I Re-Listened to the Rent Soundtrack So That You Don’t Have To
Middle school was weird, huh? A lot of feelings. A lot of acne. A lot of hair growing on parts of your body you didn’t even know you had. A lot of listening to Meat Loaf (just me?).
One of the most popular middle school obsessions in my corner of the universe was Rent. I was a part of the generation of kids that got the Rent movie at the age when we were most primed to enjoy it: 13. If you were an “artsy” kid in 2005, you had to be fluent in Rentese. How else were you gonna understand all of those AIM away messages?
Last week, I went to the gym to get my swole on and decided to put on the OBC (Original Broadway Cast, for all you plebes) Rent soundtrack. I picked the Broadway version because in retrospect the movie is real weird (They’re all clearly in their mid-30s and that just makes it sad) and it’s the stage production that ignited the mania surrounding that story anyway. This was the first time I had listened to the album since…well, probably middle school. How was it, you may ask?
Fuck Mark. Seriously, fuck Mark. Mark embodies one of the first and most obvious problems with Rent: For a story about a bunch of people who supposedly only care about love and each other and capitalism sucks, they sure are a bunch of entitled dickweeds.
How entitled are they? Apparently they thought that they just didn’t have to pay rent. Who thinks that? Okay, maybe your boy Benny (who you repay by treating like shit, might I add) said he was gonna hook you up with a place to stay for free dollars, but then when he says “’Kay dudes, I really need you start paying some rent,” what do you say? “No.” Why not? “We don’t wanna.” Oh, and this whole rent issue that is the entire focus of the opening number? Never comes up again for the rest of the musical. I guess an in-depth examination of property law and squatter rights doesn’t exactly fire up the hormones of mid-pubescents everywhere, huh? But I digress.
Mark is asked by his ex-girlfriend to fix her equipment and save her show because he is a bitch. And then he complains about it the whole time because he is a bitch. And bad-mouths his ex to his ex’s new girlfriend because he is a bitch.
Mark is also the only character in the show (other than Joanne), who gets an actual real job in his chosen field. Sure, it’s doing field pieces for a tabloid news show called Slugline (subtle), but still, ya gotta start somewhere, right?
Apparently not. In a fit of ennui, Mark quits his presumably well-paid television gig (I know this because he shouts “I quit”), because, well, he doesn’t wanna do it anymore (and he’s a bitch). Also he wants to make his own film.
Remember how worried we all were about paying the rent?
Oh, and that “film?” It’s just a fucking montage. Like at a bar mitzvah. In fact, I’ve seen many a Bar mitzvah montage, also soundtracked by “Seasons of Love”, that are significantly better than that trash. Kubrick you ain’t, Marky boy.
One last thing: Did they HAVE to make the one guy in the story who decidedly doesn’t get laid Jewish? Thanks, homies.
Roger’s fine. I mean, he’s kind of a cyborg, but he’s alright I guess.
One of the problems with Rent is that the material does absolutely zero work to establish who these people actually are. I mean, they just give you a bunch of tropes, and expect you to fill in the rest. Hell, that’s probably one of the reasons why the piece continues to be so successful. The characters are so non-specific that you can identify yourself in literally any of them. “Sometimes I wanna be goofy and rebellious! I’m Maureen!” “Sometimes I like to party and not worry about tomorrow! I’m Mimi!” “I get weighed down by my past sometimes! I guess I’m Roger!”
Roger doesn’t have a personality and thus is not actually a human. Roger is a robot defined solely by his backstory and his jealousy. Why doesn’t he want Mimi to use heroin? Because the last girl he dated used heroin and she died that one time. Not because heroin is just, you know, bad. Why does he break up with her? Because she hooked up with Benny that one time. Yep, this pinnacle of progressive pre-teen zeitgeist comes with a potent dose of slut-shaming.
He also writes that shitty-ass song for his dying girlfriend. Honestly, it took you an entire year to write this bullshit? The song to “redeem [your] empty life?” She came back from the afterlife to hear you rhyme ‘mind,’ ‘find,’ and ‘hide?’ You’re cool with this being your legacy? Sheesh, bro.
Mimi is the textbook definition of a manic pixie dream girl. She exists solely to teach some dude to be less sad and that life can be fun and exciting after your girlfriend kills herself.
This is another character with no defined personality traits, except, of course, her relationship with Roger. And sometimes she’s a stripper. And she’s vaguely Spanish. Only vaguely, though.
Also, she’s a cat woman (i.e. a human girl who meows sometimes. Thanks for starting that trend too, Rent. Ariana Grande really appreciates it), but in her big showcase number she howls like a wolf. Make a choice and stick with it, dammit.
Collins + Maureen
Collins is actually chill. He’s a well-defined character with a clear point of view and inner emotional life. Plus he’s played by my man Jesse L. Martin. Shout out to Detective Ed Green.
Maureen is none of those things. She has no chill and is an atrociously written character. But it’s not really worth deconstructing at length because there isn’t much there besides “I’m a bisexual performance artist who sometimes cheats.” Plus, this is how the world was introduced to the one and only Adele Dazeem.
Either way, I’d rather use this section to talk about the thread of political protest that runs through Rent, because it infuriates me.
