I Have Finally Listened To Hamilton, Please Update Your Records

I didn’t get it.

I confess, actually, that when it first started showing up, saturating social media like a thickening sponge, I had no idea what was happening. Star Wars was coming out at the same time and I saw people hashtagging things like #FORCE4HAM and I was like, hey, I fucking love ham. Ham is just delicious. It’s the best! Morning, noon and night! But I saw nothing about ham or related pork products inside the hashtag, and then some people were talking about this thing called Hamilton. So I did what any good INTERNAUT would do and I ventured into Google Space, and there I saw some chatter about a musical about Alexander Hamilton —

And I was like, ha ha ha, that’s not it. I mean, what? Surely the Internet is not all fired up about a musical about Alexander Hamilton, because — who the hell was Alexander Hamilton? I kinda remembered something about Aaron Burr and George Washington and hey wasn’t he one of the Declaration of Independence signers? Isn’t he on our money? Was he a president? *checks Google* Mmm, no. Did he invent something cool? The pocketwatch? Paper towels? OMG DID HE INVENT HAM. (Spoiler: he did not invent ham.) Either way, he was a historical figure and surely, surely the Internet was not super-fucking-excited about American History all of a sudden.

EXCEPT OH SHIT THEY WERE.

On the one hand, I was excited that people were interested in history. And particularly in a musical featuring a largely non-white cast using hip-hop as both a musical and narrative framing device? Cool. That’s exciting. That’s interesting. YES.

On the other hand… I’d waited too long.

What I mean is this: pop culture has a way of getting away from you. When something surges forward in popularity, it feels like a train leaving a station or a boat drifting away from a dock, and it’s like you’re not on it. Suddenly everybody was making jokes and references and memes about Hamilton, and I didn’t get them. And sometimes they’d make jokes probably not about Hamilton but how the fuck did I know? Anything anyone said that I didn’t understand I just assumed they were talking about this Cultural Musical Juggernaut About Which I Knew Naught. I’ll put it this way: I very much like The Simpsons, but I have a brain like mole-eaten earth, and things slip through it. I do not retain pop culture very well, and yet, sometimes I find myself in a circle of people who are very excited to make, say, Simpsons jokes and references. And they’re referring to things I’ve even seen, and yet, it feels a great deal like being in a room full of people who are speaking in code. It feels oddly oppressive when you’re not “in” on the thing everyone else is sharing. It’s like being in a conversation where people want to ask your opinion about a sports thing when you know zippity-shit about sports things.

It’s like you’re sitting at the kiddie table, man.

So I kept pushing Hamilton away, fearful that I just wouldn’t… get it.

See, when a thing gains that kind of cultural weight, it feels heavy in the hand. Almost too heavy, like, what if I drop it? Everyone was so sure it was transformative and transcendent — what if it failed to transform me? What if it failed to move me? What if I didn’t like it, or worse, somehow found it just, nnnmeh? Feh? Gnuh? Like, great, that’s a thing, cool. PEOPLE WOULD MURDER ME IN THE STREETS. They would rise up and duel my ass to death.

Never mind the fact that there’s also this contrary part of me — “If it’s popular, it’s probably shit,” we think, often foolishly. “If everybody likes it, I shouldn’t like it.” Some atavism from teenagerhood, probably. Provably nonsense again and again. Yet it persists.

I avoided.

I avoided some more.

I stayed away.

And then a lovely gent named David bought me the CD on Amazon.

Shit.

I had to do it. I had to listen to it.

And I listened to it.

And I still didn’t get it.

Shit, shit, shit.

People were gonna kill me. I liked it fine? It was… nice? Clever and snappy and nnyeah, sure, whatever. Maybe I just needed to see it live, who knows. I assumed I was done with it. Still, something nagged at me. Like I had thrown away its (forgive me) shot. A day or two later, I took the music with me onto the treadmill. I put the headphones on. I listened to it that way.

Oh.

Oh.

Ohhhhh.

The first time I listened to it, I was here at my computer. I have great speakers and I thought, this will work. It’s how I listen to a lot of my other music. But my computer is host to a thousand other distractions. Email and Twitter and animated GIFs and scary news stories about post-antibiotic apocalypses and, I dunno, porn? I didn’t listen to Hamilton. I half-listened to it.

