Megan Milks traces the origins of their queer and trans identity in a coming of age memoir about trading Tori Amos bootlegs at the dawn of the internet age.
Anyone who logged onto the internet in the mid-nineties, whether through AOL or a service like CompuServe or Prodigy, engaged in the practice of authoring oneself. From avatars and screen aliases to customized Tripod and Geocities pages, the internet’s malleable tissue of information offered internet users a new medium with which they could create personas to interact with the world. For a teenaged Megan Milks, creating an online identity was liberating – “the disembodiment the internet grants is a tremendous relief,” they write – the web promising both anonymity and the ability to relate to people and be understood by them, not through the interpersonal trials of high school, but through the bliss of fandom.
In a series of essays labeled like bootleg concert recordings, Milks’ memoir leads us through the rudimentary tech specs of the early web and nineties’ audio culture and the interpersonal dynamics of the online community in which they make friends and share music. A diehard Tori Amos fan, Milks finds an online home dedicated to sharing recordings of her concerts. As Milks codes their first webpage (named Cocaine Lip Gloss Sale Stand after an imaginary place on the liner note map of Amos’s From the Choirgirl Hotel) and participates in the exchange of hand-dubbed cassette tapes, they “practice writing new selves” into life. Milks’ practice of writing of the self transpires in two intertwined storylines: a material history of Tori Amos fandom in the Web 1.0 era and the story of Milks’ friendship with Chris, a charismatic young member of the Tori Amos webring.
Milks’ connection with Chris, which takes place “in real life” (“IRL”) and online, is loving and somewhat incoherent. When the two meet at a party and strike up a conversation based on a mutual love for music, the nature of their feelings towards each other isn’t clear. Milks questions the nature of the newly cemented friendship, wondering whether the connection with Chris is platonic or romantic, whether the age gap in the bond is appropriate (“Freshman-junior romances being unthinkable unless the genders are reversed,” Milks recalls). The problem of whether to define oneself in cooperation with or in comparison to others provides consistent psychological friction to Milks, who contends with the pathos of: do I want to date you, or do I want to be you?
As the rapport between the two friends deepens, Milks and Chris contribute to the expanding archive of the online Tori Amos community. They fastidiously duplicate and trade bootleg tapes with others in the web ring, cultivate and maintain online relationships and fan webpages, and attend concerts together, co-writing an intimate friendship while also grappling with their differences in the offline social sphere. At a poignant moment, Milks excitedly gives Chris a Tori Amos calendar inscribed with their key friendship event dates, significant memories, and cartoon balloons with personal affirmations. Startled by the intimate present, Chris gifts Milks a box of cereal.
“Perhaps the gift was monstrous,” Milks says of the calendar as they ruminate on the exchange, but the story that Milks inscribes in the calendar becomes an elegant synecdoche of the memoir. Milks’ handwritten messages to Chris, details of their exploits decorating the pages, are scripted in the unconscious mind’s resistance to the closet. They emerge as Milks’ celebration of a shared story that overwrites the heterosexual calendar’s grid of days with the queer duo’s expanded set of personal holidays. As for the cereal – a natural companion to milk – Milks’ companionship provides Chris with a tether to a cultural world outside of homework and swim team intervals. Chris says to Milks: “I knew there was stuff beyond our bubble… and you validated that + helped me understand that we both were right to want more.” Together, the teens guide and help each other as they maneuver the gender-binarized IRL world and find relief in the disembodied space of Web 1.0.
In the early days of Web 1.0, a screen name could be worn like a costume, one could log out of a platform like closing a door, and except for a few official sites for governments and news media outlets, web text was user-generated, participatory, even nonsensical in affect— the messy postmodern novel of Web 1.0. With the advent of social media and the rise of the monetizable personal brand, online identities have become rooted in IRL identities and are now produced, managed, leveraged, and verified for authenticity in even more discrete ways. Events in the “real world” are staged, not for “real life” purposes, but to serve as online content in order to harvest and sell data to advertisers. Social platforms are clogged with bots, and access to the algorithmic manipulation of human emotion has a price tag. Our online and offline selves are now enmeshed: one identity, ideally verified.
Web rings and forums at the turn of the Millennium, however, presented a novel space for experimenting with identity. Internet users coded personal webpages and corresponded under aliases. A page was designed, or an alias selected, to reflect the user’s personality and interests, a process Milks delves into when explaining their webpage name (Cocaine Lip Gloss Sale Stand) and their AOL Instant Messenger (“IM”) handle, “ani4me” (an Ani DiFranco reference). The webpage and the alias offer the freedom to write oneself into the internet, to code a persona whose symbolic key provides insights towards understanding the person who selects it. The creative process of coding a page and selecting an alias is crucial in gaining the language and agency necessary for young Milks to understand themselves as a person and feel connected to others. However, with the freedom of authorship comes anxiety: “The more I realized I could be some other more interesting person online, the more I felt stuck in my self,” they write. “It was a kind of dysphoria. How would I ever get my two selves to match?”
