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Susannah Felts | Longreads | April 27, 2023 | 16 minutes (4,248 words)
On a November night in 2018, I went to a show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the kind of show that fans like me enjoy telling other fans they were there for, years after the fact. Three songwriters in their 20s — Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, and Julien Baker — performed on one bill. It was the first date of their tour together, and the first time any of them had played that historic venue; it was also the debut of a collab — a girl group — that they’d come to call, with clever irony, boygenius. I like to think the three women remember that night as some kind of watershed; after all, who wouldn’t file their first Ryman gig away with reverence?
I was there, by myself, a little thunderstruck on a pew in the balcony stage right, in my solitude. I can’t quite own this night as an origin story of my own late-coming catapult to creative heights, art begetting art, Fuck yeah! But I did feel brighter inside that night — my own heart, own mind, reflected in the songs I heard performed. Such a long, strange time it’d been, full of becoming-a-mother, since I’d gone to a show alone. I was 45 and, for the first time in a long time, face to face again with my old self — a girl who went to rock shows alone and loved it.
Yet when I thought about the show, and how it made me think about my own attempts at art, there lurked the old sidekick of negative comparison, the voice of deeply received ideas about professional trajectory and age: What were you doing in your 20s? You sure weren’t followed by fans, touring the world, selling art made from your sadness. (Never mind that I don’t play music. Art and commerce is art and commerce.)
Too late, too late, the haint muttered.
Three years later, I’m sitting across from my daughter at a coffee shop. I look up from work emails to see her with her earbuds in, squinting at her laptop. I ask her what she’s up to.
“Listening to music, and researching the music I’m listening to.” I ask her what she’s listening to, and she speaks in a rush. “Phoebe Bridgers. I’m listening to Punisher all the way through because I’ve actually never done that although I know all the songs. I have an idea. I’ll tell you about it later. This would be a good day for a walk. Look outside.”
I follow her gaze. The sky is a soft white-gray, the kind of sky she and I both like, not too much heat. We prefer it cloudy. Too much bright sunlight hurts her green eyes, while for me it can trigger despair for the burning world she’ll inherit. She’s right, it’s a good day for a walk. We toss our latte cups and head out.
She and I talk about all kinds of things on our walks; often, we talk about music. She writes songs, plays guitar and piano. Has, at 13, a journal full of songs. Wants to start a band, says her favorite instrument is her voice. I enjoy the soft anticipation of what she might create next and how she will create differently, year to year, as she grows. What and who will influence her next? Who will she leave behind, pick up, come back to? Who and what will stay with her the rest of her life? We amble around the neighborhood, and she asks for permission to paint Phoebe Bridgers’ lyrics on her bedroom door. I think about it for a minute, say sure.
Then I remind her that I played “Motion Sickness” for her back in ’18. Shortly after I went to that show at the Ryman. I remember cueing up Stranger in the Alps in the car and saying, Check this out, I think you might like it. Her prompt rebuttal: She was only 10 back then. And I know she’s won this one. It’s true she had to find her own way, just as I did so many times. Neil Young, say. His records lined up in my parents’ cabinet, played on their turntable on Sunday mornings, decades before I went to college and met a guy who turned me on to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
So yeah, I won’t harp on being first to the Phoebe party. But just a playful reminder or two seems within my rights as a Cool Mom — which is a thing some friends have called me on occasion, and while it’s a thing I don’t exactly feel (I mean, is there a person on earth who has actually felt cool?), that hasn’t stopped me from wagging this status in front of my kid from time to time. Which is itself a very uncool thing to do, and makes me feel evermore like Just Plain Mom, aggressively so. Not that I mind. It’s a role I can step into when inside, on balance, I don’t feel very Momish at all.
Much of the time, I feel like a girl. A curious girl of 48 who, today, is walking the neighborhood streets with a girl of 13, and listening to what this girl has to say. She happens to be my kid, this person I made, a living being that gave my life a whole new significance. She will grow up and leave me and yet never leave me; she will be mine forever, a being I shaped.