But on the iPad, on the treadmill, I used the Amazon app. It brings up the lyrics as the songs play. And then it’s just me, the words, the music, and the running. And finally, finally, I think I got it.

Listen, I don’t know that it changed my life. But it spoke to me a lot about the fear of a short life and making the most of it. It spoke to me as a writer and a lover of language and linguistic flourishes. It also made me ruminate a lot about revolutions, and present-day American politics, and the floating nature of freedom. And, quite frankly, it makes me think a lot about Star Wars, too. It’s got passion and flow, it’s vibrant and alive, it’s sad and it’s funny.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius.

So, I grok it. Finally. Whew. Nobody has to kill me now.

And I will say, with this and with other things, sometimes we need to turn off the distractions. To try to reach for a larger point here, I find now that I watch TV with an iPad in my lap, a phone too near, and I turn my eyes away from the TV at every chance. Sometimes I only half know what’s going on. And you can see it during big events like Game of Thrones, too — everybody’s connected to it and to each other, but you can’t really be connected to both completely. You’re always half-a-footstep in another world. With Hamilton, it was about checking out of all those other worlds and checking in to only one: the world of the words, the music, and the story. Sometimes you have to shut everything else out to understand one thing. You have to ruminate. You have to saturate. You gotta get eyeballs-deep with that shit and put the rest of the world on hold. Hard to do both in terms of finding the time and disconnecting from the blasting firehose spray of our digital existence, but necessary, I believe.

Some songs, some books, some movies — they’re background noise.

But other narratives, other art, demands a kind of temporary monogamy. A relationship, one-on-one. For a time, at least. Until the next thing demands your mind.

That was Hamilton, for me. That’s how I got it.

THE END

P.S. In the future, I still might not get your Hamilton references, because again, I have a brain like a leaky bucket. Apologies in advance, my humble friends.

P.P.S. [insert Hamilton-Simpsons mash-up reference here]

35 comments

  • I feel like there’s maybe-just-maybe a connection between really grokking Hamilton and running. It first came onto my radar on a running message board where someone posted something like DAE Hamilton? And like fifty people chimed in with “yes! This is the best!” So, like you, I Googled and thought those damn kids were punking us old folks with their newfangled internet sarcasm. But eventually I realized they were sincere, and I gave it a listen.

    I dare you not to pick up your pace when you hear “My Shot.” “I’m Young, Scrappy and Hungry” is a hell of a race mantra.

    So…yeah. Just a long way of saying “me too” and telling any potential doubters that may be left that, for real, this is good stuff.

  • Very wise. I am the same way you were at the beginning of this piece (maybe a little more douchey/curmudgeonly). It’s a very powerful thing, feeling outside of something that so many people feel a part of. I am still in the resist/don’t get it/don’t like it from afar kind of way (part of that is a a very deep dislike of ‘show tunes.’). And I’ll probably never take the time/make the effort to listen to it (see ‘show tunes,’ above), but I feel better about the world now that you (as my crackpot proxy) have signed off on this wildly improbable bit of massive pop-culture that I will probably never quite be a part of.

  • May 27, 2016 at 2:29 PM // Reply

    For me it was the King George songs (oceans rise; empires fall!), and then, once I started listening to it more, the idea of writing every second you’re alive. As a NaNoWriMo enthusiast, those lines resonated with me.

    It’s also culturally fascinating–there has never been a Broadway musical phenomenon like Hamilton. The theatre fandom is usually a quiet bunch outside of their own spheres, but Hamilton has exploded into common knowledge, complete with hundreds of hashtags and memes and slang and references that are everywhere. As a member of the theatre fandom, I’m amazed just watching the development of what’s somehow become a cultural touchstone.

  • All I know is that I, too, pushed it away.
    Then a friend bought it for me (after he found out I hadn’t listened to it yet).
    And I loved it.
    And the next day my fiancée and I had this tense encounter between me trying to get my career to where I want it and her telling me (without having heard the music) that I need to take some time to relax.
    I mean, really. It’s all right there.

  • It’s funny that Hamilton reminds you of Star Wars, not sure if you knew this or not, but Lin Miranda wrote the music for the Cantina part in The Force Awakens. From what I remember, Abrams contacted him specifically.

