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.