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August 5, 2020

Melissa Faliveno's Playlist for Her Essay Collection "Tomboyland"

Tomboyland by Melissa Faliveno

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Melissa Faliveno's essay collection Tomboyland is a thoughtful and necessary examination of gender, class, and race.

Kirkus wrote of the collection:

"Delves deeply into gender identity and the many confusions and complications involved…Throughout the collection, Faliveno remains inquisitive and resistant to labels, always maintaining her empowering agency…the essays are well-rendered investigations of self-identity. An expressive voice evolving deliberately, resisting having to be one thing or the other."

In her own words, here is Melissa Faliveno's Book Notes music playlist for her essay collection Tomboyland:

Tomboyland is a book about the Midwest. More specifically, it’s about Wisconsin, where I was born and raised. It’s about growing up in a small town, and the intersections of gender, class, queerness, and place—about the places that make us, that both shape and complicate our identities, and the places we go. For me, this meant moving to New York City, and finding myself in many ways neither here nor there, but somewhere in-between. It’s also a book about tornadoes and guns and God and motherhood, softball and roller derby and BDSM—subjects that include both my own stories and others, and which all circle around womanhood, the body, violence, and desire. It took me about ten years to write the essays in this book, and in that time I listened to—and, being in bands in New York during those years, saw and played—a lot of music. But the songs I’ve chosen here are less about the years I spent writing the book and more about the years that informed it—the years that built the book, in a way, and the songs that broke something open, that helped me understand something, or that sparked a question. This is a book of questions, and most of these songs helped me learn how to question the things I thought I knew; how to ask those questions even when I knew I wouldn’t find an answer. (And some songs are just fun tributes to the Midwest.)

The Thermals, “Pillar of Salt”

The first essay in the collection, “The Finger of God,” is about faith, myth, my childhood obsession with the weather and Twister, and an F5 tornado that destroyed a small town just outside my own. I grew up in a pretty religious town called Mount Horeb (Deuteronomy: “The Mountain of God”), and for a few years was in a Christian youth group that may have been a cult. The Thermals’ 2006 record The Body, the Blood, the Machine is one of my favorite albums ever; it’s a perfect pop-punk record, front to back. It also tells a story: about escaping a religious regime and the terror and exhilaration of leaving religion and faith behind. There are so many songs I could have chosen—like “I Might Need You to Kill,” which mentions both locusts and tornadoes—but I chose “Pillar of Salt” to start the Tomboyland playlist because it’s not about being trapped but about the escape, and it’s an absolute jam. And the video is a total joy.

Green Day, “Coming Clean”

Dookie came out in 1994, when I was eleven. It was one of the first CDs I bought, when I was twelve—along with Salt-n-Pepa’s Very Necessary, Tag Team’s Whoomp! (There It Is) and Ace of Base’s The Sign. But Dookie was my favorite. I wore an oversized Dookie t-shirt and had a Green Day poster on my bedroom wall. I was in love with Billie Joe Armstrong, with his dyed black hair and black eyeliner. I blasted the record on my stereo, yelling along to words I didn’t yet understand but that made me feel something anyway. I found out much later that Armstrong was bisexual; when I read the 1995 Advocate interview in which he said “Coming Clean” was about coming out, something clicked. I understood my love for him, and for this song, and for all the queer-looking boys and girls I loved as a kid. I didn’t know when Dookie came out that I was bisexual too; it would take a long time to understand that. But I understood this song, and this album, and it was an antidote to my adolescent-girl angst. I still love it.

Garbage, “Queer”

My second hometown, where I lived for nearly a decade, is Madison, Wisconsin. Ask a Madisonian about their musical claim to fame and they’ll say two things: Garbage and Butch Vig. While Shirley Manson is of course Scottish, Garbage is a Madison band—cofounded by drummer/producer Vig and two fellow Madisonians—and one we claim ferociously. Their 1995 self-titled debut was recorded in Vig’s legendary Smart Studios (where Nirvana’s Nevermind was also recorded), and another Madison legend, Clyde Stubblefield, added drums to a couple tracks. When I was thirteen, I listened to Garbage obsessively. Start to finish, on repeat, lying on my floor or my best friend’s bed. “Queer” made me feel many things: confused, curious, a little turned on. I wondered about the word, wielded in my world back then only as an insult. What did it mean to be queer? Weird? Gay? Something else? I didn’t know, but I loved the song. The band later stated that the song wasn’t explicitly about gayness, but about difference; even so, it was adopted as an anthem by a lot of queers. Shirley Manson’s voice is one of the sexiest sounds on the planet, and this record oozes sexuality. I still listen to it from start to finish sometimes, and it still turns me on.

