It was the summer 1999. I was just eight months shy of my first period. In other words, I was on the brink of womanhood, but just not quite there yet. I was wearing training bras, but nothing had yet ascertained the fact that yes, I was indeed a bonafide Woman with a capital W. And then, when I was doubting my youth and my hormones, it happened: I discovered "Genie in A Bottle," by Christina Aguilera.
Make no mistake — I had already been listening to Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette for three years at this point, and very much thought the lyrics "the cross I bear that you gave to me" were "the cross-eyed bear that you gave to me," indicating that Dave Coulier gave Alanis a stuffed bear with visual incapacities. I sang "Criminal" by Fiona Apple alone in my room. I honed my best Jewel impression during these very formative years. I was a walking ad for VH1 and the Lilith Fair. Where have all the cowboys gone, you ask? Why, Paul Cole would know the answer, yippee-yi-yippee-yay.
I liked The Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, but I really needed a song that defined by youthful effervescence sung by a woman to which I could also dance alone in my room. Britney Spears came along with "Baby One More Time," and I danced around in my bedroom wearing a cardigan, sports bra and skirt; I knew all of the moves to her choreography, and the best word to describe my dancing would be enthusiastic. But I wanted something to which I could sing; I was an aspiring singer-actress at the time (the operative words there are "at the time"), and I wanted a fun pop song that would let me belt out my young vocal chords.
And right when I needed that song — a song to dance to that would make me feel like a bonafide pop singer — I heard "Genie In A Bottle," appropriately enough, on my way to see a Britney Spears concert (with my Dad, no less. If you ever find yourself in a time capsule and see the Britney Spears episode of MTV's All Access, you'll see my head right before the credits! I'm wearing a bucket hat, because I'm cool and in 1999!). In that moment, all I could think was — this is it. This is THE SONG. What a voice. What a talent. She's my musical heroine.
Since the single was not yet on sale and wouldn't be for a couple of weeks, I did what any music-loving girl in the late '90s would do: I sat by my boom box for hours with my finger ready to push "record" on the tape deck at a moment's notice, waiting until the Top 40 radio station would play the song. After days of waiting to hear "Genie in A Bottle," it finally happened. It was on the radio. I pressed record. I owned the song. And I had worked for it. I promised myself that I would learn every word to the best of my ability, and I would find a place to sing it. I would share "Genie in A Bottle" with the world. It was my mission. I was a missionary for Aguilera.
Fortunately, I was about to attend sleepaway camp for the first time, which is an excellent place to share new music. I was entering camp in the middle of the summer or "the second session," so all of the first session kids had been living in their camp box-hole for the past four weeks, and hadn't heard any new music. This was the perfect place for me to spread my new favorite song.
But if you want to talk about developing womanhood, this was the place to talk about it, because I was attending Jewish sleepaway camp. If you don't know anything about Jewish sleepaway camp, let me briefly educate you: it is where, to quote Aguilera's song, "hormones [race] at the speed of light." To further quote the song, "but that don't mean it gotta be tonight." Jewish sleepaway camp was a place where ("baby, baby, baby") hormones would run rampant; in tween's nascent states of puberty and in the absence of parental supervision, it was a hotbed for attempts at Bacchanalia. Counselors tried to stop us from expressing our youthful urges, and sometimes, those attempts worked — it wasn't until a few years later that we would stand around in a circle, taking turns making out with other people (how I never walked away with mono is still a mystery of science to me). But regardless, Jewish sleepaway camp is where boys and girls become men and women, even before they become bar and bat mitzvahs.
But let's get back to "Genie in A Bottle" — or the real genie in a bottle who had been "locked up tight, for centuries of lonely nights" — AKA me. I wanted to sing and express my LADY POWERS. So when I found out that my age group would be having a karaoke night, in which we'd bring songs and sing along with a microphone in front an audience, which was my favorite thing ever, I was so excited that I nearly got my period. But I didn't. Yet.
Instead, my body said "let's go" and knew it was time to perform "Genie in A Bottle." So naturally, I had to dress like a pop star. I decided to wear a super cool outfit — Mudd bell bottom jeans, hiking boots, an unzipped hoodie and underneath all of that — a belly shirt. However, I did not have a belly shirt, and since my sweatshirt was navy blue, I knew I couldn't wear a black belly shirt because of Fashion Laws, so I needed something baby blue or white. I opted for my friend Sarah's blue crop top, which actually was a sports bra. I looked in the mirror, and saw "POP STAR" written all over my youthful bod. I even wore one of those body-wire necklaces.
So when the moment came, and it was time for karaoke night to begin, my heart started pounding. I was going to perform "Genie in A Bottle." And I was wearing a BELLY SHIRT in public! I had only ever worn a belly shirt in my bedroom while pretending I was one of Britney Spears's back-up dancers. I couldn't wait much longer, but thanks to my enthusiasm, I was able to perform first. I was ready. I knew all of the words (I thought), my voice was in tip-top shape, and I even had a dance that involved bumping and grinding, but I had no idea it was that because I was a tween who watched MTV. I thought that was just "what people do."
I got up and looked out into a sea of puberty. I gave the counselor my tape of the radio recorded "Genie in A Bottle." He pressed go. I heard the music start.
I started singing "ooohhh-oooohhh-ooh. I feel like I've been locked up tight."
For the next three minutes and change, I danced in a hypersexual way, indicating my body was saying let's go, I belted out the lyrics, and was so excited that now a whole bevy of dudes would be into me for my VOICE! Duh. It was my voice.
The song finished, and the crowd erupted in applause.
"Girl, you can sing!" A couple of counselors and campers said. I felt like I had done my work as a citizen: I had spread the song "Genie in A Bottle." My rewards were these compliments and all of those boys' stares. I felt so fly, I even forgot about how bad my preteen dandruff was.
So I went on throughout the summer believing that my newfound attention was all because I could sing the hell out of "Genie in A Bottle," but then, when I got my pictures developed from my disposable camera (1999, guys), there was one of me, singing "Genie In A Bottle." That was it! I thought. That was my defining moment at camp When people realized that I — are those my nipples?
What are those two things you can clearly see through the shirt? That was a crop top, right? Not a sportsbra? Jockey makes belly shirts...right?
My choice of apparel was undeniably see-through, and yes, those were my nipples, and my not-quite-A-cups were entirely visible through that not-quite-shirt. For the entire three minutes that I thought I had been giving the world a gift of song, I had actually been giving them a gift of boobs. My boobs. Everyone had seen my boobs.
That's why they were staring.
And then, I realized, that I had reached adulthood. Appropriately enough, a few months later, I woke up with my period, although deep down I know that it wasn't my period that confirmed my womanhood — it was "Genie in A Bottle." Hormones were racing at the speed of light, indeed.