As I am walking to work, someone nearby shouts out my name to get my attention. I glance over at a crowd of 20 to 30 people, unsure who it was that called out to me. I smile, wave, and continue walking, encouraged that someone was happy to see me. Surely, this would be a good day.
Towards the beginning of 2020, Caroline Rose released her fourth studio album, Superstar, as the follow up to the successful Loner from 2018. The album, Superstar that is, depicts a character who lives the life of a glamorous musician with none of the success to back any of it up. Moving through the motions, this musician goes from a willful declaration that “Nothing’s impossible” for them and that “Feelings are a thing of the past” to winding up “Back at the beginning” confused, lost, and emotionally isolated from the people that they rejected at the commencement of this wide-eyed, but perhaps no less heroic, journey.
The album begins with a celebration: “Suddenly I heard the phone ring,” The Character (TC) sings, “I knew it was my destiny / Calling me from the Chateau Marmont lobby.” A hotel for the haves, The Chateau Marmont has a history of housing people of affluence, and now it is TC’s turn to be one of those haves. With nothing being impossible, there is no end to what this phone call could mean for TC: there is no possibility that is too grand to think of nor too opulent to dream of. This is the start of something big.
As a student teacher (the stage before getting a teaching credential where you work alongside a veteran teacher and take over for certain, select units. Unpaid, of course), it is hard to resist thoughts such as these. As TC dreams of hordes of people chanting their name, I am already recognized by whole classes of students. Hardly comparable, but dreams of greatness are easy to indulge. Unsatisfied with a class weakly saying good morning to me, I can stop, pause, and have them say it out in sing-song unison instead: “Good morning Mr. Bunnell!” TC dreams of the day when everybody in the crowd will know their name. I have accomplished such a goal already: everybody in the room knows mine. Yet these are still just fantasies; fools falling for the allure of a far greater life than is actually before them. Anybody can stay at The Chateau Marmont and teachers are simply recognized by their students. That same day that I mentioned above, where I walked into the school and students called out to me: “Hi Mr. Bunnell!” with enthusiasm was a day that I walked into the classroom, unprepared to give the lesson I had planned, unprepared to give a vocabulary quiz I had not written myself nor looked over before then. Yet, this is the memory that sticks with me, and this is what I repeat in order to reassure myself I am not a complete failure: students like me, appreciate me, or some combination of the two, enough to say hello.
TC does not have this same grounding rod. In the ever-present quest to improve lesson plans and teaching capabilities and reaching more and more students, there is always the goal of capturing students’ attentions; the only attention that TC cares about is that of the masses, no holds barred: “No one is gonna stand in my way / even if I have to leave this whole city in flames.” Yet Rose does something intriguing after this declaration, once the song starts to close out. A songwriter championed for her talented and witty lyrics on Loner, she ends the opening song on the follow-up album on an instrumental. Not only that, she ends the song on what appears to be, or could at least be interpreted as, elevator music. In a song in which TC receives a phone call from the lobby of The Chateau Marmont, a hotel. And presumably one with an elevator at that. Already, Rose is continuing her wit into the next album, and even broadening it: TC stands outside on the balcony, hair blowing in the wind, looking out into the expansive, yet congested, LA landscape. Suddenly, the phone rings. It’s the lobby. My limo…has arrived. Or so we are meant to believe as much from TC. Yet there remains no proof of any limo or sign of opportunity arriving on the premises. All the listener hears is the phone call, an assertion of unlimited possibilities, followed by the complete collapse of all sounds of the song into a 40-second elevator ride to the lobby. TC, unbound by the limitations of the world and even about to be unbound by any emotion that may hold them back, is still very much subject to the awkward elevator ride back to the lobby. On leaving the elevator, does TC have a limo waiting for them, have they simply parked too long at the front entrance, or is this merely the wakeup call they ordered on the final day of their stay? I genuinely do not have an answer, but I know this: students who happily greet you do not always leave your classroom having learned something. Your (well, my) inflated ego, blinded by the dreams of stardom you may or may not still have, does nothing to ensure your success. That phone call may very well just be a parent about to complain your ear off.
