call me phoebe: on white womanhood as escapism
this is just me intellectualizing my quarantine music tastes
Last month, I saw a video floating all over my timeline. Or I guess to be more precise, I first found the video when several friends sent it to me, separately, accompanied by a message along the lines of, “thought of you.” The video, which went viral on Tik Tok before it surfaced on Twitter, features a Black man, sitting alone in his dark car, addressing a shaky camera. “I don’t know why I relate with sad white women so much,” he admits, his tone teetering on the line between comedy and desperation, “but Phoebe Bridgers if you are seeing this, you leave me alone. You leave me alone!” As he speaks, his hold on the camera becomes more tenuous, the screen shaking erratically until it leaves his face altogether.
I think about this Tik Tok often as I’ve also been listening to a lot of sad white girl music lately, and, like the man in the video, I’m struggling to understand why. Some of it might be outside of my control: in recent months, both Phoebe Bridgers and Fiona Apple released new albums, which were both critically acclaimed and garnered both artists more mainstream attention than they had ever received. But these albums are only one catalyst for my new music tastes; in June, I made a playlist that heavily featured both of these artists, as well as Big Thief, Snail Mail, Faye Webster, Julia Jacklin, Soccer Mommy, and the like, and listened to it every day. Before this year, I probably didn’t know who most of these women even were but something about 2020 brought angst to the forefront of my mind.
Angst is broadly defined as “a feeling of apprehension and insecurity” or “an unfocused deep anxiety or dread.” But it’s a tactile sensation––one that’s easier felt than described. When Soccer Mommy sings “the tiny lie I told to myself is making me hollow,” or when you hear the opening notes of Phoebe Bridgers’ “Smoke Signals,” it happens without us even realizing: that deep, familiar sadness and overwhelming comfort. Though anyone can experience it, angst has long been associated with whiteness. In the 2000s, being an “angsty teen” was often associated with punk or alternative majority-male bands or artists, such as Fall Out Boy, Panic at the Disco, Paramore, and Blink182, who expressed their emotions through loud, angry music––pounding base, crashing drums, lyrics delivered at a scream. In the 2010s, as punk started to take a backseat from mainstream pop culture, there began a resurgence of a new sort of angst, led mainly by white women, who expressed their emotions in a more subdued manner. Bass was swapped for acoustic guitar, and words of anger were replaced with quiet metaphor.
If we define feeling angsty as a sensation of apprehension, anxiety, and dread, it should come as no surprise that angst is the soundtrack to 2020, a year filled with more chaos, sadness, and uncertainty than probably any other in our lifetime. But still I wonder, why, in this moment when racial tensions have never been so pervasive amid the coronavirus, recession, and national uprisings, am I so fixated on these white expressions of anguish?
About three years ago, two of my good friends, neither of whom are white or male, started referring to themselves as “Jake” and “Justin” as a joke. These personas served as their alter egos, straight white fuckboys who could smoke weed, skateboard, and chase girls to their heart's content. Jake and Justin listened to Triathlon, Yeek, and Rex Orange County; they watched Stranger Things and felt totally comfortable taking up space on our predominantly white college campus. “What would your white man name be?” Justin asked me one day as we sat on the floor of our dorm room, the ending verse to I Want It playing softly in the background. I tried to answer but I really had no idea. The birth of Jake and Justin illustrates how white-focused cultural products have long served as not only entertainment, but a form of escapism for non-white audiences. Artists like Triathlon allow my friends to participate in an alternate reality, one where they can be as crass or carefree as any straight, white man. For many others, the HBO drama Succession provides a different form of escapism, allowing audiences to wonder, what would it be like to have unlimited money, resources or access?
For me, white girl angst provides a different kind of fantasy. Though not all angsty white female musicians are singing of the same thing, there are many common themes in this genre of music, many of which are integral to white womanhood more generally. Firstly, a certain passiveness can be detected in many of these songs; these girls are often singing of things that happened to them––a breakup, a wrongdoing, a bout of sadness––rather than actions they have taken themselves. For example, Bridgers opens her song “Motion Sickness” by singing, “I hate you for what you did/but I miss you like a little kid,” suggesting the song will focus on the hurt she feels because of another’s actions, rather than choices of her own. This passivity is painfully relatable in 2020, a year that has stripped us of any form of control or autonomy in our lives; like Bridgers, we are passive and powerless to whatever decisions the state makes for us. Themes of home and domesticity are also often pillars of this music. In “Room Temperature,” Faye Webster sings “I should get out more, I should get out more/I was sitting here last year, still wearing the same thing.” These words could be taken pretty much verbatim from most conversations I’ve had during quarantine, but Webster released this song in 2019, once more demonstrating how themes of domesticity and stagnation are inherent in white feminine art. Interestingly, many of these women sing about “home” not just as a destination, but a sensation; in “Columbia River,” the artist Lomelda repeats the lyrics “I find that I wish I was home/I find that I wish I was yours” several times interchangeably. This too resonates during the pandemic, when so many of us feel displaced, searching for a sense of home both in the personal and metaphorical sense, amid a murky future.