  • I frequently listen to the soundtrack while I clean. It requires too much of my attention for any sort of reading, even now that I’ve heard it well over a dozen times. But for mindless chores like dishes and laundry? Perfection. Plus it means I get to dance around my kitchen to “The Schuyler Sisters.”

  • Much love for this! Sometimes the difference between feeling on the inside or outside of anything is our own focus. Skimming will keep me in the loop of an episode of Cutthroat Kitchen, something like Hamilton or Wallander…definitely not.

  • I love listening to Hamilton while driving, except when they get to the part about his son because crying while driving is generally bad form.

  • May 27, 2016 at 5:44 PM // Reply

    I got it in Spotify and decided to listen while I was gardening. By the time I got to the third song, My Shot, I was inside with the lyrics pulled up on my iPad and couldn’t put it down until u had heard the whole thing. Miranda is a genius. I hope to see it live one day. If not, I’m hoping the film will be made from the stage performance. Until now I didn’t think you could top The Book of Mormon on Broadway, but this work is WONDERFUL!
    Not many things make me want to go back to teaching, but I’d love to use this in a lot or history class!

  • Ah… I can relate. For a looooong… time I would NOT read anything by Stephen King. “Really?! Stephen King?” I said, “Everyone else reads him… pththt… his only good story is ‘The Body’ anyway.” Then I read the Dark Tower Series, which, although not being indicative of the work his main fans love, is a great read and now I can’t put Stephen King down. Hamilton, for me, however, was a no brainer as I am addicted to musicals and write them as well – and there has not been something so game changing as Hamilton since Les Miserable, but I digress. And, yeah, with the election year going on, Hamilton rings even more true – along with the feeling that we’re all cartwheeling down the overfilled highway of 21st Century Life and when I get off the wheel, what have I DONE!?”

    • Hamilton has not blipped on my Australian radar, yet. I compose professionally, too, so I’m curious and excited by your description! Moreover, knowing the way in which productions find producers, I am really happy to hear that an innovative, adventurous work found financial backers in an environment dominated by a lot of conservative investment (think – lots of reruns and known quantities).

      I know it’s hard to even break even on Broadway, but bold new work getting noticed in all the right ways is a win for artists as well as producers! May it inspire many more adventurous investments. I am dreading the copycat productions that will inevitably follow, though. :/

      Ok, now I must YouTube the heck out of this stuff.

      • Ok, thanks for the heads up, internauts. Just purchased the original Broadway recording. OMG, I love everything about it. And watching Miranda on a PBS interview on YouTube I decided to add the man to my list of heroes. What a passionate and articulate guy! He could speak on behalf of every artist with ideas like that.

  • It’s the sound, the pulse that bleeds into your awareness. Music is the novel of passion, played upon a stage that requires your ‘mind’, body and soul. Great operas ripped the tears from the ones who got it. Great novels make the soul weep. (Flowers for Algernon the first time I read it out loud to students ripped into my consciousness and left me crumpled in front of fifth graders. When the principal walked in on the weeping, he backed out and never said a word.) Hamilton, a poor boy, a man hated and reviled and worshipped, a man against odds, a duel. It plays like a Shakespearean Novel on the top 20 list of the BOTM club. And it’s the presentation. I performed in Bernstein’s Mass (what does a Jewish composer know of Catholicism?) where the priest who loses his faith, his congregation and his soul was portrayed as a young priest starting out and the disillusionment, the delusionment, the despair he felt that tore him to shreds balanced on notes that are harmonic in their disharmony. It tore us as performers apart, it silenced the audience and they left quietly, thinking. I saw it at the Kennedy Center the same way. It was beautiful and framed perfectly. I saw it at Lord Albert’s Hall where the priest was portrayed as a pedipiile and that WAS WRONG. It made me sick to watch or listen to it. The tenor changed the entire message. He was a tenor. Really.

    No really, a German tenor trying to understand a jewish composer’s view of the catholic church as the congregation took and used…never mind, it just didn’t feel like what I had performed and seen performed. Granted I am from the upper MidWest where even the atheists have a feeling of respect for some concepts of church and community.

