Shelter in Playlist: “Spring”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the penultimate post about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Spring,” Angel Olsen

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Image courtesy of angelolsen.com.

Last night Ian and I were talking about how little he cares for lyrics. It’s not that he doesn’t like songs with words, he told mehe’s just completely indifferent to them. You could sing the words shit, shit, shit, he said, and if they’re sung with a certain level of emotion and depth and skill, I will cry. He’s always known this about himself, but he was reminded while being moved to tears as Tituss Burgess sings about Patti LaBelle’s pies on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. This might sound ridiculous, but you should judge for yourself. Burgess is a powerhouse singer. Maybe you, too, will tear up over pies.

Though I usually require a bit more from songs than shit shit shit, lyrics-wise, I think, like my friend Ian, I would have been moved by “Spring” no matter what Angel Olsen was singing. Following her foremothers Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, and Fiona Apple, there’s just something about Olsen’s vocal styling that scoops out the tender, wanting heart on a plate. The calling card of one of my favorite songs of hers, “Unf***theworld” off of 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, is that Olsen somehow manages to sound like she’s on the verge of tears without the performance being overly-wrought or sentimental, a series of guttural pronouncements over lost love not unlike Nashville Skyline-era Bob Dylan. But they’re not quite comparable; the stakes seem lower for singers like Dylan, even in heartbreak. His persona is a rambler, not a piner. Perhaps that’s why he was never going to be the bluesman he wishes he was, despite good efforts, because he seems to lead with words (and blues chords) and hopes feelings will follow. As a fellow mercurial beast, trust me when I say a words-first approach never works. A truly chest-cracking ballad means the heart leads, or at least heart and words walk alongside one another. Even off of a more bluesy album like Love and Theft, songs like “Lonesome Day Blues” and “Cry a While” leave the listener with the sense, ironically, that Bobby D is having a blast. It’s the blues musician’s catch-22: perhaps if you love playing blues enough to make you happy, you start to lose the reason you wanted to play blues in the first place.  

I digress. Sort of. What I’m setting up here is that this catch-22 could be the downfall of any artist (like Olsen) who seems to mine her pain for creativity. Unlike feelings, words are always there. What happens when the pain fades? The art has to shift somehow, to change shape or find another source of inspiration, and you can’t blame wordsmiths like Dylan for choosing the more mobile, versatile medium for expression. If I’m honest, after listening to Burn Your Fire for No Witness, I wondered if Olsen would never be able to top it. Even if she troubled her wounds, she had trucked in so much anger, so much loneliness, so much grief, I thought there was no way she would be able to replicate what Lindsay Zoladz at Pitchfork called a “strange, anarchic electricity, always flickering on the edge of blowing out.”

And yet she did. Rather than loss and rage, she stepped into the raw, swirling confusion of new love for 2016’s “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” and now, for 2019’s “Spring,” she paints the bittersweet melancholy of solitude, of adulthood, the second coming-of-age that happens when you finally understand how little you know: “How time has revealed how / Little we know us,” Olsen sings. “I’ve been too busy / I should’ve noticed.” Throughout the entire All Mirrors album, the vocal fullness of Olsen’s crackling-fuse soundalong with Ringo-like fillers, the precarious climbing chords, the Roman candle sound of a distorted snarereminds me of John Lennon in the midst of his primal scream phase, laid bare on Plastic Ono Band. I could never have predicted how “Spring” would be born of “Unf***theworld,” just as I could have never known the same Lennon who made “Yer Blues” would make “Hold On.” But maybe that’s because when I first heard them, I still thought every feeling I had lasted forever.

