Sarah Miller | Longreads | March 2020 | 7 minutes (1,800 words)
A few months ago I was visiting my brother in suburban San Diego, a place that always makes me wonder if the world should just start over. My sister-in-law and niece and I were in the car together, and my iPad started playing over the stereo, by accident, the song “Funeral” by Phoebe Bridgers.
I had never even heard of Phoebe Bridgers until three months before this happened, when I was visiting New York City and the song played in the Cobble Hill outpost of the store BIRD as I was leafing through $150 T-shirts. (I bought one, because it was the nicest T-shirt I have ever seen, and because I had a job with a salary, and I figured I would probably never have one again, so why not?) The song made me cry. I didn’t want the salespeople to see this so I had to take cover in the corner of the shop for a minute and pretend to be looking at a pair of shoes — which, as worth it as the T-shirts at BIRD are, the shoes are useful only to look at to hide the fact that you’re crying.
I binge-listened to the song during that whole trip and then after, and then for a few months forgot about it, until the day when it just started playing in my sister-in-law’s car. I started to turn it off but my sister-in-law said, “Oh just leave it,” and I started to remember how much I liked the song, because it is so skillfully sad, and just lays you out, when my niece started making fun of it. “What is this? Jesus Christ, ‘I’m so blue all the time’!?” she quoted the song in an exaggerated sad-sack tone of voice, mimicking its bleakness. “This is sooo depressing. Why do you LISTEN to stuff like this?” She listened again for a moment and recommenced her assault. “Oh my God — she just said ‘We might just kill ourselves,’ What is WRONG with this person?”
Nothing would be better for the world right now than if we all stopped trying to achieve things and said, ‘We no longer believe work will set us free, it is the opposite, in fact,’ and behaved accordingly.
I felt simultaneously enraged and sad — the way I feel a lot of the time, the way that is my knee-jerk reaction to so many things. First of all, she was making fun of something I liked, and I felt exposed, particularly because I’m not a Phoebe Bridgers fan, per se — like I’m not a Moon juice-fasting 30-year-old living in Echo Park — and listening to her, I guess, I felt like my niece might think I was trying to pose as one.
I had kind of wanted my relationship to “Funeral” to be private. I felt like liking this song tapped into parts of my personality that would be difficult to explain, and that most people who knew me wouldn’t understand. Mostly, I was upset because the song is so brutally sad. It’s about someone dying, but it’s also about how when something sad happens and you’re already a depressed person you’re less like, “Here is a sad event that made me sad,” than like, “When someone dies or something else bad happens I merely see more clearly how sad I am all the time.”
The saddest part of this sad song is the chorus, the very part my niece singled out for ridicule: “Jesus Christ I’m so blue all the time and I guess that’s just how I feel. I always have, and I always will, I always have, and I always will.” The repetition at the end is the knife in the heart. It’s at once maturely resigned and immaturely petulant. The singer wants to be understood and sympathized with, but she also knows it doesn’t matter, because it won’t change anything.
I don’t remember what I said to my niece. I do know that I was trying really hard not to show too much sadness or anger because my niece, of course, hadn’t done anything wrong. It was my problem, not hers, that I was so upset. Her attack was full of youthful, energetic certainty, which is appropriate, and expressing the enormity of my sadness and anger would have been in no way appropriate. I’d like to add that she is not generally someone who bothers me, so there was no need to serve as an adult curb to her developing personality. Plus, her mother seemed annoyed enough. She said something like, “It’s a sad song, surely you’ve heard sad songs before?” and then kind of looked at me like “Sorry.” I shook my head and said, “It’s fine,” and was sure that I would get over it soon, since nothing had really happened.
That night I woke up at around 3 AM and couldn’t fall back asleep. I thought about all the feelings that we have. We love people, we stop loving them. We feel attractive, we feel ugly, stupid, and then smart. We go to work and weddings and cook and eat things, and those of us lucky to have any spare time have opinions about those things: this is a good friend or a bad one, that meal was not worth it, that movie was too violent, my parents loves my brother more than they love me, everyone thinks I am great, everyone thinks I am a piece of shit, everyone wants to fuck me, no one does. And all around me most people are still having those feelings. They are like, this is my life, what’s up for my life today, what’s up for me and what I will eat and what I will get and who I will like or not like and what will I buy? And I am so jealous of them because I can’t think of anything except when the end of humanity will come and how.
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I can’t think about anything other than fires, floods, coronavirus, and people fighting and killing each other over water and space. I can’t think about anything other than borders and who will be invited to cross them and who will die on the wrong side. I try to think about what I can do or say that will make things better, or just to live inside the comfortable life I have now, which, believe me, I know I should be grateful for, and sometimes I succeed. I seem to give myself full permission to relax when it rains, but where I live, in Northern California, it looks like we’re going to go back into a drought. So that’s not a lot of rain, not a lot of full permission to relax.
For whom will it be fast or and for whom will it be slow? Will it hurt? What will it be like to see the seasons stop? What if there is a miracle and we can somehow turn this around? Will I go back to caring about other things again, or would I just walk around in a daze of wordless happiness until I died?
We’re in a moment now where we have had these lives that we’ve lived, things we have said, things we have achieved, people we love, but in the end, the stuff that matters is whether or not we can survive, and who else we can help to survive. You may have been told all your life that there were certain things you needed and certain things you needed to do, but it turns out that you don’t need most of those things and you don’t really need to do anything. In fact, nothing would be better for the world right now than if we all stopped trying to achieve things and said, “We no longer believe work will set us free, it is the opposite, in fact,” and behaved accordingly. There is nothing to achieve right now except to insist that the only achievement is caring for others, and not caring specially for family or friends, but in caring for every person as our family or friend.
There is nothing to achieve right now except to insist that the only achievement is caring for others, and not caring specially for family or friends, but in caring for every person as our family or friend.
I can’t worry about becoming sane at some point or becoming a whole person or forgiving myself or forgiving others. There was a time when that stuff mattered. That time is over, and I’m both embarrassed about the time I wasted thinking about it and miss the luxury of that time. I wish everything still mattered, but it just doesn’t, and I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with my depression and insecurities and personal petty fears now. They used to be so tragic and important. Now they are old plastic toys.
The first time I heard “Funeral” I tried not to like it. I tried not to be sucked in by the stomach-scraping sadness of it, and told myself it was too trite to affect me. About a minute in she sings, “Last night I had a dream I was screaming underwater, and my friends were all waving from the shore,” and I was like, “Oh god, ‘screaming underwater,’ what are you 23?” (Yes, about that.) But then she finishes that verse: “And I don’t need you to tell me what that means, I don’t believe in that stuff anymore,” and that’s when I had to admit the song was wrecking me and I thought, “Yes, I don’t believe in it either. Fuck Freud and Jung and everything in between and after that made us think that we were fascinating, and that a person and their brilliant thoughts and ideas could be the center of anything.” It was at that moment when I headed over to stare into a half-price bright yellow clog-boot that no one would ever really actually wear until I felt capable of smiling and signing my charge slip.
Part of me still wants to explain to my niece, “No, this song isn’t about someone who just feels bad, it’s about someone who knows it doesn’t even matter if she feels bad, and it’s so awful. Don’t you see how awful it is?” Another part of me doesn’t want her to see how awful it is. She is still happy, and that’s good. It is supposed to rain tonight, maybe I will call her and for a few minutes, we can be happy at the same time.
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Sarah Miller is a writer and lives in Nevada City, California.
Editor: Sari Botton