Above any theme, what brings this music together as a genre is the stillness it evokes; in every song, a woman takes the time and space to reflect on, vocalize, and even revel in her sadness. This comes in stark contrast to the way that many of us, myself included, have been processing our emotions throughout 2020: during this hellish year, as we’ve been bombarded by crisis after crisis from every which way, we’ve been forced to go numb to our overwhelming sadness and grief, because that’s the only way to keep moving forward. In the same way that white male music empowered my friends to move freely or take up space, white women songs have granted me the privilege of retreat. Which is why I couldn’t answer my friend those years ago––I don’t think I’d be a Justin or a Jake. I’d be a Phoebe.
The music video for “Motion Sickness” by Phoebe Bridgers is an escapist delight: we open on Bridgers, sitting forlorn on a large bed and dressed smartly in a black suit and tie, her bleached bob out of place in the otherwise formal scene. As the opening rift hits, the scene shifts and the artist is scootering down the sidewalk, still dressed in black tie, singing softly of an old flame who broke her heart. “You gave me fifteen hundred/to see your hypnotherapist,” Bridgers recalls, “I only went one time/you let it slide.” The appeal of the video is two fold: the song itself is mesmerizing, and Bridgers uses the motif of motion sickness to depict a love that’s turbulent, visceral, even sickening. But the heart of Bridgers music is in the imagery she evokes, so powerful and absurd at the same time. Listening to “Motion Sickness” almost prompts conversation, a chance to wonder aloud, Who is this ex-boyfriend who shelled out $1500 for your hypnotherapy session? What was it about this man that’s got you so fucked up? And how the hell have you got me fucked up over him too?
Amid this pandemic, we are experiencing two distinct types of sadness: let’s call them personal and institutional angst. Personal angst, as the name suggests, is the sadness that comes from the unfortunate circumstances that affect us on an individual level: we miss our friends, we’re stuck indoors, we are mourning the things we thought our lives would become. This sadness is familiar; we have felt it before at some point in time, during a career setback, or a fight with a loved one, or a particularly bad day. But this year has also brought on a profound institutional angst, an aching sadness and anger at the systemic failures and abuses of power that have put us in these circumstances to begin with. As we collectively cope with mass death, financial stresses, and ceaseless health concerns brought on by a raging virus with no end in sight, it’s oddly comforting to escape into a world where our greatest burden was a bad breakup, where we can scooter away from any issue the world might hurl at us.
It is interesting that the world within Bridgers’ music is our fantasy: that we are dreaming of angst as an antidote for apocalyptic facism, rather than utopia. But our angst is also nostalgia: when we listen to Bridgers we are reminiscing of a time, many months or many lifetimes ago, when we were preoccupied by simple burdens and not the global rise of facism. We are wondering, was everything I used to care about complete bullshit? And will I ever get to care about stupid bullshit again?
Phoebe Bridgers will not leave you alone, and she knows this. The artist has become a bit of a meme on Twitter as of late, with many users poking fun at her haunting, depressive sound. “Girls will play Phoebe Bridgers first thing in the morning like damn babe did u even try to be happy today,” one user said, while another wrote, “Phoebe Bridgers is Taylor Swift if Taylor Swift never went to therapy.” Bridger’s seems unbothered; “imagine being in my head,” she replied to one fan.
Bridgers’ form of self-deprecating existentialism comes off as effortlessly relatable today, when we are all sad and pretending otherwise is futile. But if my recent trip down this white women angst rabbit hole has taught me anything, it’s that angst is not a form of surrender––it’s one of optimism. These women are sad, yes, but they write about it. Talk about it. Wallow in it. Make art of it. Listening to Bridgers’ music, I can feel myself thinking, I am sad but I am surviving. I am sad but this will not destroy me.
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