I’d just finished writing the ‘Closer’ review. I laid down on my bed and fell into a deep sleep and when I awoke, I believed I’d told a lie.
Not on purpose, though. When I wrote about why millennials responded so strongly to ‘Closer’, I was trying to be honest — even as I buried it under enough qualifiers to disguise the fact that I was essentially calling it “the soundtrack of a generation.”¹ My point didn’t center on any specific event within the song’s narrative; rather, I was arguing that the general impression of life conveyed by the lyrics clearly resonated with a lot of people, and that the song owes much of its remarkable success to that resonance.
But how could I be honest about this song’s lyrical content without mentioning the fact that I have never experienced anything even remotely similar to the central narrative? The primary romantic relationship of my life began when I was a teenager and, precluding any serious catastrophe, will continue until roughly the time that I am dead. I have never and will never hook up with a financially destitute ex-lover after a chance encounter at a hotel bar. I don’t think I’m unique in this regard — out of the millions of people who have deliberately listened to ‘Closer,’ it is unlikely that all of them have gone through the identical experience — but the facts of my life are so dissimilar from the situation depicted in this song that it would probably bear mention, if I were being totally honest.
I knew I was lying when I wrote about that part of the song. But I didn’t have a choice. It’s already difficult enough to convince people to read something that you wrote on the internet; it would be nearly impossible to do so if you opened every bit of writing with a lengthy disclosure about your personal life. I don’t think it was necessarily wrong to hold back that bit of personal detail, but that’s not the issue here. The issue is: does it matter? Is the fact that ‘Closer’ resonates with my despite my experiential disconnect with the subject matter proof of the song’s genius? Or does my entire argument collapse if the idea of ‘relatability’ is undermined, rendering the entire discussion meaningless?
Also central to the thesis of my ‘Closer’ review was the inherent magic of youth and the unavoidable tragedy of its ending. I wasn’t being totally disingenuous — there is, after all, a reason why many people look back nostalgically on their adolescence. Youth has its advantages: many parts of life still feel exciting and new, the world seems full of possibilities, and physical decrepitude is a distant idea. But my personal experience of being young is that, quite frankly, it blows.
I spent the majority of my teenage years emotionally and mentally distressed for reasons that were unknowable to me. Every aspect of my life was governed by rules that seemed antithetical to my well-being. The endless possibilities of the world left me paralyzed in a near-constant state of anxiety and I felt disconnected from my own body in a way that caused no end of distress. And in the grand scheme of things, I was actually doing very well. I lived a life of privilege and opportunity that would have seemed absolutely foreign to other people my age. Societal currents and purely random chance conspire to rob many people of the carefree, wonder-filled youth that our culture promises them.²
The magic and wonder of youth is a highly subjective concept, accessible only to a rare few. For many others, myself included, the experience of youth is better captured by the unreleased Mountain Goats song, “You Were Cool”:
It’s good to be young, but let’s not kid ourselves
It’s better to pass on through those years and come out the other side
With our hearts still beating
Having stared down demons
Come back breathing
Even when I was trying to be honest, I addressed my true feelings only glancingly, such as my one-line digression about the lyric “I drink too much and that’s an issue, but I’m okay.” I singled this lyric out as a particularly insightful character note, but neglected to mention that it’s also one of the truest pieces of songwriting that I’ve ever heard.
This attitude, more than any grandiose carpe diem-type sentiments about living in the moment, best captures my experience of being young. I can think of dozens of people — myself included — who have acknowledged that their relationship to alcohol is toxic, enough so that it has negatively impacted their life, only to casually shrug it off because they haven’t descended into full-fledged alcoholism. This is privilege only afforded to the young, people with enough freedom to get absolutely obliterated on a regular basis and not totally disrupt their lives. This single, wonderfully observant detail was enough for this song to win me over, and yet I barely mentioned it in my review; not because I was embarrassed by it, but because it would have felt out of place within the argument I was constructing.
Once again, I don’t think it was wrong to do this. But it certainly wasn’t honest.
Reading over the Closer review, I don’t hate it. I’m sure there are things I could have done better if I’d spent more time on it, but I set a strict timeline for publication and I wanted to stick to it. And even if I had found a way to seamlessly integrate all the information I’ve laid out here into the original article, that would only be a cosmetic change. There’s something else bothering me, something that runs deeper than a few personal details. Something at the bottom of all of this that just doesn’t seem right. A bigger lie than any of the other ones I told. And I’m not sure what it is.³
Maybe it has something to do with the last line — or, I suppose, the “kicker”, if you want to be technical — a last-minute flourish that I only later came to realize was directly lifted from the title of The Decemberists’ 2015 album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. But it could just as easily have come from any overwrought piece of criticism I’ve absorbed over the past decade.
If I had to guess, I’d say that there’s probably an article buried deep in the archives of Pitchfork.com with the exact same ending. For several years, Pitchfork was my only source of music journalism and was, to my underdeveloped collegiate mind, the only objective arbiter of musical taste. If I made the mistake of enjoying an album that wasn’t rated about a 7.0, I had to perform a series of increasingly complex mental gymnastics to justify it to myself.
This borderline-pathological compulsion to legitimize my own taste was especially tiring, considering my longtime obsession with pop music and how much mental energy I devoted to it. I did eventually break free from my slavish devotion to whatever the editors of Pitchfork deigned to label the Best New Music, but not before I had constructed an elaborate critical framework around my own enjoyment, to the point where I couldn’t enjoy a song by a widely-maligned EDM duo without exploding that pleasure out into an inherently ridiculous long-term writing project.
Hypothetically speaking, I mean.
1: Again, my goal here was not to obfuscate my point, which is essentially very simple, but to avoid the sort of obvious and hackneyed writing that would cause any potential reader to wrinkle their nose in disgust. I think this is understandable.
2: It should go without saying that my sociological analysis here is extremely under-developed, but to honest, I have more personal reservations about this paragraph that dwarf any other concerns.
3: That is not wholly true.