White Town, “Your Woman”

White Town was the solo project of Jyoti Prakash Mishra, who released his one-hit-wonder “Your Woman” in 1997, when I was fourteen. I loved this song, though I was never totally sure why (I was a trumpet player, but it was more than just the killer sample). It was just so weird and ambiguous! In Tomboyland I interrogate the word woman—its definitions and implications, how I fit inside the word and don’t. And now, of course, my obsession makes sense. Sometimes I still think of the chorus, sung in the voice of a man: “Well I guess what they say is true / I could never be the right kind of girl for you / I could never be your woman.”

St. Lunatics, “Midwest Swing”

On the subject of white towns: In the late 90s and early 2000s, my friends and I listened to a lot of hip hop—not the best stuff, mostly Top 40; really only what made its way to kids like us, in mostly white towns in the flyover states. Nelly, of course, was huge then, and Country Grammar was on regular rotation, not least because it put Midwest hip hop on the map for us. My friend Matt and I used to drive around town in his 1990s Cutlass (we called it “The Gutless”) and listen to Jay Z, Dr. Dre, Ludacris, the Beastie Boys, and Nelly very loud with the windows down. The St. Lunatics’ “Midwest Swing” came out the year I graduated high school, in 2001. Matt graduated a year before I did, but whenever I heard the lyrics “I got an old-school Cutlass with a hole in the air” and “Why my Cutlass blue?” I always thought of him. (The Gutless, by the way, was burgundy.)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Modern Romance”

In “Switch Hitter”—my essay about softball and girlhood, and the way girls learn early to bend and break our bodies in order to perform for, and seek acceptance from, men—I mention some very bad music. Namely, the turn-of-the-century nu-metal like Korn and Linkin Park that I listened to in the high school weight room with the football players when I was on the powerlifting team. I’ll spare you “Crawling” or “One Step Closer,” those angsty, ragey anthems we played while bench-pressing and dead-lifting. Instead, when I returned to weightlifting as an adult—with a much healthier relationship to my body—I started listening to music by women. Fever to Tell is one of my favorite workout records, and the last track, “Modern Romance,” is my cooldown song. As Karen O sings “Don’t hold on / Go get strong,” I think about strength, and the body I build for me alone. (Though sometimes I still listen to Linkin Park, too.)

The Replacements, “Androgynous”

Even though the Replacements are a Midwestern band, from Minneapolis, I didn’t discover them until I was in my mid-twenties. I remember the first time I heard “Androgynous,” and it was a revelation. The near-title essay in my book, “Tomboy,” deals in no small part with androgyny, and how being an androgynous person informs the assumptions people make about your body and your sexuality. When I was first writing it, I used a quote from this song as an epigraph. It was later replaced by a more fitting quote from Audre Lorde, but this song still very much lives in that essay, and it’s still one of my favorites.

Prince, “Sexuality”

Speaking of androgyny and musicians from Minneapolis, I couldn’t make a playlist for a book about the Midwest, gender noncomformity, and queerness without including Prince. There’s so much I could say about Prince, but it wouldn’t do him any justice. So I’ll just say this: Prince helped me understand that a single body, and the person who resides within it, can tear apart the boundaries within which the world expects us to fit. That a body itself can be a revolution. This song, obviously, speaks for itself.

Tegan and Sara, “Nineteen”

Tegan and Sara get some love in this book, mostly in reference to the many queer mullets I’ve sported. Every Tegan and Sara song is like being in love, or leaving love, for the first time. The year The Con came out I was twenty-four, and in love with a woman for the first time. It was the kind of love—massive and all-consuming—that made me feel like I was nineteen again. (Just around the corner was the kind of heartbreak that would also make me feel nineteen again.) A few years ago, well into my thirties, I saw Tegan and Sara at Le Poisson Rouge. When they sang this song I screamed along in a room full of queers, and yep, I felt like I was nineteen then too.

X-Ray Spex, “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”

“Meat and Potatoes” is an essay about food, sex, the Midwestern BDSM scene, and growing into myself in terms of both sexuality and feminism. I discovered X-Ray Spex when I discovered most real punk, which was when I was playing roller derby in Madison. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my roller derby and BDSM communities shared had a decent overlap. It was a time and a space within which I was figuring out my relationship to pain and power, what I wanted and what I didn’t, how to say “Yes” to the things I desired, “No” to the things I didn’t, and “Up yours” to the people (mostly men) I’d once tried to please.

