There are songs that attach themselves to us with a sticky, uncomfortable permanence. They stick to us like splotches of chewing gum along a sidewalk you once vandalized with chalk. They play on repeat like a ballad you first slow-danced to.
For a generation aimlessly searching for meaning in the early 2000s, Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” is that song. Correction: “Tiny Dancer” is one of those songs. There are others, like the ghostly tambourine from The Shins’ “New Slang” transferring from Natalie Portman’s headphones into our ears in Garden State (2004). (“New Slang” is at least born and raised in the early 2000s; “Tiny Dancer” is an import from a different time.) Most of us don’t want to be ambushed by those songs, especially in public places.
They make us homesick for a home that no longer exists. They provide the auditory equivalent of peeling back the sticky pages of a crackling leather-bound photo album. They conjure reflections of reading a letter you wrote during a summer that “seemed to last forever.”
“Tiny Dancer” is that song for me. It would not be that song had it not been for the girl who made me watch Almost Famous.
We all have songs that direct us back to the silhouettes of our past. When I was 19, in the summer of 2002, I was dating someone who would become my celestial map to the twinkling piano of “Tiny Dancer.” She was my guide towards the mythological importance of Almost Famous. She was my astral vehicle into the tour bus of Stillwater—the fictional band in Almost Famous—where Kate Hudson (Penny Lane) does for an Elton John ballad what her groupie mystic was doing for Stillwater: transforming them with the, “words she knows, the tune she hums.”
Whenever I hear “Tiny Dancer,” whether it glimmers on classic rock radio, or boils on the playlist at Starbucks, I don’t see Kate Hudson grooving along to it in a hippie trance; I’m instead transported to the summer of 2002, on a twin bed somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, discovering myself in a past life. It’s become the faded polaroid of my final year as a teenager with her, a ballet dancer with an Almost Famous DVD.
Almost Famous is why the first book I’m publishing is about a rock band. Almost Famous is why I’ve been chasing Cameron Crowe the way he chased Led Zeppelin. Almost Famous is why I became, for a brief period, a music journalist, i.e., “The Enemy.” Almost Famous is why Elton John’s piano haunts me like an acid flashback; it’s a film that bewilders me the way Van Gogh’s sunflowers are both a symbol of bliss and suffering. The duality of Almost Famous is that it is both an adventure story and a source of inescapable self-contemplation.
Of course, I can’t tell her any of this. But whenever I breathe in a sugary-vanilla body mist from Forever 21, I think about her squeezing my hand during Almost Famous—especially the scenes scored to Elton John’s piano. She even had an Elton John CD in her 1999 Ford Escape; she liked the sentimentality of his songs. I didn’t particularly care for Elton John in 2002. I didn’t know who Kate Hudson was, and as a 19-year-old male still confused about his masculinity, I thought Almost Famous was a chick flick (whatever that means today). I had avoided it for two years. I was developmentally at least a decade behind her, and yet I thought I was cooler than her. She insisted that Kate Hudson’s floral, boho-chic style—the shearling coat with a faux-fur collar—were things I needed to understand. I didn’t get it. It was as if she was introducing me to a mystical femininity I was too afraid to embrace.
What if we had never met?
She helped me understand something ineffable. She planted a flower in the blooming garden of my aesthetic. It didn’t bloom immediately. She practically forced me to watch Almost Famous on her small Sony TV that sat on her mahogany dresser covered in glitter and reflective stickers. She would squeeze my hand whenever there was a moment she wanted me to remember. “Tiny Dancer” now feels like her hand. Watching Almost Famous feels like revisiting a feeling I’ve been trying to escape for the past two decades. It’s where we were just yesterday.
I now find myself begging for an Elton John melody whenever I’m stricken by some form of weltschmerz—it’s my drug. I can see her face whenever “Tiny Dancer” comes on, when Elton John sings, “ballerina, you must’ve seen her, dancing in the sand,” as I close my eyes, hoping it goes away, and instead see her in blue jeans dancing barefoot across the beaches of Southern California. I can see her getting into her tattered leotard before dance practice. “Tiny Dancer” feels like it was written for her. I can see her reply to my messages on AOL Instant Messenger, with a username I remember as vividly as her astrological sign and favorite color: yellow, like the plastic sunflowers in her room and the taxi cabs that decorate perhaps the most unforgettable shot in Almost Famous, when William runs through the streets of Manhattan, chasing down Penny Lane between rows of yellow taxi cabs. This is when she would squeeze my hand; she knew something was wrong. Yellow sunflowers bloom inside my memories.
The nervous shot is scored by the lulling mandolin of Elton John’s “Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters,” as it makes you feel the contrast of serenity and disorder that is stitched into the tapestry of Almost Famous.
I never want to go back to that scene. Maybe I’m afraid to feel how I felt then—when I was happier. Then again, weren’t we all happier once?
“Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters” is the song I played when our romance withered in the winter of 2004. It’s what I listen to when my heart hurts. But like a childhood memory of a ballerina spinning atop an antique music box, it is “Tiny Dancer” that haunts me like a face I can only remember as faded polaroids.
Occasionally, a piece of pop art is significant only because of the person you associate it with. We rarely find the maps that lead us back to those people; they marry, move out of the country, are reborn, or become ghosts. But art can transport you back to that person; even if you cannot remember their face or the sound of their voice, a song like “Tiny Dancer,” or a scene from a vintage coming-of-age film can help you remember what you felt like then—when you were happier.