witchsong

Teenage Feelings

I was raised a music snob. Not in a traditional sense, maybe–we listened to a lot more post-punk than classical in our house, and my dad played Tuvan throat singing more than anyone really wanted–but we didn’t listen to much contemporary music, and we didn’t listen to much pop.

I tend to fall into things and then treat them as if they were a choice. No popular music wasn’t a deliberate thing for my parents, or for my brother–who once refused to let us take James Bond: 13 Original Themes out of the family CD changer for a span of months–but it became one for me. And “pretentious teenager” is redundant, but I’d sit in the hallway at school, drinking tea from a thermos that dated to the 40s and marking my place in a Victorian novel with a train ticket, feeling approximately as good as I ever felt.

I had passive aggressive volume wars with my freshman roommate in college, which I mostly won by default: inspirational Christian music can’t really compete with The Fall. We were good friends, but the only thing we agreed on musically was Annette Funicello. But I grudgingly decided I was okay with Kelly Clarkson and started listening to things that, if self-consciously “indie,” were also at least new. One vacation I played Explosions in the Sky for my dad–the first season of Friday Night Lights was airing, so–and he said something snide about them and I’ve probably listened to them two or three times in the eight or nine years since. That was when I decided I had a problem.

In 2008 I went home. I wasn’t finished with college, but I didn’t technically drop out, either. I took classes in the evenings, worked for my mom part-time, and started watching the Disney Channel.

Hannah Montana was a pretty terrible show. Wizards of Waverly Place was better, in spite of the fact that nothing in it looked remotely like Waverly Place. So were Sonny with a Chance and JONAS, when they started. And iCarly was better than anything Disney had to offer, and I watched kind of a lot of it. But Hannah Montana was stupid, and Hannah Montana was easy to watch, and Hannah Montana somehow made me download everything Miley Cyrus had ever recorded.

I hoarded those MP3s. I listened to them in secret. I created a VLC playlist for them so I could keep the play counts in iTunes artificially low. It’s called “girly VLC” and I hid it (from myself?) in my iTunes music folder, inside of Miley’s Breakout, which I used to love ironically and now I just love. I kept adding to it for a while, so it contains most of Hannah Montana and Hannah Montana 2/Meet Miley Cyrus, all of Breakout, Demi Lovato’s first two albums, Miranda Cosgrove’s two songs from the first iCarly soundtrack, and Selena Gomez’s two songs from the Another Cinderella Story soundtrack. I’m listening to it now.

In 2008, in 2009, I couldn’t stop listening to it. I don’t think I’d ever heard anything so positive before. I mean, there were songs that weren’t happy, but there were no songs that didn’t have, somewhere in there, a rock solid confidence that the narrator was worth something, that her opinions mattered. That she had what it took. I couldn’t really wrap my head around it.

I was in bad shape, is the thing. I was depressed, and I had concrete failures to back up my low self-esteem, and there was no path forward. And listening to this stuff—to “gonna get what I deserve” and “as I am is how you want me” and “I won’t apologize for who I am” and “I’m quickly finding out I’m not about to break down,”—felt compelling and important, somehow. But no one had ever pointed out to me how much I hated myself, so I didn’t know.

It’s seven years later, and I have a job, and my own apartment and a combination record/cassette player that my dad gave me for my birthday and I’ve learned how to use music for things. Rizzle Kicks on repeat when I need to get stuff done at work, and anything I can sing along to and hear over the vacuum or the sizzle of the wok while I’m cooking or cleaning, and Fred Astaire when I have a headache and The Fall when I need to remind myself that I’m alive. But I use Demi and Miley and Selena all the time, because knowing you have value is really, really hard to do by yourself, and I don’t know how; I never have. But when Demi sings, “I guess I always knew that I had all the strength to make it through” I almost can. Tell me I’m great and my hackles go up. I won’t trust anything else you say. But when Miley sings, “I don’t ever want to see you sad; be happy,” I forget that I’m the wrong age for this stuff—that I was too old for it even when I was the right age—and become a tangled mass of teenage feelings.

I’m 29 years old, and “Bottom of the Ocean” makes me cry. I have a playlist for tween pop in my iTunes, and it’s called “The Most Embarrassing Playlist,” but I stopped adding to it in 2012—I don’t segregate anymore. And I’m going to see Taylor Swift this summer, and sometimes I experiment with listening to One Direction, and once I bought something from Miley’s clothing line for Walmart. And if I can’t feel like I’m worth something on my own, at least I know who can help me do that, and I’ll admit any of that to anyone. And…yeah. I won’t apologize for who I am.


Melody Brandston is a native New Yorker who aspires not to be a writer. Lately she’s been accumulating fountain pens at an alarming rate and trying to make her cat watch hockey. She has an umbrella in her bag, but it’s only six blocks to the subway and it’s not really raining that hard.

ALL I WANT IS TO LOVE AND BE LOVED: A PLAYLIST

Yearn (\ˈyərn): v. A slow burn of longing. Continual ebb of feelings. Craving attention. Desiring flesh. Pining as a constant state. The itch for people a tad too impassive, aloof, smart, lazy, egotistical, beautiful, elusive, oblivious. Sidelong glances, subtle touches, misread signals. Here’s something to listen on those late nights when you’re wishing for hard press of another body against your back, careful slip of fingers on your skin and/or a response to an ill-advised midnight text.


Taylor Swift – “I Wish You Would”

‘Cause you still don’t know what I never said

One Direction – “Last First Kiss”

We’ve been friends now for a while / I wanna know that when you smile / Is it me yeah? / Are you thinking of me yeah? Oh, oh

James Bay – “If You Ever Want To Be In Love”

If you ever want to be in love / I’ll come around

George Ezra – “Leaving It Up To You”

To see you again, to be your friend, to hold you in my mind

Arctic Monkeys – “I Wanna Be Yours”

Secrets I have held in my heart / Are harder to hide than I thought / Maybe I just wanna be yours

The 1975 – “Fallingforyou”

Don’t you need me? / I, I think I’m falling, I’m falling for you

Lo-Fang – “You’re the One That I Want”

You’re the one that I want / The one that I want

Banks – “Under The Table”

My heart could be yours, won’t you make it your home?

Catfish and the Bottlemen – “Hourglass”

And I’m so impatient when you’re not mine

Indiana – “Ready For Your Love” [BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge Cover]

I was so apprehensive but I don’t know why / Baby I’m ready for you to be by my side, by my side

Adele – “Crazy For You”

I never wanted anyone like this


Ashley Hull wishes she was a mermaid, but she’s happier she’s managed to find her voice. She resides, for now, in a state that colloquially refers to itself as a mitten. If you’re looking for her, she’s likely in front of a mirror applying lip stain while singing Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” under her breath.

Bad Witch Aesthetics and Modern Music, or Ugliness as Power

Turn on the radio you will hear: smooth female voices cooing at and crying for listeners, as hairless and harmless as the men they worship. A joke, yet I’m not smiling, and neither is the monster in the corner.

Men created the radio, and whether by chance or by choice (likely, a mixture of both), this unparalleled advance in technology set women back. The fuzzy frequencies brought out the shrillness of female voices, and for a long time, only dulcet, sweeter tones crossed over well. (Who sang in Singin’ in the Rain?) The nasal and tinny were kept silent, as were female screams, until they later became the cornerstone of another industry that still hasn’t learned to love its women.

But there’s power in the full breadth of the female voice. A cursory listen: sirens, banshees, La Llorona stalking the streets at night. They scream, snarl, wail, warble, curse, cry, seduce, slay, and save, auditory Roman candles that cut listeners to the bone.