The main political thesis of this show? Computers are bad. Why are computers bad? Because…reasons? “Actual reality” is the quote.
But, um, why? I have done most of the creative work the characters in Rent do. I’ve written (thanks for reading!), I’ve recorded music, I’ve done theatre, I’ve even dabbled in some performance art and only vomited in my mouth a little. You know what all of those endeavors were made significantly easier by? Computers.
In fairness, Rent was written during the birth of paranoia about the consequences of a digitally interconnected world. But still? Who doesn’t like nice shit? Fucking artists. Useless.
Also, take a good listen to “Over the Moon” next time you get a chance. If you hadn’t been told before she started her “performance” that Maureen was protesting the eviction of the homeless people on a vacant lot down the street so Benny could build a shiny new building, would you have any idea that that’s what she was protesting? No. Because this protest is incofuckingherent. And doesn’t reference the homeless people once. It’s just a jumbled up cow metaphor and a chance to feed Maureen’s insatiable desire to be the center of attention.
And this supposedly starts a riot? Fuck off.
None of the “political action” in this show is actually political or actionable. It’s just words thrown together to feign progressiveness without saying or doing anything that the audience might find disagreeable. You’re welcome for the inspiration, Occupy Wall Street.
If you haven’t picked up on it by now, Rent’s biggest storytelling sin is its ceaseless insistence on telling, not showing. Angel is the primary example of that. After Angel dies, she’s described as the “soul” of the group, and her death is portrayed as this seismic event that shakes the very foundation of the clique.
Do we ever see her be the soul of the group? The cheerleader? The person whose energy everybody rallied around? Once. “Today 4 U.” And that’s only sort of. And it involved killing a puppy.
After that? Never. We kinda just have to take people’s word for it.
Really, after shacking up with Collins, Angel has no effect on the plot (insofar as there is a plot) until she dies. And all of a sudden she’s the inspiration for Mark’s movie. Because it is a nasty habit of young people (and people in general) to all of a sudden turn somebody into a saint and act like they were your best friend because they are dead now.
In fact, the whole group does this. If Collins introduces the group to Angel on Christmas Eve, and she dies the following Spring, then they only knew her for a few months. Six at the most. Yet they hog the stage at her funeral. So either one of two statements are true: Angel had zero close friends before she met Collins (unlikely), or the main characters of this play are assholes (certain).
Why does she hang out with these people? She’s a lawyer and she’s rich. She doesn’t need this shit. She subjects herself to this shit.
Taye Diggs. Lawl.
Lines From Rent That You Made Your AIM Away Message That Actually Don’t Mean Anything
-“‘Cause everything is rent.”
-“Let’s find a bar, so dark we forget who we are.”
-The entirety of “Over the Moon”
-“The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.”
-“I’d be happy to die for a taste of what Angel had! Someone to live for, unafraid to say I love you.” (You’re all the actual worst)
-“I don’t own emotion, I rent.”
-“When you’re dying in America at the end of the millennium, you’re what you own” (Also, Mark, you know a whole bunch of people who are literally dying. Maybe we should be taking it easy on the selling-out-soul-death metaphors for a little while, yeah?)
Dropping my distanced snark for a second:
I wonder how Jonathan Larson would have reacted to what his creation became in the public consciousness since it first opened on Broadway in 1996 and how it got appropriated to symbolize all forms of young person angst.
Pieces of art are written for a specific time, and Rent is no different. Sure, it has universal themes that transcend its late-80s setting, but Rent was primarily created as a vehicle of catharsis for a generation that had just lost a ton of friends to this awful disease that was ignored by “proper” society for so long. So the fact that these stories were being portrayed on stage, on a Broadway stage of all places, and was getting mainstream attention, was an unbelievable moment for a marginalized population. The Rent phenomenon, at least at first, never really was about the specifics of the material. It was about representation. Who cares if Angel’s character is kinda poorly written? What mattered was that a Hispanic, transgender woman died of AIDS, and that the world was attending her funeral. That’s what Rent was about. You wanna know what it was never about? A bunch of middle-class teenagers in the 21st century who are sad sometimes.
Something that Jonathan Larson couldn’t possibly have foreseen is that, as the very real AIDS-epidemic slips farther and farther away into our culture’s rearview mirror, a bunch of new people would approach this material completely out of context and use it to fuel their selfish, fatalistic, fucked up view of the world. Without an understanding of its history, that’s exactly what Rent is: A story about a bunch of narcissistic people living hedonistically until they die. What could possibly be more appealing to a teenager?
Rent is not a good musical. It’s just not. And that’s okay. It never had to be. Just maybe it’s time we all decide that we don’t do it anymore. Not unless we want to match it with renewed intention to reeducate the public about what the AIDS epidemic was and how it still affects our culture today. Rent in 2015 is a shell of what it was when the movie came out a decade ago, which was a shell of what it was when the musical opened two decades ago.
That’s the problem when a bunch of hormonal teenagers get their oily hands on something nice, it gets sapped of all its meaning. There is a difference between appreciation and appropriation. If you didn’t live through the AIDS crisis, the confusion and pain that permeates throughout the piece isn’t yours. It never was. Stop trying.
And pay your fucking rent.