CK 2014: KAREN TONGSON

Jose and Nao

The Song: Nao Bustamante’s cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”

Written by Karen Tongson

{Guitar Intro}

When is karaoke a cover, and when is a cover merely—as Simon Cowell likes to complain—karaoke?

“That’s how it starts?” – she murmurs into the mic, unaware she’s being recorded by our jolly KJ.

Karaoke crosses into covering—into the best cover ever, as we are tasked to argue here—when the legendary performance artist, Nao Bustamante Creeps-out as Crystal Törly, her karaoke alter-ego, christened after the cheap bottle of bubbly we downed earlier that day on the banks of the Hudson in Troy, NY. June, 2011.

{When you were here before}

We were never there before: me, Lynne Chan, Josh Thorson, John Andrews, and our resident karaoke voyeur, and ringleader in the consumption of vodka and chicken tenders, José Esteban Muñoz. We squeezed ourselves around an indoor picnic table for 4, most likely hand-carved by one of the woodsmen hanging out, waiting for his turn at a Billy Joel tune from the bottom of his heart, or a Creed anthem from the bottom of his girded loins.

{ …in a beautiful world… }

Floating like feathers in a beautiful world, escaping the city heat on our weirdo’s retreat in Watervliet, NY, we found ourselves in a beautiful world that wasn’t meant to be ours: Muddy’s Too, a sports tavern dubbed T-O-O, because the first Muddy’s burned down a number of years back.

{You’re so very special}

We felt pretty damn special…so we attacked the stage. I pandered to the crowd with a Kings of Leon hit (well before their Seattle bed bug scandal), while John covered Carly Simon, Lynne, aka “JJ Chinois” crooned Paula Abdul’s “Rush, Rush” and Josh (who, following Nao’s lead, dubbed himself “Bill” for the evening), wowed the crowd with the retro-est of jams, “King of the Road.”

{What the hell am I doing here?}

José, as usual, didn’t sign up for anything and elected to sway, gigglesnort and clap along, as he obsessively texted freshly downloaded Emojis to all of his friends.

{I don’t belong here..}

We really didn’t belong there… and someone—a friendly, plump, pretty girl actually asked if “we were part of some kind of show or something.”

We ran with that idea and tried to convince our interlocutor that we were all part of the “gender neutral regional touring production of Guys and Dolls.” Our repertoire that evening—mostly gender dysphoric, or at least deeply confused—corroborated these bold claims. Then Nao—nay, Crystal—ratcheted things up to another level when she dove into Radiohead’s “Creep,” her and Jose’s self-appointed “theme song.”

{I want you to notice}
Everyone noticed.

{When I’m not around}
Especially José, who finally looked up from his phone.

{You’re so bloody special}
She was that bloody special.

{I wish I was special…}
It was all, really fucking special.

{But I’m a Creep…}

Each of us may have felt like precious, pretentious little weirdos that night, but the two of them—muse and scholar, inspiration and intellectual; queer, brown badass soul mates—they were a special species of creep together.

And it is no wonder that in a world they dreamed into being through disidentifications sometimes deliberate, at others arbitrary, that this pasty, anemic British rock tune became their anthem…

{Nao screams}

In Jose’s presence, Nao felt free to unleash her upper register, laying bare the Wagnerian drama always rumbling beneath the surface of her cheeky, yet also vulnerable performances. She was emboldened whenever her co-conspirator in crimes against normativity watched her improvise. They egged each other on.

It broke me when I heard her sing this song again without him there, with just her ukulele for accompaniment at his memorial in L.A. this January. Every lyric, every tortuous screech felt retrospectively prescient. Freighted with meaning. Soaked in pathos. Readymade for reminiscence.

We didn’t know then that we’d be so fucking glad the KJ, a bit of a creep himself, recorded all of our performances without permission. He burned a disc for all of us to share, with the words, “The Gang” scrawled in sharpie across its shiny surface.

{Whatever makes you happy…}

Crystal, nay Nao’s, cover of “Creep” is an interpretation, not simply a copy; and as such it happens to be karaoke and not just a cover: karaoke as the infusion of one’s outsized soul into someone else’s music; karaoke as your own voice, no matter how strange or strained, guiding the empty orchestra in a dirge for a lost love, our lost leader.

{But I’m a creep….}
This song became a memento of an evening we never expected to remember so fondly and poignantly. Just another night of song with fully loaded potato skins, and fistfulls of emojis. A queer utopia evaporating into the horizon as Jose—our angel, our creep—left this world.

You were too fucking special, my friend.

You didn’t belong here.

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