My Adult Obsession with a High School Choir
I got my first look at John Burroughs High School’s Pop Show when I was 22, sitting at the desk of my first salaried job. I was a production assistant at a cable channel. The job came with vision insurance, which exhilarated my dad, and a cubicle TV, which I kept on through the entire workday because it helped convince me that time was still moving.
While channel-surfing one morning, I paused on Burbank’s public-access station. It was airing a fuzzy video of three teenage girls performing on an auditorium stage. I can’t remember which ballad they were singing — 15 years have gone by — but I can still see them wearing jeans and going-out tops, the kind of tops a mom won’t allow for school but will cave on for a routine. They held mics and tapped the emotional beats of the chorus with their middle, ring, and pinkie fingers. They had the conviction of robust shower singers.
One girl was clearly the top dog. One was in favor of arm choreography. One had been talked into it. It was like watching a living diary. I saw phone calls. Car rides. Weekends. You could feel the size of that night for them.
Many aspects of my workdays back then lacked meaningful scope. I rode elevators with people I wouldn’t recognize if I ran into them on the street. I wrote long numbers that meant nothing to me onto FedEx envelopes, then shipped them to people I’d never see. I could probably provide census-level information for most people on my floor but could barely make out the textures of their deeper lives. My job was about performing small tasks on a large stage. Watching three girls perform large emotions on a small stage felt like a spiritual punch.
Anyway, I grabbed a blank tape from my desk and popped it into the VHS recorder so I could watch the show again at home.
John Burroughs is a public high school in the center of Burbank. Ron Howard once attended it. The Wonder Years was shot there until some mysterious scheduling conflict in 1991 — a Los Angeles Times reporter described an interview with the supervising producer as becoming “strained” when he dug for the exact reason. It’s the kind of high school that just looks like a high school.
But at Burroughs, the Vocal Music Association is the football team. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an actual football team, just that it doesn’t win championships and the student body isn’t all that invested in its events. The choirs bring home the trophies. They’ve performed on Oprah, and they’re the ones that have the fun rivalry. One time, it got so heated at nationals that the Burbank High School choir walked around the Burroughs bus with a stuffed Tigger head on a spike (Burroughs had a circus-themed set that year).
A key factor in the choirs’ reputation is Pop Show. It takes place over a weekend in winter when the Vocal Music Association is preparing to embark on the competitive choral season. The week before the show, there’s a 30-minute assembly with the best numbers, and even the kids who prefer to shun extracurricular events are forced to attend. But mostly, people are excited that it’s Pop Show time. You sit behind somebody in algebra, and then you get to see what he looks like expressing himself in full force. There are heartthrobs and a ton of whoo-ing. One time, the whoo-ing for a shaggy-haired kid named Brandon was so insistent that a mom got on the mic during intermission to say, “Look, Brandon is taken.”
At Burroughs, the Vocal Music Association is composed of seven choirs. Some of these are defined by gender (there are no girls in Men @ Work) and some by style (the Muses and Vocal Ensemble both sing a cappella and have often featured a human beatbox). But there is an indisputable hierarchy of talent. If you enter the program, even as a lowly freshman, and you are a young Céline Dion, you will probably go straight to the advanced mixed choir. This is the aptly named Powerhouse.
Whereas the other choirs follow loose themes, you can count on Powerhouse for an emotional narrative. One year, the lights came up on the Burroughs stage, and it had been transformed into the white, wintry planet Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back. Fake snow blew from the rafters. Some of the kids wore C-3PO-inspired gold bodysuits with demarcated breasts; others wore chaps that looked like Chewbacca pelts. Partway through the set, cannons shot out dense smoke. The choir disappeared into it. Seconds passed, and then the whole crew burst forth from the cloud, everybody now in sequined rainbow costumes, and they were singing Katy Perry’s “Firework.” It was catharsis made tangible.
In between the competition sets, there are numbers that kids pick and direct themselves. If the sets are the structural support beams of the night, the songs in between are the fridge photos, the shelf of souvenirs, the pencil marks on the wall tracking growth. They make the house a home.
