx like Angel, and the glaring omission of stories or characters who don’t fit an archetype that’s profitable or “fun to watch.” Where are the African-American women living with AIDS? Where are the African-American cis straight men and trans* men living with AIDS? Where are the swaths of homeless and severely drug addicted folx living with AIDS (and not the marketable and easily fetishized, “I’m an exotic dancer!” or “I’m a sad, edgy guitarist” depiction of an addiction). Where is the diversity that a white cis, mostly straight man seemed perfectly fine with sprinkling in for performativity’s sake, but isn’t willing to actually engage with or have a discussion about?


Look, I understand that Larson is, as I have repeatedly screamed, a cis white man. I don’t want a cis white man writing a musical about an African-American woman living with HIV (or about an African-American woman at all, because NO STOP THAT WHITE MEN YOU AREN’T SAGACIOUS YOU HAVE NO GIFTS THERE IS NO SEAT FOR YOU AT THE TABLE), but the issue is that Larson imbued a kind of diversity that he knew was acceptable and infinitely commodifiable. And, moreover, when you’re a cis white man (and cis white person in general, but ESPECIALLY a man) you know your voice and your efforts are going to be applauded and prioritized. And while I can commend or appreciate the fact that Larson ripped off several people’s work to show individuals living with AIDS who were mildly diverse, he had to understand that his work was going to be given precedence and praise when works by POC were getting woefully shirked, not funded, and not celebrated.


And that’s the fucking problem. I am glad that Larson gave certain, cherry-picked HIV/AIDS survivors a platform, and allowed audience members and fans of the show who felt marginalized and abandoned a place to join together and feel heard. That’s amazing. I will be forever grateful that Rent provided such idiotic bops (like, to be fair, a lot of musicals feature lyrics that are IDIOTIC) to distract me during an awful time in my life, and I know a plethora of other folx, queer or not, feel the same way. I never want to strip them of that enjoyment, gratitude, or respect. Rent really did overtime in amping up my queerness, and I say God bless. And I am sorry that Larson died (of complications Marfans, not of AIDS, to be clear, because HE DIDN’T HAVE AIDS). However, to keep holding this musical up as this bastion of free-living, queer/diversity-celebrating splendor is absurd. I appreciate what Rent did for me and other people and even the artists/actors involved. But like some other buffoonish, infuriating cis white man wrote, there needs to be this idea that you must kill your darlings. And in the case of Rent, it might be time to kill this darling, darling.


**NOTE: I am not even going to address the queer female characters in this movie, because what fucking caricatured jokes they are. “Tango: Maureen” is my jam, though.**

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