Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Rent‘s official premiere. The long-running Broadway hit musical follows poor, young artists struggling to make it in New York’s East Village. The musical portrays them as counter-cultural protagonists: squatters being unfairly priced out of Manhattan — emblems of culture snuffed out by a society that values money over love. But gay essayist David Rakoff doesn’t see them as heroes at all, but rather spoiled do-nothings… and he may be right.
“In Rent, the characters live out their seasons of love in huge lofts,” he says derisively in a This American Life audio clip which has since gone viral. “They have tattered a million clothes. They screen their calls, and when it is their parents, they roll their eyes. They hate their parents. They’re never going back to Larchmont, no way. They will stay here, living in their 2,000 square feet of picturesque poverty, being sexually free and creative.”
But, he continues: “Here’s what they do in Rent to show that they are creative — nothing! They do nothing!”
It’s true: early into the musical, Mark the filmmaker and Roger the musician stay warm by burning pages of Mark’s screenplays and Roger’s music posters. They seemingly haven’t produced any new work nor gotten another job — they seemingly spend most of their time just hanging out with friends. When Benny, their old friend and new landlord comes over demanding that they pay last year’s rent, Mark and Roger join an angry chorus singing their refusal to pay any rent EVER in the musical’s titular song, “Rent.”
If you haven’t seen it, you can view the song from the 2005 film adaptation below:
Yet, Rakoff asks, “When they sing the title anthem of the show, ‘We’re not gonna pay this year’s rent’, my only question is, well, why aren’t you going to pay it? It seems they’re not going to pay this year’s rent because rent is for losers and not creative types. Rent is for suits.”
Rakoff recalls his own days living in Brooklyn: “There were days when it hardly seemed worth it to live in a horrible part of town just so I could go daily to a stupid soul-crushing, low-paying job; especially since — as deeply as I yearned to be creative — for years and years I was too scared to even try, so I did nothing.”
“But” he adds, “here’s something that I did do: I paid my fucking rent.”
We appreciate that Mark and Roger’s poor artist pals make up a defiantly upbeat, queer family of lesbians, bisexuals, transwomen, drug addicts, drag queens and HIV-positive folks — all societal outsiders in 1989 New York. But they’d basically been squatting in an East Village apartment for nearly two years without paying any rent to their old friend who owned it.
Rakoff, a long-time New York resident, probably felt astounded considering how much rent goes for in NYC’s East Village. A free apartment for two years would be a dream for some, even without electricity and heating.
Rakoff says the residents should’ve earned their keep. He either has a point or is missing the point entirely; a potentially fun topic to debate as the musical approaches its twentieth birthday and all poor creatives have been priced out of Manhattan and most of west Brooklyn entirely — la vie boheme!
You can hear Rakoff’s entire take on Rent below.