A Study of Sadness Through '80s Pop

It’s probably safe to say that I was born with at least two things in my blood: exhaustion and melancholy. 

I’ve always been a good sleeper. I’ve always been able to fall asleep fairly quickly, whether it’s nap time or bed time. Once I’m asleep, I can sleep through tornado sirens, typhoons, neighbor noises, M’s snoring, you name it. If allowed, I will always be able to sleep for at least 10 hours. In a perfect world, I would be able to wake up on my own around 11am, no matter how early I went to bed the night before. If you ask me how I’m doing, my answer will probably always be some version of “I’m tired/exhausted,” whether I’m obvious about it or not.  

These things have been true for as long as I can remember. 

I’m not here to write about perpetual exhaustion though. Not today. 

Today, I’m writing about melancholy. 

***

Merriam-Webster (yes, I’m doing it. I’m looking up words in the damn dictionary for this.) defines melancholy as simply, “a depression of spirits” and “a pensive mood.” 

That seems like an understatement, but an accurate one, for this thing I’ve lived with my whole life. 

***

When I was thinking about writing this essay, I mulled over the word that would most accurately express this feeling. 

I thought about depression. When I was in grad school, I remember watching a commercial for some kind of anti-depressant, where they listed off some symptoms of depression. I was only half-listening, but when I heard, “Have you lost interest in the things that used to excite you?” something clicked. I thought, hey, that’s me. I can’t remember the other things in the commercial that I identified with, but the mirror that 30 seconds held up to me was important. It was important for me to be able to name this wild, sad thing that was living in my body. It was important for me to be able to recognize why I felt so out of control, that juggling the pressures of grad school and being thrown into an academic teaching life and just life in general were taking a toll on me. 

Looking back on it, I should have seen a therapist in grad school. But I didn’t. Instead, I thought, Okay. So maybe I’m a little bit depressed. Now I know. And I adjusted. And I got to a better place. Was that the best way to deal with what I was going through? Probably not, but that's what I did. 

More recently, I read Chrissy Teigen’s essay in Glamour about having postpartum depression. It’s a fantastic read. It’s well-written, funny, and so, so real. I clearly do not have postpartum depression, and postpartum depression deserves its own platform and its own conversation. But I found myself resonating with so much of what she was describing that I thought, oh shit. It’s happening again. I’m depressed. Why didn’t I see it before? Of course I’m depressed. Why wouldn’t I be?

I still have a lot to figure out when it comes to my depression. Do I have a functional depression? Do I have Depression Lite (TM)? Does everyone have some degree of depression? Wouldn’t it be weird if I didn’t have some degree of depression with all the shit happening in the world and in my life? 

But depression is not the feeling that I’ve lived with my whole life that I’m trying to write about. 

***

Then I thought about ennui

When I first heard the concept of ennui in my British Literature After 1800 class in undergrad, I was elated. I finally had a name for that feeling I’d had for 19 years that was a lethal combo of restlessness and boredom. 

For those who aren’t familiar, ennui is a French term that means “a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction.” Our English word “annoy” comes from ennui. It’s a word associated with the general attitude in the aftermath of the French revolution. It’s associated with youth and a sense of world weariness and jadedness. It can also be associated with a boredom and weariness that comes from living a life of privilege and “ease.” (Think Ryan Philippe’s character in Cruel Intentions — he’s the pinnacle of ennui. See also: any character in a Jean-Luc Godard film. See also: Monica Vitti’s character in L’Avventura.)

Of course I would feel ennui as a teenager. How could I not? I lived in a small town where there was nothing to do on a Friday night except go hang out at Wal-Mart or spend an hour in Blockbuster trying to figure out what movie to watch. Of course I would feel restless and bored and a relentless itch to do something or be anywhere else. 

However, that feeling has evolved in me. I still get restless, and I still get that relentless itch to do something or be anywhere else. But I would no longer call it ennui. 

Though I love ennui, and I love art that’s imbued with it, it is not the feeling I’ve lived with my whole life. 

***

And then I considered nostalgia. The longing for a past time, for the “good old days" (as if good old days ever existed, especially for anyone who is not white, not cisgender, not heterosexual, etc.).  

My preferred aesthetic, fashion-wise and music-wise and film-wise, is the ‘80s. I was only alive for half that decade, but god, do I love it. When I was a DJ for my college radio station, I would turn up my favorite ‘80s jams, sit in that tiny room, and wish so hard that music still sounded like that. 

It seems like we’re experiencing some kind of cultural nostalgia. We’re remaking movies that should never be remade, but not because they’re bad movies. Movies like The Karate Kid are so good because they tell good stories, but they’re also good because they are of their time. Karate Kid couldn’t be made in any other era. Just like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Just like The Crow. Just like Footloose. You can’t remake these movies successfully. 

Except Footloose. That remake was fun.  

Just kidding. That remake was pretty terrible. 

Nostalgia, though, is wistful. It’s yearning for a time that we remember fondly, that we think of without remembering the dark edges and the pain. (Not to mention the racism, the sexism, the xenophobia, the invisibility of queer and trans folks.) 

It’s wishing to go back to a time that never existed. 

***

And then, because I have a George Michael Pandora station, and it is basically the only thing I listen to these days, this song popped up: 

Weird ponytails and mullets aside, this song was my #1 favorite song of all time. (This was back when I had only experienced about 20 years of life, and could still maintain Top 5 lists with earnest and accuracy.)  

That song could remain at that #1 spot, if I still kept Top 5 lists. 

***

Hearing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” that day awakened the melancholy. A depression of spirits. A pensive mood. It felt like coming home after a long day and curling up in bed with all my fluffiest pillows and blankets. 

Feeling that was a relief. Or a release. Or both. 

It’s strange to think that melancholy is this to me — something resembling home. That a feeling could be so comforting. 

***

When I was in undergrad, I was obscenely busy, but I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning, listening to bands like The Smiths and writing and sometimes crying. What did I write? Who knows. (It was before I had fully accepted that I was a writer, so I probably wrote long journal entries and love letters that never got sent to boys who weren't worth the attention.) 

What I do know was that when I listened to the music, it felt like there was finally a home for all the sadness that lived in me. When I first heard “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths, it felt like climbing into the coziest bed I could ever imagine, in a room that understood me without even needing to ask what was wrong.  

***

When I got to grad school, I gradually turned off my melancholy. I couldn’t afford to keep it around because I needed to get things done. I needed to be an adult — I had to teach, grade papers, write papers, write poems, write lesson plans, etc. There was no time to curl up in the cozy bed in the room that melancholy laid out for me.

And even though I was in a creative writing program, there was no room for feelings. (Ironically.) There was no room for me and all my stuff in this new life, and so, to survive, I eventually stopped listening to the songs that felt like home. 

***

I should say that my comfort only comes when it’s coupled with the music. Melancholy on its own is unsatisfying. It’s wholly unhomey. Melancholy experienced through music and film and art is the comfort. 

When art triggers something lonely in you. Triggers the loneliness in you. Connects to your lonely self.  

That is comfort. 

***

Maybe the relief also comes from feeling something other than panic, rage, stress, exhaustion. To feel anything else other than those things feels like a luxury these days. 

***

In “High Fidelity,” Nick Hornby writes, “Which came first — the music or the misery?” Are we miserable because we listen to sad music? Or does the sad music come because we are miserable? When I first read “High Fidelity,” I envisioned the answer was a mobius strip of sadness and music, one inextricable from the other. 

But now, when I think about melancholy and its containers, I think I actually have an answer. The sad, good music doesn’t come unless there is melancholy — or misery, as Nick Hornby says. 

I can’t just sit around and be pensive. It has to come out somehow. It has to express itself, whether it’s through the things that I actually write, or the things that I listen to. 

Music is kind of like fashion. We put on a particular outfit and we do our make-up in a particular way because it’s a way to express ourselves. Similarly, if we listen to music because we love it, we listen to the music that says all the things that we wish we could say, or didn’t know that we needed to say until now. 

That’s why mix tapes and mix CDs are such labors of love — each song is carefully chosen, the order is thought out. Every time someone gets a mix tape, they’re getting a little piece of the giver. The mix tape says all the things we’re too shy to say. They tell a story we didn’t know we wanted to tell until we started putting all the pieces together. 

***

(I once had a relationship where we expressed all our feelings and serious thoughts about “us” through song lyrics only. It was like we never spoke to each other — we only spoke to the music. It was wildly unhealthy and I don’t recommend it. If you must communicate your feelings in song lyrics, I advise that you do so with moderation. Try to use your own words in addition to the music. Use the music as a supplement, not the main vehicle. You'll be much better off.)

***

When I first started this essay a couple weeks ago, it felt so necessary. I wrote and re-wrote everything up until this point with urgency and laser focus. I accumulated a list of my favorite ‘80s songs that awakened the melancholy within. It felt so important that I parse out the things I felt, to name them and distinguish them from the other.

And then I left it for an entire week. I didn’t look at it. It was more than the regular letting-a-piece-breathe break. I straight up avoided it. When I thought of how urgently I wrote this, I felt a little embarrassed. I worried that, when I re-opened the document, all of this would just amount to nothing. I worried that everything I wrote would be another Cones of Dunshire situation. I thought, god, is this even anything worth reading? 

I don’t know if it’s anything worth reading, but I do know this now: it is worth writing.

Maybe it’s all a spectrum. The depression, the nostalgia, the ennui, the melancholy. All different shades of sadness. 

(In my Googling, I found this article, which opens up a whole new vocabulary and can of worms, so I’m not even going to talk about it. But if you’re still reading at this point, and you're interested, you should click on the link.)

Maybe what I was really born with is exhaustion and Sadness. (Yes, with a capital letter.) Some days it’s ennui. Some days it’s nostalgia. Some days it’s melancholy. Some days it’s depression. 

I don’t have any answers. 

What I do have, though, is music.

On DNCE and the freight train that is January 20th.

This is my second essay of the #52essays2017 challenge, and I’m very late in posting it. I’m late in posting it because I couldn't put my finger on the pulse of what it was I was trying to say last week (now, this week). What is in my heart and mind for this second essay of 2017 that needs to be said. 

I started writing about DNCE because I’m so fascinated by them, for some reason. Then I started writing separately about George Michael, and then I put the two together, and tried to find a way to braid together my thoughts on Joe Jonas and George Michael and sexuality and sensuality and objectification and sex positivity and some snarkiness about the DNCE bass player who has a mohawk. 

And then it started to feel like a Cones of Dunshire situation.

Yes, that was me, on Saturday evening, looking over what I had written and thinking, "This is nothing, isn't it?" 

So my essay about George Michael is going to stay separate (as it should have always been), but I’m going to follow the DNCE thread and see where it takes me. 

***

Maybe what I mean when I say I’m fascinated by DNCE is that I can’t stop listening to them. It was a slow conversion. Over the holidays, while shopping with my mom, I heard “Toothbrush” in nearly every store we went into (literally). 

Now, when I first heard of DNCE over the summer, I saw their album cover and thought, That guy looks like Joe Jonas. Is that Joe Jonas?  I looked up DNCE and didn’t see any mention of Joe Jonas or the Jonas Brothers at all. (Granted, I didn’t look that hard.)  So, I shrugged and thought, I guess that’s just a guy who really looks like Joe Jonas. I felt like the world was maybe a bit off its axis, though, because that guy really looked like a Jonas brother, but maybe I was wrong. 

When I first saw the “Toothbrush” video, I was like

What went through my mind: 

Yes, that’s definitely a Jonas brother, and it’s definitely the one that wore a purity ring. 

Joe Jonas is making out with a woman with a normal-ass body?! EXCUSE me?! 

WHO is this badass woman guitarist?! 

WHO does this mohawk guy think he IS?! 

Does Joe Jonas not know how to do this, the unchoreographed dancing and being a cool lead singer thing? Why is he so awkward? What is happening right now? 

I thought maybe it was a fluke. All of it. Joe Jonas making out with a normal-sized woman, Joe Jonas not knowing how to be cool. This weird group of people making a song that legitimately moved me to get down in the middle of a Forever 21.

So then, I watched “Cake By The Ocean.” (You should skip to 0:37 because who needs a lengthy intro to a staged cake fight right now?)

(M finds the image of eating cake by the ocean unsettling. I find it delightful. Decadent. Syrupy-sweet. Could I handle that much sugar and sunshine in one go? I don’t know, but I’d be willing to try.)

So, in this video, there are lots of women in bathing suits, and some of them are normal-sized. There are lots of shots of butts, but the women are all wearing functional bathing suits and they're using their bodies in ways that are athletic and realistic. 

Okay, I thought. So maybe that’s not a mistake. Alright, I see you, DNCE. 

And then there’s Joe Jonas. Wearing all white. And still being awkward as hell. (Him saying, "Fucking delicious" -- please. Awkward af.)

So then I thought maybe I was being a jerk. Maybe my expectations for pop band lead singer swagger are too high.

Then I watched “Body Moves.” 

***

There are other things happening in the world. The Republicans are already voting to gut the ACA with no replacement, no plan, no foresight. The President-elect’s cabinet picks are showing how truly inexperienced, ridiculous, and self-serving they are. Total abortion ban legislation has been introduced at state and federal levels. Once the President-elect takes office, he can fill that empty Supreme Court Justice seat with anyone he wants. And he's also apparently going to start building that wall bordering Mexico. How it will be paid for is anyone’s guess and we all know who will be building it. 

The list of things that are looming on the horizon doesn’t end there. It goes on and on and on and…

Every time I think about it, my chest starts to get tight. At every headline that pops up on my phone, I can’t do anything but laugh. Out of desperation, helplessness. It’s a nervous laughter. It’s the kind of laughter that happens when I see something fucked up and I don't want to let the anger take over. My Twitter feed is overwhelming, but also a comfort, at times. 

Right now, it feels easier to be weirded out by how Joe Jonas doesn’t seem to know how to be a lead singer. 

***

Here’s the thing about Joe Jonas. I don’t mind his outfits, and I don’t mind his look. It’s that his look over promises, and his act under delivers. For god’s sake, he’s wearing a goddamn Freddie Mercury outfit in “Body Moves.” Or, I should say, the outfit is wearing him. Joe Jonas does not currently have the swagger to pull it off or pay homage or reinvent. It seems like he doesn’t know how to be in his body. How to use it, how to inhabit it fully. 

He doesn’t know how to be sexy? 

***

The truth is that, aesthetically, DNCE has a template. They know how to perform like rock stars, but without the grit. They perform like boy band stars who want so badly to be bad boys. They lure you in with that sweet boy band voice and those high notes, the lead singer who looks really attractive when he's motionless, funk-ish (?) guitar action, the fun vocal details (like that wolf-y "Ah-woo!" in "Toothbrush"), the ever-catchy hook. 

The “Body Moves” video is full of sex. I get what they’re going for — a fun, sexy, orgiastic video that’s full of youth and nostalgia (for the early '00s, but it's nostalgia, just the same). It’s also full of bodies that are being objectified, mostly women’s bodies, all thin. No normal bodies here. The only Black body that is prominently featured is that of a Black woman, and we only see her ass as she twerks. Also featured in those shots is the bassist, the white guy with the mohawk, with his face next to her ass, with a look of goofy astonishment. 

***

So it turns out that DNCE is just like all the others. The music is so much fun and it’s so catchy. 

And their videos reach toward something refreshing, but still leave so much to be desired. Just like so many others. 

***

We’re about to enter a world where we have a President with no scruples. No experience. No empathy. No idea what it takes to be the leader of a supposed democratic country, not a corporation. The crew that he’s bringing with him are equally unqualified, unscrupulous, and lack any sort of empathy whatsoever. 

This is not to say that Obama was perfect. He is certainly far from it. There are things to celebrate, and there are things to condemn. There is a complexity to Obama’s presidency that I am comfortable sitting in, that is less overwhelming to think about. It feels manageable to me, to contemplate the last 8 years, and to reckon with the things that deserve celebration and the things that deserve closer examinations and calls for justice. 

With the upcoming administration, I am quickly buried under the avalanche of everything that is to come. With all the things that are possible. I am stunned at the lack of nuance in the rhetoric of our President-elect and all those who are banding together in support of him. 

***

I’m not going to stop listening to DNCE. Yes, they’re saccharine, they’re slick, they’re plastic. They’re formulaic, they are filling in the blanks on a template. (That mohawk guy could be a dealbreaker for me, but I just won’t look at him, even though he tries so hard to be different from the rest of his bandmates.) 

But goddamn, is this shit catchy.

***

We have to find joy in whatever we can these days. Sometimes, it feels like joy is an act of resistance. Turning our back on the impending future for just a moment, and finding the light and love within to be able to dance, to smile, to laugh, in the face of so much that vows to crush us. 

So I will continue to crank that business up and sing along as I put on that eyeliner, slick on that lipstick, and get ready to smash the patriarchy every day.

How to Keep Moving

I started a post a couple weeks ago that was also tentatively titled “How to Keep Moving.” It was two weeks after the election, and I was still reeling but trying not to. The post ended up being about the hours and hours of Ink Master that I watched, and it turns out that I have lots to say about tattoo reality competition shows. Too much for a post that’s supposed to be about how I get my shit together post-election. 

So here we are. (Don't worry, the Ink Master post is on its way.) The election was a little over a month ago. I’m trying to regain my balance. Things are not back to normal. It’s not business as usual. I'm trying to figure out how to live in this world, how to live in uncertainty, how to live in darkness and still have purpose. 

***

I recently wrote in an email thread to some friends, “The only things that give me hope these days are little babes and fluffy animals.” This is true.

I forgot to add that a good pop song can save me on a dark day, if only for as long as it lasts. It's something.

And because I'm a sharer and unashamed of (the broad range of) my music choices, I'm going to share the bubblegum pop songs that are giving me some life right now.

***

I'm going to kick off the jams with an adorable young man named Jordan Fisher. 

I don't know where Jordan Fisher comes from or what he's done in the past, except play an adorable nerd in Grease: Live! (please, do yourself a favor and never watch it). (Seriously. Just watch the actual Grease.)

I DO, however, know that he is now here to make jams like this one and make me feel like the world is worth dancing in again. 

Oh my god, I know. Major Lazer and Justin Bieber??? But seriously, this shit is so good. When you add MØ to the mix, and the badass dancers in this video, you can't tell me that you're not going to turn this shit up in your bathroom/bedroom/living room/kitchen and dance like the gruesome twosome were never elected to office. 

(For those of you who are like me and find that looking at Justin Bieber's face makes you uncomfortable, you have the green light to click play on this video. This video is pure Icelandic landscapes, fireballs, and badass dancing. No JB required.) 

So, M introduced me to Javiera Mena. He was obsessed for a real hot minute. He would play her album any chance he got, and he created a Google Play radio station that was based on her music. I'll admit, I was a little begrudging about liking her, which is weird, and I don't know why my initial reaction to her was 

when inside I was actually like 

but I'm here now. And converted. 

If you have not found the joy that is Lizzo and Caroline Smith -- please, enjoy. Listen to this when shit gets rough, and when Caroline sings, "I wish it was easy trying to work like a boss, but they keep shaking my patience," feel the validation flow through you and know that you are not alone. 

YES, FRIENDS. If you thought for ONE second that I would leave out the latest Bruno Mars jam, you're out of your damn mind, and you also don't know me AT ALL. (YES, is Bruno these days just straight up biting off the great artists of the past or is he paying homage? I DON'T KNOW. M and I disagree about this every time I put on a Bruno Mars song, and the reality is that we'll never agree, and does it really matter? (Yes, it actually probably does. Kind of?) You know you're going to get your ass on the dance floor when this shit comes on, regardless. Just go with it. 

Yes. I'm throwing in another Jordan Fisher jam. It's older, but still so good. I think this song is a breath of fresh air, M says it's mediocre. I don't even know how we're getting married. 

I'll end with Janet. This is certainly not the Janet I grew up with, but she's still a badass, even when she's not being her usual super sexy self. But we could maybe argue that she is still her usual super sexy self -- she's just...different. I love her past self and I love her current self. Let's not overthink it. Let's just enjoy. 

***

Oh no, wait. Just kidding. Bonus track. I want to end the bubblegum pop with something a little savory, a little salty, and a little sweet. I adore MØ because she makes these songs that lodge themselves in your heart/ears. They're sweet with some grit and some salt. They're pop songs, but they make me want to burn down the patriarchy with lyrics like, "I'm a symphony of the world gone wild." 

YES. 

***

In conclusion: dance. Dance whenever and where you need to. Dance when you're getting ready in the morning or when you're getting ready to go out. When you're standing at the bus stop or in your car at a stop light. When you're walking in to work. Dance as you cry. As you make dinner. When you take a shower. Dance with your love. By yourself. With your friends. With a stranger (with consent, of course). 

Dance because you need/want to stop thinking and just feel. Dance all those feelings out -- the sadness, the anger, the despair, the frustration, the desperation, and everything else until you're left with nothing except the music guiding your good and powerful body. 

We're in this shit storm for the long haul, so dance when you can to what brings you joy. 

Hump Day Finds: Chromeo

Okay, so my "find" this week is more of a revival. My Youtube rabbit hole explorations led me back to Chromeo, a band that I was most in love with the summer before I moved for grad school. 

I know, all the disembodied and shapely women's legs are not awesome. I get that it's a little bit of a callback to Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" video, but in both instances, it's a literal objectification of women's bodies, and I'm not down for that. I am, however, down for the end of the video, where disembodied men's (?) legs join the party and tango with the other legs. So it's equal opportunity disembodiment? 

When I was at my peak obsession with this song, this is not the video that I watched a million times on early Youtube. This was before artists and musicians had official channels. So the video that accompanied "Fancy Footwork" in my day was grainy and of a guy in the middle of a crowded dance floor, working it out with his fancy footwork. He was a little nerdy, and not all his moves were awesome, but he was confident as hell. Who can't respect that? 

I can't find that video anymore, but it summed up why I loved Chromeo's music and vibe so much. They were a little nerdy, a little street, a little cheesy, and all kinds of retro, which made for a weird combo (at the time) that I adored. They made synthy music I could dance to AND their lyrics made me chuckle. 

***
At that time, there wasn't much out there that made the same kind of music as Chromeo. My heart longed for more of that synthpop/electrofunk goodness, and I wanted it ASAP. 

As grad school took over my life and more bands began creating the stuff that I craved (see Feminist Dance Rock), Chromeo fell off my radar.

And then, this.

Y'all, SOLANGE. And I know, I know, the crazed spontaneously impregnated women chasing the Chromeo guys down is not the best and most feminist thing that could happen here. But the end of the video kind of redeems all that, even though it kind of doesn't make a lot of sense? I don't know, I won't try to argue it. That hook, though, is something I will argue for until the day I can no longer argue for things.  

***
And then, I found out that Chromeo released an album a year or two ago. (Like I said before, I'm typically 6 months to 2 years late to the party.) 

Now, I may be biased here, but Chromeo has not only maintained their awesomeness, but have gotten better with age, like fine wine. (YES. You heard right. I just said that.) Someone could probably argue that they keep making the same kind of music, but it doesn't ever feel stale to me. Every song and single has its own personality.

I'm not going to touch the content of that video, but I will talk about my leather jacket envy and all of those dance moves.

***
I'll leave you with the Chromeo song I can't stop listening to these days. Some of the lyrics make a gesture toward something that resembles something with a feminist-ish sentiment, but then reverses itself into something that doesn't make sense to me. But I love the chorus, I love the guitars, I love its 80s-ish Dirty Dancing-ish swagger, I love that the song revolves around popping a nickel into a jukebox full of old 45s. And I love that Haim is in this video.   

Happy Wednesday, y'all. May you have a Chromeo dance party in your living room to try out all your fancy footwork. Here's to getting over that hump this week. xoxo.