Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dancing Queen

"Dancing Queen" by ABBA is a song I love and fear.

It's undoubtedly a great dance song, completely overplayed and ABBA's greatest hit among a slew of hits.

For me, it's also the trigger for a lot of college memories and often the sign of a technological malfunction.

The song is tied to college for me firstly because it played during a painfully awkward orientation day the first week of first semester August of 1997. St. Joe's University bused us freshmen out to some YMCA-ish campground called Hawk Mountain, at Pottsville (home to Yuengling Brewery) an hour or two outside of Philly.

In hindsight, I shouldn' have gonet. The orientation was optional, but strongly recommended. I should've just wandered the near-empty campus instead. But I was hungry to meet people. The icebreakers and activities of the day seemed like they might provide an opportunity to meet some like minded punk/hardcore kids. Though of course the handful of punks were smart enough to spend the day elsewhere. So I boarded one of the chartered yellow school buses and began looking for patches and punk/hardcore t-shirts. I don't think I found any.

The Hawk Mountain day revolved around a lot of forgettable mixer activities, that involved small groups sitting in circles exchanging info. Most people however seemed to quickly give up on the activities and just sniff out their own kind. The high school caste system was still alive, though taking its final breath. The jocks found each other, so did the chess club kids. I mean, it wasn't completely groupings by the high school movie stereotypes, but without classes having begun yet and without having mixed yet with upperclassmen, it still felt like the society of high school.

There was a pool at the camp, domineered by beefy former football and future fratboy types showing off on the diving board. I made the mistake of going for a dip. I climbed to the top of the diving board ladder and stood there for a second. A few of these fratboy/football types were sitting in poolside chairs shouting negative things at me. I really forget wha,. but it wasn't personal. They were shouting at each and every person who climbed to the diving board. But of course it didn't make me feel any better about myself. I felt really scrawny and naked. I'm a naturally thin guy to begin with and still echoing in my head from sometime in high school was my Dad's remark when he saw me walking around the house with no shirt on:
"Jesus, son, you look like a concentration camp victim!"
So there I was on the diving board, getting harassed by the meaties and feeling very alone. I'd made no friends yet, so no one was there to comfort me. I knew at that point that trying to dive was a mistake, but I also knew that climbing backwards dryly down the ladder was an even greater mistake, sure to elicit a barrage of stinging comments from the poolside athletes. So I quite literally took the plunge. The water was cold, not at all refreshing. I made it to the shallow end, got out, dried off, and quickly walked away.

So far this has nothing to do with "Dancing Queen," I know. But to cap off the day, before busing us back to campus there was an outdoor dance. It was probably just like a Catholic high school dance with some middle-aged DJ playing relatively clean songs and the boys standing off to the side while the girls danced with each other. I don't remember a damn thing about it except that "Dancing Queen" was played.

Right when the song started, this tall beautiful blond guy next to me, Tim I think was his name, clapped his hands together and said "ooh 'Dancing Queen'. I lovvvve this song!" This Tim guy looked like one of those arrogant pretty boys you might see in a black and white full-page denim ad on the inside cover of the New York Times magazine. A group of girls was fanned out around him. I didn't know him, but I hated him already. He wasn't afraid to dance and already had a bevy of admirers. And I thought he was gay. As a product of a lifetime of Catholic School education and years away from my own post-college kissing of boys, I was still mildly homophobic.

That orientation dance was the first time I remember taking notice of "Dancing Queen". I'm pretty sure I'd heard it before then, but it struck me at that dance what a great song it was. It had a great beat and seemed so melancholy when applied to my life at that point, on that very day, standing alone and barely dancing on some outdoor basketball court.
"You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life!" I could but I didn't and at the time just wanted to be in my dorm room alone. The only thing that rang true about the song as applied to my life was "young [and sweet], only 17." I wouldn't hit 18 and nominal adulthood until the end of September that first semester.

Hearing that song brings the whole day back to me. It was dreadful to live through, but it's pretty amusing to me in hindsight.

"Dancing Queen" also makes me think of Liz O. She's now engaged and soon to be married, but she was a long standing crush of mine in college. She was tall, atypically pretty, skilled in sarcasm and a delicious nerd. She was the kind of girl who'd spend extra time in the library researching something that came up in a casual conversation totally unrelated to any class she was taking. She loved learning for the sake of learning and I found that dreadfully attractive. My interest was unrequited though. We became pretty good friends but the one-sided romantic interest was always a source of tension. I first met her on some sort of weekend spiritual retreat sponsored by the school that first semester. It was a Jesuit university and at the time I was still quite into Christianity. Somehow we got talking about "Dancing Queen" and she said that during the summer that had just ended, it was her theme song when she went dancing "down the shore" near her family's New Jersey beach timeshare. She said it was her theme because she was indeed, "young and sweet, only 17." She was one of the youngest freshmen, not hitting 18 til November or December of first semester.

In the song, the "Dancing Queen" is a "teaser [who] turn[s] 'em on." Liz definitely never teased me on purpose. She was pretty clear about "liking me as a friend" but I teased myself into thinking she might become interested in me and it turned into a sweet torture that lasted through senior year.

Also that fist semester I made a mixtape from CDs I borrowed from folks on my dorm floor. And sure enough, "Dancing Queen" was on there. I think I taped it off my roommate Dan's ABBA Gold CD. It was his favorite CD next to Fleetwood Mac's Rumors . I haven't seen him since graduation, though college acquaintances tell me Dan came out of the closet and was last known to be happily living with an older guy in Philly's "Gayborhood." I haven't verified this but of course it is the stereotype that only gay guys love ABBA.

A couple years ago, I ripped my own copy of ABBA Gold from a friend's collection. The album starts off with "Dancing Queen" and coincidentally ABBA is the first group alphabetically in my itunes/iPod. So "Dancing Queen" song #1. My first iPod was an old ailing hand-me-down unit that had a number of problems. It would often freeze without warning. A series of smacks and switching it on/off/on/off would eventually get it working again but it'd usually reset itself, abandoning the song that was in progress and going right back to to the first song in the music library, "Dancing Queen." Hearing that descending piano run intro would always remind me that my music player wasn't long for this world.

My iPod eventually did crap out. My new one has worked very well, though occasionally there's an inexplicable freeze up or buttons pressed that don''t seem to do anything. The only thing that always seems to work is going to the beginning of the library and it's "ohhhh-woah-ohhhh, oh-woah, oh-woah-woah-woah" intro that all at once gets me angry at technology, melancholy about Liz, and laughing at my freshman awkwardness.