Rose continues the album with “Got to go my own way,” “Do you think we’ll last forever?”, and “Feelings are a thing of the past.” These detail TC’s move away from the life that they had known, a self-inflicted call to adventure. This is TC’s official statement: they are now a free person. Separate from the town in which they grew up as well as any previous relationship they have had. This second point, the dissolution of all former relationships, is the pertinent one to highlight. TC sees them as a distraction. Merely something that will weigh them down on their quest for greatness, for superstardom. In teaching, these distractions exist as well and they most often come from the students themselves: asking unrelated questions to the lesson at hand, showing a lack of caring and expressing that to the rest of the class, or being purposefully and brashly defiant. Just as unnecessary romantic relationships can distract TC from their ultimate goal, so too can unnecessary questions dismantle a lesson in progress.
“Mr. Bunnell, who’s your favorite student?”
“Are you in a relationship?”
“Ooo, ooo, ooo, Mr. Bunnell, why do we even, like, need to read Shakespeare?”
“Hey, yo, Mr. uh… Boonuhl, when’s our teacher going to be back?”
I sigh. I set my book down. And I answer the question I am given.
“Funnily enough, I genuinely don’t have a favorite” (also I changed the dictionary definition for genuinely).
“Yes. It’s personal.”
“Official answer if any admins were here: yes. Personal answer: probably not but it’s good to struggle, it often means you’re learning.”
I read the teacher’s note that says she will be back tomorrow and she simply had some errands to complete that day before announcing to the class, “well the note here says something about ungrateful students and good riddance? Soooo…tomorrow maybe?”
While I do not believe that every student knows that they are attempting to hijack the lesson and overwrite it with their own agenda, I do understand that every student who asks one of those questions knows that they want to hear about anything, anything, other than how Lord Capulet is not actually a good father. Even if that subject is whether or not I, their easy-going-yet-still-tie-and-collared-shirt-wearing teacher, have an ongoing relationship and what it might be like (Healthy and stable. Try and gossip about that, you little bastards).
Still, the questions continue. I cannot unbind myself from these students as easily as TC does her relationships (perhaps for the best). For an unruly class I once taught, I spun these questions to my advantage. Any well-behaved day would result in a reward in the last 5-10 minutes of class. I varied the reward, but one such example was: “you can ask me whatever you want about me.” These personal questions I only allowed once I knew that they were somehow interested in anything that happened to me in my life. The questions were basic: how old are you, what’s your first name, do you have any pets. While these incentives worked, I want to be clear that this essay is not meant to be pedagogical; that is, I do not purport that there was a direct correlation with my students knowing I have a pet bird and an improvement in their behavior. If anything, the action of giving the last 5-10 minutes of class for students to close their books and turn off their brains was more important than whatever I chose to do with that time. Admin knows that class still had some bad days. But the connections that this kind of activity built, even just sharing personal information and barely letting students peer into my life, were the real end goal. These interpersonal connections are what allow me to look back at that class with fondness, as opposed to annoyance or a feeling of complete failure.
Yet TC seems to learn this lesson all too quickly, to the detriment of their mental state. After “Feelings” is “Feel the way I want to,” a joyous romp (paradoxically so in the case of the music video, depicting Rose traveling from one side of the country to the other after an “honest” mistake; a revealing look at the awkward undertone of the song) for all those who have ever been told to look or act a certain way. Fed up with this control, TC takes their image back, and this image proceeds to crumble into pieces: “Well baby, watch me break down.” This breakdown leads into “Freak like me,” a melancholy shift from the previous song and the final song on the A side of the album. The lesson that was probably a bit too easy for me to learn (it’s much easier to answer personal questions than it is to explain the subtleties of Shakespearian language to 14-year olds), TC takes a stumble and a fall to learn. In the length of exactly one song, TC goes from declaring that feelings are a thing of the past and swearing off of relationships to lamenting the mistakes that they have made to get to this point. They had loved who they were with; they understood each other. “I let it all hang free,” TC explains, “cause you’re a freak like me.” What follows is a flurry of feelings of regret. As an expectantly transformative day breaks in “Someone new,” one can only hope that TC will break through the funk that was set forth in “Freak.” A listener might expect, after having turned the record over to a new side, that TC would do the same. As they start singing about how they are finally and definitely moving on from their previous relationship, this declaration being the 3rd or 4th time of the album (I think, somewhere in that vicinity), they immediately descend back into singing about their now ex being with someone who looks the same as they do. The feelings of sadness and rejection that this creates are echoed by the next few songs: “Pipe dreams,” “Command Z,” and “Back at the beginning” each express their own shade of regret, their own version of longing or wishing, be them longing for a retreat somewhere away from these problems in TC’s life, self-made as they are, or wishing that they could just restart everything from scratch and do this all over. But the hero’s journey continues onward.
