Songs from Musicals: #19, “What You Own,” from Rent

Honorable mentions: “Another Day,” “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)”

I have so many feelings about Rent, and they are scattered around this blog and in my text messages and on my Facebook, and I’m going to centralize at least a couple of them here.

  1. There’s a spectrum, and it’s got “La Vie Boheme” on one end of it; call it whatever end you like, but it’s the part of this show that’s just flat out bad. “La Vie Boheme” is like what you’d get if you listened to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and decided you really wanted to do that, but in an especially preachy way that presumes that people and things like Maya “I read at Bill Clinton’s inauguration” Angelou and huevos rancheros are somehow not part of mainstream culture. (Seriously, look through the lyrics of that song and ask yourself if any of those nouns held counterculture status in the mid-’90s.)
    1. Snaps for you if you recognized that “Seasons of Love,” which is a song for people who think that there’s such a thing as a soul, isn’t even on the far end of the Rent spectrum. This should give you some perspective on what I think of “La Vie Boheme.”
  2. The reason Rent is so incredibly tone-deaf about when it’s set, I think, is because it’s set up in this very Ronald Reagan-Ed Koch axis, but it’s Bill Clinton’s America and David Dinkins’ New York City by the time Rent started getting workshopped. It’s not a musical that’s aged well; I wonder if the people who listen to a song like “Over the Moon” and nod knowingly are even capable of giving up smartphones or Twitter or Instagram; I wonder if they remember AZT.
  3. Rent is, to its credit, incredibly intelligent about HIV/AIDS, and is still the musical which wants to talk about the epidemic the most. After Angels in America and maybe The Normal Heart, depending on your opinion of Larry Kramer, it’s our best theaterpiece about HIV/AIDS. We owe the ’80s perspective of the play for its militancy, and yet it seems to know where it is, in a time where AIDS is still a death sentence, but it’s far less mysterious. Half of the four H’s who seemed susceptible to what they called GRID – homosexuals and heroin addicts – are represented sympathetically and kindly in the play. (Sorry, Haitians and hemophiliacs.) Its best characters, and its best songs, leave behind the misnomer of Bohemia and the narcissism of self-promotion. They tend to focus on people trying to make lives in New York City: a city second only to San Francisco in AIDS name recognition, the city where a bachelor mayor let his fear of being called queer turn into the wretched deaths of thousands of citizens. It’s no wonder that three of the show’s HIV-positive characters want to get out to New Mexico, but it is some small wonder that surrounded by fear, Angel and Collins can fall in love.
  4. That’s why the other end of the Rent song spectrum is dominated by Roger, Angel, and Collins: both halves of “I’ll Cover You,” “Another Day,” “What You Own,” “One Song Glory.” The tragedy of HIV/AIDS is that it became modern leprosy. People who could have died of cancer or a car crash or from sticking a fork into a socket and gotten pity were turned into villains by demagogues and fools. The call for community in Rent perverts itself into this weird Bohemia thing, maybe because Jonathan Larson listened to Puccini a few times too many, but when it becomes a story about how hard it is to find people who will take you and how hard it is to keep the people you want to stay, it’s wrenching.
  5. “What You Own” works for that reason. It’s the song which most firmly looks for “connection in an isolating age,” and marvels that “for once, I didn’t disengage.”
  6. I’ve linked the original Broadway version of this song rather than the 2005 movie version on purpose; the movie is a little pop-rock for my taste, amping up the tempo a tad and creating a fuller sound, one that’s like a Band-Aid on the rawness of the song itself. While Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal are still doing the ’90s-vintage “Sing through your nose or else!” thing on Broadway, it’s not nearly as pronounced as it is in other songs from the show. There’s just more hurt in this version, and “What You Own” should hurt like a Band-Aid does when you rip it off. It doesn’t feel good; something’s certainly wrong underneath the bandage; yet when you tear it off, you know that it should be healing, safe enough to expose to the world again.
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