In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing
A couple of weeks ago, Marnie set a new bar for Girls episode cringe-worthiness by guilting Hannah into singing “Take Me Or Leave Me” at the latter’s birthday party, despite Hannah’s insistence that “the last thing [she wanted] to do is sing anything from Rent.” That move must have been horrifying for all viewers, but one that resonated with me personally because, sadly, I was one of those high-school girls who were obsessed with Rent. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I was far from alone in this club, but still haven’t grown any more okay with it. From about 1996 to 1999, I knew every word to every song from the hit Jonathan Larson musical, and to this day, I catch myself singing “Seasons Of Love” more than any other song. And, God, do I hate myself for it.
That’s because, over the years, I’ve come to realize that, despite what I thought when I was 16 or 17, Rent isn’t actually very good. Its ham-fisted look at bohemian life in New York City, coupled with the sensationalism of drugs and (gasp!) AIDS and gay people is Broadway theater at its worst. The play takes a serious, tough issue, sets it to hokey chords, and pushes it toward the masses. While it’s definitely sad that Larson died right when Rent launched its off Broadway run, I’ve come to think that it’s okay to think—or even say—that the best-known work of a man who died young is pretty shitty.
When I was in high school, my jam was “I’ll Cover You,” a duet between Angel, the play’s token drag queen, and Collins, the Rent gang’s de facto dad. At the time, I thought I was especially progressive for loving this declaration of love between two men, but in hindsight, I’m not entirely sure why I liked the song more than any of the others. While lines like “Just pay me back / With one thousand kisses” surely appealed to the teen romantic in me, others like “I think they meant it / When they said you can’t buy love / Now I know you can rent it / A new lease you are, my love,” just make me cringe now. And just forget about the line “I’ll be your moat.”
I suppose the sentiment is nice enough, but, more than anything, “I’ll Cover You” just reminds me now, almost 15 years later, that I spent hours, days, weeks, and years obsessed with something that hasn’t held up at all for me. I’d call it a waste, but it helped me find a tribe at the time. While I’d sooner die than pull a public Marnie anytime soon, if it turns out I spent my youth living and breathing songs from Rent just so I’d get a deeper understanding of one weird episode of Girls, then maybe it was worth it.