Men too can cry out, but this isn’t a story about male voices. They already have their story, from the radio to the silver screen to the smallest slivers of screen. They continue to narrate and dominate discussions, even the ones they have no part in. There is beauty in their cracks and grooves and gulfs too, but we have no problem accepting the imperfect male voice; its history is already heard through the radio.

But the imperfect female voice! Tell me, who too often is accused of losing their pitch and tone, whose untouched vocals are released into the digital space for everyone to critique and gawk over? The Red Hot Chili Peppers mime their playing at the Super Bowl and get by with an online explanation; Beyoncé lip syncs at the inauguration and has to set up a press conference just to fight back accusations that her talent is a sham. All hail the female voice; for it’s all women have to offer when it comes to music, but in order for even that to be true, it must be the pure octaves of a diva, or girlish chants and choruses, or glistening, breathless intonations. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with any of those things, but as someone once sang, “Perfection is a disease of a nation.” Auto-Tune in theory isn’t the enemy, but the same could be said of Photoshop.

That is what makes those “ugly” female voices standouts. These are the howlers who never would’ve made it onto the early radio: Karen O and her ecstatic whoops; Kathleen Hanna’s near-screech; Meredith Graves and her distorted shrieks; Corin and Carrie cresting their vocal ranges against staccato guitars and booming drums; M.I.A. and her between-tone snarls. Even the young aren’t safe: Girlpool’s vocals are as raw as the frayed laces of your favorite sneakers; Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield atonally slides words into each other, while Ibeyi chants and weaves twin vocals into rough knots. And even the most polished singers know there’s power outside of pitch: when she chooses so, Rihanna spikes her lyrical delivery, and Florence made a career out of adapting the full-lunged shout.

The future of music is bright, or rather, diverse, interesting, and challenging, but the difference between genres has much to do with the political and cultural conditions and issues in which musicians exist. Group rock music combines technical skill and deep expression, with wiggle room as for actual “proficiency.” It’s a wide net, but for as many all-male four-piece drum/bass/guitar/guitar & singer groups as there are out there, there are just as many musicians of all genders pushing the limits of the genre, both sonically and lyrically. The producer and the vocal performer are often the same, for the unit of sale is singularly together. Deviation of a few parts (such as: having a woman in the band instead of having an all-male band) are noted and scrutinized, but don’t take away from the inherent structure of the band. And while individual members might be more or less than the others, they’ll all be linked back to the band, no matter how long the unit itself lasts.

Our particular generation’s most popular music, as a whole, is different. Some vocalists are able to capitalize on the special qualities of their voice and delivery, or capitalize on outside celebrity, and sell that as themselves. Like modern day Ariels, they exchange their vocal talent/name for a whole new world created specifically for them. They are the ones to take the stage and headline shows, to take on titles of iconology and idolatry, though their music will never solely be “theirs.” Many of these artists have a hand in production, but there are enough people on their credits that it would be disingenuous to think that it was not a whole village, child situation.

On the other hand, much of that pop music hybrid splinter EDM has a wide gulf between the producer and the vocal performer, as producers separate and reshuffle the two basic units of popular music (the “music” and the singing) so that the music takes center stage. Here, it’s the madcap interplay between instrumental energy and our affection for the inclusion of human voices that takes top billing, not the voice itself. While this is great for producers, who are more and more stepping out of the shadows of the industry, the issue becomes that most producers are men, and the majority of the interchangeable vocal sprinkles they use are female — sure, when vocal superstar and world-renowned producers team up together, perhaps the gender disparity is less obvious, but then go to a rave and try to suggest that there aren’t gendered assumptions present in EDM.

And in EDM, these women couldn’t be picked out of the limelight: wide-eyed, wide-smiled, long-hair -don’t-care eternal summer sun nymphs. These voices suggest the promise of the fountain of youth, sentence fragment declarations of love and joy, and of above all else, beauty. These songs are beautiful by script and easy to assemble, and they sell the auditory companion to their IRL fantasies. This is, for the corporate music world, perhaps the ultimate product.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s unlikely that qualities and artistry and innovation and general weirdness will fall to the music soundscape’s wayside. Indeed, the current label of music apart from other spheres of art and expression is beginning to collide into other creative fields, and young creatives, musicians included, have more control and more ability over the minutiae of their personal visions than ever before, and more of a chance to share them than ever. That freedom to expand will only grow, and with it, the blossoming of diversity in female voices, already in eruption, will finally fully bloom.


Lilian Min is a culture writer living in West Hollywood. When she’s not standing on her tiptoes and typing set lists into her phone at shows, she’s a contributing editor at HelloGiggles.

HALLELUJAH: Panic! at the Disco is back

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoe9ST8gQhQ]

ALY: My first question here is when did they put the exclamation point back, which I realize positions me as not, probably, the world’s most aware Panic! fan. I’m gonna soldier on anyway though. God, I loved them. God! Remember when A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out came out? God. I have many things to say about that album. And I loved Pretty. Odd., sorry, I loved it, and I had the Live in Chicago album and it’s still one of my favorite things and I still do “JAZZ HANDS” when I listen to “There’s A Reason These Tables Are Numbered.” And I LOVED “New Perspective,” wow, it gave me such hope for a post-Ryan era, it made me cry, practically, and then Vices & Virtues came out and I was like, “Eh.” And I literally did not realize until just now, five minutes ago when I YouTubed “Hallelujah,” that they had put out another album after that.

So! That’s where I stand with Panic!. But Kenzie texted me and was like THERE IS A NEW PANIC SINGLE and I listened to it and it is great, honestly. It is so great. We’re all a little bored of surprise releases, I guess (I’m not, at all, I think it’s fucking rad and cool and like, TA DA, HERE’S A SONG, looking at you, Little Mix, just fucking DO IT), but this one is such a pleasant surprise, such a lovely thing.

KENZIE: When I first texted Aly about the single, I said “I’m not sure I care for the lyrics, but I’m pretty sure I love the sound.” Then I listened to the song like 5 more times without stopping, so like. I’ve warmed up to all its parts. I love them all. (Also, Aly, for what it’s worth, I was like “when did they put the exclamation point back?” too.) (Also, seriously, Little Mix. Come on.)

A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out was honestly formative to an entire era of my identity, in what I borrowed from it and in what it made me feel like to scream-sing “swear to shake it up if you swear to listen” (Aly has more thoughts about that line that you’ll get to hear more about this summer; we’ve got some things planned) and in how I reacted to the backlash once they reached that tipping point that “too many” people knew about them. Pretty. Odd. felt too on the nose, a calculated “this is exactly what you like,” Brendon Urie looking at me and judging, and so I listened to it but I listened to it in guilty gulping hours by myself and I never admitted it to anyone.

ALY: That is probably the best way to describe Pretty. Odd. honestly, it was such a weird mishmash of things, things that shouldn’t have worked but they were so calculated to work! They knew what we wanted! “Northern Downpour,” I mean, and the transition from “I Have Friends in Holy Spaces” TO “Northern Downpour,” like, God. They fucking had us pegged.

“Hallelujah” sounds like Pretty. Odd. to me, a little. It sounds less polished than anything else they’ve done, it sounds more real. It sounds like Brendon Urie is two feet from my face, probably spitting on me a little bit because he’s really hitting those consonants, say your prayers, say your prayers. And I like that. I like it a lot. “Hallelujah” reminds me of the theatricality of Fever but it feels older, more mature, more confident. It’s just as weird and over-the-top but somehow it’s much more sincere. Being blue is better than being over it, I guess, and I don’t know if I agree but it strikes a little something in my heart nonetheless. If you can’t stop shaking, lean back, let it move right through ya.

