Music

Dedicated to the One I Love

The song that saved my life.

Illustration by Ana

I started humming “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” before I could even speak, and I spent most of my toddlerhood next to the stereo wearing enormous headphones and listening to Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Elton John, and Billy Joel. As a kid, I never went anywhere without my Walkman, and the only difference today is that it’s an iPod. I played every instrument I could get my hands on. I was the first person in the history of my middle school to sing in the Florida All-State Chorus, and by the time I graduated from high school, I had performed 1,000 hours of community service by singing at local charity events. Basically, music has been the one constant in my life, and my primary source of solace and escape.

About two years ago, during my sophomore year of college, I started to figure out that I was a guy, a fact that I had kind of known all along, but since I was born with a vagina, I was struggling to explain it to other people. I felt scared, confused, and severely depressed. Around the same time, Sara Bareilles released her second album, Kaleidoscope Heart. I’d been hooked on Sara since 2007, when “Love Song” was iTunes’ free single of the week, so I was ecstatic to hear her new music. I had no idea that it would change my life.

The final track—my lucky number, 13—was “Bluebird,” a soulful piano ballad about a breakup:

Word came through in a letter
One of us changing our minds
You won’t need to guess who
Since I usually do / Not send letters to me
That are mine
.

I’d never been in a romantic relationship, but her phrasing hit me right in the gut. I was trying to define myself in a way that everyone would understand, and I had trouble finding the words. Most people don’t know what transgender means, let alone what it’s like to be trans*. I was worried that my friends would isolate me even more than I’d already isolated myself, and I imagined being on the receiving end of a similar letter, and what my response would be.

I told him I saw this coming
That I’d practically packed up my things
I was glad at the time
That I said I was fineBut all honesty knows
I wasn’t ready, no
.

I did my best to prepare for the fallout. I knew not everyone would accept my decision to transition (i.e., make outward appearance and my life match who I was inside), and I wasn’t ready to face rejection, but sitting on the corner of my bed in my bleak dorm room listening to Sara on my laptop, I realized I had to do something to change my life.

And so, here we go, bluebird
Back to the sky on your own
Oh, let him go, bluebird
Ready to fly, you and I
Here we go
.

By the time I finished the chorus, I decided that whatever anyone else said to me didn’t matter, because I had myself, and in many ways, I had been my own best friend for my entire life. I made other friends easily, but I always felt so different from everyone around me that it was rare for me to forge deep connections with them. The song reminded me of this, and reassured me that I could get through anything, even if in the worst case scenario I had to pack up my things, move on, and start a completely new life.

When I started to come out later that month, I was incredibly lucky to receive the support that I did, but I lost all of my childhood friends. Some were angry with me for not telling them sooner. Some doubted my new identity, since I hadn’t identified as trans* as a kid. Others sent me Facebook messages telling me that I was doing something wrong, and/or that God intended me to be a woman. With “Bluebird” on repeat—I listened to it something like 60 times within the first month of buying the album—I decided to accept the fact that I would have to say goodbye to people who had been important to me and move forward.

And so here we go, bluebird
Gather your strength and rise up
.

I was still depressed, anxious, and afraid, but every time I heard the song, it gave me hope that if I made it through this rough patch, I’d come out stronger.

This wasn’t the first time music saved me. The Spring Awakening soundtrack got me through high school. I would walk through the halls at 6 AM blasting “Totally Fucked” on my iPod, hating the world for making me get up at such a god-awful hour only to be stuck in a miserable environment. It made me feel less alone. But “Bluebird” reminded me that I could actually be alone and be OK.

The following month, Sara Bareilles’s tour came to Nashville. The concert blew me away: I loved her impromptu a cappella cover of Radiohead’s “(Nice Dream)” and the audience participation during “Love Song.” And every time she sat at the piano, my stomach seized with anticipation, but she never played my favorite song. Nonetheless, I was determined to meet Sara after the show. I ran to the stage door so I could be the first in line. The friends I was with left after about 45 minutes, as did most of the crowd, but I waited for an hour and a half. When Sara came outside, she walked right up to me, assuming I wanted an autograph. I told her how amazing the show was, and then said, “‘Bluebird’ is my favorite song, and I was wondering if you’d sing it with me?” She looked hesitant, but she said, “OK, you start, and I’ll join in,” and started signing the poster I’d bought at the show. After my first line, she stopped writing and looked up. I think she was shocked that I could actually sing. She came in on the second line, and we sang the first half of the first verse in harmony—I still get giddy when I think that Sara Bareilles harmonized to her own song while I sang the melody. (If we were Destiny’s Child, I would basically be Beyoncé in this moment.) Sara looked into my eyes the whole time; it was one of the greatest moments of my entire life. When we were finished, she hugged me and told me I had an amazing voice. We talked for a few minutes about music—I didn’t tell her about what that was going on or why the song was so important to me, but I think the emotion I felt while singing expressed what I wanted to.

I spent the entire weekend on cloud nine, which I remember because it was the only break I had from my depression that year. The song had new meaning now; I associated it with happiness and encouragement. About six months later, I decided I wanted to commemorate that night with a tattoo of a small bluebird behind my right ear. Right before I went to the tattoo parlor, I found out that Sara had just gotten a flock of birds tattooed behind one of her ears, and I knew it was the right decision. I typically don’t remember the tattoo until someone reminds me, just like I don’t remember how much strength and perseverance it took to get through the worst year of my life, when I found it impossible to drag myself out of bed or even smile, until I remember how far I’ve come.