Both Lennon and Olsen were my high-volume drinking companions on some of the most miserable winter nights I can remember, those of 2015, 2016. Like “Hold On,” “Spring” feels like an opportunity to go back and put a comforting hand on the shoulder of 25-year-old Lara, head down on her desk, sobbing and confused. You’ll never not be confused, I want to tell her, but you won’t have to grip it so hard. To her own past self, Olsen sings, “Don’t take it for granted / Love when you have it / You might be looking over / A lonelier shoulder.” Though there’s an implication here that now is the lonelier time, Olsen doesn’t linger. She goes on to speak to a friend: “Remember when we said / We’d never have children / I’m holdin’ your baby / Now that we’re older.” This is a familiar conversation to any of Olsen’s fellow thirty-somethings. What used to be boring is now welcome rest. What used to be cheesy is now ritualized and heartfelt. For the families growing around me, “children” and “baby” mean literal children, yes, but for those of us who are childless, these words also symbolize anything that could grow. Anything that had previously seemed impossible but is now within our reach. Maybe that’s not partnership yet, for me, but certainly freedom from alcohol. A passion for teaching. Making art that feels wholly mine.

And if there’s a present self to sing back to the past, perhaps there’s a future self that sings back to us now. Inside Olsen’s croon, I listen for a voice that tells me to hold on, that the love I want is waiting, that I’m not stuck inside forever. “Spring” sends visions of family, of fearless outings, of the happy din of being in public, of putting your arms around someone without worry. It’s hard not to listen and let your heart break with hope.

Shelter in Playlist: “Sunny Afternoon”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the sixth entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Sunny Afternoon,” The Kinks

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Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite its upbeat rhythm and title, the opening bass-heavy notes of “Sunny Afternoon” spell doom. “It starts off descending and just floats on down for another 3.5 minutes,” Paul Williams once said in a Crawdaddy review in 1967. The protagonist’s lyrics are confessional about his woes, like a blues song—Kinks frontman and composer Ray Davies mentioned he was listening to Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home as he was composing, which features “Outlaw Blues,” for example, and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Dying)”and yet the complaints are delivered with a tipsy, Sinatra-inspired Old Hollywood croon, backed by the clean, angelic oohs and ahhs of a Lawrence Welk chorus. You can picture the dude Davies put at the center, a ruddy aristocrat on the sweeping, lonely veranda of his estate, drinking a Double Diamond and complaining to the one loyal butler who remains about not being able to take out his yacht.

The first time I really paid attention to The Kinks was in high school, and it was this song got to me. It somehow inhabits the state of its speaker so fully that when I hear it, I feel sunlight on my closed eyelids no matter where I am, damp cotton on my back, a wet heat that’s not too suffocating, slowing the thoughts so that all you have the energy to do is nod politely at your existential dread. In “Sunny Afternoon,” there are problems, sure, but nothing to be done. This is the final battle cry of the human animal, resigned to having a beer as the forces beyond his control rage around him.

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Meme courtesy of Know Your Meme, adapted from the work illustrator K.C. Greene.

There’s also another version of this song’s main character who I’ve watched from my window during social distancing: the regulation-bucking Oxfordians who own and rent houses in my neighborhood. While scientists predict a more brutal wave of the virus ahead, my neighbors have maskless keggers, instructing their delivery drivers’ Civics and Nissans to pull up next to their Benzes and Lexuses, tipping in dirty cash. Just as the American now moans about federal safety measures that protect the very workers who bring food to their porches, Davies referenced the woes of titled, landowning feudal-lord families as progressive postwar taxes swept Britain—the backbone, it should be noted, of the current relative strength of the NHS. Across history and nation, the song critiques those who mourn privileges that were never really theirs to begin with, the absurdity of those who think that their personal longing for their yachts (or in our case, dining-in at restaurants and partying) somehow outweighs the labor (and now risk) it takes to maintain them.

And yet, “Sunny Afternoon” might also highlight the luxuries that can’t be taken away so easily: the sun on your face, a cold beverage, a bit of quiet time. The loneliness of the speaker, abandoned by his girlfriend, mirrors those of us isolated from our loved ones; replace “sail my yacht” with something like “see my mom,” and the song equalizes somewhat, taking on heartbreaking relevancy. When the only thing to do in the face of a contagious killer is to stay home, most of us are lazing on a sunny afternoon, whether we like it or not.