In the final song of the album, “I took a ride,” TC finally breaks through their ego and self-doubt and accepts responsibility for their actions. Where the character was once quick to write off other people or other places, they are now dedicated: “if it takes a lifetime / I will find my true love again.” Through pain, hardship, and failure; through excitement, independence, and emotional extremes; through reality, fantasy, and reality once more, TC has come out the other side a new person. Ready to face this new world that they have set themselves up in: no longer lost in a sea of expectant dreams about to be paid off at any moment, but determined, searching, and boundless.
I remember being considerably confused when I first listened to this album. Rose herself marketed it as a unique take on her experience in dealing with the fame that Loner brought her. I was expecting an album that fit into that box with all of the Caroline Rose trimmings I had been trained, by one album, to expect: witty and often humorous lyrics with some fun beats to back it up. What I got was an opener that ended on elevator music, a lead single that sounded asynchronous at times (is she using a theremin in “Feel the way I want to”? It sure sounds as bad as one), and a seemingly endless stream of songs about relationships. Yet the elevator music had a purpose, the album was not without its clever lines (“I’ll be catching green lights / You’ll only see red flags”), and all of these songs were still part of, at the very least, an enjoyable album. So, what does one do with these songs about relationships and what is the lesson that TC learns by the end of the album? Simply stated, Superstar is an album about the quest for stardom and the path that it can lead to. More importantly, the album is about the choices that one makes along that path and how those decisions can affect, in this case TC, but more generally, anyone and everyone who is called to go out on that path. I still smile whenever I am walking to my classroom and a student calls out to me to say hello; I am a simple man and I cherish these moments. In the free time I gave to a class I was a substitute for, a student took notice of the 1000+ page book I was reading; months later when I ran into him in the parking lot, he asked me how I was enjoying it. A few students trusted me enough to ask for advice with navigating high school and thinking about college. One group of friends, after having taught them as a student teacher, found me as a substitute just to ask for my opinion of the new Taylor Swift album. While often detrimental and distracting from the goal at hand (you know, having students learn things), these fostered connections are not only vital to the teaching experience, but to the human experience as well. This is the lesson that TC learns. With no fame and no hope for fame, they meander through bus stations, train stops, and airport terminals, hoping to find an escape from this purgatory they have trapped themselves in. The escape? Human connection.
At the end of the day, Superstar is about being just that but in a strange, amorphous, and hard to pin down way. Being a superstar has nothing to do with fame or crowds chanting your name or a luxurious suite in The Chateau Marmont. There is always an end to that fame, there is always an end to the show, there is always that simple elevator ride back to the lobby. The students will always leave your classroom at the end of the year to never come back. And it would be too easy to simply conclude on the idea that superstars are the people in this world that change it for the better (conceited author much?). There has to be more to it than that. TC sets out on an adventure, severing all previous relationships, thinking that it will lead them to success. So too do people believe that teachers are in their classrooms, alone in their crusade to pass on all of their wisdom to their students. But there is collaboration among teachers; a successful lesson begets telling others and recommending it and using those methods for formal research and publishing those findings for more and more people to utilize. There is no one teacher. There are teachers, everywhere. That is a superstar. One person among thousands, millions, doing their part for the betterment of society and building personal connections with those around them. In short, being both good and belonging. This is what TC now strives for. This is what we all strive for. For TC, reaching out their hand to a crowd of a thousand hands was unattainable. Perhaps reaching out for one hand to start would be a better choice.
“Good morning, Mr. Bunnell!” a sole student calls out to me. Hopefully I can successfully teach something today; the stars seem to be aligned enough for it.