Playlist: Barbell Bangers

I’ve been powerlifting. It’s the first and only sport where I have ever, in my whole life, felt like I have any kind of skill and like my body is an asset rather than a hindrance. Mass moves mass; often, a body that is larger is a body that is stronger; and as I’ve been feeling the barbell get heavier and heavier in my hands or on my back, I’ve finally begun to appreciate what mine can do. I can feel myself transforming, I feel strength where I previously felt tightness or pain. If I lift in the morning before work, when I get to the office I walk around thinking “you have no idea how much weight I can pick up” like I have a secret identity that my colleagues don’t know about. And I have become a total nightmare to my partner who now has to constantly put up with being asked to look at how strong my legs are or how defined my delts are and my suggestions that I could probably deadlift him if he was into it.

I showed a friend some videos of my favorite lifters (Jessica Beuttner, Brittany Schlachter, Evie Corrigan, and Tamara Walcott are currently a few of the heroines on my list) and she asked me why they snuggle their feet into the ground, wave their hands over the bar, or do other little pre-deadlift dance moves before they pull. I told her that it’s 50% actually setting up your body so that your muscles engage in the way that you need them to, and 50% voodoo that tricks your brain into remembering how your body works. And I realized it’s just like singing. When my coach yells at me to push the ground away or stack my lats, it’s just like when my voice teachers would implore me to lift my sound, or bring it forward, or support from below or (my favorite) let each individual note slide out of my mouth like pearls on a string. These are metaphors that make the body act: they put into words the feeling of muscles and tissue moving and working in a particular way — and when I internalize, feel, and trust these words, it lets my body do something incredibly difficult, like hitting a high soprano C in tune or lifting a 300 lb barbell off the floor.

Songs have started doing this to for me, too. The songs I listen to on the way to the gym are almost all big and relentless. If I’m in the car, I sing along with them obnoxiously loudly and it feels incredible: it forces me to draw energy from my gut, to muscle my way through melodic peaks and valleys, to breathe deep and low and full, to control my breath the same way I need to control it for a heavy rep. It’s a physical warmup and an emotional warmup; it reminds me that I can be strong and I can be loud and that I’m doing it for nobody’s benefit but my own.

If music school is good for one thing, it’s sucking the joy out of music. So it’s not shocking that I had a fraught relationship with singing for a while (find me a singer who doesn’t have a version of this story). For a few years I avoided it. Then I started to miss it. Then the year before we left LA, I joined an experimental vocal group where we made the weirdest sounds you could get the human voice to produce, and that started to open things up for me again. The point wasn’t to fit someone’s idea of musical beauty or success, the point was to play, to experiment, and to build and grow and be more ambitious as musicians. Suddenly, singing held possibility again. Shouting along with my personal collection of barbell bangers before going to the gym and picking up heavy shit is another manifestation of that feeling of possibility. Part of why powerlifting feels so good to me right now is because it’s brought me back to my singing voice in a way that I thought I’d lost; I’m building new muscles and they’re reviving old muscle memories.