The kids mostly want to do popular songs — songs that mean something to them, songs that they believe say something about who they are, or at least how they wish everyone would see them. Many of the kids pull together their own costumes (I’ve seen Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” sung by a girl wearing a shrunken Sailor Moon dress). They choreograph their own numbers; there’s a lot of contemporary dancing but also more interpretive stuff. One year for “La Vie en Rose,” the soloist had a friend paint on an easel behind her while another ate a baguette in a miniskirt. The students help art-direct everything from the musical arrangements to the LED projections that play behind them like lyrical screensavers.
These more personal numbers offer the privilege of watching teenagers unfurl during a few shining minutes of believing they’re The Shit. Inside of the auditorium, there is love and never puppy love. There’s no joke that has been exhausted by a million other people. Everything they’re doing matters, regardless of how severely 15 years old they are.
When I was 13, my dad used to have me run into the pizza place to grab our order on the way home from dance class in my leotard and jazz boots. I know now that everyone in the place was either focused on getting paid or eating dinner, but back then I was convinced that they were impressed by the artistic promise and energy within me. “A dancer in this establishment? Mike, stop tossing that ball of dough and come see this!” Everything that emanates from the kids on the Burroughs stage feels in direct communication with the things that life distills on your deathbed: family, friends, love, dreams. The things that make you roll your eyes when you see them listed on a wooden kitchen sign at Bed Bath & Beyond but feel intimate when run through a song.
When I saw the girls’ performance on the Burbank Channel in 2002, Burroughs was already on Pop Show 23. Like I said, I took home the tape and watched it, and then I drove it up to a friend’s house in Palo Alto, where its romance was so effective that we got drunk, put on Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky,” and slow-danced in his parents’ den.
Within months, late winter had arrived, and I entered the auditorium of John Burroughs High to watch Pop Show 24. As I took my seat, there was a charge from the mixed energies of radiant parents and loud teenagers who hopped seats, flirted, and basked in the frequencies of being at school after dark. Although I had no connection to the school whatsoever, I felt a homeyness, like I’d found myself on the side of the window with the glowing table lamp. When the lights went down, there was a choking kind of excitement. The first kids came out and sang, and what can I say? The night was even more life-affirming than the broadcast had promised. From there, the show became my fall in February, my turning of the leaves.
With each year that went by, the Pop Show landscape became richer. Patterns emerged if you paid attention to who appeared in one another’s numbers, if you watched who stood where at curtain call, if you tracked the narrative bread crumbs in the program’s Senior Statements. One year, freshman Leatrice was a background player with a shy posture and glasses. The next, she was a dynamo alone on the stage, kicking off a Journey medley by ripping away a dress (a tinier one was underneath). Glasses gone, hair waved, freezing the breath of the whole auditorium. She was a coming-of-age tale inside of a power-anthem verse.
I began writing about Pop Show on a now-defunct blog in an attempt to extend the memory of what I’d seen. The feeling of the night was slippery, like dream logic, and I wanted to get it down. From the beginning, I’d written about an unusual singer-dancer named Caitlin Ary, who appeared mostly in ensemble numbers due to her underclassman status. But even in the background, Caitlin was a charismatic force — I described her as possessing an “intriguing balance of feminine and masculine qualities; she emerges like this super hybrid of everything that’s admirable in either gender.” Her hair was long and blond, her eyebrows, thick and dark, and her dancing had a violent determination. She would really pound the floor.
Within a week of my first post, the Burroughs kids showed up. Somebody must have set a “Pop Show” Google Alert. Eventually, Caitlin made it to the blog, commenting that she appreciated my thoughts on her unique quality “soooo freakin much.”
Keaton Savage (that name!) was one of my two favorite boys, both redheads. Keaton was on his way up behind Caitlin, with increasing presence in the show. I attributed a strong “Americana sparkle” to him, writing that he looked “like the kid on my collector’s Kellogg’s Corn Flakes bowl, except with a tiny gold hoop earring.” He had an obvious sweetness about him that naturally lilted his voice, even when he made a pivot away from croony R&B and toward Incubus numbers. After I wrote about Keaton, he added me as a friend on Facebook.
Tyler Mann was not a Corn Flake kid. Tyler Mann, I wrote, “kind of looks a little like Carrot Top minus all the dysfunction,” but he stomped around like Mick Jagger and sang as though his teeth were absolutely killing him. One year, Tyler performed a duet of “When Love Comes to Town” that I wrote was “so soul-shaking it was like love was coming to Burbank, and if you’re at all familiar with Burbank, then you understand what an enormous accomplishment this is.”
A few years after Caitlin left Burroughs, her little sister showed up. Keaton’s, too. The string on my original Pop Show hoodie finally broke, and I had to buy a new style I didn’t love as much. It was the circle of life.
By the time we got to the 2010 Pop Show (No. 31, subtitled “Right Now!” — a perfect summary of the teenage ethos), I’d seen two complete rounds of high schoolers out the door. I’d gotten so bored at my desk job that I’d written a novel, then quit the day I sold it. I’d been in a couple of serious relationships. I’d lived in five different apartments. I’d adopted a dog.
I flipped through the program while waiting for the lights to go down. The Vocal Music Association had stepped up production values with new full-color group photos. Keaton, now a college freshman, was seated down my row.
This Pop Show, in keeping with tradition, had a number of songs I used to hear in the car as a kid. “Overkill” by Men at Work (the Australian band, not Men @ Work). “Mad World” by Tears for Fears. Tyler, one of the few male singers in Pop Show history to get the coveted “diva spot” before the closing Powerhouse set, had braided his long hair into a curly mohawk, and he brought the goddamn house down with Heart’s “Alone.” Even as subsequent Burroughs classes aged further and further away from this era, they still went for its songs — some intuitive response to the monumental, high-stakes choruses. Songs from the ’80s had sent me off into adolescence with nearly supernatural expectations of what every day could look like in a relationship.
My dad was a financial consultant who saw the world in math problems, tax percentages, and alternate Southern California freeway routes. But he’d always had a tender affinity for heart-tugging pop, especially ballads. These were the songs that used to close out romantic comedies. Even in the ’90s, he would drive around listening earnestly to vintage Spandau Ballet, and he was the greatest fan I’ve ever known of the elfin harmonies of Savage Garden.
A few months before Pop Show 31, my dad died of brain cancer. During the performances that night, I kept tearing up. This was his music. The kids were singing it with such sensitivity.
At my dad’s funeral, a talented woman sang “Wind Beneath My Wings,” but I didn’t cry. She was there to do a job.
Keaton and Tyler, now in their mid-20s, are sitting in a corner booth at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank. I’m meeting them after all these years partly because I’m curious about what they’ve been up to, partly because I once watched them being their biggest selves, and I have this hope that some of what I saw back then has stayed with them. Keaton remains baby-faced and sunny. His short beard is a trench coat over two stacked kids; it doesn’t do much to age him. Tyler has kept his hair long, which I find uplifting. It’s like when a mom refuses to get that time-saving bob.
Although the gap between our ages hasn’t changed, the current phases of our lives now collapse it experientially. We’re all adults. We’re all renting our places and paying bills via fragile, strung-together creative incomes. I’m mostly a screenwriter. Keaton is mostly an actor. Tyler is mostly a voice actor for various Disney shows. He makes some money singing, too. This has meant joining caroling companies, recording jingles, fronting many cover bands. He’s now working on an album with an indie singer-songwriter feel. Keaton has started singing again for some producers, and he’s out there auditioning (the homepage of his website amusingly describes him as “real, not too attractive”).
As I sit down in the booth, Keaton beams at me, as open as ever. Tyler seems a bit more suspicious. Just that week I’d received an email from a therapist I saw when I was 11. She said she was cleaning out her files and found a drawing I did that shows my “amazing fortitude and talent” — do I want it? When I find out my childhood therapist has been holding onto a guaranteed shitty drawing I did more than 20 years ago, I have trouble making sense of it. I imagine that Tyler feels a similar mystification, except my therapist was paid to care about me.
I tell them I’m going to give my impressions of them when they were in high school, and they can let me know how I did. I liken Keaton to Archie Andrews (not the anguished one on the recent CW reboot but the Rockwellian original) and call his past self a little angel. He laughs. “I was definitely the goody-two-shoes kid. Very involved. Very closeted.”
