Burnin’ Up in the Year 2019

On Thursday night, I had the surreal experience of seeing the Jonas Brothers live in concert for the first time. (!!!) The JoBros are the first band I ever stanned, before I knew what stanning was. Joe was my #1 celeb crush, and little did I know I’d end up dating a Kevin (lolol). I’ve been wearing an H&M kids top with Joe’s face on it for the past 10 years (one of my best birthday presents), and I’m pleased to say that the shirt is still as good as new. The Jonas Brothers were, and this is no exaggeration, essential to my teenage years. As the title of this review suggests, this essay is first and foremost a review of the JoBros’ Happiness Begins Tour. And yet, like almost everything else of significance in the year 2019, this essay will also be a reflection on what it means to make a comeback, to feel nostalgic, to sing along to “Burnin’ Up” in an age of global warming…

…but first, the concert. The JoBros have been hyping up their return since early 2019 (some might argue since December 2018, with Nick and Priyanka’s highly publicized marriage). The brothers debuted their most acclaimed single yet, “Sucker”; took over the James Corden show for a week; released a documentary on Amazon. Each promo move reinforced how much they have grown up and glown-up. A decade ago, they were stereotyped as Disney’s pet boyband. Few critics took them seriously, and media outlets refused to let go of their “purity rings.” Now, the JoBros are married men who could each easily grace the cover of GQ. They’ve gone on to pursue successful solo careers, which include Kevin’s ventures into real estate. But, after 10+ years, are they able to find the space to relive their past? Their Happiness Begins Tour answers that question with a resounding yes. The tour (and album’s) opening song, “Rollercoaster,” is a heartfelt promise to the value of bygone days: “It was fun when we were young and now we’re older / Those days that are the worst, they seem to glow now / We were up-and-down and barely made it over / But I’d go back and ride that roller coaster with you.” Full disclosure: the moment the brothers stepped out in sync to perform this song, I immediately WEPT. 

Throughout the night, the JoBros performed a selection of songs from their new album. Highlights included the snazzy “Only Human,” smooth “I Believe,” and poignant “Hesitate,” which was probably the most moving musical moment of the night. The brothers got up on the B stage (close to where I was!!) which rose in the air as large glowing balloons levitated around the room. It. Was. Magical.

Unsurprisingly, however, it was the brothers’ old hits that carried the concert. In one of the JoBros’ first interviews with James Corden, he had said, “Lovebug still slaps.” And guess what? It totally does. It’s remarkable how well these songs have aged. If “Lovebug” came out in the year 2019, I believe it would be a massive hit. The guitar riff has a Jason Mraz catchiness to it, and its transition from acoustic to electric rock is golden. The song itself achieves what the JoBros have with their return: soared from youthful territory to mature ground. In the original (and lovely) music video, you see the brothers all dressed up in vintage clothing, looking awkwardly older than they really are. But listen to the song in 2019, and you’ll realize that the tune is now timeless. And we’ve all caught the Jonas bug again. 

In interviews, the chemistry between the brothers is infectious, and they’re naturally humorous. And yet, I found myself wishing for more brother-brother banter during the live show. For most of the night, each brother seemed to command their own stage presence. But they do so incredibly well, in a way that would not have been possible in the early 2000s, when they were presented as if they were triplets joined at the hip. Solo-brother moments were outstanding during the concert. Nick’s rendition of “Jealous” (Joe joined for the second verse) and Joe’s delivery of “Cake By the Ocean” were among the top performances of the night. I mean, giant inflatable slinkies shot up into the air for the latter song. The crazy-crazy and smooth personas that Joe and Nick have respectively adopted during the solo careers shone in both performances. And Kevin got his moment, too; throughout the night, a big screen showed clips of the grown-up brothers interacting with versions of their younger selves (played by other kids). The best scene was of a young Kevin running into adult Kevin with his two daughters in a forest (I think the entire audience went “AWWWW” at the same time). That scene then transitioned into Kevin playing the piano live for “When You Look Me in the Eyes,” another perfect ballad. Although there wasn’t much intersibling dialogue, at least on Thursday night in Chicago, the JoBros find a way to belong on stage together while each harnessing a unique rockstar confidence. 