I wore headphones everywhere I went. I was in my 20s and constantly soundtracked my life. Long before I met my husband, before we became a family, going to shows and listening to music was what I did for fun more than anything else, the way some people devour movies or sports. It was hard for me to get close to people back then, which was maybe a function of the anxiety I didn’t know how to name. I didn’t have a lot of girlfriends, and the ones I had didn’t love the bands I loved. Was that why I had so few? The music, the art that spoke to me, was too important. And that art, often, made feeling alienated seem like a calling, a stance I could happily take. The pilot light of my identity, not a problem to be solved. So I went to shows by myself, alone in a crowd of people feeding off the same vibes from the players onstage.
Where was I? The Empty Bottle. The Cat’s Cradle. The Masquerade. The Mercy Lounge. The Local 506. Some of these clubs no longer exist. It was Chicago’s Lounge Ax, RIP, where I saw Cat Power on her Moon Pix tour, which to me will always feel like a form of strange currency, but if you don’t know or care who Cat Power is or what Lounge Ax was, what matters is that it was just me and the music in a tight crowd, standing room only, me with my coat folded over my arm and a beer in my hand, watching Chan Marshall at the piano, backed by the guys from the Dirty Three on violin and guitar and drums. Those songs were the apex of mood and shadow and longing, each instrument wandering, searching in the dark, doing their own thing and somehow staying in reach of each other. The songs felt loose, improvised, messy, perfect. Marshall’s voice so smoky and resolute, occasionally desperate. I went home and listened to “Metal Heart” again and again while outside the window, above my street, the El trundled past on the Blue Line, throwing sparks from the tracks.
So many shows. I don’t have many memories of the countless bands I watched perform. Lately I’ve been wondering if I was happy going to all those shows alone, or if I’d just done a bang-up job of convincing myself that I was. But I never felt lonely, and to this day I think of my taste for solitude as a strength. Did I not understand, back then, the forms that loneliness can take? You can convince yourself of so much; it is a superpower most of us share.
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The shows have mostly drifted away, leaving not a whole lot washed up. I don’t have a killer T-shirt collection or a box of ticket stubs. There were hardly ever tickets for the kind of shows I went to back then, just a stamp or a black mark Sharpied on your hand, like the big black X the door guy drew on both of my daughter’s hands, marking her underage, when I took her to see Lucy Dacus on tour for Home Video. It made me happy to see a club still doing that — marking hands with Xs that linger the next day and the next.
I’d taken T to a few shows before, but it was her first time in a bona fide rock club, the kind of place that’s standing room only, and she looked around with fresh eyes, admiring the way the mirror balls cast dreamy dots over everything, the dim room crisscrossed by beams of purple light. I wondered if she would leave at the end of the night more fiercely determined to make music.
I bought a Coke for her and a beer for me and asked the bartender to snap our picture. We found a space in the growing crowd and, while we waited for Dacus to come out, watched images from her childhood flash on a screen above the stage. The images formed a narrative loop we watched five or six times. Singer as baby, as toddler, as singing and dancing kid. Family members and friends with her here and there. The singer as young adult in a yellow beanie, beside a van. The singer with a guitar, on stage.
When the singer appeared in the flesh at last, in a blue off-the-shoulder gown, she began the show with the track “First Time,” just as T predicted she would. In that song and others from the album, she looks back with preternaturally measured sight at the formative experiences of youth, lifted up to us in a serene alto.
The songs she shared that night, and on her records, channel adolescence in a way that makes them accessible, if meaningful in different ways, to listeners across the generational spectrum — say, a Gen X mom and her Gen Z kid. Dacus, single and in her 20s, seems as preoccupied with the bewildering effects of the passage of time as I am in the throes of middle-age parenting. In her songs she meets the people of her present and the ghosts of her past with steel draped in silk, a red lip, and a metal riff. She gives teenage experience prominence in a way that feels fresh, never stooping to mock or dismiss or caricature. She observes, with tenderness and acceptance, the mistakes and fumbles of young people learning how to be in the world.
