“people who don't wallow self-indulgently in their own unreasonably heightened emotions are missing out on a lot of fun” - telephone_junkie, Sep 02 2012
Valentine’s Day occupies a strange role within American society, granted the status of major holiday while suiting only a small subset of individuals. Valentine’s as a whole seems to cast off the lonely in their idolatry of the conventional relationship. The goal of this playlist is to offer a small condolence to those who find themselves excluded from the typical festivities. By seeking companionship through music, perhaps we can reclaim some of the holiday spirit for a different cause.
(The playlist can be heard here.)
The Smiths - “I Know It’s Over”
Song TW: Mentions of death
What makes Morrissey’s continued and well-documented slide into far-right politics so disheartening is that so much of the strength of his music was derived from his relatability. Anyone can make sad, acoustic, whiny music (as the Smiths had gained a reputation for doing), but no one quite had Morrissey’s penchant for playing the role of self-insert that made the Smiths so special. If he sang about unrequited love, loneliness, or boredom, it always felt like you were right there with him. The role of a friend is to support and console, and while Morrissey knows this, he spends the entirety of “I Know It’s Over” doing the complete opposite, taunting the listener by reminding them of their solitude:
“Love is natural and real
but not for you, my love
Not tonight, my love”
What stops this from going too far is his previously established role as fellow loner; the second time he sings “not for you” he changes it to “not for you and I,” a small but significant change that takes most of the bite out of his words. While Morrissey’s lyrics may seem confrontational already, he dedicates most of the second half of the song to a particularly pointed refrain, in which he questions the listener directly, asking:
“If you're so funny
then why are you on your own tonight?
And if you're so clever
then why are you on your own tonight?
If you're so very entertaining
then why are you on your own tonight?
If you're so very good-looking
why do you sleep alone tonight?”
The same questions can be turned back on himself, as the characteristics he describes fit his own image, though looking into them too deeply might break the fragile assumption on which the Smiths’ music is based: that Morrissey’s suffering is the same as yours. After all, it’s difficult to believe that Morrissey (at this point a wildly popular musician, since elevated to pop culture icon) is still spending his nights alone by choice. Nonetheless, the song succeeds in spite of this underlying doubt, with each repetition hitting deeper and deeper. Whether driven by empathy or pity, the result is the same; as you reflect on your own relationships or decisions, Morrissey will be right there with you, sharing your loneliness.
Mitski - “Nobody”`
As of right now, “Nobody” is Mitski’s most popular song on Spotify, and based on her concert I attended in Boston, it is held in higher regard amongst Mitski fans than any of her others, excluding “Your Best American Girl.” The two represent completely opposite ends of her discography; while the latter is noisy, raw, and cathartic, “Nobody” is calm, melodic, and surprisingly catchy. Taking more inspiration from new wave and disco than the songwriter’s typical indie rock fare, the initially sparse but constantly developing beat offers little distraction from Mitski’s lamentation:
“And I don't want your pity, I just want somebody near me / Guess I'm a coward, I just want to feel alright”
The idea of one of the most talented singer-songwriters creating a chorus with just one word isn’t particularly promising at first, but Mitski is careful to avoid the common pitfalls of repetition. Each iteration of “nobody” has its own distinct vocal inflection, and by the second time the chorus comes around, the suddenly swelling instruments are more than enough to distract from the hook. Mitski, knowing this, chooses to fade into the background amidst the commotion, growing slower and more distant at the peak of musical excitement, before returning for one final refrain:
“I've been big and small and big and small and big and small again
and still nobody wants me, still nobody wants me
and I know no one will save me, I'm just asking for a kiss
Give me one good movie kiss and I'll be alright”
Mitski delves further into these lines in her official lyric annotations (“What will it take to be wanted? What do I need to do to be desirable? That’s where it came from.”), but what I love most in the verse is the two claps in the background at 1:42 (which, as far as I can tell, only appear here), breaking up one of the saddest lines of the song with much needed life. Loneliness doesn’t last forever, and eventually both you and Mitski will be alright.
The Magnetic Fields - “100,000 Fireflies”
Song TW: Mention of suicide
Wikipedia’s statement that this song is partially known for “Susan Anway's sparse, soprano vocal performance” is one of the biggest understatements I’ve read in recent memory; Stephin Merritt’s songwriting may be great on its own, but Anway’s vocals are the perfect vehicle to transform his lyrics into sound. The tone of the song wavers from dependency to melancholy with each passing line, yet it maintains a constant air of self-awareness and pointed sarcasm. Anway is at her most vulnerable when she sings the song’s hook, which is a confession far more sincere than any of the songwriting thus far (“I’m afraid of the dark without you close to me.”)
“I went out to the forest and caught 100,000 fireflies
As they ricochet round the room, they remind me of your starry eyes
Someone else's might not have made me so sad
but this is the worst night I’ve ever had”
The way the backing musical arrangement changes to mimic Anway’s delivery of the last two lines offers a subtle reinforcement of one of the song’s most poignant topics; the idea of a “special someone” is typically used to support the existence of true love, but Merritt flips it on its head, instead proposing that only the object of the singer’s affection can bring them so much pain.
“You won't be happy with me
but give me one more chance
You won't be happy anyway”
In the final verse, prefaced by the song’s only interlude, Anway reaches her peak of desperation. She no longer envisions a way for her and her lover to be happy together, so instead settles for seeking out a companion in misery. Love cannot truly fix her suffering, but it may at least distract from it for a little while.
Frank Ocean - “White Ferrari”
As the dust settles, it seems increasingly likely that Blonde might be remembered as the defining album of the 2010s. This doesn’t necessarily make it the best album (although it threatens to achieve both), but rather the most representative. Every aspect, from its strikingly modern exclusivity deal with Apple Music and behind the scenes record drama to multiple livestreams teasing its release, epitomized the album-as-event, a tactic used to even greater effect by frequent collaborator Kanye West. However, Blonde avoids being swept up in pure spectacle by balancing its highly anticipated, larger than life status with an air of vulnerability rarely achieved in popular music: “I care for you still and I will forever / That was my part of the deal”
For someone with one of the best voices in music, Ocean rarely showcases it. He opens Blonde with the most extreme example of this, hiding himself behind noticeable pitch changes in “Nikes.” In “White Ferrari,” he is similarly limited by vocal effects and restrained melodies, fading in and out of focus for much of the song. The closest he gets to unleashing his voice is in the song’s third verse, but even that is cut short by an abrupt change in instrumentation. It’s this brief release that makes the song’s outro so heart-wrenching; Ocean adopts a gentle whisper, as if too scared to go any further:
“I'm sure we're taller in another dimension
You say we're small and not worth the mention
You’re tired of moving, your body's aching
We could vacay, there's places to go
Clearly this isn't all that there is
but we're so okay here, we're doing fine”
Ocean is more than capable of writing songs about larger topics, but for most of “White Ferrari,” this isn’t his intention. The song isn’t about some greater purpose, just one moment in time between two people haunted by past relationships. It isn’t until the emotion becomes too much to bear that he tries to find a way out, widening his scope further and further in search of some comforting truth.
“Primal and naked
you dream of walls that hold us in prison
It's just a skull, least that's what they call it
and we're free to roam
It is this verse more than any other that presents Blonde as decade-defining: it conveys the experience of being trapped under the weight of your own decisions, never truly feeling as alive as you do in your dreams, and wondering if this helplessness is merely a rite of passage or a sign of a larger problem. Even if its portrayal of modern society is a bleak one, it seems more accurate than most.Animal Collective - “Banshee Beat”
Feels as a whole has come to occupy a special place in my heart over the past few years (in part thanks to one of the most comforting soundscapes ever put to record), but “Banshee Beat” in particular represents the somewhat rare success of Animal Collective on a subdued, emotional level rather than simply a sonically unique one.
“Someone in my dictionary's up to no good
I never find the very special words I should”
Animal Collective have become known for their cryptic lyricism, and for the most part, “Banshee Beat” is no exception. While the song is technically about being cheated on, Avey Tare dances around the topic, emphasizing the severity of the subject matter by refusing to mention it by name. Instead, he shifts between topics and perspectives, mentioning inanimate objects as witnesses to his lover’s betrayal as if they can sympathize with his grief (“The soldiers in the painting know your secret face”).
“I don't think that I like you anymore
Well I found new feelings at the feeling store
and I can't find you at our kissing place
and I'm scared of those new pair of eyes you have”
What makes these lyrics so striking is the strange directness of the first line, almost like Tare drops his facade for a moment and lets his true emotions show before retreating once again to safety within layers of metaphor and abstraction.
“But I don't wish that I was dead
Now a very old friend of mine once said
that either way you look at it
you have your fits, I have my fits, but feeling is good”
Despite slowly building for over 8 minutes, “Banshee Beat” never releases any of the tension it gathers (aside from the spontaneous explosions on the words “swimming pool”), its structure mirroring the relationship it describes. The singer will move on eventually, but there is no confrontation or resolution within the song, just the conclusion that heartbreak is a risk you must accept in order to keep living.
One article discussing the purpose of Valentine’s Day describes how “many students are beginning to feel bored with the holiday as if it’s a pointless holiday where we feel pressured to spend money.” While this is a perfectly understandable conclusion (and the rampant commodification of holidays hints at a larger, systemic problem), I feel like there must be some meaning we can obtain from it. Valentine’s, like any other holiday, leaves a great deal up for interpretation regarding how best to celebrate it, and if that conclusion happens to be spending it on your own and listening to music, nobody can stop you. And besides, this holiday is pretty damn stupid anyway.
Ethan Hall is a senior at Simon's Rock.