Moreover, to the JoBros’ credit, they were trying to fit a ton of songs into two hours. I’m not sure there was much time for chatter. Even cute surprises for the audience felt rushed; it was Danielle’s birthday recently, and she was invited onto the B stage to be serenaded and blow out candles. And yet, the intermission lasted probably around one minute; I don’t think the cake was even cut! It was a cute and sweet moment, nonetheless. Another moment that felt rushed was the multi-song mashup towards the end of the show; the JoBros played a smorgasbord of deep cuts, ranging from “Mandy” to “World War III” to “Hold On.” But the medley felt slightly forced, at least to my ear. 

That being said, if you’re an OG JoBro fan who wants to relive your childhood and feel revived at the same time, the Happiness Begins tour absolutely delivers. I particularly love how the brothers saved “Burnin’ Up” and “Sucker” for the encore, ending with both an iconic blast from the past and a confident delivery of their best-ever hit from just this year. The message they convey with their performance is that yes, they would ride their childhood rollercoaster again, but now they’re on a whole new high. 

Alas, time is everyone’s best frenemy. The JoBros’ powers have doubled since we last met. They’ve made a veritable comeback, and the songs they abandoned for years seem unscathed by age. But the best perspective is often retrospective, and it’s inevitable that songs like “Burnin’ Up” and “Year 3000” rub us differently today than they did 10+ years ago. Today, the world is burnin’ up, baby. The song is more relatable as an unintentional and unwitting climate change anthem than just another pop song about a crush. As the Jonas Brothers sang “Year 3000,” I seriously also found myself wondering whether we as a planet will even make it to then. In the Year 3000, the song predicts, we’ll be living underwater. And “your great-great-great-granddaughter” shall be “doin’ fine.” Not much will have changed. Except, we’re watching the effects of climate change take a toll on our planet every day. When the JoBros ask, “baby who turned the temperature hotter,” we must unironically ask the same question about the earth. Even “Cool” from their new album, with the line “I’m feelin’ so cool,” seems relevant through a climate perspective; it’s lyrically the temperature antithetical to “Burnin’ Up.” 

The Jonas Brothers are a perfect example of how saving underrated moments of our past is possible. They show that taking a decade off to work on self-care and betterment is essential for enabling togetherness. They suggest that there’s no time like the present to fight for what we really want. 10 years since their split, the JoBros are still doin’ fine. By all means, their show is teenage May’s dream come true, and I had the best time singing along to their songs at the top of my lungs. But I can’t help but wonder: In the year 3000, if we get there, will we still be boppin’ along to “Burnin’ Up”? 

On Cutting My Own Hair

and weight, Fleabag, and succulents…

I cut my own hair for the first time last week. I did so while listening to Lana Del Rey’s newest album so you can imagine that the experience was a real “mood.”

Have I always wanted to cut my own hair? Well, no. In fact, I generally don’t super-enjoy getting my hair cut; it costs money, can go wrong, and I often prefer long hair. But there will always come a time in the summer when my hair will suddenly feel heavy, especially when I’m in the shower. I’ll start shedding long strands of my hair everywhere, in the bathroom and on the floor of my room. My hair will hang, tangled and weighty, like a burden I must carry, comb, and condition. I always know I’m ready for a haircut when I start to poeticize a haircut. And hair, as Fleabag says so rightly, “is everything.”

I have been cutting Kevin’s hair for months, so the idea of cutting hair at home isn’t new to me. I’ll fully admit that cutting short hair is hard; you usually need not only scissors, but also an electric trimmer with different “clipping guard sizes” and a certain battery life. After the haircut, tiny clumps of hair will get everywhere, like the patches of turf that stay on your clothes after a soccer game. But cutting Kevin’s hair has been a wonderful part of our relationship; there’s a lot of trust and love built into giving someone a haircut.

So because I already had haircutting equipment at home, because I was feeling heavy, and maybe because I wanted to give myself an opportunity to fully trust and love myself, I decided to cut my own hair. Kevin was in Shanghai on a family vacation, and I felt strongly about cutting my own hair, anyway. I decided on breezy Friday night that I was ready.

Although I waited until September to cut my hair, this gesture has truly been part of my summer-long project of becoming lighter: materially, physically, and mentally. In that order. In July, I moved out of my previous three-person apartment and into a five-person apartment, so much of my packing-up process included a mass purging of my personal possessions. I said goodbye to many T-Shirts. I sold or gave away numerous random things, from a pair of Bluetooth earphones to a ring adorned with a large metallic beetle. I recycled most of the paper waste I had accumulated over the past four academic years (but kept nearly all the poems I wrote during creative writing workshops). I shed my possessions like hair, and swept them into the dustbin.