KENZIE: They totally did know what we wanted! Brendon Urie always knows what we want. (Well, like. I’m ignoring Vices & Virtues and Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! which both have their merits but didn’t connect the way Pretty. Odd. and A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out did, for me.) I think this is all the maximalist theatricality of Fever but matured, with a playfulness in the sound that is more reminiscent of Pretty. Odd. than Fever. And the thing I like most about it is perhaps the way that it is different from both of those efforts. This isn’t coifed and suited up like Vices & Virtues or Pretty. Odd. eras, this isn’t smoothing your hair and practicing arching one eyebrow in the mirror like A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. There is so much affect in those albums and I love them for it but that’s not what “Hallelujah” sounds like. Aly’s right, there’s a sincerity here that differentiates it, I think. This is Brendon singing right up against the limits of his vocal range almost to the point of cracking when he shouts “you’ll never know if you don’t ever try again, so let’s try, let’s try, let’s try” but having been at this long enough to know not to go any further.

It’s like they have such a firm grasp on the boundaries of their skills and sound and ambitions that they’re comfortable throwing themselves right up against that, over and over, secure in the knowledge it will hold. Panic! At the Disco are veterans at this point, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out came out 10 whole years ago! They aren’t amateurs. Brendon Urie is 28 years old! And he’s still breaking my heart! No one wants you when you have no heart! and Being blue is better than being over it! Jesus.

ALY: NO ONE WANTS YOU WHEN YOU HAVE NO HEART! God. Also – why was 2005, like,  the year? Like, Chroma? FUCT? God damn, noughties. We are a decade older now and still so enthralled by these people, these overwrought dramatic lines that shouldn’t work but work so hard, punch us right in the guts. Sometimes drama is the only way to express what you really feel, right, and Kenzie was telling me this even as I was listening to it, and she’s so dead on – Brendon is at a point in this song that is almost too much, it’s shouting, it’s so raw. But that’s what it needs, and that’s what we respond to! We have always loved this drama, this too-muchness. And now it’s more adult, and it’s perfect for us all over again.

“Hallelujah” feels, I guess, like acceptance, acceptance that isn’t surrender but something joyful and correct. It feels like growing up in a weird way, in a way that doesn’t hurt or feel resigned, in a way that verges on nostalgic but doesn’t quite push me there. It makes me weirdly hopeful, and I like it. The art for the single is just the praise hands emoji cycling through a variety of colors, and I like that too. Plus – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I’m a sucker for a horn section.

KENZIE: Yes! Yes yes yes. The same dramatics delivered in a way that’s still perfect for us, perfect in a totally different way from the way “we’re still so young, desperate for attention” was perfect. We’re not so young anymore!

I guess the main point is: I really fucking like this song. It’s growth that reminds me of the sound of the album I fell in love with. It’s forward motion without losing sight of the person you were before. I totally agree with Aly that it is acceptance. And it is exultant and it is not afraid to sing about trying. There is, when you’re a teen or a newly formed adult, this idea that you can’t seem like you’re trying. Everything should seem natural, should seem easy. You can’t try because that would indicate that you want and that just isn’t cool. But here’s Brendon letting us see the effort it takes to sing some of these notes. I already talked about this like, but I mean, Jesus, c’mon. You’ll never know if you don’t ever try again, so let’s try, let’s try, let’s try. Sometimes it takes everything in you just to get up and try again and it’s okay for things to require actual effort! It’s okay to want to try to do things! And honestly the whole song is preoccupied with trying. “Who was I trying to be?” he’s asking in the first verse and “who were you trying to be?” he’s asking in the second and who were any of us trying to be? But like what a relief, right, to call it trying? To acknowledge that? That active choice, that consciously expended effort? People look down on “try,” like it’s a kinder way of saying “fail to do,” a judgment on your ability to “actually” accomplish. But no! Here’s Panic! at the Disco singing a whole song about trying (sinners stand up! sing hallelujah!), knowingly questioning who they were trying to be before, but not turning away from that. Saying instead let’s try, let’s try, let’s try. That feels important. It feels good.

Tracks to Turn Thirty To

This year I’ll be turning 30, and if there was a soundtrack to the weird things that are happening on the way there, then it would be “She’s Not Afraid,” “Moments,” and “Act My Age,” in exactly that order. Most of One Direction’s songs are conversations between me and myself, removed from any kind of possible objective meaning, single lines formed into molds I’m pouring all my questions, pleas and ideas into. I’ve been having a lot of those ever since I realized by the middle of this year I’m going to reach that milestone I’ve always promised myself would be lifechanging.

I used to get motion sickness from watching shaky video footage pretty easily, but I willed my way through endless amounts of fan-filmed concert videos of “She’s Not Afraid” anyway. That’s not very different from how I approached life in my twenties in general. Everything was too blurry and made me feel nauseated, but I kept staring at it in the hopes of the picture finally stabilizing at some point.

I took the parts of “She’s Not Afraid” that felt most familiar to me, and I sang them to myself. Louder and louder each time, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that One Direction seemed to believe it more than me.

Every live video of “She’s Not Afraid” starts with Louis yelling “One, two, three, four!”, and the conviction of that alone used to make me seethe with envy. I wanted to introduce myself to the world with a bang like that, I wanted to let everyone around me (including myself) know that I exist, just how much I exist, how much there is in me. Just like in the lyrics, I could easily list off so many things I was never afraid of, but at the same time, during most of my twenties, I used to lay in bed most nights absolutely terrified of everything I loved, mourning all the things I didn’t do, and paralyzed at the thought of chasing even the littlest dreams. Fear left me with a tight chest, when all I really wanted was to fill my lungs and scream out how I wasn’t afraid, just like Zayn does when the others sing the last choruses about this imaginary girl. Every day I was singing songs about an imaginary girl to myself, hoping that one day I could become her. Looking back, I think I should have stopped singing to her way earlier, and started singing to my actual self.

If “She’s Not Afraid” was the rocky start of a road trip that I didn’t know I was going on, then “Moments” was waking up behind the steering wheel of a car, going full speed towards a ravine and whispering to myself “I don’t even have a license” over and over again. “Moments” is exactly like those years in your twenties when you see everyone’s lives flashing by, the loud noise of other people’s experiences dulled by the windows of this weird car you’re sitting in, hands are silent, voice is numb, trying to scream out your lungs, because everyone else seems to have figured out how to just go over the bridge to cross the canyon, but you’re somehow going full throttle and yet still slower than anyone else, towards this looming edge into nothingness.

It was at that point, when I was just trembling hands and skin and felt like I couldn’t go on another day wishing I lived someone else’s life, that’s where I had to close my eyes and apologize. “If we could only turn back time” Harry cries out, and that’s the worst part about growing up. I can’t go back and apologize to all my past selves. What I could do was deciding to stop being angry at myself for being afraid for so long and say sorry to exactly who I was right now. “Moments” is an excellent song to sing to yourself, for apologizing, the verses sounding unsure and yearning, just like the parts of myself that deserved forgiveness, Louis’ voice sometimes tipping over into a brittleness that reminded me too much of my own bones on my worst days. The question for me was, how do I get from there to the chorus, which is very much about being alive, demanding in its loudness and force, so unlike the verses (or the parts of my own self). The answer was again to take it and sing it to myself, over and over again, slowly gaining control over the steering wheel, the tightness in my chest leaving to make room for all the air I needed to belt it out like my life was depending on it.

A lot of things somehow fell into place in this last year before I’ll leave my twenties finally behind. Many of my friends over the age of thirty had been telling me that this would happen, and I did not quite believe them, although I wanted to so much. “Act My Age” is the song that is playing while I stop this damn car in front of a pub where all of them are waiting for me with a smug grin and somehow, magically, about 17 pints in every hand. The reason that these three songs work as a unit is because they describe a journey I needed to complete, with Act My Age being the point where I’ve realized that it really was me who went through all of this.

// When I say that I can’t do it no more, she’s back in my door // You know I’ll be, your life, your voice, your reason to live. // I can count on you, after all we’ve been through, cause I know that you’ll always understand. //

I have not magically overcome fear, I have not arrived at some state of complete inner peace, and I probably won’t have by the time I turn 30. But I wrote parts of this sitting at the top of a hill I had climbed on my own, overlooking the city of Edinburgh, far away from home. All of that was the result of me, of me giving myself goals, finishing my degree, allowing myself a reward, traveling alone, all of that despite being terrified. My hands were still shaky, but I sat on a rock on top of Arthur’s Seat and listened to these three songs, just like I had planned. And even though I didn’t use the opportunity to literally scream the chorus to Moments from the mountains, it still felt like I had arrived somewhere. There probably won’t be a loud BANG! and me emerging from some glittery cloud to announce a new me on the day I turn 30, but there’s going to be these three songs playing at some point, and I’ll have enough air in my lungs to let the whole city know that I exist and that at this moment, I’m not afraid anymore.


Mareen Fischer lives in Germany in a constant state of being generally bewildered, muttering into a cup of decaffeinated black tea and thinking about other people’s cats.

One Direction, Where They Were, and Other Myths of Home

March 23, 2015

For someone who spends most of their time wading about in an ocean of idealistic daydreams, I actually have a relatively low tolerance for the unreal. I get annoyed when people draw connections that don’t seem logical, I tend to decide how I’m going to feel about an experience before I actually experience it… Just this week, I’ve made about three passive aggressive text posts on Tumblr about how much I’ve grown to despise astrology (sorry). Although, maybe that’s not necessarily an intolerance for the unreal and rather a need for things to be right, to be consistent. Maybe I rely on a level of predictability that will provide a base for me to build more abstract thought process on. Like that line from Harold and Maude: “The earth is my body; my head is in the stars.” I need to be grounded to know what it is to be untethered; I need a launch pad to get any higher than the atmosphere.

Which is maybe one reason I seem to believe in fate and destiny and yet constantly say things like “I don’t really believe in Fate or Destiny.”

Which is maybe one reason I defined my best friends as “soulmates, if that’s a thing that even exists.”

That was in post I made almost exactly a year ago in response to an anonymous user who messaged me asking if I think One Direction would be friends if they weren’t One Direction. At that time, I seemed to find it necessary to talk about them through my own friendship. At this time – amidst a plethora of breakup rumors which somehow seem more ominous than they ever have up until this point – I’m naturally going to do the same.

A year ago, I said:

We’ve known each other for 7-8 years now and sometimes I seriously look at them and just think, how the hell did I get this lucky, how are we all still friends, how do I love each of them so equally yet in their own specific ways? What if we grew up in different towns or went to different high schools or if I’d stayed in a lower grade in elementary school or any number of different scenarios that would have altered our coming (and staying) together?

7-8 makes 9 now and I still don’t know. As long as it’s been, as much as I love them, I’m still not used to the fact that there’s people that get me as much as is possible to get someone who’s not yourself. I don’t think you can get used to it.

Maybe I was asking the wrong questions though. Maybe a better question would have been “Where do my friends end and where do I begin?” It’s an odd question that I’ve never felt the need to spend much time on because I like that my edges are allowed to be soft and fuzzy when I’m around them, undefined, experiences bleeding into one another “Oh, I don’t remember if I told you this yet or not” only to find out that I already have. It’s odd that existing as one part of a whole as opposed to being the whole is comforting, but it is. It is. “Never on your own” doesn’t sound so suffocating, it feels warm and safe – but safe in the way that it’s safe to get dressed with the door open in your own home, not safe as in holding back. Safe as in it’s easier to meet people when I’m with my friends because I feel more like myself around them, it’s easier to be honest with myself when I’m talking with my friends because I believe in myself around them, it’s easier to be easier actually.

I’ve read so many headlines over the past week about so and so leaving the band, so and so not being happy, so and so split and riffs and tensions and pressures and stress and, and, and. It genuinely twists something so deep within me, a physical reaction that makes me feel childish for getting so caught up. But as I’ve said at other times, all this shit I talk about 1D isn’t about 1D it’s about me.

I mean, it is a little bit about 1D. I was already blessed with my friendship when I got into them and one thing that was so enjoyable I think was that what they had reflected the way we were. There’s that scene in This Is Us where they’re all in the van arriving in some new country (Japan, I think) and everyone sings together “motorrail, motoraaaaailll, motorrraiiiilll!!” and it was them but it was us. It wasn’t just cute, it was an escape. And I don’t mean an escape as in escapism but rather, that feeling you have when you’re all driving together and things just feel alive, things feel real, things feel electric (“we owe our entire careers to electricity”/we owe our entire friendship to electricity probably). So I guess meeting your lifelong best friends in high school is a little bit like meeting your bandmates on a UK talent show, in that your first pictures together are kind of awful and young and trying to prove something and also in that everyone says it’ll be over soon.

 

The scary thing about them breaking up isn’t actually the music for me. I love their music no matter what goes on with them as people and I want more of it, I do, but they’ve become something so much bigger than that for me. Music is malleable, music gets better and gets worse and it shifts into other things, no big deal. Lots of my favorite bands have broken up and I’ve lamented the fact that there won’t be anything new but I never mourn that. God forbid, if One Direction announced their split right now (fingers crossed) I could still listen to “Once in a Lifetime” tomorrow.

No, the scary thing about them breaking up, beyond the surface level material stuff, the stuff that makes me frantically click out of windows to avoid yet another piece of speculative clickbait, is what I’ve taken their friendship to mean. What I’d miss is bearing witness to the irresistible love vibes they all have for each other. I’m not talking about shipping, I’m talking about the genuine love and care you have for a person who’s been through You with you, and the possibility that that could just….stop.

I’ve always admired their ability to talk about this thing that is so massive and quick moving and all encompassing as a job, as something that they love doing but also something that is work and which requires a certain level of dedication and faith. Maybe blind faith. But then I wonder, well where’s the line? Your job created your friendship, your friendship creates your job, how am I not supposed to feel conflicted? quickly clicks the red X

It doesn’t make me question the reality of my friendship because – and here, my romantic roots are going to come into full bloom – nothing could make me question that. But there’s a phantom sense of loss I guess you could say, the loss of an Earth that allows you to be in the stars. The circumstances of our lives, of their collective relationship and my collective relationship, are wildly different but they’re human (they’re human, they’re human, they’re human, I endlessly remind myself) and no matter who you are, space is a scary place if you’ve got no ship. It’s open water with no anchor.

 

Around my 22nd birthday, I got a tattoo that says “SAVEYOURSELF,” letters all squished together cause I needed it to be both save your Self and save Yourself. I’ve been laughing about it lately. Not that I regret it because I don’t – but it’s just funny. Funny how we worry about these things, about losing ourselves and also about losing in general. We brace ourselves so much for the crash and get hurt more in the process. I’m not going to say enjoy it while it’s here (“enjoy the rollercoaster that is life J x”) because even when I’m most enjoying myself I’m more often enjoying the memory of myself in the moment, enjoying the thought of “when I look back on this a year from now.” I don’t even know how it’s possible to enjoy the moment these days, if I’m honest.

What I do think is friends make the moment bigger so it can exist beyond any measurable point in time, any era. What I’m saying is nostalgia is kind of bullshit, it was never really better than it is now, it’s just that you’re thinking of all the good parts. Hindsight isn’t 20/20, hindsight puts a strain on your neck.

I got that tattoo with E, she held my hand through the pain and presented me with a Zombie Direction birthday cake after we were done, and on the drive back we were talking about distance, about how we all lived in different places. This was in reference to One Direction as well but I forgot what was going on in the fandom at that time that had (once again) sparked break up rumors. But we scoffed at them, saying that if we were celebrities everyone would think we weren’t friends anymore just because we hadn’t spoken for a week. I think about that a lot, that exact conversation and that exact road we were driving on. I think about the reverse of the question “if 1D weren’t 1D would they still be friends,” but instead, if my friends were something like 1D would we be friends? If we were shoved together and shipped around the world, different city every night would it go sour? Would I be able to save my Self? Would I have to save Myself?

This week, we texted a bit about this, everyone feeling guilty because we were too busy off living our so-called adult lives and had slacked in the group chat. Really, I think we all worry that we’re the ones fucking up. E gets frustrated with herself because she’s always working and it makes her feel like she’s missing things, perpetually absent. S gets frustrated because she’s away and studying and trying to get her future together and she feels like her stress is too much of a downer for the rest of us. C’s all the way out in Cali, married. I talked to her for the first time in a few months last night (social media things aside) and I’m guessing she also feels far away and out of our world even though hers has progressed in a pretty okay direction. I’m where I am, buried under the incessant weight of grad school and I feel selfish and lazy and boring even though I’m supposedly always busy. We all blame ourselves; but when someone brings it up the others shoot that line of thinking down, usually with a good threat thrown in to drive the point home: do what you need to do, do your own thing, if you’re here there or nowhere at all We’ll still be here.

But like I said, it’s funny because we think of “here” as fixed just like we think of the self as fixed. I just went back to my hometown for a week and I mean – have you ever noticed how much you tie who you (supposedly) are to actual, physical check points? Like a balloon tied to a post so it doesn’t float away.

But here is kind of nowhere, it doesn’t exist. We can look back at color coordinated posh boy outfits and think I wish we could go back but really, there is no “back” because there is no path. It’s like in Alice in Wonderland, the more steps you take, the more steps appear ahead of you, the more steps disappear behind you. So again, there is no path, even if there is a direction.

 

E loves McFly and I love that she loves McFly. She was telling me how they said in some interview or maybe their book that no matter what happens to them individually, whether they play music together or not they’ll still be McFly. She’s said that multiple times but each time I listen to it like a kid listens to their parent reading them a brand new bedtime story. It gives me the ability to roll my eyes at One Direction breakup rumors because no matter where they go, this will still have happened. Whatever it was is what it was and right now, it is what it is. But it also allows me to feel okay if I need to take 3 weeks to be Oscar the Grouch, states away from the people that make me whole because wherever we are is where we are and really, that’s that. It doesn’t need to be where we were or where we’ll be in order to be. Transition is fine. Knowing when to take a breath is fine. Everyone’s just a phone call away if I really need them. Do what I need to do, do my own thing, if I’m here there or nowhere they’ll still be there, where We belong.


Sika Wheeler is floating right now. Trapped between cornfields and football fields in the dead center of Pennsylvania, yearning for the south again. She used to want to be a writer, now she won’t stop telling people she used to be a math tutor. But generally speaking, she should probably be working on that paper for class instead of literally anything she’s actually doing.

The Directionettes: A Girl Group Dream Cover Manifesto

I think all of us here are familiar with the incessant juxtaposition of One Direction with the Beatles. In interviews (you boys sold more records than the Beatles, how do you feel about that?), in the press (One Direction smashes Beatles title as number one blah blah blah), by rock critics and musicmansplainers alike (The Beatles shall not be usurped blah blah blah blah blah blah blah alb lahblahblhah). At this point, it’s boring and barely relevant. The legacy of the boyband is wider and more complex than the Boy band. It’s wider and further back than The Beatles, no matter how much they are continually reinstated as the standard and the origin. At this point, that’s not very revolutionary to say, I know. But I don’t want to be revolutionary; I just want to talk about girl groups, not as the antithesis of the boyband and especially not as a mirror but as an equally important creative influence on what it is to be a pop group today and therefore an equally important influence on One Direction. Because if we’re going to talk about The Beatles than we need to talk about who influenced them without a second’s worth of credit.

Although I don’t even necessarily want to talk about “influence” because this damn sure ain’t about to be a history lesson. If you want, you can google names and dates. I’d encourage it actually, and have included some of them here because I think they can be useful. It’s just that too often we talk about old music the same way we talk about old artifacts, like a piece of art that no one can touch. And I want to get my grimy fingerprints all over these groups, all over these songs, I want to feel them and yell a bit the same way I do for One Direction way up high in my overpriced stadium seat and I want to do it at the same time.

I would love it if as you read these, you so kindly listened to the songs I’m describing because again contrary to popular belief (read: my own) I am not a music critic and also I formulated this list mostly on a drive up the East coast as I was singing along with the songs at the top of my lungs. I request that you let them exist for you in that same way – through the air and your gut, turned up as loud as you need, not stuck up on some old shelf as something we should respect and revere. I want to celebrate some of my favorite ladies through my favorite boys in a way that is present and rooted in my heart of hearts because even though these songs are 60-70 years old, they’re still so alive and they make me feel the way that 1D makes me feel.

 


Arlene Smith, the lead singer of the Chantels, was 16 when they recorded and released their first single “Maybe” in early 1958. 16! Think of singing this beautiful….beautiful song when you were sixteen, prime “virgin who can’t drive” era. Think of that distinctly 16 year old way of throwing yourself across your bed because everything is so much and the boy of your dreams won’t be yours no matter what you do. Now, think of Liam Payne. He falls easily on either side of the line actually, both as the unattainable dream boy (a role he knows how to embody so, so well as he reaches out towards his fans night after night – I’ll be yours but only in your fantasies). But also as Arlene’s successor. Liam is the one in the band that I think is most capable of singing something completely cheesy, completely unabashed and downright romantic, something as piercing and blush-worthy as I love you so, I want you to know. I’m telling you darling, I’ll never let you go.

Arlene just comes in with this like…not even crooning, but begging and she’s got just barely a bit of that vibrato, yearning, like literally this is what the word yearning sounds like. If you had an audible dictionary her voice could be the definition for this, no need to elaborate. “Gotta Be You” is the “I Love You So” of 1D, it’s so frank and it has that kind of cold feeling. Not cold like no emotion obviously but it’s so UP it reminds me of biting winter breeze, that sudden shiver, the ability of ice to freeze and how beautiful that can be. Which is about how I feel about Liam’s voice when he lets his eyes slip shut, lets himself really get in there – shivers.

 

Speaking of winter, The Shirelles released what might be their most popular hit, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” in December of 1960. Lead vocalist Shirley Owens was 19 at the time, only a few years younger than the obvious choice to execute this song, Niall Horan. It’s a no-brainer. Shirley’s voice has this warmth to it, a simplicity that is still so rich even in its softness. There’s also a sense of patience with this, not that yearning intensity that really works for Niall’s voice.

The connection really rounds itself out perfectly in “Baby, It’s You” released barely two years later. And I mean, maybe I’m just getting excited but all I can hear at this point is Niall singing this. Niall could float so nicely in between those low waves of her voice. Shirley makes it almost flirtatious, always staying just behind the end of the note in a way that reminds me of Niall’s opening verse in “Fool’s Gold.” Niall’s the only one of all of them that could sing that line I don’t want nobody, nobody without making it demanding or desperate. It’s desire not necessarily a desperate need, sits in that pocket Niall occupies so perfectly with a firm gentility. Like Shirley, his voice (and his personality) is light, sort of easy, it’s not going to twist your heart but it is going to hold it and keep it if you just let him.

 

All right, LISTEN TO ME I LOVE THE MARVELETTES because of that good, good gravel Gladys Horton has in her voice that was so unique at the time “Please Mr. Postman” was released. The year was 1961 and Gladys was 16 (Do I need to do my “16!” spiel again?) and her group had just sealed the deal with Motown, the first girl group to do so. Horton’s voice has that nice “rocky tone” (citation: Niall Horan) Harry has. The little hooks she does with her voice remind me a lot of Harry – hooks as in the non-musical kind, the kind that lodges itself in things and gets caught. Even when she’s singing softly she still has such a presence that was different than the sound most female singers had at the time, and a sound that lent itself to the subsequent cover by the devil themselves, The Beatles.