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I particularly love the song “Going Going Gone,” where we meet a boy named Daniel, the narrator’s high school crush. They sit together on a bench, “watching the day end hand in hand”; ten years later he’s “grabbing asses, spilling beers.” Then Dacus comes in for the killer. Ten years more and he’ll have a daughter; “she’ll grow up and he can’t stop her.”
She’ll grow up and he can’t stop her. My breath catches when I hear that line. Sometimes my eyes well up. I want to high-five Dacus for this genius turn, for her ability to go in one verse from Daniel’s youthful swagger and misdeeds to Daniel’s helplessness in the face of what parenthood will do to a person. I want to high-five her most of all for recognizing Daniel’s imaginary daughter as the free, empowered one, the one who can’t be stopped.
Until, perhaps, she has a daughter of her own? In some ways, Dacus sights a specifically father-daughter relationship, or even a male-female relationship born of the patriarchy: the stinging vulnerability that comes with not being able to control a woman, maybe one who is your flesh and blood. In another way, it’s any parent’s fate.
T and I have been listening to these songs over and over, and other ones. Young women artists, mostly. Lorde’s Solar Power has gotten a workout, and while I’ll never be the Swiftie T is, folklore and evermore easily won my affection. After we watched Miss Americana I found a new hero in Taylor, felt a whole new surge of rage for the way smart, ambitious young women have long gotten the shaft — been diminished, declawed, branded as bitches if they don’t act the part of nice girls.
Then there’s Phoebe, my daughter’s other main songwriter crush of 2021. Her weary, wink-wink humor suits me, too. The narrator of “Kyoto,” on tour far from home, thinks of her estranged dad and half-forgives him for being — to borrow a phrase from Dacus — a dumpster dad. But she’s also thinking about other dudes who’ve let her down. She sees the destructive behavior of the men in her life and raises it with an upbeat, poppy melody that is the very sound of her growing up and chasing her dreams despite it all. “I want to kill you / if you don’t beat me to it,” she sings — a painfully familiar feeling for anyone who’s fallen in with a certain breed of sad, self-destructive young men. But it’s not all about the breakups and the bad behavior for her, either. Dacus and Bridgers both sing of the sanctity of their inner selves, about protecting what’s theirs and theirs alone. Lorde, too, refuses to pick up the phone if it’s the label, would rather lose herself in nature as long as she needs to.
The young women T and I fill our ears with these days are also willing to express doubt and indecision, a blankness, a numbness, that is often the body’s response to a world that feels overwhelming, a world that asks too much and offers too much and too little at the same time. I can hardly feel anything I hardly feel anything at all, Bridgers sings in “Motion Sickness,” off 2017’s Stranger in the Alps. In a song on Punisher, she writes, I feel something when I see you now, suggesting a passage into a healthier relationship. Dacus ends several songs on Home Video in a lilt that suggests a non-ending, as if the song could go on but she’s unsure whether to let it or not, but is comfortable enough in that unsureness — it is right for the terrain the lyrics mine. The future is a benevolent black hole are the last words of “Cartwheel.” There’s Dacus’ low-key optimism nudging up against an absolute lack of faith in anything but the truth that there’s so much we cannot know, and that bad things are going to keep happening, but maybe-just-maybe we’ll be all right.