The condition of splitting the self into distinct parts, visible and hidden, is not only endemic to dysphoria and the closet but is a chief attribute of what was referred to as digital dualism in early internet culture. Digital dualism describes the internet user’s sense that what happens online is distinct from and unconnected to life in the physical, material world. It involves a splitting of self into a modular online self and its offline co-part. One could fabricate an online persona and operate undercover, so to speak, acting as a fictional person behind a screen name. However, as Milks demonstrates, fashioning a separate online counterpart only reinforces the artificiality of that co-part when confronted with the actual presence of one’s hands on the keyboard or body in a chair, a body that produces the online co-part and yet cannot approach its ideal.
The early internet’s digital dualist experience of creating online and offline selves also offers a lesson in passing: In order for Milks to join a Tori Amos web ring, they must “pass” as a true fan. In order to pass, one must agree to protocols: the collection of material assets along with the assumption of roles and responsibilities, protocols set and instilled as social contracts under which gender performances are mediated. In order to pass as a Tori Amos expert, a Tori Amos bootleg archivist, one must not only acquire the material assets of fandom but continuously practice the skills of archival research and maintenance: tapes must be duplicated and mailed at quotas; web page data must be updated; participation in forums and concerts is necessary. Gender identity, too, is a practice, much like the continuous ingestion, evaluation, and dissemination of materials within an archive. (Judith Butler writes that gender is learned and reinforced through repetitive processes within sociality.) The integrity of a gender and its archive of performances relies on repetitive processes through which society (for Milks, the web ring) reinforces cooperative loyalties between identity group members and coheres the group narrative. Milks participates in the web ring to affirm themself as a fan and to connect to other fans, to recognize and be recognized. Through the maintenance of the Tori Amos archive, they secure a future for the legacy of Tori Amos’s work, and within that future, a vision for themself as they see themself within Tori’s work.
Milks uses an archival model as a framework for a gender practice: they catalog their commonalities with others in the ring, adjusting their self-concept accordingly in a gender-neutral space; they figure their dysphoria, that which makes them feel different from others within the fandom; and they seek self-recognition and permission to write their own poetry as they adopt Amos’s autobiographical lyrics into their own citation models (the web ring page and later, the memoir). Milks imagines a future for themself as they parse Amos’ lyrics for moments at which their interest flags: Embarrassment, shame, confusion, frustration, sadness, excitement, happiness, joy, each intensity a clue for solidifying what “the self” is in comparison to a “blankness” they observe during more difficult times.
Milks is deft at tracing the body’s intensities when stress chafes like poor-fitting clothes (not the blue Airwalks, those feel great.) They locate an element of this distress, this ill-fit, in Amos’s lyrics when they hear what their unconscious wishes to hear rather than what is sung. Listening to “Yes, Anastasia,” they mishear “if you know me so well / tell me what gender he was” for “tell me what hand does he use” and respond with both disquiet and fascination when they learn the actual line. What’s hidden surfaces as a bright spot of shame and later, memory, discovery. Milks acknowledges discomfort with humor and grace, rhetorically asking at what point did they first feel queer, scanning sore points for evidence of an identity that at one point didn’t seem to exist because it was submerged. Milks also details Chris’ luminous presence: his mannerisms, the material fact of his body, the discrete ways that others respond to him. By drawing close to Chris, and later, through writing about him and his online and offline personae, and how they feel about them, Milks discerns their own identity.
The process of affirming identity through storytelling has long been a therapeutic tool as well as a method of community-building. In their work with transgender youth, sociologist Tey Meadow explores how children embrace and negotiate their gender within their families and social structures, and how parents negotiate their child’s gender within larger social constructs. In a moving case study “Deep Down Where the Music Plays: How Parents Account for Childhood Gender Variance,” Meadow relays an account of Willow, a creative and intelligent transgender child, who when asked by her mother: “What is it that tells you that you’re a girl? Is it your brain? Is it your heart? What is it that tells you?” emphatically replies: “Mommy, it’s my soul. My soul tells me I’m a girl, deep down where the music plays.”
Willow, who was assigned male at birth, is in the process of transitioning. As Meadow explains, what Willow means by her “soul” is a container for both her inner knowing of her gender identity and the ways that her identity struggles to be enacted in her family and in the world. While Willow’s inner knowing and her identity’s externally-enacted behaviors exist separately, the two co-determine each other as Willow makes her way through school and other community and social situations. Through constructive, open and vulnerable dialogue between Willow and her parents, the family illuminates how Willow’s inner knowing and external behaviors interact and how the two endure as a holistic gender. Through crafting narratives with her parents, Willow begins to understand herself as a person on her own and with others within her communities. Like Milks, Willow learns to draw her own calendar.
