Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Free to Be...You and Me | Pandemic Musings

Free to Be... You and Me - Wikipedia
All I really want is for this cast to come read me a bedtime story... 
WHO: Marlo Thomas and Friends (you know a lot of them, trust me)
WHAT: my childhood
LABEL: Bell Records

Free to Be...You and Me was an elementary school in-the-car CD. Once I hit sixth grade, the CD went back on the shelf. I didn't listen to it again for about ten years.

Out of the blue, I found Free to Be stuck in my head a few months ago. It was one of those mornings where I had sacrificed half my night's sleep to wake up and churn out an entire paper that was due that day at noon....not a great day. But once I'd sent the paper off (for better or for worse), I put the album on just to get it out of my head.

It's crazy how much content we miss in our childhood favorites. I mean, I remember my mother very clearly telling me I was not allowed to sing the soundtrack from Hair anywhere near my elementary school -- I didn't understand why until I listened back in high school. Sodomyyyyy....fellatioooooo...

Anyway, I never internalized the message of Free to Be...You and Me, even though it's right there in the title. Upon relistening, it was kind of right there -- all genders are equal, a concept we still struggle with today for some odd reason. God, I must have been one oblivious child.

I have to say, the experience of listening to Free to Be as 21-year-old gay guy instead of a 8-year-old kook, now that the lyrics form full sentences in my head instead of just sort of isolated words to memorize...I quickly realized what I'd missed. I cried a little bit. Or maybe a lot. I was running on four hours of sleep, the details are a little blurry. Probably a lot.

Again today, I was humming through the soundtrack. I just have to say: it hits every time. That indescribable feeling of wanting to smile, cry, laugh....and then it just overflows as you throw your head back and sing along at the top of your lungs. Sorry, neighbors.

It's all still oddly relatable. Just like Aesop's judgments of morality still ring true today, so will Marlo Thomas's for my children, and their children. Do good. Be nice. Treat others right. Though I will admit, the thought of a 22-year-old Dudley Pippin (who, according to Thomas, is "just about your age, or maybe just a little bit older") contesting that he didn't knock over the school sand-table made me chuckle. Especially considering that my former residence hall does, in fact, have a sandbox for some reason.

Mel Brooks as a Brooklynite baby trying (and failing) to figure out his gender. Diana Ross speculating on adulthood. Harry Belafonte singing about the joys of parenting. Former Penn State defensive tackle Rosey Grier reassuring us that it is, in fact, alright to cry. Carol Channing reminding us that NO ONE likes housework -- I was ironically hanging my pans up to dry as that one came on. And Marlo Thomas doing all of the above and more. A mastermind, a workhorse, a true talent.

It reminds us that all these untouchable celebrities are people too. People who care. People who love.

Oh, and I still know all the words, even ten years later. Some things are just etched in your soul forever.

I know it hasn't aged perfectly -- there are many more genders than the two that they mention, of course. But we can't fault them for not mentioning that in 1972. This album (and the TV special that aired with it) is historically important, full of fantastic music and storytelling, and will make me want to sing along until the day I die. You're never too old for Free to Be...You and Me. I wish I'd discovered that sooner.

And let me tell you, it's aged better than 95% of the classical canon, including Victor Herbert's operetta Babes in Toyland, quoted and parodied extensively by Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones in the second-to-last song of Free to Be. Maybe that's the next step with problematic classical music -- parody it so much that the message loses all its gravity. A crazy and impractical solution, but in theory it would probably work!


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