Ray Davies was both sick and a new father when he composed the song, two conditions that keep one confined, sleepless and bored. He began to play around on his upright piano and invited his brother Dave to help him work out the instrumentation. “You listen to ‘Sunny Afternoon’ and you can see the light coming through the curtains…” Dave once told Kinks Fan Club Magazine. “It’s got that kind of magic to it because that’s what it was like. It was like Ray’s front room.”

I can attest there is magic to be made in a room. I’m always wary about having favorite quotes—it feels like rummaging through someone’s drawer of consciousness—but there’s one about the creative process that I live by like gospel, always attributed to Gustave Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life so you may be violent and original in your art.” Patti Smith has a variation of this, too: “In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”

Balance, stealth, regularity, order. In a room, or in your corner of a room, there are small doses of what we crave from the world: a sense of belonging, a place for everything, protection. In routine, there is something we can’t get from the larger passage of time: a small assurance about what will come next. When you know how and when your leisure ends, you can enjoy it, rather than fearing it will be taken away. When you know the distance from one spot to the next, you’re more likely to leap. In safety, there is play. In play, there is [   ]. Whatever you can dream up, fill in the blank. Your version of a sip from a cold bottle.

I would put spontaneity, or curiosity, or beauty, but it changes from day to day. Afternoon to afternoon. Anything I can think of, really, that I know will survive the fire.

Art and the Market

This is adapted from an email I recently sent to an old friend.  

I had an incredible workshop leader a couple years back that was a bit precious about his approach to writing. He was all about guarding his time with his “craft” at all costs, protecting it from the demands of the market, insisting that writers should find other ways to feed themselves to make sure their art remains art. At first I was like sure, being a purist about one’s time is seductive, but it is also privileged and assumes that one gets no satisfaction from art one gets “commissioned” to do. Why does stuff that is accessible to consumers have to be in a different category than stuff one does for oneself or fun or “art”? Why not both? 

After ten years of writing commissioned Young Adult novels, and getting back on the commercial train of freelance these past two years, I can say there does appear to be a difference between what people pay you to do and what one does for the hell of it on your own time. Artists have been saying this for years and I refused to listen. I thought my creativity was under my control; or rather, I thought that when I asked it to perform for me, it would, no matter what the circumstances. I’ve procrastinated, sure, and I’ve had blocks, but I’m a pro. I take the proverbial alka seltzer and get back on the ol’ pony, which in this analogy, is an ergonomic chair. Writing rule number one, get your ass in the seat. I can do that. I thought I’d never have any problems producing. Even if it’s shit, at least something’s moving. 

Money ruins everything. At least it has for me. Even though my commercial work played with fun concepts (themes that I, too, might explore on my own time) there seems to be, more and more, a certain point where I realize the core of what I’m doing is empty. Not of content, and not even of value to the world, but of [ something ]. I really hate the word “passion” being thrown about carelessly, like a free t-shirt one gets at a conference, so I won’t use it. Vivre, maybe, because I’m pretentious. Anyway, it’s always at the end of the project, where I need a reserve shot of energy in order to see the project to completion, and what I need isn’t there. This cycle of hate keeps happening. I come to hate the one thing I love above all else, and destroy my body in the process. My friends have seen it, my family has seen it. Perhaps they’re as sick of it as I am. It goes like this:

Phase one: I get the assignment and I tell everyone about it, ecstatic that I’m getting paid to put words together. I explain the project is kind of [insert not-explicitly-negative-but-coded-negative adjective here, i.e. corny, corporate], but I’m excited to collaborate with [editor], and I think (key word: think, it’s probably not that cool) we have an [innovative, attentive, exciting, funny] approach to the usual way of doing [genre / commercial category]. 

Phase two: I run into roadblocks. I had hoped to incorporate [x], but editor tells me that their boss (it’s rarely the editor themselves, and I believe this is true) doesn’t feel my [x] fits with [the y genre / commercial category]. I’m disappointed, but editor and I find a compromise between [x] and [y]. I’m happy; I’m giving them what they want, and I’m still trying something new, something I care about executing.

Phase three: The first draft is complete, but something has gone wrong. I’m new to the [y] genre, so it’s understandable. Or, editor didn’t communicate their desires about [y] well enough. Or, editor thought our [xy] compromise was going to work, but their boss is still not happy. They’re happy with all the [y] parts, though. I’m a very proficient [y] writer, they tell me. Please, keep up the [y]. I’m disappointed, but I want to be seen as a professional. I start adjusting my habits: I have realized I’m not going to be able to have the kind of fun I want, so I need to work harder in order to get it over with. 

Phase four: Working hard has failed. Maybe it starts with sleep: I lose it over stress, which makes me eat worse, which makes me my mood drop. With my mood dropping, I drink more coffee, which elevates my heart rate, but rarely can bear the full weight of my mood. I’m anxious because of the coffee, so I instinctively and compulsively avoid the work that makes me anxious, but I know I have to complete it, so I try to push myself harder into doing what I don’t want to do, which makes me even more anxious. I put a lot of energy into appearing unruffled. The more affected I am, the thicker my professional facade.

Phase five: Reckoning. I admit to my peers, and eventually my editor, that this is not turning out how I’d like. That’s how I phrase it: how I’d like. This, too, is a lie. I’m in a daily battle with the fact that what I like doesn’t actually matter. What matters is completion of [y] according to the rules of [y genre]. I start getting more “just checking in” emails from my editor. We set “drop dead” dates. I miss them. We have more “honest” conversations; we re-strategize; we agree that I need more guidance; we agree I need less guidance; we agree that as long as I can get a working second draft, the third will be easier. The final “drop dead” date approaches, and it seems impossible I will ever get it done. I give myself permission to ignore the rest of my life, my inbox, my phone, my bladder. I go into a fugue state; I dissociate from myself as a human with particular tastes and style. I purposefully become too tired and caffeinated to care what I’m writing (in my 20s, I did this with alcohol, as well) and allow my fingers on the keyboard to take over. Somehow, the dawn of the deadline, a second draft emerges. Somehow, it resembles what they want. As I return to my body, I feel floaty, confused, and a strange sort of pride. I send my editor a manic email as the sun rises: “[Y] DRAFT ATTACHED! *Shania Twain voice* LOOKS LIKE WE MADE IT hahaha, right??? Anyway, THANK YOU SOOOO MUCH!”

Phase six: I feel done, euphoric. I feel like the worst is over. I can do this. I start talking to friends about my journey, about how I didn’t think I liked writing [y], but it’s not so bad! I think I’m getting the hang of it.* A week passes, and I get an email from my editor which starts with something like: “First of all, there’s a lot of great stuff here.” I am overcome with nausea. Any mention of “great stuff” means that moments of proficiency are scattered throughout a large scale failure. I scroll through the emailed comments, which I often think are going to end, but they never do. I try to take it like a pro. I thank the editor. I make a plan to revise. I sit down, and I become angry. I feel my skills are being doubted, my understanding of the assignment turned upside down, the estimate of my abilities shrinking with every highlighted section. I know in my heart that the edits will make the piece better, but a nagging voice in the back of my head asks, Why do I care whether or not this piece is good? I never wanted to write [y]. They asked me to do this, knowing I wanted [x] or [xy]. If they wanted [y] so much, they should have asked someone else. Each small edit sends a spidery thread up to these larger questions, which I have to cut or ignore in order to get through the edits, or else I’m paralyzed by a web of self-doubt and toxic ego. This means double the work: not only am I doing the physical work of revising, I’m doing the emotional work of talking myself down from existential disruption. Earlier in my career, this is when I would start drinking more. I’ll be honest: the drinking helped. But it quieted all inner voices; not just the rude, unprofessional ones. It muted gentleness, too.

