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 some more.
I stayed away.
And then a lovely gent named David bought me the CD on Amazon.
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.
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.
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]