The summer before my sophomore year of high school, the year I transferred from public to private Catholic school, my friend Sarah and I decided to do one of those home box dye kits on my hair. I had brown hair, and I wanted to finally rebel. I wasn't going to go to Catholic school just another straitlaced nerd.
So I got a box that was probably two shades darker than my natural color. I was going full Frenchy from Grease. Sarah and I pulled out the instructions and read them in a "Hey look, pictures! HEY LOOK, GOOEY STUFF!" kind of way. She squirted the dark liquid on top of my head and then we sat and ate Little Debbie snack cakes and suddenly 30 minutes had passed, the time that we figured should yield the right chestnut brown.
It was black. Jet black.
(Apparently the instructions, the box, and everything else in the kit had warned it was an "express" dye.)
My mom picked me up, stared at my new "Marilyn Manson Does Colorado" style—about as fashionable in Colorado as organic hemp fleece is in Manhattan—and said patiently, "Well, hair always grows back."
I had gotten my wish: I was a rebel. An accidental one, but why advertise that? I started Catholic school wearing a black choker to match my black hair, and because the universe has a plan for all of us, I immediately met my first boyfriend, a sweet, redheaded pianist who fucking loved Ben Folds.
In order to please him, I adopted Ben Folds and his entire catalogue immediately, which saved me from actually going too deep down the inevitable goth-metal rabbit hole, where I would have ended up dressing like Rose McGowan at prom and trying to get the DJ to play Cradle of Filth. I probably would have never gone to that fantasy convention where I met Sean Astin and got a quote from him for my AP Lit paper on Tolkien's mythology.
Thank you, the universe.
We would sit in his red Volvo station wagon and listen to the 2002 Ben Folds Live album, memorizing his stage banter. Whatever and Ever Amen was paired with our hesitant make-outs, "The Battle of Who Could Care Less" scoring the fumbling of two pheromone-drunk teens who couldn't help but care the most about everything.
When he dumped me outside my house after seven months of tender, over-the-shirt groping, I pressed the "repeat" button on my stereo, and "Gone" off Rockin' the Suburbs played in an endless loop as I lay on the carpet, crying. The redheaded pianist left me; the one on the radio didn't.
What I Think Now
Ben Folds, and his erstwhile band Ben Folds Five, is ultimately silly. He is the antithesis of my black-haired sophomore self, and helped me realize I wasn't quite that dark either. Even when singing about abortion on "Brick," one of his most somber songs, he can't help but tickle those keys like they're about to take off running into a goof like "Army" or "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces."
Influenced so deeply by Sir Elton John's jaunty showmanship, Folds is less a trained pianist shifting his talents for a radio format and more a case study of what can happen when a talented player has an ear exclusively for pop. What happens is an artist who consistently relates to bummed-out teenagers, even as the artist himself veers headlong into middle age.
Because even when his songs are sad, they are wide, shallow, and easy to comprehend—potholes after a rainstorm rather than the ocean.
When I was 19, I got into a car accident, and while the drunk driver sped toward me in his rusted-out pickup on Easter morning, "Time" from Songs for Silverman played on the radio.
In time I will fade away
In time I won't hear what you say
In time, but time takes time you know
As the front end of the truck slammed in slow motion into my rear passenger door, I remember thinking: "'Time takes time you know'? Shit, I might be getting too old for Ben Folds."
Was It Worth It?
I still listen to both Ben Folds and Ben Folds Five. Because the man can fucking play the piano and he can write a pop song, and so many times in life you need that more than you need most things, especially when you dye your hair black accidentally and consider adopting it as a lifestyle.
Through Ben Folds I learned I was both silly and sad, maybe not quite as deep as I thought I was, and absolutely not cut out to listen to Evanescence.
It was worth it.