But as fun as “Postman” is, my choice for Harry is the song that came five years later.

A song that’s as slick as “Don’t Mess With Bill” really needs that level of grit to carry it to keep it interesting which is why our friend Gladys kills it and why I would kill to see Harry take it on. Actually, you know what? Follow me for a second down another rabbit hole. Gladys and Harry’s voices remind me of a snare drum. Not the drum itself but where its name comes from, the snares, which sit on the bottom of the drum and give it that distinct tscht sound. It sounds like both Gladys and Harry have snares resting in their chests somewhere and it’s lovely.

 

Next to The Supremes, The Ronettes are probably one of the most well-known girl groups, partly because of their hit “Be My Baby,” and partly because of the troublesome relationship of lead singer Ronnie Spector and then-husband and producer and all-around abusive asshole Phil Spector. Initially, I bypassed over The Ronettes in choosing these songs because Ronnie has such a distinct voice it seems odd to pair it with anyone’s. It’s young yet oddly authoritative in its force, truly the voice of lead singer. But in going through that thought process, the question seemed obvious – okay, so then how about Zayn? I kept listening and found I myself able to visualize Zayn’s face singing. If One Direction, heaven forbid, ever did a cover of “Be My Baby,” Zayn would go to town. But actually, I think a better choice – if we’re just considering vocals – would be the lesser known “I Wonder” which, if only in atmosphere, reminds me of “I Would,” which for me is a definite Zayn song.

The Ronettes also have a sound that’s a bit more progressed from other girl groups – the instrumentality, that large-room kind of sound, the echo-y drums that still sit in that Motown sound, just pop enough but still with clear R&B roots. Ronnie’s style of doing those runs over the group (which is notably different from other girl groups where the lead singer sang more with the other girls) is so Zayn. Those sweeping forever and evers makes me think of those moments when Zayn squeezes his eyes shut, presses against his belly, leans back and lets it go.

 

I kept wanting to stay away from The Supremes, find a group that maybe people wouldn’t hear otherwise. Diana Ross was 20 when “Where Did Our Love Go” was released and I can’t help but think that, for a voice so highly lauded, it…probably wouldn’t work today? It’s a beautiful voice and strong and so many artists obviously took notes from it but it’s so sweet. It’s so small. Which is exactly why I feel Louis in this Chili’s tonight.

From day one of me being into 1D, I’ve seen nothing but talk (usually in the way of defense) of Louis’ voice, how it might not be as strong as someone like Zayn or Liam but it’s definitely the most unique. It sits in a higher register, thin and reedy, and it’s this point that seems to put people on one side or the other if they like it or not. For Diana, the vulnerability in her sound is translated into glamour, a type of classiness. Obviously, that works for the Supremes and is part of why they were so well received, but I would love to hear Louis on this. Still that same softness, still that breath but a little more real, a little more grounded. Closer to what he does at the beginning of “Right Now” or the end of “Something Great.” Think of his voice, the round of his mouth echoing Diana’s gentle inquiry Baby, baby…where did our love go? Who but Louis could turn her uncertainty into resignation with Ooh, don’t you want me? Don’t you want me no more?


 Sika Wheeler is floating right now. Trapped between cornfields and football fields in the dead center of Pennsylvania, yearning for the south again. She used to want to be a writer, now she won’t stop telling people she used to be a math tutor. But generally speaking, she should probably be working on that paper for class instead of literally anything she’s actually doing.

Ayo: (My horoscope said, “Forget about high school”)

I’m back where I grew up for the weekend and my friend is driving us home from the beach, less an indication of where we’ve been than an expression of where we anchor ourselves, the beach being many things to us — recollection, aversion, the white mammoth house of our friend whose parents drink wine in the kitchen and the salt smell coming through strong in the morning, the boardwalk where I drank my first beer then hurled it half-full into the sand when I couldn’t finish it so no one would know. We look like summer frogs when we tan, crinkled and askew. Beach skin breeds beach breath, breeds beach boys. The best view is from a car along the sea, your window turned toward the ships with their hearts lit up against the night sky. I’m thinking about this and the impossible grossness of the weekend, about the trollish trees whose huge cancerous arms sag over the streets where I used to live and the skittish cars now ahead of us with their red eyes widening like cats caught in a dream, about stupid and quieter things like how much and how desperately I want a soda. We bump and start again, careening for a moment out of our lane. Someone’s singing on the radio, making soft and hideous sounds like nighttime, mimicking the way speech sounds in the spaceship glow of a nearby traffic light. I ask, “Who’s this?” My friend says, “It’s Chris Brown,” and we go to bed ugly.

Now we’re sixteen and we like dancing, and talking about sex, and sometimes we get high and when we do we love the way our rote and earnest voices fit around the words fuck / love / me, our beach skin breeding acne, summoning our greased-up lawns and galaxies of ineptitude, the way we eat our early dinners as they spike their hair toward Mars. We are little bundles of grossness; our hands want to dig up the moon. When we’re in each other’s basements, we teach ourselves the Soulja Boy dance so that the whole room feels like our bones are breaking, the walls splitting in two and giving way to burnt rug. I hide my weird dry limbs in my bed and practice dancing in front of my mirror, which feels like taking a hit in secret. I sprout a new body which is red and not my own. It hardly matters; I still curve my hand out the window of my friend’s car when we’re passing through the trees so I can feel the wind fill up my palm. I still feel ugly, but not in the right way.

Behind the main building there’s the chapel and that’s where I suck him off, and where I roll up my tights after school when it’s warm outside so the sun will curl around my legs, and there are old broken pianos in the back room and mirrors where I can look at my long messy face that turns yellow under the lights. He calls me bitch like he’s sending me a rose-colored telegram from another room; it’s a name he made for me and I try it on, wearing it around my wrist or carrying it in my shoes, and I say the word to myself in the hallways, in the bathroom, in my friends’ bedrooms where I finally give the wound of the word to them and we grasp each other’s hands so tightly it turns into a new pain and say bitch shut up bitch you stupid bitch I love you. I love him so much, he makes me feel like dirt. I feel like he could pick me up and every piece of me would fall through his hands. He never kisses me. My friend tells me once, cruelly but with a tremor like tenderness in her throat, what she heard him call me: too much. I try to make myself smaller after that but I can’t make it happen, I can’t finish my math homework and I can’t speak louder and I can’t make him love me, which feels like the most important loss in the world. Perhaps it is, a strange and sorry reckoning of our shapes; perhaps this is what I’m supposed to learn, all the things I would give up to make him love me. They stick to me, anyway; I carry them everywhere.

It’s the first thing that’s ever happened to me. It feels like being struck by a planet or suddenly cast into an ocean of stars. We sit on the bed in his room together and he calls me names that grow on me like sores. I hear him in the hallways at school, little drops of his voice finding their way to me, talking to his friends who are so unlike mine (but we want to make our voices rough and dark like theirs), slapping them, laughing, she bring her friend around fuck em both like . When we’re alone sometimes I want to cry. He sits across the room from me moving his hands through words I’ve never heard and I listen, my heart pumping horribly I need you, I need you. He lets me be all the things I’m so afraid I am: quiet. ugly. shy. I love him so much, he makes me feel like I’m not there. We hook up with all the lights off. He takes his girlfriend to prom.

Everything around us is brittle. For example, here is what it’s like when my friends and I take a drive: we feel like we’re moving but what we really want is to crash. The moon is high above our heads and the size of an overfed oyster. The music is turned too loud and someone is screaming. We scream a lot these days, every time something pricks us deep enough to draw blood and that’s not hard, we often find ourselves bleeding at staircases and boys’ eyes and even our mothers’ hands. We like the way it sounds, bursting out of our tiny bodies. There is nothing around us but parking lots and flattened malls so we put everything inside us that we can find: soda and candy and boys’ tongues and our own fingers and words that stick to us from songs and words we learn from boys which are the words that seem to mean the most, which are the words we turn into gestures when we shove each other away even though our mouths are dry and say dont be actinlike I need you. But we need everything, so silk-skinned are we. It embarrasses us. It clings to us like a bug, an annoyance, our need; to need so much feels like being the wanton, leaking mouth of a cavern. Our bodies are bursting. No one will ever love us but the sand.

But still we’re driving, my friends and I, and our blood is thick with longing and we’re screaming our throats raw with ugliness and the wind is coming off the sea, ripe with salt. We call each other bitch and then we kiss the wounds away. My mouth feels realer with him somehow, making strange little os in his dull ache of a room, but the rest of my body soaks up blood and I learn to love it, this part of me that scratches the wall, that lives in the beats of hateful songs, all of me screaming I need you I need you, aflame in the wordlessness of despair, punching my heart one note higher, telling the same stories again and again, covered in the skin of all the people I want, wet and molding from the sea, all these bodies so close together alight in the length of their love, all these bodies in the car with the top down screaming like —


Luisa V. Lopez is a writer living in New York City. She has eleven carefully curated Spotify playlists and a favorite subway stop to cry at. 

But really, do you believe in life after love?

Music File Photos - The 1960s - by Chris WalterIf you asked any single person in the year of our lord 2015 to do an impression of Cher, you’d likely get a pitchy, throaty warble, “do you beli-eve in life after love.” There are jokes about Cher that everyone’s dad understands (something something plastic surgery and then everyone laughs meanly and feels totally great about their own, completely naturally-evolving body) and then there are jokes about Cher that your Tinder date makes in a loud bar after two drinks (have you seen her Twitter? it’s insane) and then there is Cher herself, singing “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” alone on stage in the middle of Burlesque, a movie that isn’t quite a movie so much as it is one of those islands of trash on a Manhattan side street in August that someone threw a handful of glitter onto.

And look, none of those are wrong, necessarily. I’m not going to argue here and now about the legitimacy of camp, though we should totally do that later. No, what I want to talk about is this: Is Cher lonely?

In college I would wake up before sunrise to get to my library job, sleepily knocking the snow from my boots and onto the grimy blue bus floor, and the thought would strike me right there. Bette Midler has been married for 100 years, and so has Dolly Parton. Tina Turner lives in a Swiss chalet with man who, god willing, treats her like the princess she truly is. Cher (born Cherilyn Sarkisian in 1946, then Cheryl LaPiere, and then Cher, just Cher, though she’d try on other names later — Bono, Allman — they wouldn’t ever stick) mostly seems to hang out in her home, a monstrous Malibu villa that looks like a cross between an Italian castle and your mom’s zen garden. Her best friend Paulette appears to have moved in, or at least moved to the neighborhood. Sometimes Andy Cohen comes over.

Is Cher lonely? It’s hard not to listen for it in those early songs, the duets with Sonny. There’s a live version of “The Beat Goes On” from 1971, still a few years away from their divorce but already deep into the unsettling rhythm they’d worked out wherein he would write songs about an unhappy relationship and she would sing them and he would take all of the profit and she wouldn’t find out about it until– but I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, it’s only 1971. They’re in Los Angeles, at a venue that doesn’t exist in the year 2015. The song is three minutes long but they stretch it to seven with patter: he refers to her as Bathsheba and makes jokes about their sex life, she only moves this way on stage, and Cher plays along, waiting for the band to hit her cue. I wrote this song, he announces, and she quietly deadpans whoopee. When they finally start to sing, the dynamic flips, almost hilariously. He’s fine. He’s there to calm her nerves, more than anything. She’s got the voice, god, that voice, even if she doesn’t quite know what it is or why Sonny’s got such a tight grasp on it. It’s loud, and it’s powerful. In between verses, while he’s muttering after the show, nothing goes on, she’s almost demure. Doesn’t she know that she’s the one everyone came for?

(In almost every version of the story, Bathsheba never makes it to the throne, but that was then and this is the twentieth century, and so Cher divorces Sonny and they start rival comedy shows and his fails after six weeks and hers is nominated for six Emmy awards. So.)

The first CD I ever loved was the soundtrack from the movie version of Chicago. The second was the Cher Essential Collection that I’d pilfered from the family cabinet after my dad played it while cleaning the bathrooms one afternoon when I was nine because “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” made me want to twirl on the balls of my feet with the windows open. I couldn’t quite keep hold of the narrative thread or its racial implications, and I certainly didn’t grasp what it meant for “the men to come around and lay their money down,” but I liked the way her voice stretched and dipped when she sang “south of Mobile,” and surely nothing could be too bad if there was dancing, a traveling show. With Cher there always is. Everyone I know who has seen her on what is always, surely, the final loop of her touring career (her officially titled “Farewell Tour” lasted for three years in the early aughts) has said the same thing: Hoo boy, but she can still put on a goddamn show. But we had to have known that she would, she told us so, all the way back in 1971. Mama had to dance for the money they’d throw.

Much like the beat, Cher would go on.

Dark Lady, Cher’s mid-divorce album released in 1974,  includes a cover of an Irving Berlin song that was used in that Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby that you didn’t pay attention to in high school. It’s fairly lifeless and tame and not worth your two and a half minutes, honestly. But then there is “Train of Thought.” And then there is “Dark Lady.” If “Train of Thought” is a desperate, angry scream out an open window and into the loud night, not caring whether the neighbors hear, then “Dark Lady” is your lowest-cut dress and your most expensive lipstick. “Train of Thought” is your hands shaking as you point a gun at the man who took the warmest parts of you for himself and then made you feel crazy. “Dark Lady” is pulling the trigger and stepping over the body on your way out. I’m not saying this out of nowhere — these songs both end with Cher shooting someone while the upbeat pop-folk track continues to play, complete with the shaking of maracas. It’s a lot, but it’s also indicative of something important: Even at her most alone, Cher would rather be dead than bore you with her sadness. If you were going to listen to her heartbreak, then she was going to throw in a whole bunch of homicide and a little bit of magic, too.

And then there is “I Saw a Man and He Danced With His Wife.” I used to sway and spin around my room to “I Saw a Man and He Danced With His Wife” and let myself go dreamy with the idea that one day I, too, would watch a man I used to love dance with someone else. That just a glimpse of me would inspire him to leave her and show up at my door. I would have Cher’s perfect waist-length hair and would look very glamorous even when I cried. This is where I’m supposed to tell you that I grew up to be the kind of woman who drinks dark liquor even when no one’s looking and keeps The Portable Dorothy Parker handy for when she gets caught alone in a bar, but my Kindle takes up less space in my purse and I would absolutely order chilled white wine and I still think this song is the peak of romance. It’s aggressively wistful and not at all delicate, a song made for fantasizing because it’s a fantasy in its own right. In a series of songs about taking a gun to the man who has wronged you, “I Saw a Man and He Danced With His Wife is a daydream without any bloodlust. If there was a music video, it would be full of gauzy bell sleeves and twinkling lights, and the reunion scene at the end would be shot at that mansion from the Blank Space video that burned down.

And yet when Cher talks about this time in her life, it is never dreamy. “I thought I’d never climb out of that hole,” she told USA Today. This is a woman who was in foster care briefly as a very young child, who shed her family name and left home at age 16, who was married by age 18 to an abuser more than a decade older than she was. “I pride myself on still being here,” she says, and it’s the personal singular that’s so important. “I pride myself.” She knows now what she didn’t know in 1971: that she’s always going to be what everyone came for

I am lucky; I get to be un-lonely because I can dance on the balls of my feet to “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” with the windows open. Maybe, then, what’s important is not whether Cher is lonely, but what she does with it. Cher would never strip her loneliness for parts — instead she builds it up, wrapping it in something sheer and glittery and adding keyboards, and hands it back to us. If they let you into the room, she’s saying, don’t waste it. Be louder. Be bigger. Be so glitzy that they can’t help but to see you. Take your heartbreak and turn it into the wildest story they’ve ever heard. Release a dozen more albums and go on six world tours and win every award (Cher is only a Tony award away from EGOT-ing, so keep your fingers crossed) they’ll offer you.

And if you sit still for too long and things get too quiet, you’d better start dancing.

Ok,no more sadness.

 


 

Liz Zaretsky lives in DC with a cat who doesn’t have any teeth and a search history full of variations on “how do you apply eyeshadow.”

Brokenness, Wholeness, and Kelly Clarkson’s “Piece by Piece”

In the story of Orpheus–in one story of Orpheus–the poet, inconsolable with grief, having traveled past the very gates of death to bring his beloved back to the earth and left with only a fresh memory of loss as his prize, sits by the shore singing his lamentations. A group of women hears him and, enraged by both the beauty and the sorrow of the music, demand that he sing something else; when he ignores them, devoted to the truth of his songs, they rip him limb from limb and scatter the pieces into the sea.

In this telling, which I read in a beautifully illustrated children’s collection of Greek mythology that was my favorite book for years, the story becomes a kind of cautionary tale about the dangers of not getting over it. Orpheus dies not of sadness but because he is impermissibly sad: because he dares to make central his grief. He lets his trauma define him. He refuses to move forward and is punished for the discomfort this decision causes. It’s a fitting fable for a world that valorizes overcoming one’s demons, that likes its heroes damaged, but not broken; scarred, but not haunted; victimized, but not victims.

I learned well. I was tough, pridefully unbreakable, stubborn. I was bratty, actually. I rolled my eyes at my mother: you think everything is about my father. I pushed with everything in me against the idea that I could have been irrevocably shaped by what I had cut away. I was not like Orpheus; I did not look back. I refused to succumb to the weakness of mourning. I kept my head up and my eyes forward and my path straight until the effort of doing so tore me apart.

Even now I have to fight off humiliation over still, after all this time, being fucked up about my father. I gravitate towards phrasings like fucked up because sad feels childish. I’m good at jokes and bad at lamentations and I’ve begun unlearning my shame not out of self-love but out of pragmatism: the alternative was becoming untenable. It became a matter of self-preservation to admit what I hadn’t wanted to know: my trauma does define me, in ways I will spend my life uncovering. It was nice to believe I could will myself into something whole and unscathed like it was nice to believe my father loved me, nice until something in me started choking on the lie.

One thing I’ve long loved about Kelly Clarkson is how unashamed she is to hurt, loudly and unrelentingly. She’s got a voice people describe in terms of magnitude, powerhouse vocals pumping through the bombast of her big hits, but she’s capable of subtle and soft: listen to the sultry build at the start of “Ready,” or the spectral rasp of “Irvine,” or even the verses of famously huge “Since U Been Gone.” She can tone it down; she just often chooses not to, which is wonderful to me, that kind of commitment to inhabiting the full scale of her turbulent heart. It’s magical to hear her escalating throughout “Because of You,” louder and bigger, veering on shrill, making a spectacle of her anguish about, famously, her parents’ divorce, but really about what it is to live in the shadow of loss, to have the contours of your spirit shaped by fear.

because of you, I’m ashamed of my life because it’s empty

By “it’s magical” I mean it makes me cry. I cry at the beauty and the sorrow of it, that magnificent wail spelling out the huge ugly truth of just how much can be stolen from us before we ever have a chance. I cry when she sings my heart can’t possibly break when it wasn’t even whole to start with because it makes me feel dissected, the fissures I’ve never known myself without revealed under fluorescent lights. I don’t remember an unfractured self, and there are days when I can’t believe I ever thought that was my fault. I cry listening to “Sober,” which buries I’m getting better and murmurs It’s still harder and screams I’m still breathing / I’m still remembering, which is an ode to what I didn’t want to know: It’s never really over. To survive is to be haunted. And now I cry to “Piece by Piece.”

And all I remember is your back walking towards the airport, leaving us all in your past

All I remember of you is the leaving, but also all I remember is being left. The story I learned, and I learned it deep, in a body that still shakes at the sound of raised voices. She sings about begging her father to want her and I am thrilled and eviscerated to hear articulated that particular desperation without shame. He tries to make back into her good graces now that she’s made something of herself but she has the clarity to understand: but your love, it isn’t free, it has to be earned / back then I didn’t have anything you needed so I was–worthless, a non-rhyme as lyrically disruptive in its gracelessness as it was personally disruptive to live and live and keep living knowing you are nothing to someone who made you.

But “Piece by Piece” isn’t just a lamentation; it’s a love song, with a marching rat-a-tat beat and a sparkling shimmer surrounding Kelly’s echoing huskiness, music for miracles and rebirth even as she recounts the darkness, and what demolishes me is piece by piece he filled the holes that you burned in me at six years old. What demolishes me is the childhood genesis of trauma presented not to highlight how far she is (get over it) but how fundamental was the wound, and how great the work has been to build a foundation that was missing for so long.

It’s never really over: the song is addressed to the father, another in a never-ending line of exorcisms. In the midst of love and sweetness and clean open air that ghost is still there, making itself known in the absurd wonder you ascribe to the basics: he never walks away, he never asks for money. In the second chorus there’s a hitching sigh to the way she sings he takes care of me ’cause he loves me that carries the weight of a constant revelation: oh, this is how people can be. This is how people can live. I didn’t know. I didn’t know it could be like that. I didn’t know I could breathe this easy. I have to learn it fresh sometimes still and sometimes that need makes me cry because it hits me in a new way how wrong it is that I have to struggle to hold on to lessons I should have inherited. Living and remembering coexist and sometimes that feels like the raw wound of “Sober.” But sometimes it feels like this: a familiar weight lurking just beneath a new buoyancy, an old ache mingling with dazzling wonder.

Piece by piece: slowly, incrementally, moving towards a quality of wholeness which is not a mirage of reconstitution but something jagged and sustainable and real. Piece by piece as description, as mantra, as acknowledgement of both brokenness and forward movement, in the bridge as something like ecstasy, climbing higher–this is another of the miracles of Kelly’s voice is that she can let loose in any direction, in all directions at once, can be an instrument of anguish and delight, can explode with a joy made miraculous by history–piece by piece he restored my faith that a man could be kind and a father could stay–I really didn’t know. I didn’t know I had anything in me capable of believing it.

At the end we get a Taylor Swiftian reversal of perspective for those of us for whom believing in love stories never came easy, Kelly suddenly singing from the perspective of the one she’s been singing about–piece by piece, I fell far from the tree, further proof that the past isn’t destiny without denying the ways it lingers. There are strings swelling and a crescendo of both sound and emotion and yes, it’s a triumph, an upward arc, but I posit that it’s a triumph dependent on what came before, that the expansive hopefulness of “Piece by Piece” coexists with, is dependent on, the monuments to never getting over it that preceded it. It lives in both spaces, which is how I’ve come to think of wholeness: not as a smooth seamless joining, but as that which can encompass all parts of the story–the singer, the song, the beauty and the sorrow, the motion and the stillness, the gates of death itself, the beloved and the body and the breaking, the sparkling unfathomable sea.


Isabel lives in New York and tries not to be too gross about it.