I Just Wanted to Fly Solo: A Night at the Sugar Ray Festival
At 6 p.m. on a Sunday night I’m driving an hour outside of Ann Arbor to attend the Clarkston, Mich., stop of the Under the Sun tour, which celebrates “the golden age of nineties pop rock ‘n’ roll with Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray, Gin Blossoms, Vertical Horizon and Fastball.”
I am alone and wearing jorts and a baseball T-shirt, onto which I have Sharpied “MRS. RAY.” I am only slightly depressed that none of my friends in town seem to see the Under the Sun tour as the can’t-miss cultural event that it is. Mostly I’m glad, because now it’ll be much easier for me to really get in there and be a Sugar Ray superfan for the night.
On the way to the venue, I play the same two Disclosure songs for 30 miles straight and get into character. “No one’s done anything like ‘Every Morning’ since 1999,” I say into the rearview mirror. “Such a chill song. Perfect for summer. We’ll never get another Mark McGrath.”
I sincerely believe all these things to be true.
When I get to the parking lot, I pause in my car for a second and smoke some weed, feeling like a loser. Fastball is already on—I can hear “The Way” from the parking lot—but people are tailgating, and near me, someone’s blaring Sugar Ray.
Suddenly self-conscious and also suspecting that I have overestimated the number of attendees who think this event is in any way funny, I walk into the DTE Energy Musical Theatre, which is a 15,000-cap venue, and get a beer from a guy standing over a cooler at the base of the stairs leading to the general-admission lawn. He asks for my ID. When he hands my license back, he says, “You’re a lot better-looking in person.”
“Cool,” I say. “Cool to know. Do you like Sugar Ray?”
“Sure,” he says. “Whatever.”
I climb the stairs in a hyper-aware state, entering a sea of earnest, clean-cut white Midwesterners jamming out with incredible enthusiasm to Vertical Horizon, who have taken Fastball’s place. I make my way around the arc of the lawn surrounding the covered pavilion and sit down at the very left edge of the grass.
Surrounded by groups, I start texting. You’re never alone when you have technology, I tell myself, and then look around, wondering how I’m going to get my journalistic in with the Sugar Ray crowd.
Then a guy taps me on the shoulder: “What’s a pretty girl like you doing here by yourself?”
For the minute it takes us to walk up the lawn to this guy’s group of friends, I think about the advantages conferred by my physical self, which is such—small, smiley—that I’ve enjoyed years of valuable impunity in two of my most fond pastimes: consuming substances in public and soliciting personal information from strangers.
We sit down in a loose knot of people, and this guy—Scott—introduces me to his friend Jake, who’s wearing a polo shirt and a goatee. “You’re gonna love this, actually,” Scott says. “We’re here with like the only black guy in this whole place.”
“Why would I, in particular, love that more than anyone else?” I ask sweetly.
“Seriously, he’s the only black guy here,” Scott says, motioning to another friend.
“You should be proud of yourself,” I say, and watch him nod as I introduce myself to Jake.
“Gear?” Jake queries.
“Jia,” I repeat.
“Jeeyar?” he asks, perplexed. The music is not very loud on the lawn, and it’s still daylight, but we are conversing at a volume and confusion level that I associate with last call.
“Ji-a,” I shout.
“What—like, what sort of—what is that origin—”
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “Hey, who are you here to see?”
“Sugar Ray,” says Scott. “Mark McGrath is the dude.”
“Totally,” I say. “A few weeks ago I was listening to Sugar Ray in a pool and wishing that a plane would skywrite ‘MARK MCGRATH’ in big loops across the sky, and then he’d parachute into the backyard and shotgun a beer.”
They look at me, jarred.
“Sorry, I’m pretty stoned,” I say.
“Damn!” Jake says. He holds his fist out for me to bump. “I’ve never met anyone like you. Damn, that’s so badass. You’re just here by yourself and you’re stoned? Damn, I’ve never met another girl who would do anything like that.”
My hackles go up. Jake’s game is basic. But I am curious about him, so I ask him what sort of music he listens to—normal stuff, he says, motioning to the stage; stuff like this, good stuff—and then I essentially interview him until the seventh time he tries to hit me with a combo fist-bump/appearance-based compliment after I voice a very pedestrian opinion (“Summer’s the best,” is what I’d said, blandly).