*For one miraculous project a few years ago, the beginnings of phase six are where I stopped. The email about the second draft was an email about final edits. They loved my version of [y], and I loved it, too. Oddly, it was also at the lowest point of one of the most depressive states of my life. Fodder for a future therapist.

Phase seven: I cut the whining threads, day by day, draft after draft, and drink up tiny pools of relief in sending small chunks to editors, like those little cups of water they hand out during endurance races. In my 20s, I muted my angst with booze and cigarettes. Last year, with yoga, meditation, and (slightly more) honest conversations with (really wonderful) editors. Either way, I finish. I take off the too-small shoes, and the relief of bare feet erases all memory of the pain. I can see parts I like when I look at the document. I’m able to smile again when I talk about the project. Soon, someone reaches out about [z]. I’ve never worked in [z]. I could do cool things with [z]. They show me what it pays, and even after all a decade of doing this, I’m still dazzled, still feel undeserving. I think, I’ve learned my lesson. I have boundaries, now. I can hold fast to my heart while working my ass off. I shake their hand, and we’re back to phase one.

Last month, I didn’t get through phase six.

The rotten feeling I get as I claw toward the finish line keeps getting worse. In my most recent project, I found myself openly weeping more often than I ever have in my life. I couldn’t sit down at my computer without holding back tears. I couldn’t finish; I tried to overcome this lack of ending in every conceivable way. I wrote about my feelings, I tried to eat and sleep better, I tried to give myself small goals. But I was still miserable, and still woefully behind. Not only that, there was a whole team of people waiting on me for this writing; I had to do my job so they could do theirs. There’s an episode of Radiolab where they do a small segment on vocalizations of affection and aggression, and how they’re related. In the segment, they touched on tears, and why we release them, and what different tears mean. Generally, though, good or bad, tears mean the same thing: slow down or stop. Tears were coming everyday to talk to me, and I had no choice but to listen.

So, I quit the most lucrative writing gig I’ve ever had. The reason I gave to myself is that I am currently supposed to be finishing my thesis, not writing the [z genre]. (It is kind of wild, though, and truly was fun, at times, to learn a new way to build a narrative.) I agonized over quitting this for weeks, because I don’t like to be a quitter. But the core reason for taking the job haunted me: I didn’t take the job to “see a personal creative project through”; I took it because I was curious, and I needed money. My curiosity (I guess) was sated, I got some money, and I found I had no will to keep going. Writing in this context becomes a skill that sustains me financially, but not emotionally.

God, I wish I was different. I wish I could have just seen it through without losing my shit. I still don’t quite understand why I can’t have both, or why I can’t do one, then the other, then back to one. I wish it were that simple, that I could just do commercial work for good people, get paid, and be proud of a job well done. Then, go home to my beautiful wife, a literary manuscript. But I think my “soul” (whatever that is) is telling me that my writing is for something else. Probably not for something huge, but for some other personal purpose. Though I don’t quite understand all of it yet, I do see now why my workshop leader encouraged the separation of money and art. It’s hard to keep things light and fun and messy when it feels like your livelihood is on the line. It’s hard to play when you’re over-caffeinated, over-worked, or worried about being paid, and play is essential for good writing. Or at least it is for me. 

This slow realization is why I reconnected to my old friend, who I was roommates with for a brief time New York (the friend whose email exchange inspired this post). We both worked a few jobs to pay the rent, but we spent our spare time making stupid videos. We hoped we’d get famous, but really we were just trying to make each other laugh. I was thinking, damn, what a joy it was to make art for no reason with this person. Not no reason, though. For each other. While we guard our time from the market, it’s also true that trusted eyes nourish art, like sunlight. Even if we don’t share everything, I still believe my friends make things for me, and I know I make things for them, and that’s enough to keep us going. We write because we love to write, and we love to write because we write to each other, as I’m writing to you, and that’s enough.