    That’s what we are trying to do isn’t it? Trying to effect our readers and public with our vision of the world at that instant. Music takes the instants and compounds the eyes with ears, the blood with pulse, the soul with wonder or hatred. I should have put my two careers together before this, but your narration of exploring a saga by pace made so much clear to me.

    I’m an intellectual, know as a nerd in this time and place, and I am attempting to write the great novel of my time. Arrogance in the least application. No, not arrogance. I want to be a writer to leave a footprint that I understood something beyond what I am now.

    It’s the sound, the pulse, the overwhelming focus on one incredible thing at a time. It’s a message that must speak of itself. It’s the dark calling to the nightmares, setting them into patterns. It’s why children put their noses under the covers while their eyes search the shadows.

  • I am a 50-year-old ballroom dancer who loves show tunes and So You Think You Can Dance, so I fully expect to love ‘Hamilton’ when I get around to it. But I have suspected that I will want to give it my undivided attention, and this particular phase of life does not furnish much space for that, so I am waiting. I don’t want to do what I usually do, which is what our gracious host did the first time, and half-get it because I was doing five other things at the same time.

  • It’s meh to me. The feeling I got from it is the same as when well-meaning people kept trying to get me to like The Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs. I guess I understand the art of it, but for me, the sum is less than the logistics of its parts. Cheers.

  • Last fall, my daughter, age 19, who LOVES musicals, was telling me about a new musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton. I laughed (I mean really laughed, for a long time), because I thought she was kidding. Really? Alexander Hamilton? I might believe a musical about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, but Alexander Hamilton? However, she wasn’t kidding. She had the entire thing on her iPhone … and I was trapped, driving four hours to my mother’s house in Georgia for Thanksgiving, and my car is more modern than I am, so she plugged it in and … well, driving a long, boring distance is a good way to concentrate, too. I didn’t believe it would get much traction, however, until it made the cover of Time … and now my daughter’s laughing at me. One day, this will happen to you, too. But it’s all good — your child(ren) keep you young. And relevant.

  • A couple of years ago, my friend who was working at the Public Theater told me they were developing a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, and I thought, “um…okay?”

    Flash ahead to last October when the buzz had begun to build around the show’s move to Broadway, and I bought the soundtrack on a lark. I found myself at a conference in Chattanooga Tennessee, and walking the mile from the convention center back to the hotel, I though it would be a good time to give it a listen. After a few songs, I got back to the hotel…and just kept walking. I didn’t want it to stop.

  • There’s a weird need out there for productivity. Everyone has too much to do (or that’s what they think). People think if they’re not getting something done they’re somehow wasting time, so they clean or cook or Internet or blog or tweet or shop or etc with entertainment on in the background. I don’t. when I experience something for the first time, I lock in. Talk to me and I’m hitting pause -> rewind. I feel I owe creators at least that much. The result is “getting it” on the first pass, whether I like the thing or not.

  • Hamilton is great to listen to while painting as well! Both artistically and utilitarian. I usually don’t play it in the background while reading, etc., but it can be a good pick me up when you feel bad as well.

    I didn’t get into the fandom until several months after I’d heard about it, because it was a musical and I had 0% chance of ever seeing it. Once I found out the album had been released online though, I got obsessed since I’m a huge history nerd.

  • I like to listen to “Hurricane” before writing. It’s a very, very powerful and inspiring song (“I wrote my way out…”) about someone talking themselves into THE WRONG CHOICE.

    Which is an inspiration for most of how I write my characters.

    This might say more about me than is wise.

  • About half way through this blog post, before your change-of-heart I thought we couldn’t be “friends” anymore.

    I LOVE to listen to Hamilton when I’m running. Wait For It is one of my favorites. I also love Hurricane and Satisfied. I think your assessment about running out of time is true. It also really humanizes Burr and Hamilton.

    One of my favorites these days.

  • I am not a #hamilfan. I am a #hamilFREAK. As a theatre nerd, a music nerd, and word nerd-herder, Hamilton has become All The Things to me. It even made me desperate to get back into theatre after eons of being out (cue awful Pacino impersonation). It is, in the end, about writing your way out of your circumstances.*bliss*

    Also, there is a Star Wars-esque BURR SHOT FIRST t-shirt of which I am the proud owner.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds