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Phoebe Bridgers, Media Literacy, and the Death of Metaphor in the American Psyche

It's not her fault, chill out.

By Daniel BradburyPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 7 min read
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Phoebe Bridgers (center) playing a guitar I will never be able to afford.

"I'm singing at a funeral tomorrow/

For a kid a year older than me/

And I've been talking to his dad/

It makes me so sad/

When I think too much about it, I can't breathe."

To be completely transparent, this is not a hit piece on Phoebe Bridgers. I think she's an excellent songwriter, and an important voice in the current generation of artists. I can still remember the first time I experienced her music, tagging along with an ex-girlfriend to see Julien Baker at a midsize venue in my hometown. The moment she stepped onto the stage and Motion Sickness's alt-country shuffle broke on my ears, it became apparent to me whose set I was really there to watch. I knew right then, despite never having heard of her before, that this woman was going to be huge. As it turns out, I was right.

Years have passed since that day, and it would be difficult to overstate Phoebe's influence on the modern indie rock scene. Hundreds of bands and solo artists have adopted her cool and breathy vocal delivery, her gothic folk aesthetic. However, perhaps her most profound influence is in the way Phoebe writes lyrics. The lyrics above are borrowed from her song Funeral, released both as a single and as a track on her debut album, Stranger in the Alps. Melodically and structurally, the song owes a fair amount of influence to Irish folk balladry: a genre of musical storytelling marked by very literal poetry. For example, here is a passage from one of my favorite Irish ballads: The Creggan White Hare.

"In the lowlands of Creggan there lives a white hare/

As swift as the swallow that flies through the air/

You may tramp the world over but none to compare/

To the pride of old Creggan, that bonnie white hare."

You may have noticed the presence of a simile in the second line: as swift as the swallow that flies through the air. That is about as figurative as Irish balladry gets, and that is not meant as a dig. These songs are vehicles for the stories they tell. It would be contrary to their purpose to obscure their meanings with metaphor or dense poetry. Much like these ballads, Funeral (and a significant portion of her other work) was written "lyrics first". This is not a song that relies on a soaring chorus melody or hooky instrumentation. Funeral is here to communicate lived experiences of the author in plain speech.

"So? What's wrong with that?" You may be thinking. "There's a whole genre of traditional music that uses this exact style of poetry. What's wrong with a song telling you exactly what it's about? For that matter, what's wrong with art that tells you exactly what it's about?"

Objectively? Nothing.

The way we consume art is like speaking a language. We are not born knowing that the opening notes of Beethoven's 5th symphony signal impending disaster, or that a jump cut in a movie indicates a leap forward in time. These are things that we have to learn through repeated exposure. Perhaps most importantly (or most troublingly depending on your perspective), they are things that can be forgotten. The Greek chorus, for instance, is an artistic device that is all but extinct in the modern world. A contemporary theatergoer would likely struggle to understand the reason for the chorus' presence in works like Antigone or The Oresteia. How could they know, after all, that the masked people narrating the events of the play were an ancient solution to actors' words becoming lost in the echo of an amphitheater? When we become removed from art for long enough, we forget how to speak its language. We forget how to interact with it.

I am not trying to make the case that music, or art in general, is better somehow when it requires more reflection to "get" it. The immediate, apparent beauty of Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, of Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, and Springfield's Jessie's Girl do not make them less worthwhile than art that's harder to crack. However, should we abandon that art? Is it okay for us to leave "dense" art behind because

"Do you ever get a little bit tired of life/

Like you're not really happy but you don't wanna die"

asks less of us than

"I'll take a quiet life/

A handshake of carbon monoxide" ?

Cooper Hoffman (left) and Alana Haim (right) in Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza is a 2021 romantic comedy/drama set in the 1970s. It chronicles a romantic relationship between a fifteen-year-old boy and a twenty-five-year-old woman. Not only does it feature a pedophile as a main character, but it also includes scenes of misogyny, homophobia, and overt racism towards Asian people. It is a profoundly reprehensible depiction of nearly every moral illness our society has fought so hard to eradicate.

Undoubtedly the most disturbing aspect of this film is the relationship that forms the central axis of its plot. I mean, she's twenty five and he's fifteen. Even if we choose to ignore the glaring amorality of an adult woman dating a child ten years her junior, it's not possible for partners in a relationship with that large of an age gap to have equal footing. There would always be a power imbalance. The relationship could never be healthy. The boy could never come away unhurt. Doesn't Paul Thomas Anderson know that's wrong?

As it just so happens, that is the entire point of the movie.

Licorice Pizza suffers from a problem that has become increasingly common in the past decade. It doesn't tell its audience what to think. Alana Haim doesn't saunter onto the screen smoking a cigarette and wearing all black, accompanied by a threatening musical sting. She never faces the camera and declares "I like 'em young" with a lecherous glare. Paul Thomas Anderson leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions about the character of a woman who is willing to break such a well-defined moral law, just as he puts the burden of interpretation on his audience when it comes to any of the other ills the movie depicts.

I, like many former high school students, can still remember the agony of wrestling dubious nuggets of symbolism from Steinbeck and Fitzgerald. I still break out in a cold sweat whenever someone mentions The Pearl or Babylon Revisited. It took me well into my late twenties to realize that examining the subtext of a work doesn't have to be a chore. Things like understanding the circumstances under which a work of fiction was created, and looking for what an author doesn't tell you as well as what they do. These aren't just ways for English teachers to fill time or hassle their students. They're methods of gaining a deeper, fuller understanding of the art.

It isn't always easy. It's much faster, much more efficient and comfortable to take art for what it is, to experience media at face value. Because if we leave that comfort zone, we may wind up accidentally rooting for the bad guy. Or worse, identifying with them. There are few feelings slimier than gazing into the drunken cruelty of Jack Torrance or the calculating hate of Judge Holden and seeing yourself looking back. It's one of the more uncomfortable realizations one can come to: that what divides good people and bad people isn't as wide as we'd like to think. However, it is one of the most necessary lessons we can ever gain from our experience of art.

A few months ago, I was privy to one of the worst wedding vows I have ever heard in my life. I saw it on TikTok and it was a while ago so I'm paraphrasing, but it sat so uncomfortably in my brain that it wound up being the motivation behind me writing this article. It went something like this:

"I promise to uphold my duties as your partner, and to invest myself fully in our relationship as long as it is mutually beneficial."

That's it. There is no room for misinterpretation. These words mean exactly what they mean.

From this writer's perspective, there is something deeply sad about that.

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

This excerpt of Sonnet 29 does not literally mean the poet is made richer in worldly goods through being loved by the subject of the poem, but in a way, it uncovers what wealth really means. Someone does not become rich through the contents of a savings account. The wealth of our lives is measured in the love and esteem that we earn from our fellow human beings, and the poem tells us exactly that: that the love of the subject is worth more than the riches of kings. These words are not factual. They are not a representation of the real-life things you can gain from being well loved. They are however, true. In some ways, they are truer than if they were a literal representation of love's realities.

It is important to speak plainly. It is important to make your intentions known, to avoid causing harm through omission of details whenever possible. Your friends and family should know where they stand, always. It isn't fair to let them wonder.

It's also important to give them grace. To ask why someone you care for may have acted in a manner unbefitting of them. To remember that the actions of a moment are not necessarily the sum of someone's character. We are, all of us, complex beings.

Above all, it's important that in our pursuit of a brighter future we do not cast off the poetry that makes us what we are.

JourneyGeneralFine ArtCritique
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About the Creator

Daniel Bradbury

Big fan of long walks in the woods, rye Manhattans, Spanish literature, jazz, and vinyl records.

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  • Kendall Defoe 2 months ago

    If we dismiss art that makes us uncomfortable, or does not reveal its secrets all at once, then we are finished. Glad to see a piece on Ms. Bridgers that mentions Vonnegut and 'Licorice Pizza' as well! Excellent work!

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