Rilo Kiley, “A Better Son/Daughter”

The essay “Motherland” is about—spoiler alert!—motherhood, the complicated history of mothers and daughters in my family, the decision to have children or not, and the ways we build family. I fell in love with Rilo Kiley a long time ago, and this song—which deals in part with a messed up mother/daughter relationship—is still one of my favorites. Much of this book chronicles a few very dark years in my young life, and this was the song I played back then, like a battle march, to get me through the darkest days. It still is. I mean: “Sometimes when you’re on / You’re really fucking on / And your friends they sing along and they love you.” I highly recommend turning it on when you feel like shit, and playing it loud.

Dead Milkmen, “I’m Living in Wisconsin”

One of my roommates in college turned me onto the Dead Milkmen, a punk band from Philadelphia who for some reason sang about Wisconsin a lot (they have a song called “The Badger Song” and a song about Vince Lombardi). At house parties in Madison, one could bet on hearing this song while filling a red Solo cup with Milwaukee’s Best (the “Beast”) or gulping a three-story beer-bong. This song only appeared on a self-released 1983 cassette tape, which is as much cool-kid music cred as I’ll ever have. These days, the refrain “I’m living in Wisconsin / But only in my mind” feels pretty right: I still call Wisconsin home, even though I haven’t lived there for a long time. And I don’t do beer bongs anymore.

Liberace, “Beer Barrel Polka”

Speaking of beer, you can’t go to a German beer garden or a football game, a wedding or party or any kind of gathering in Wisconsin without hearing “Beer Barrel Polka.” Often referred to in Wisco as “Roll Out the Barrels,” this is the song where everyone—even and perhaps especially grandparents—get up and dance (or, hold hands and hop from foot to foot and call it a polka.) It was basically the soundtrack to my life, ages 0-22. For these purposes, I give you the Wisconsin classic, but so much gayer! Liberace was from Milwaukee, and he had an Italian father, which I can tell you from experience is a pretty rare thing in Wisconsin. He was pretty extraordinary, and pretty extra, and this performance is both of those things.

The Magnetic Fields, “Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side”

As much as Tomboyland is about Wisconsin, it’s also about New York. When I moved to the city, I spent a lot of time on the Lower East Side. One of my good friends bartended at Local 138 on Ludlow (RIP), and I wasted more days than I can count bellied up to that bar. A few years later, while I was working on this book, I spent a lot more time on the LES with my band, playing shows at places like Pianos and Cake Shop (RIP). Walking down Rivington and Essex and Delancey before those shows, this song was always stuck in my head.

The National, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”

My partner’s family lives in Ohio. They have a Christmas-tree farm in the country outside Dayton, where we go every year at Thanksgiving to help out. This is where, just after the 2016 election, I learned how to shoot a gun. The essay “Gun Country” begins and ends on the farm, and explores gun violence, gender, and rage, and the complications of loving people who love guns. When I think about things like guns and violence and rage, the word bloodbuzz seems like a pretty good fit. But I also just really love this song, and play it every time we go to Ohio. The lyrics “I never thought about love when I thought about home” seem like a pretty good fit too.

Neko Case, “Man”

Ever since Blacklisted, Neko Case has been one of my favorite musicians. In 2015, two years after The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight… was released, I saw her perform at the Northside Festival in Brooklyn. At the time, I was working on these essays, not sure exactly how they fit together. But I knew one of the through-lines had to do with womanhood, masculinity, and the body. I was thinking of the ways I’ve tried to be more like a man—all the ways I’d learned that to be a man meant to be more powerful, more in control, more respected. At the show, when Case—who later told NPR, “I don’t really think of myself specifically as a woman, you know?”—sang, “I’m a man / that’s what you raised me to be / I’m not your identity crisis / This was planned,” I screamed along with her. And I thought, “Fuck yes.”

The Waterboys, “This is the Sea”

The last essay in the book, “Driftless,” is about leaving home. In it, I write about the rivers and lakes of Wisconsin, and, upon arriving in New York, taking a train to Coney Island to see the ocean. I write about hopping freight trains back in Wisconsin with a man I once loved, with whom I often sang this 1985 song (along with a lot of other Irish folk-rock), while drinking way too much Jameson. It’s a song about rivers and oceans and trains, about moving forward, about holding on and letting go. “That was the river,” the Waterboys sing, “and this is the sea.”

Melissa Faliveno is a writer, editor, and teacher. The former senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine, she has also had essays and interviews appear in BitchMedia’s magazine, the Millions, Prairie Schooner, Isthmus, DIAGRAM, and Midwestern Gothic, among others, and received a notable selection in The Best American Essays 2016. Born and raised in small-town Wisconsin, she currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Tomboyland is her first book. Learn more at

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