The award-winning journalist Harron Walker might best be known for her expansive coverage of trans healthcare and the often comedic pop culture pieces she writes for Jezebel (which come second only to her searing takes on Twitter). But in her new column for W magazine, Walker traverses a new territory: the highs and lows of womanhood, through the prism of her own singular voice and experiences as a thirtysomething resident of New York City. Welcome to Burning Thoughts.
On a 1975 episode of Cher, the mononymous pop star does her best to keep pace with the Jackson 5, her halter top’s silver fringe whipping about her with that signature Bob Mackie-an abandon. The six of them are performing on the singer’s solo televised follow-up to the more well-known Sonny & Cher Variety Hour, which came to an end around the same time as the marriage between its two stars.
The performance—a medley of the Jackson brothers’ greatest hits, starting with 1969’s “I Want You Back” and closing with 1974’s “Dancing Machine”—is a favorite of mine, a well of nostalgic fun I can draw from whenever I want, thanks to the Cher superfan who uploaded it to YouTube in 2014. I find the performance fascinating, though not necessarily because of the performance itself (which is perfectly fine and serviceable, but Motown-by-way-of-Branson at best). What captivates me instead is where my mind goes; while I watch, I imagine where Cher’s head was at during this, the nadir of her flop era.
A flop era, if you’re not familiar, refers to the more fallow period of a pop star’s career, one in which she—and we’re almost always talking “she,” here—fails to replicate the success found in earlier parts of her run. I’m not sure where exactly I picked up the term, but if I had to guess it’d be from some osmotic combination of tweeting adjacent to stan Twitter for years and reading the long-standing Livejournal gossip blog, Oh No They Didn’t, for years before that.
I’ve been thinking a lot about flop eras lately—frankly, because I’m in mine. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself for the past few months. In September, I tweeted: “For everyone who followed me for my writing, thank you for bearing with me during my flop era.” It was a joke, obviously, but an uncomfortable one based in truth—a self-deprecating attempt at finding some humor at the bottom of a depressive spiral brought on by a breakup and a layoff that hit me back to back. These are small losses in the grand scheme of everything we’ve lost during the coronavirus pandemic, but losing them hurt me all the same—thanks in no small part to how deeply I’ve been conditioned to view either half of Helen Gurley Brown’s vision for “having it all” as intrinsically unattainable for a trans woman like myself. There’s also a not-insignificant amount of romantic and professional “nobody wants a woman over 30” anxiety swirling around in there, too, I’m sure. Because of their presumed scarcity, my relationship and my career had become foundational to my sense of self. When I lost both midway through the year, it felt I’d lost myself with them. Unsure of where to go from there, I started looking for outside examples of failure in order to move on from my own. I gravitated toward the spectacular and the glamorous, naturally. As the poet Rachel Rabbit White recently said in an interview, “One must aestheticize her life for it to be tolerable.”
Nearly every major pop star has a flop era to her name. Mariah Carey famously had one that began with 2001’s Glitter, the album, released on September 11 of all days, which soundtracked her box-office bomb of the same name. For Carey, who still holds the record for the most no. 1 singles by a solo artist on the Billboard Hot 100, that era ended two albums later when her Grammy-winning 2005 comeback, The Emancipation of Mimi, proved as critically acclaimed as it was commercially successful. Christina Aguilera had a similarly career-rerouting misstep thanks to the lackluster reception to 2010’s Bionic, an album the singer later defended as being too “ahead of its time” for mainstream audiences. “You had to really be a music lover,” she notoriously told Billboard in 2012, “a true fan of music…to really appreciate the record.” When did Aguilera’s flop era end? Well, arguably, she’s still in it—as is Katy Perry, whose 2017 album, Witness, failed to sell as well as its inescapably successful predecessors, 2013’s Prism and 2010’s record-breaking Teenage Dream.
But Cher’s is an especially captivating flop era. When she walked onto that soundstage to perform with the Jacksons in 1975, she did so newly single, not to mention broke; Bono had apparently taken 95 percent of their money in the divorce settlement that same year, with the rest going to lawyers and other legal fees. At the time of their performance, she was trying to strike gold again with a familiar variety show formula, only this time she was missing one of its key ingredients: her ex-husband. Sure, Cher had already proven successful as a solo act, charting no. 1 hits on her own as recently as 1974’s “Dark Lady,” but how long would that last? It feels blasphemous to say now, knowing what we know about where her career took her next, but as Cher hit the robot beside 17-year-old Michael—an overgrown child star caught in a label dispute, not yet the icon he would later become thanks to Off the Wall, Thriller, and all else that followed—did she ask herself: Is this it?
I asked myself that very question a lot this year. My life as I’d known might have fallen apart, but I still clung to the career and relationship that had once defined it, unable, or perhaps unwilling, to imagine a life beyond them. But with time came distance, as well as an answer: Who cares? So what if I couldn’t keep a job or a man? At least I wasn’t one of those losers who could. They might have their chosen lives all laid out for them, but mine, a smoking heap of rubble once again, could still be anything. At 32, I had time to live any number of lives—barring the inevitable climate apocalypse, of course. That perspective might not appeal to everyone, but I don’t care. To echo Aguilera’s defense of Bionic, I now believe that you have to be an interesting life-lover, a true fan of living interestingly, to appreciate flopping.
As I settled into this new paradigm, I noticed some surprising changes to my general mood and outlook. For one thing, framing this less-than-ideal period of my life as my flop era has given me hope. To say that I’m in my flop era would imply everything that sucks about my right now is only temporary. It’s another way of assuring myself that another, presumably better era is yet to come. Think back on Cher for a second: When she was cycling through another entertainer’s greatest hits on the set of her latest variety show, she didn’t know she’d win an Oscar or that she’d still manage to top the charts when she was 52. She was in the negative space of her career—but she would have had no way of knowing that until the next phase properly began.
Even more oddly, I’ve grown comfortable with the idea that things won’t pick back up from here. Those failures which once caused me pain? Now, I luxuriate in them: my seemingly irrevocable singleness, my being un- and then underemployed. I’ve found virtue in being a flop—or maybe it’s that I’ve come to relish the vice. The old me might have needed a shitty boss and an unreliably caring man to feel affirmed by the world, but the new me—the one I’m still in the process of becoming, but closer to being than ever before—just needs herself. Through this process, I’ve found strength in the words of both the narrator of Toni Morrison’s Sula (“Now her thighs were really empty. And it was then that what those women said about never looking at another man made sense to her…”) as well as Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge (“Work sucks / I know”). If this is where my flop era is taking me, may the journey I’m on never end.