Maybe it’s not strange at all that my 13-year-old and I are listening to the same artists, having the same, or at least similar, emotional responses. But I did not experience anything like this with my mother; nor did I know how to play guitar or to think of myself, possibly, as a singer, too. And the songs themselves seem a far, far cry from the ones on the airwaves and CDs of my youth, which were largely about wanting someone romantically, or about despairing that they didn’t want you back, or about an angry aversion to being wanted at all. Or else they got super abstract and weird. Or they took on the world with an air of disdain and disaffected irony. In the ’80s and ’90s, if young women were singing about not being sure of anything, I didn’t hear their words over and over and over in my ears, I didn’t write their words on my bedroom door. I was not imagining a future for myself onstage. I was deeply attracted to a few female artists for their dark energy, their moody ferocity — PJ Harvey singing “You’re not rid of me,” Kirstin Hersh singing “I hate my way,” Courtney Love singing “I made my bed I’ll die in it” — but I couldn’t see myself clearly in them or their words; even when angry or sad, they bore a certainty, a fuck-all confidence I did not possess. I don’t recall them singing anything that sounded like I don’t know or I don’t know what I feel or I feel nothing because I’m scared to let myself feel at all.
The world may be on fire in so many ways. And I may shudder to imagine the future T will navigate as she grows up. But right this minute I’ll take what I can get, which is that we’re living in a golden age of young women speaking their truths through song. Pop stars being badasses, as ever, but expressing doubt, and doing it without the flagellating self-destruction that might have come with an early iteration. They are unafraid, well-versed in looking boldly at the men around them, not only as objects of attraction or the cause of personal pain. They stare back, determined to control or reframe the narrative. And they’re funny. I swear I’m not angry / that’s just my face, Bridgers sings, which I suppose sounds as sweet to a 13-year-old of the present as it does to a girl of the ’80s and ’90s who was constantly told by men to smile. Every time I hear her sing that, I actually want to smile.
A benevolent black hole — has there ever been a better phrase to capture the anxiety felt by a young person who nevertheless knows she is loved? I recently asked T what she thought Dacus meant by that phrase. “The future will bring good things,” she said in response, “but it’s going to suck you up without your permission.”
Another coffee shop afternoon, more chai lattes and work emails and headphones. I’m observing T again. I am scared — of feeling like she’s everything, of losing myself in her, and of losing her, of not holding her close enough. Women like me, who feel the art monsters forever kicking in their bellies, we’re always trying so hard not to let this happen, not to lose ourselves in our children. It is (invisible) work to find the balance. And it is work, for me, to not dwell on what I haven’t done, to lose what time I have left in regret over time squandered. Why wasn’t I making more art back then, in all the solitude of my 20s, not just going to shows? Why didn’t the urge burn more brightly? Why do the flames leap when I am otherwise committed, trying to savor each moment of my constantly evolving relationship with my child?
She looks up at me. “What?”
“You’re looking at me.”
She is looking into her phone again. The camera, this time. “I have the best eyebrows,” she says. “Look at them.”
The inner strength with which she navigates our bewildering world — is it real? Will it persist? “I feel like I’m the best version of myself right now,” she tells me one night as we’re sitting at the dinner table, candles lit; me with my journal, her finishing her math homework. The confidence she presents often startles me, and even though I know what she shows is never the whole picture, I allow myself to swell with wonder. There might be a lesson for me here. She gets frustrated when I’m self-critical, and I try hard not to be, although sometimes I give into the urge, just to see how she’ll react.
This move feels, in fact, like a reckless teenage impulse: to do the thing you know will set someone off. The girl I was, alive and kicking. And rocking out. I never stopped. I don’t know what to make of the fact that I can hear a verse or a line and think, Yes! Yes that’s so sharp, that’s the exquisite truth, and later T will quote that same verse to me as an example of a lyric that is hitting her just right. It may simply be that I am perpetually a girl, but also that girls possess more wisdom than anyone wants to give them credit for.
One morning on the way to school, T points to her mask and said, We’ll be wearing these forever. I say no and she says yes. We talk about climate-change anxiety. It’s a totally normal mental state for Gen Z kids like her, she said, matter-of-factly. I think about the Phoebe Bridgers concert I’d taken her to just a few weeks earlier. Music festival Bonnaroo, where Bridgers had been scheduled to perform, was dealt a blow by Hurricane Ida’s downpour — the festival site badly flooded — and Bridgers, along with two other ’Roo artists, ended up playing a venue in town instead. I snapped up two tickets as soon as I heard. In other words, Bonnaroo’s climate-change-fueled loss was our gain.
