I must have been three years old. I was sitting on the children’s seat in the back of the car. The interior was dirty and an ugly tan. I stared at the floor in front of me and studied the shadow underneath the front seat. I turned my head and looked at the overgrown bush growing over the brick fence. The radio was playing “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” The car was parked in our driveway.
I’m in a café. I’m 34 years old. The café is playing eighties pop tunes and “What’s Love Got to Do With It” comes on. The song is evacuated of all its intended meaning. It does not mean heartbreak. It means ugly, dirty tan car interior, green shrub, red brick. It means tan, green and red.
This is a universal experience, I’m sure. The culture of the first few years after one is born connect with the primal state of any toddler, whose brain is developing at a rapid rate, whose perception of the world is still wrapped in synaesthesia. A man born in 1961 may have a similar reaction to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” A child today, poor soul, may one day have a similar reaction to Taylor Swift.
This effect slowly dissipates throughout your childhood and probably disappears around the time of puberty. My mother’s boyfriend was a Dylan fan. I remember hearing Bringing It All Back Home on a cassette tape during a trip when I was nine years old. When I got the album on CD when I was 16, the lyrics had a political meaning, but hidden within the sounds of those words and of Dylan’s voice then and to this day, was the cramped backseat of my mother’s boyfriend’s black Porsche.
It takes awhile for visual and aural sensations to carry political meanings. I don’t know when a child breaks out of the pre-political state. Is it when he first recognizes an injustice in his own life, the first time he declares something “unfair” for himself? Is it the first time he declares something “unfair” for someone else? Who knows. A good part of my childhood was spent at a computer and in front of the television, reading comics, reading Shel Silverstein. I didn’t listen to much music at all during this time, other than Billy Joel, and the soundtracks to musicals.
The visual sensations on television ran together. In Media Studies, we have described the “flow” of television programming of this period, by which any number of sounds and visual sensations of various sitcoms, commercials, sportscasts and news shows flow into each other into a singular almost infinite entity that the viewer dips in and dips out of. After awhile, it’s hard to distinguish between the various sensations. It may be even harder for children.
So in the late eighties there was “Who’s the Boss?”, which I didn’t watch very much at all, but did feature a young blonde boy named Danny Pintauro. I don’t remember a single line he spoke. All I remember is the visual impression of his stature, standing behind a living room couch staring at a tall likable man played by Tony Danza. I also remember any number of AIDS PSAs from this time, which seemed to show up periodically in commercials. I remember sitting with my mother and brother at age 7 and watching the 1988 presidential debate in which George Bush said AIDS was related to behavior. It all flowed together. There were inputs from the ages of 5-10 that meant something to me close to their original meanings: G.I. Joe, Little Shop of Horrors, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Princess Bride, He-Man and The Legends of Zelda. Pintauro, “AIDS”, George Bush and Alaska oil spill did not.
In the late ’90s, Danny Pintauro came out as gay. This meant something in as much that an image of a young man, who was only slightly older than me, from a distant recess of my youth was admitting to a sexual desire I was just beginning to accept for myself. I thought he was very good-looking.
This weekend, Danny Pintauro admitted to having HIV for at least 12 years and to his struggles with meth addiction. He’s older and he’s less pretty, and his face seems to contain the ravages of either the side effects of HIV medication or meth addiction, or both. Of course, those markers could just as easily be the natural markers of aging. In his confession, he uses the political language I have been hearing since my teenage years. He wishes to be a beacon of light for the gay community. He talks about how gay people’s desires for acceptance eclipsed gay people’s realization that they need to take care of one another. Danny Pintauro’s aging face and his words now have distinct political valences.
I wish him well, of course. I’d be a monster not to. But when I watch and listen to him now, my primary thoughts are not of his well-being. His voice, his body and his words break down and remind me of a primal state before Danny Pintauro’s face had been cursed with any political meaning.