I decide to stop talking for awhile. After a few minutes of watching the people on the hill, I say spontaneously that everyone looks pretty in this light—it was truly lovely; golden, limpid and warm, fireflies starting to light up everywhere in that Midwest summer way—and Jake looks at me as if I were a tiny dog that just did a trick and pronounces, “You’re, like, a goddess. I’ve never met anyone like you, a girl who just thinks these things.”
“I think that’s on you,” I say. “I get the feeling you’re pretty sexist.”
“That’s a really mean thing to say,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” I say. The sativa blend is making my thoughts feel like Tetris pieces as they come out of my mouth. “I’m not trying to slight you. I’m just getting a read on you as the type of person who expects women to be dumb.”
He looks at me sadly. “That’s not true at all.”
“Okay,” I say. “I’m sorry if it’s not. But anyway, like I said, I have a boyfriend.”
“But he’s not here.”
I repeat myself: he’s home teaching a class.
“You love this music so much that you came here all by yourself?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I just… really love Sugar Ray.”
“Some of the best music ever made,” he says, initiating our eighth fist-bump.
Under the pavilion and close to the stage, a huge group of people sway to a Vertical Horizon song, waving their hands on the one and three like air traffic controllers. Then the song’s done, and the band bids us goodbye. “This was our tenth time at this venue,” says the lead singer. “The first time was 1992!”
They are immediately replaced by Gin Blossoms, who come out on stage yelling what’s up Detroit! The lawn erupts with cheering as the lead singer’s voice echoes: “This is real Detroit, the real deal right here!” The guys around me are yelling “DE-TROIT! DE-TROIT!”
We are 40 minutes away from downtown Detroit. It’s time to go.
“Great to meet you,” I say, and walk down the lawn. I go to the bathroom, where two girls are crammed into the stall next to me. I think they’re rolling a joint. “Which end do I lick, bro,” one of them stage-whispers, and they start giggling.
Here are my people, I think, feeling warmth in my heart. I wonder if they’ve grown up here and, if so, if they’re accustomed to guys acting amazed at their personhood.
With a new beer, I walk to the bottom-middle of the lawn section, leaning against a railing and resting my cup on the ledge. After a minute, a guy in plaid cargo shorts comes up to me, introduces himself as Brian and asks me what sort of music I’m into.
“I really love Sugar Ray,” I say, motioning to my shirt. When he holds out his fist, my reaction comes out as a stifled yelp. Did Jake put you up to this?
“What about you?” I ask.
“Lot of hip hop,” he says.
“Me too!” I say happily. “What’s been your favorite release this year?”
“You probably wouldn’t know it,” he says. “But, a guy called J Cole.”
“Uh, sure,” I say. “Yeah, I’ve listened to that album a bunch. I wish the Miguel song weren’t 1,000 percent better than anything else on it.”
“You actually know your shit,” he says, impressed. “You actually really like music. Hey, you’re not like most girls, are you.”
I jump to the immediate conclusion this man is an inferior rube whose favorite things are Macklemore and chicken nuggets. Then I try to remember I’m wearing tiny jorts and a T-shirt that says “MRS. RAY.” Don’t be such an asshole, I tell myself. Don’t be such a snob.
“So, why are you here by herself?” he asks.
“I like doing things by myself,” I say.
“You should have someone here to take care of you.”
“What specifically do you mean by that?” I ask. “You know, I’m going to be honest—I’m not feeling this at all. I’m here mostly because I’m a writer and I thought this would be interesting. Which it is, but not how I thought.”
Brian looks sad. “You don’t actually like this music?”
“It’s not my current thing,” I say. “I mean, I can appreciate it for sure. We are currently living the American Dream.”
He holds out his fist again as Gin Blossoms breaks into “Hey Jealousy.”
“But even in a technical sense,” I add, one hand resolutely on my beer and the other on my water, “these bands are not good. I don’t know if the original arrangements just sound outdated and they’re afraid to deviate, or—”
“Deviate,” he says. “Big word. You know your shit. I’m a musician.”
I ask what he plays.
I ask what he’s best at.
“Vocals,” Brian says. “Definitely vocals. I kill at vocals.”
I ask if he’s in a band.
“No,” he says. “It’s hard to be in a band. But I know I’d kill it if I was.”