Will that concert go down as a highlight of T’s youth, of her life in music — or is it me who will harbor the most acute memories? I wonder what details will stick for her, many years from now. Will she remember that Bridgers closed the show, as she predicted, with the apocalypse anthem “I Know the End,” which I tend to refer to as “The End Is Near,” which drives T nuts, and which in turn cracks me up? Or that we showed our vax cards to get in? That the merch included a T-shirt that read Phoebe& / Phoebe& / Phoebe& / Phoebe, in a cheeky twist on the Beatles tee motif? That Bridgers and her bandmates all wore skeleton suits? That there was no encore, but we were okay with that, because it was late and we had to walk back across the river, through downtown, where there were drunks on the streets and in the pedal taverns, and the constant roar of the tourist throng was downright spooky? That during the show the air smelled sweetly of pot, and that, all around us, young women were singing along?
A year and a half whooshes by. T is almost 15, I’m almost 50, all of it feels like an impossible dream, far too fast. In the same week that Nashville becomes the site of the latest mass shooting in the United States, boygenius triumphantly returns — not to the Ryman, but with the drop of their first full-length record, titled the record. On the album, its title a wink-wink nod to the many questions these artists have fielded about when such a project might see the light of day, Baker and Bridgers and Dacus share songwriting credits equally on all 12 songs; they celebrate their friendship and the stories they’ve created together. The record is full of “the kind of rhapsodic romanticism that flows out of the early days of close female friendship, when you are not sure if you are in love with the other person or just in love with the fact that you finally have someone to talk to,” Rachel Syme writes in The New Yorker. “To listen to their music is to partake, vicariously, in the joy of their impassioned entanglement. …That their future is unwritten … is part of what makes the band feel so thrilling and, for the moment at least, so urgent.”
T and I buy the record the day it comes out, as soon as she gets home from school. We listen together, obsessively, for weeks; we sing along, loud, in the car. We speculate on the inspiration for songs, we squeal at the artists’ Instagram feeds, we echo our favorite lines and debate the meaning of cryptic ones. Both of us are in love with the chant-like repetition and shifting harmonies on “Not Strong Enough.” Both of us think it’s funny how “Satanist” sounds like a Weezer jam. We listen to Lucy sing, “When you don’t know who you are, you fuck around and find out.” Time and time again, we sing along with Phoebe: “I don’t know why I am / the way I am,” and I think, Yes, that’s the truth.
We listen on the morning drive to school, looking forward already to the summer day, a little over a month from now, when boygenius will return to Nashville and play a show in Centennial Park. The two of us are there. We can’t wait, we can’t wait. What song will they open with? What will be the encore? I don’t have any other girlfriends who are into boygenius the way I am — that’s the truth. But I do have this music-loving kid of mine.
She gets out of the car, says I love you, and I feel confident she’ll walk in the building and have a decent day. Just normal, boring school. No lockdown drills, no tornado ripping up the building’s roof like one did in middle school, no firearms found on campus. Just high school with its dramas and dreams in chrysalis. And when I pick her up from school she will be smiling and carefree, or she will be irritable and tired, with her whole life ahead of her. And I am glad to see her either way, and still my heart sings a sharp note, another infinitesimal splinter.
Susannah Felts is cofounder and codirector of The Porch, a nonprofit literary arts organization founded in 2014 and based in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a columnist for BookPage and writes the Substack newsletter FIELD TRIP, and her work has appeared in The Best American Science and Nature Writing, Guernica, Literary Hub, Joyland, StorySouth, Oxford American, and elsewhere.
Editor: Peter Rubin
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands