Distance running has its hazards. We expect the sore knees and the tight hips; we navigate the early mornings and figure out something for the surplus of race T-shirts. But on top of all of that, I am dealing with something uncomfortably personal. Thanks to running, I’m navigating the world’s silliest identity crisis.
Here’s the deal: I must run to music, and I start off every long run like the indie rock guy I consider myself to be. “An open road and a new Arcade Fire album,” I tell myself in mile one. And that works…for about 20 minutes. Then the endorphins start and my mood lifts and my fingers make decisions my conscious brain might not condone. I click away from the cool bands, and I call forth the divas. Wet Leg gives way to Chaka Khan. My headphones become the world’s most exclusive discotheque. The data does not lie, and the data tells me I do this a lot. Like, approximately 100 percent of the time that I run.
It was Spotify that diagnosed my split personality. Recently I looked at my algorithm-generated Daily Mixes, and the truth could not be denied. Mix 1 was Fontaines D.C. and Sam Fender, music I am comfortable telling people I like. Mix 2 was Ariana Grande and Beyoncé, music I am in the closet about loving. The app put it as plainly as possible: Mix 1 is who you want to think you are, but Mix 2 is who you are.
“This happens to me, too,” says Curtis Peoples, a runner, Spin instructor, and member of the band Kids in America. Peoples reaches for Coldplay or U2 at the beginning of a workout, but once he’s really into it, he requires a special mix of joy, sincerity, and comfort to keep going. “Sometimes it’s ‘My Sacrifice’ by Creed,” he confides. “Listen, Creed was a big part of our lives for a moment, let’s relax and enjoy it.”
In a Spin class, Peoples can watch his students’ relationship to music change in real time. “About 20 minutes in, I see people going into their own place, getting lost in the music,” he says. By the third act of a one-hour class, the stationary bikes may not have moved, but those riders have left their inhibitions far behind. It is then that Peoples hits them with the music they are ashamed to love. “Sometimes the class will groan when I play Smash Mouth, but once I show that I’m enjoying it, their defenses get worn down and they give in.” Endorphins, it turns out, are basically truth serum.
Why can’t we admit to liking what we like, before the brain’s exercise narcotics give us permission? It’s a universal problem. “When we become adults, we forfeit a little of our backbone,” Peoples says. “We lose our ability to own the music we loved as kids, so we listen to it ironically, or we call it a guilty pleasure. And we only do that because someone else lost their joy and we don’t want to risk their judgment.”
That’s bad enough, but for me there is another, deeper layer: I’m comfortable telling people I’m a gay man, yet 30 years after coming out, I still struggle to tell people I like Diana Ross. A straight guy copping to still enjoying a little Creed is one thing, but a gay man embracing pop divas is fraught. It kicks up issues of shame and internalized homophobia and the very understandable desire not to be seen as basic. It’s just one of the many bars in the prison of masculinity that we’ve built for ourselves.
To hell with it. The divas give me the energy I need to keep going, and I’m not alone: “I can get as much emotional catharsis out of Whitney Houston’s ‘How Will I Know’ as I can from Nirvana,” Peoples says, laughing. “’Don’t Leave Me This Way,’ by Thelma Houston? Forget it, I lose my freaking mind. There’s only one effort level you can give to that song, and it’s 100 percent.
”Whatever it is you feel weird about loving, put it in your ears and put some running shoes on your feet. Embrace it. Love it. As Peoples puts it: “Normalize looking someone in the eye and saying, Hell yes, I like 98 Degrees.”
That settles it. I’m going for a run right now, and I’m starting with Christina Aguilera’s “What a Girl Wants.” I will lean into my true self, and I will be proud.
Just don’t tell anyone, okay?
Dave Holmes is Esquire's L.A.-based editor-at-large. His first book, "Party of One," is out now.