Then, as so many women do throughout their lives—particularly during the summer, when we wear shorts again and remember what our legs look like—I wanted to be lighter, physically. I had a one-month gym membership and tried out Pilates, yoga, and Zumba. I ran on the treadmill and went for a handful of delicious swims. Then I bought a Fitbit, and became obsessed with my daily step count, my resting heartrate, my sleep schedule. I started running outdoors again (every summer of my life, I pick up running for a spell). I think I’ll keep running, to be honest. I actually—and I’m shocked to be saying this—have been enjoying it. And finally, without realizing it, I became mentally lighter. I shed the stress of being a full-time student and practiced settling into a routine where I didn’t hit the books after dinner. I started watching TV, first the delightful Kim’s Convenience and then the life-changingly-great Fleabag. I allowed myself time to indulge in all-things Taylor Swift. I baked oatmeal raisin cookies and tiny bite-size brownies. But of course, the process of becoming lighter is heavy in and of itself. Life isn’t as simple as cutting hair. “If you want to change your life, change your life,” says Anthony, the hairdresser from Fleabag. “It won’t happen in here.”

This summer has been heavy. It’s impossible to read about what’s happening in Hong Kong and not feel a sense of heaviness. The distance between Chicago and Hong Kong is heavy. The disparity between protestors and policemen is heavy. You can’t step onto a scale and measure the burden of the world’s problems. And, of course, cutting my hair was not a way to shed any of these concerns. But it’s remarkable how one haircut can give you hope—like a weight lifted off your shoulders.

I watched a slew of how-to videos on YouTube and marveled at the different ways in which one can cut one’s own long hair. You can tie all your hair in front of your face like a ponytail, divide it with an elastic or scrunchy, and cut above the hair tie. Or, you can fluff out your hair in front of you so that you can cut according to how your hair will fall in front of your face. I chose the latter option, and placed my hairdresser’s cloak in my lap to catch strands of falling hair.  

Like writing an essay, a haircut is about layering and trimming. The first snip is a magical moment that opens the floodgates for the rest of the cut. Then, the rest of the haircut is about getting your hair to the right length, making little edits here and there. You’ll want to cut not only lengthwise, but upwards in little snips so that the hair doesn’t fall completely straight. It’ll look more natural. A haircut is about procedure and patience, about writing your new self into existence.

An inch of my hair is now gone, along with some objects I’ve been hoarding for years and a few decimals on my bathroom scale. But I know they’ll come back, in some way or another. Weight will always be a part of life on a planet that depends on gravity to stay grounded. Nonetheless, as Aria Aber says in her lovely poem “Ode to My Hair, weight is also beautiful: “may you glow with the weight of love.”

When I cut my hair, I used a small, blue spray bottle to spritz my hair and keep it moist. This morning, I realized almost absent-mindedly that I use the same bottle to water my succulents, which I’m in the process of propagating. Did you know that you can propagate succulents by planting their cuttings? It’s magical: the leaves you remove from a stretched-out succulent not only make the original plant lighter, but also beget new life. Sometimes, I think cutting hair isn’t so much about removing dead split ends as it is about growth. When I’m older, I’ll remember that the first time I cut my own hair was in my 20s. I’m still at an age where I’m learning how to be more generous, kinder to myself, and lighter in meaningful ways. Yes, hair is everything, and a haircut can often make you think about everything. So, here’s to hair: the strands we shed, the split ends we trim, and the new locks that grow back.

Reenactments

HONG KONG REVIEW OF BOOKS 香港書評

May Huang reviews a stunning debut collection of poems.

Hai-Dang Phan, Reenactments: Poems and Translations (Sarabande Books, 2019), 88pp.

To “reenact” is to repeat an event that took place in the past, often through performance. Reenactments, Hai-Dang Phan’s stunning debut collection of poems and translations, is a platform for a series of reenactments that explore the legacy of the Vietnam War. Like a stage production, the poems often blur the boundary between truth and fiction as they retell different versions of the past. The poem that begins the collection, “Small Wars,” starts with a line that may appear harmless when lifted out of context: “it was my turn to play dead.” And yet, over the course of the poem, the speaker’s pretend death begins to feel too real: “black smoke seeped into my eyes and blood rushed to my head.” Throughout the collection, Phan shows how the trauma of…

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