These days I feel more comfortable with myself. I’m not constantly defending my decisions or trying to make the people around me OK with who I am—I’m just living my life. I still listen “Bluebird”—maybe not as often (though I played it a lot while working on this piece). I never tire of it, because it’s like an old friend, one that was there for me during a really difficult time, and for that I’m more grateful to Sara Bareilles than she will ever know. ♦

17 Comments

  • Hannah February 12th, 2013 7:35 PM

    This article. I have goosebumps all over my body and this article was so wonderful. To have that type of experience with any song, let alone with the artist and be the Beyonce in that is amazing. Just so much amazing in one article oh my god.

  • amazeedayzee February 12th, 2013 7:36 PM

    That’s amazing. What a surreal experience that must have been @__@

  • soviet_kitsch February 12th, 2013 7:43 PM

    this is beautiful. i love love love how you’ve managed to make this about your trans identity while also making it about music and fandom. just gorgeous. you have a rare gift <3

  • AllisonWonderland February 12th, 2013 7:48 PM

    I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to go through what you did, but thank you for being strong enough and willing to share your story and such a personal connection to this song. This is honestly probably one of the best written pieces I’ve ever read. I HAVE CHILLS. CHIIIIIIIILLS.

  • Emmie February 12th, 2013 7:57 PM

    Wow, this is lovely. It’s so enlightening to see how people find the strength to get through tough times.
    Also, I see Robyn’s face as the 11 o’clock posting and I want to share my excitement with SOMEONE! I recently broke up with my boyfriend and singing along to Robyn really helped. She’s effing badass)))

  • makeawish3653 February 12th, 2013 8:02 PM

    I got very confused when i started reading the lyrics because for some reason i thought you were talking about “Bluebird” by Christina Perri.. those two both released songs i liked at about the same time a couple years ago and they’ve kinda been blurred as the same person in my mind since then haha.
    anyway, i loved the article

  • feathersandtwine February 12th, 2013 8:17 PM

    reading this all of a sudden brought me very close to my teenage self again and the feeling that certain music evoked, the knowledge that it didn’t just serve as entertainment but was actually saving my life, although in my case it was much more the “usual” scenario of growing up in a small town, the feeling of not fitting in anywhere while feeling as if i had missed out on some sort of crash course about how to interact with other humans that everyone else seemed to have attended. back then it was ani difranco, among others, who pulled me out of these deep, black holes of sadness and depression. and although many of her songs were about relationships and i had never been in one, i could relate, and just like you i felt like i spoke through her to myself, to the “me” i wanted to be and the “me” i had been. it gave me goosebumps when i remembered that crazy intense feeling of suddenly feeling understood.
    years later i started writing, recording, and producing music myself and i believe that i would not have ended up in this profession if it hadn’t been for ani difranco and all the other music that gave me a home.
    thanks for reminding me of this.

  • jenaimarley February 12th, 2013 8:31 PM

    Tyler, this is so wonderful! It’s so cool how powerful musicians and their music can be for us when we need them!

    I also really wanted to share these posters my friend found online with Rookie and felt like maybe this would be a good article on which to comment.
    They are super rad and informative posters about gender and sexuality that the school club I lead (P.O.W.E.R. or Proliferation Of World Equality and Respect) tried to put up on our board and were told to take down because they were “inappropriate”. I felt really saddened because I felt like my school is (or used to be) a really super open place and my mom is lesbian and we have trans* studets at our school so I feel like they need to be more accepting. Anyway, I wanted to share the posters with as many people as possible and I thought Rookies might appreciate them.

    http://asexual-not-a-sexual.tumblr.com/post/36631111802/a-guide-to-being-an-ally-for-friends-and-family-of

  • zombiesockmonkey February 12th, 2013 9:48 PM

    Spring Awakening was one of the things that got me through high school too!

    The power of music and how songs can help and mean things to us never ceases to amaze me. I’m so grateful to have music in my life (even if I can’t beautifully sing it like Ana, I sure do try)

  • michelarod February 13th, 2013 12:08 AM

    This song saved my life, too. I was a freshman in high school when I first heard it, and I remember being moved to tears because it spoke to everything I was feeling. It’s still my go-to song after the worst of days, and I’m elated to find someone else who needed it the way I did.

    • Tyler February 13th, 2013 2:00 AM

      This makes me really happy to read. I’ve never met anyone else who used this song as their “home.” Glad to find you. :)

  • Tyler February 13th, 2013 1:55 AM

    Thank you all so much!

  • sissiLOL February 13th, 2013 9:36 AM

    I love Sara Bareilles! :-) I am soooooo happy, that the Rookie reported about her.

  • decemberbaby February 13th, 2013 10:47 AM

    This is how I am with Regina Spektor’s “Samson,” and you nailed the feeling of being deeply related to a song. Thanks for your honesty and eloquence, Tyler.

  • MaddieMae February 13th, 2013 5:52 PM

    Thank you so much for this article, Tyler :)

  • GlitterKitty February 13th, 2013 6:04 PM

    I feel a little stupid asking this but what’s the difference between trans* and transgender? And why does trans* have an asterisk beside it?