Any perception of gender variance in the world only indicates a need in the world for a kind of storytelling that can illuminate the unique inner music of a person’s identity. Like music, we can only appreciate an inner knowing so much as we’re willing to listen for it, and we can only listen to the extent that we’ve been trained to appreciate its consonant continuities and its dissonant qualities and integrate that self-acknowledgement with what we hear when we’re out in world. Perhaps there would be no “gender variance” if humans thought of gender as continuous, evolving music that we play.
A metaphor: It’s 1997, and Tori Amos is at the top of the Billboard charts. A number of people are humming a Tori Amos song. Say this humming of her popular tune is performing a woman. At the same moment, other people are humming a Pearl Jam tune, or performing a man. Some people will be humming Eric Dolphy or a demo by their friend’s new band. Each person’s performance of a song is different. (“People are different,” says Eve Sedgwick.) Human beings have song diversity. Likewise, one person’s cover of woman will differ from another’s, but they’ll still perform woman. Every song ever written, so long as it’s performed, is available to be sung by anyone who hears it. Likewise, a gender is accessible to anyone who feels it – like a piece of music.
Another metaphor: Milks collects Tori Amos concert bootleg cassettes. Each tape is “unique – every Tori show is different – and equally transporting” and Milks notates each performance on their web page by its location and date. The bootlegs not only allow Milks access to the communality of the concerts, but also the “rarities, covers, and fan favorites,” and versions that Tori would update on the spot as commentary on current events. Which version of a song is the “original” version? Which is the most “correct”? Which is “real”? What’s the correct expression of a gender? Which expression fits? Is it Ann Arbor, 10.15.94? Is it Las Vegas, 9.24.99? The experience of feeling out of key in our performing song is a kind of dysphoria. Maybe Las Vegas, 9.24.99 feels tonally off. Put Ann Arbor on the stereo instead.
People have an urgent human need to articulate identities with precision, to execute identity’s inner knowing of what feels right on an innate and instinctive level. Through rituals, people engage with the instrument they’ve been given. They practice alongside the training they’ve received within the limits of the music educational system to which they have access. They rehearse the scales they’ve learned. With practice, one will hopefully play an identity with the tone and timbre of the music felt inside. With practice, one can write an original song.
When writing a song: The song arrives with practice. A person may feel an urge to hum a few notes before they know what the song is. Like Willow, a child may have strong feelings about what kind of play they delight in, what clothes feel right, why purple over blue. Like Milks, there may be a “blankness” or a sense that there’s something to be discovered through writing, a mystery cached inside a dear friend’s way in the world or a favorite lyric. Others may hear a record much later on in life while scrolling or shopping and drop everything to listen.
Milks reminds us that the “original version” of a song is only one recording. By the time a song reaches its audience, the artist has created many renditions: demos, outtakes, versions riddled with imperfections, alternate lyrics, phrases abandoned in notebooks, experimentation necessary to arrive at a version of the song an artist is proud to share. As for the song itself in its pure state in the artist’s body and mind, it exists in a realm outside of recorded capacity, outside of descriptive summary, intangible as a gender. A song can be recognized across its fluctuating variations: demos and official releases, bootlegs and covers, sheet music and copyright notations – but as for the true nature of a song itself – like gender, it exists in the artist. It is the artist who decides how to make the song live. The artist decides how to live their song.
Milks’ memoir enacts the kind of expansive gender storytelling that Meadow explores in their studies. What elements of identity feel incoherent to Milks as a child may have only felt so for a want of open dialogue with role models and a lack of available queer storytelling. Milks scours archives – studio and live recordings, album liner notes, the text of the web ring – to source road signs for their emerging personhood, and yet the most satisfying story in the book is the relay between Milks and Chris, the lifelong friendship rooted in shared passion for music that matures into a transformative dialogue and a loyalty that is reciprocal and continuous even as the two live in different places and lead different lives. Friendship outlasts the web ring because friendship is made of renewable human practices of care, curiosity, and love.
Is a person their inner knowing or is a person a construct of social structures? The Tori Amos Web Ring shows us how the two are intermeshed and inform each other: The curious child who ravishes music and loves their friends is not only following instinct and engaging in complex systems of play, they are naturally constructing a creative means by which they make themselves known to themself and to others. In doing so, they learn how to locate and collaboratively contribute to structures that witness them in a way that affirms them, first by means of delight and pleasure, then by moving beyond delight and pleasure to assume responsibility as an integral link in a wider ring of mutuality. Milks’ expansive metaphors for optimistic queer personhood at the digital dualist turn of the Millennium are achieved through elegant introspection that traces their personhood’s emergence with grace, humor, and humility, and which on every page assert: We are whole, we recognize each other’s unique and beautiful music, and we will link back to each other.
Jasmine Dreame Wagner’s writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Bennington Review, BOMB Magazine, The Georgia Review, LA Review of Books, and Witness. Her third full-length poetry collection is forthcoming from Omnidawn Publishing; a chapbook, Cold Spring, is forthcoming from GASHER.