I bring up an interaction I remember him having during the 2007 show with a blond girl sitting in the front row. He’d sing his numbers down to her; she’d bunch her knees to her chest, giggle, and shake her head. At first, Keaton can’t remember any of this, and it’s weird to think I might have a stronger memory of a moment from his life than he does. But then things start to come back a little, and he shows me a picture of a blonde on Facebook for confirmation. It is, indeed, the older version of the girl.
“I’m dying remembering this. I had the weirdest almost relationship with this girl,” he says. “I vividly remember almost kissing her once.”
Two years after that show, Keaton would come out as gay. His boyfriend was in Powerhouse, too, and they’d make their first public appearance in matching green shirts duetting John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change.” A performance that, of course, I remember.
We move on to Tyler. “I pictured you as a little bit of a tortured artist,” I say. “You were always doing big productions with the backup singers.” There was something antsy about him, a feeling of wanting everything to happen for him right in that moment.
“Yeah, that’s pretty accurate,” Tyler agrees, seeming amused that I’ve put this level of thought into his backstory. He tells me his family originally moved to California from North Carolina so that he could try to break into show business. Soon after, he was cast in the Los Angeles premiere of the musical 13, and Keaton, along with several other choir students and teachers, had gone to the show. So when Tyler showed up to audition at Burroughs after that —
“I was just like, Oh fuck,” laughs Keaton.
Keaton ended up as Tyler’s understudy for the Powerhouse solo, even though Keaton had seniority. I ask Keaton if it felt like that was his entire life on the line, whether he got the solo.
He answers, “Oh, it was my year.”
And I think, That’s right. When you’re a teenager, you’re connected to time like a farmer. You can’t see too far forward. You feel the seasons, even in the San Fernando Valley. They don’t roll together into three years in this apartment, five years at this job. You understand the specific qualities of each interval; there’s a synesthetic phenomenon between the school calendar and your brain.
The last year I attended Pop Show was in 2011. There are two reasons why this happened, although it wasn’t a conscious decision. The first is that 2011 was Tyler’s last show, and he was the last of my original favorites. The second is that I had a kid in 2012. The months got away from me, and Februaries took a back seat to other markers of time: sleep training, getting balloons for her birthday.
Keaton and Tyler both stopped attending Pop Show within a few years of graduating, once they didn’t know the kids in it anymore. They speak of the choir with nostalgia, and it seems clear to them that back then, they were triumphant, they had a place, they were home.
“It felt great,” Keaton says. “Like this is the Keaton Savage that I’ve always wanted to be, living up to my name. The most ridiculous name.”
Tyler nods. “That’s where all the dots connect for me. When I was up there, I was like, Come for me. Let’s go.”
Keaton and Tyler are still sometimes stopped by people who remember a song they did, “especially while we’re here in Burbank,” says Tyler. “People will remember you, and it will be a little moment of Oh, my God, it’s still there.”
As for their careers now, they both feel like, Well, these are the cards, and we hope things work out. They say, “Cool, man, cool” when hearing of each other’s projects. They know it’s just wait and see. While my own screenwriting career seems doomed every other day, when it comes to the Pop Show kids’ futures, I’m insistently buoyant. It feels impossible to me that people wouldn’t see their worth. I will always, for the rest of my life, be delighted to see Keaton’s face appear on the TV screen. I’ll buy Tyler’s album as soon as it comes out. It turns out I’m the guy in the pizza place bowled over by the dancer in the jazz boots. If these kids were once filled with the belief that people were in awe of them, was it ever that silly a conviction?
The Pop Show redheads ping-pong off each other, talking about the people they used to spend almost all their time with. Keaton breaks, seeming a little perplexed. “It’s so weird how high school names … how they just feel so specific, and to everyone else they mean nothing.”
They reminisce about the three-day retreats the choir used to have so the kids could bond. Often the student president of the Vocal Music Association would make a speech at the end of the weekend, and that job fell to Keaton his senior year. Jen, the program’s artistic director, had just given a talk about needing a choir exit program because people who leave don’t know what to do with all this energy and stamina they’ve built up for this thing they used to do.
So then Tyler remembers Keaton getting up and saying, “Look, you guys, I know Jen is saying these are the best years of your life, and yes, these are really great years —”
Tyler cracks up, thinking about the mood that Keaton had to salvage: “He says, ‘But I just want to say that it’s only going to keep getting better from here. Don’t worry about it!’ ”