“It’s hard to be in a great band,” I say. “But it’s not actually hard to be in a band. And the music industry is tough for sure, and it’s changing, like anything, but I sort of think that music is like the current writer’s market, where good people can get noticed very quickly.”
“You’re too smart for your own good,” he says.
I cough on a mouthful of beer. “That’s so rude,” I say. “Would you ever say that to a guy?”
“I don’t know,” he mumbles.
“You probably think I’m a big hater,” I say, and he nods. “I’m not actually a hater at heart. Just in my head sometimes.”
“Well, right now you’re definitely using your head too much,” he says ruefully.
I realize I am only still talking to Brian because I’ve been too lazy to stand up. Then Sugar Ray takes the stage.
“Booty call!” shouts Mark McGrath, looking well-preserved in a black short-sleeve button down and white pants. “Detroit, I’m coming tonight!”
I say goodbye and walk away as the band wrenches itself pitchily into the raucous yell of “Every Morning.”
During Sugar Ray’s set, this great expanse of white people in colorful summer clothing gets frisky and wild. Girls are dancing barefoot, couples are holding each other prom-picture style, bouncing back and forth with their hands clasped together in the air. Hundreds of mini-universes are contained around me; lots of teenagers are bidding for affection and sneaking beer. I finish mine and jump into a circle of dancing twentysomethings, bumping hips with a girl in red shorts. But when the song ends, I feel awkward and walk away quickly, taking a seat at the opposite end of the lawn, close to where I came in.
Mark McGrath is shouting out the troops. “I know it sounds a little strange to go on like this,” he shouts, his hair gelled perfectly vertical. “But these 19-year-olds, out there, protecting us so we can do this—” His voice cracks with sincere emotion, and the crowd goes wild again, and suddenly he breaks into “Fly.” It’s an extended version; when I think it’s ending, McGrath drops into an interlude where he chants “fly, fly, fly, fly, fly, fly, fly” over a (pretty badass) vamping bass, and then embarks on what feels like a seven-minute coda.
I’ve got some space. I’m into this. This song is a good-times classic.
As “Fly” ends, a man in his late forties comes up to me and without introduction tells me that I need to get with his son. “He’s really hot,” he says.
“That’s a weird thing to say,” I say.
“Well,” says the man, “I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this, but you’re beautiful. And you should be with someone beautiful.”
“Like Mark McGrath,” I say, pointing to my shirt.
“Where are you from? Like, what ethni—”
“Yuck,” I say. “Hey, can you take a picture of me really quick?” I want to prove to myself that I didn’t imagine all of this.
He does, and then pulls out his own phone. “Let me—”
I don’t hear the rest because I’m walking away, up the soft green grass. Sugar Ray is covering “Blister in the Sun” and the arena has achieved Peak Midwest Summer Joy. The sun is dropping behind the lawn. Smash Mouth hasn’t gone on yet, but I am suddenly very aware that I need to leave. Nothing has actually transpired here, but this has not been the chill night I had hoped for; these guys have not been chill bros. The Under the Sun tour has unexpectedly turned into a reminder of what often happens when you are a girl and you go someplace alone: you are (at the very least) objectified, which leads to being (at the very least) underestimated, and the times that that has served me well as a writer are far outweighed by the times I have been harassed, roofied, groped in public, followed or forced to hide in foreign grocery stores as the person who’s been stalking me lopes ominously by.
At the same time, the overt aggression of those events made them easier to quantify—less, or at least differently insidious than this tomfoolery tonight. These guys at Sugar Ray Fest, if they read this, might flat-out call me a bitch for bridling at what was just them trying to be nice, trying to see what a nice girl was doing there alone. But I wasn’t actually alone, because you are never alone when you’re with Sugar Ray, and anyway I couldn’t actually be alone because of all my new sexist pals. All night I’ve been wondering if all the women in these dudes’ lives get treated like talking mannequins or if it’s just a few of them, or what.
As I drive home through the dark hush of Michigan farmland, I pull the thread of my discomfort and catch out the night that I was 13 and snuck into a hotel pool in Galveston and a paunchy man in his fifties gave me my first drink of alcohol ever—a Jack and water in a clear plastic cup, delivered with a gender-specific grin and a pronouncement conferred to be as much of a senses-dulling gift as my tasty cocktail. “You’re pretty,” he said, and I was young and I still thought that was the most important thing, and for a second I was desperately, sincerely grateful.