Ursula K. Le Guin is dead. I’m not totally okay with this.
Le Guin is usually glossed as a “big ideas” writer, with a focus on concepts and worldbuilding rather than memorable characters or dramatic scenes, and while this isn’t exactly wrong, it’s misleading in an important way. What continues to impress me about her work is her unflinching focus on the texture of life. She develops ideas by making people live through them, and she explores principles by creating physical locations and functioning institutions that embody them (or don’t). I’ve actually been going through some of her short stories recently and a lot of them aren’t even about anything. They’re just particular but unremarkable people living in particular but unremarkable circumstances and getting along with it, one way or another. Even “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which is an explicit philosophical treatise, is told exclusively by describing a real society and then the actions of the people who live in it, in response to the way it is. She’s able to make stories like these not only compelling on a technical level (one of the downsides to her writing is the way that its effortless grace makes it painfully clear that you are never going to be good enough at anything to matter) but meaningful not despite but because of their complete lack of anything that would normally register as “meaning.”
Maybe this sounds like faint praise, like I’m just outlining the basic qualities that make someone a competent writer, but it’s not. It’s the most important thing. The only thing any of us actually has, ever, is the experience of lived reality (there’s nothing less “lived” about hearing about other people’s experiences or reading philosophical treatises). Fiction whose only purpose is to supplant this reality with a different one is properly called “escapist,” but so is fiction whose only purpose is to congeal reality into a nondescript mush of Ideas and Statements. In both cases you are ignoring the only thing that there actually is. Le Guin’s great achievement was the creation of worlds unlike our own that show us what our world is really like – unreality that makes the world more real. This is more than merely compelling or thought-provoking writing. It’s one of the secret keys to the truth.
This is also an important point about genre fiction in general. If Le Guin’s work counts as “genre fiction,” which it does, then the term doesn’t mean anything, which it doesn’t. Genre is not a property of a work but an after-the-fact critical appellation; it’s potential use is only as a tool, not a definition. Genre work often falls into the traps of getting lost in minutia or reverting to Big Moral Statements, but literary fiction has exactly the same problem: it’s often nothing but status-signalling lifestyle details coupled with half-baked pretension. The categorization isn’t the thing that matters; in fact, focusing on categorization is precisely a way of avoiding what actually matters, of pretending to do criticism when you’re really just doing bookkeeping. Nor is there anything wrong with the categorization itself; there certainly are comment elements and things that you can use to accurately (assuming you’re being honest about the endeavor and not just parroting received value statements) classify a story as “literary fiction” or “magic realism” or what have you. But if you’re doing this to say that literary fiction is “real” and genre fiction is “just for fun,” then you’re factually wrong, and Le Guin proves it.
Her feminism, for example, is significant not because of any particular big ideas or provocative analyses, but because she actually portrays the lived experiences of women, both in terms of their inner lives and the ways they navigate the social structures they exist in. This particular version of the double bind is that focusing only on “oppression” turns women into a homogeneous class of “oppressed people” who do nothing but reflect the pressures of their oppression, i.e. it makes women not people in exactly the way that patriarchy says they’re not. Whereas insisting on “agency” and “strong female characters” implicitly denies that oppression is a real thing: if overcoming oppression makes women superhuman, then oppression is actually a good thing, because it improves women. (Overgeneralization was the great failing of second-wave feminism, which was then overcorrected for in the third wave, and we’re still dealing with the fallout of that mistake.) These are the problems you run into when you try to talk about things abstractly, but the truth is pretty obvious: people are all kinds of fucked up in all different ways, and that includes social structures, which are made of people, but there are nevertheless recognizable patterns that recur in certain areas, and the combination of these things is what creates real-world behavior.
Le Guin transcends the dilemma by mastering both worlds: she puts believable people in understandable societies and lets us watch what happens. A simple example of how this works is the story “Semley’s Necklace,” where a fallen noble goes to ultimately self-destructive lengths to retrieve a priceless family heirloom. We understand this decision both in terms of who this person is and the pressures of the structure they inhabit (also, we understand who she is both as a product of and a reaction to the social structure she inhabits), and not in terms of handwaving ideological abstraction, a.k.a. magic. (I haven’t read a lot of her fantasy, but she understood that if magic were real, it would be rule-bound in the same way that everything else is; what she says about this is that, in fantasy writing, “you get to make it all up, even the rules of how things work, and then follow your rules absolutely.”)
This aspect of her work is why The Dispossessed is such an important book. The problem that all varieties of revolutionary politics share is that, because they are talking about a world that has never existed, they are necessarily completely abstract. The common complaint that they “only work on paper” is simply a failure of imagination; after all, actually-existing capitalism is precisely a system which sounds good in theory and is destroying the world in practice. The Dispossessed creates a believable anarchist society, and it does so by portraying the way that people actually live in such a society. The point isn’t that the book makes any particular political argument; the point is that reading it grants you the ability to imagine the world other than as it is, in practical terms.
In fact, the novel even has an explicit hero-character, Odo, the original leader of the anarchist revolution, who is revered and referenced as a source of wisdom and insight, but even in this case, her work is portrayed through people’s use of it in their own lives. That is, we see them reference and quote her as part of real-world in-the-moment arguments – we see how even explicit idolization unavoidably manifests itself as just another part of practical reality. Indeed, there’s even a separate story about Odo that portrays her as a confused old woman, puttering about and embarrassing herself and not accomplishing much of anything. Even when she creates explicit heroes, Le Guin insists on making them people. She denies everyone, including the reader, the ability to in any way “get out of” ordinary life.
And, of course, including herself. I don’t really know how she pulled this off, but she managed to become a famous writer without becoming a Famous Writer. She’s revered, sure, but not in the sense that people “praise but don’t read” her; she’s revered because people read the hell out of her. (On second thought, genre fiction might be more than categorization – it might be a mask. Maybe you have to embrace trivialization in order to avoid the greater danger of idolization.) Part of this can be ascribed to simple intellectual modesty. The Left Hand of Darkness, which is set on a planet whose inhabitants have only one gender that performs both human reproductive functions as needed, uses masculine pronouns to refer to them. At the time, Le Guin judged this to be the least bad of the available choices – as explained in the novel, “he” is, while not actually neutral, more neutral than “she” or any other alternative. But she didn’t insist on this choice as a matter of dogma; quite the opposite, she knowingly walked into one branch of a trap. For a later republication of “Winter’s King,” a short story set in the same world, she switched gears and used feminine pronouns, while preserving gendered titles, so the story features “Kings” and “Princes” who are referred to as “she.” This isn’t necessarily the “right” choice, either, but it gives the story a different subconscious color that reveals different aspects of it. So she ultimately did better than making the right choice; making both choices gave us both things to think about. And it also prevents her from being anyone’s hero on the subject. She was nowhere near dumb enough to think it was possible to be “neutral,” or to “just ask questions,” but the stands she took were impossible to piggyback off of, so the only available action was to take your own stand in response.
So the problem I’m having is that we really need this right now, because we’re falling into both holes. We’re suffocating in a flood of daily minutia that doesn’t connect to anything and vanishes as soon as it’s done stealing our oxygen, and we’re also falling back on vague generalizations and unexamined principles without instantiating them in real-world actions. We’re creating as many heroes and villains as we possibly can in attempt to understand the world, yet in every case we use them as an escape from understanding, as a simplistic substitute for reality. We need to make the connection the Le Guin was capable of; without her key, we’re locked in this room.
And yet, it is precisely here that she bequeaths us her final gift. Because she was never a hero, we always had to get along without her anyway. Nothing has changed. There’s really nothing to even complain about; we haven’t missed out on anything. She gave everything she had to the world, and she left what she didn’t have up to us. So now that we finally have to accept that we aren’t getting anything more from her, we have no remaining choice but to do what we should have been doing all along: we have to take what we’ve got and figure out what we’re going to do with it. We have always been on our own, and now, at the end, she forces us to confront that fact anew.
Still, on this particular subject it’s only polite to let her have the last word, so here’s a not entirely random passage from the story I happen to be reading at the moment:
Our daily life in the auntring was repetitive. On the ship, later, I learned that people who live in artificially complicated situations call such a life “simple.” I never knew anybody, anywhere I have been, who found life simple. I think a life or a time looks simple when you leave out the details, the way a planet looks smooth, from orbit.
On May 22, 2017, a suicide bomber attacked the foyer of the Manchester Arena in England at the end of a concert. 23 people were killed and 116 were injured. These deaths are “appalling” and “sickening” and “barbaric” and “horrific.” Meanwhile, on that same day, worldwide, approximately 3,425 people died from road accidents, 22,466 people died from cancer, 3,014 people died from AIDS, 8,640 people died from starvation, and 2,192 people died from suicide. These deaths are not appalling or barbaric or sickening or horrifying. They’re fine.
Tabulating statistics is a good way to get yourself labelled a robot or an asshole or a robot asshole, but seriously: why are deaths from terrorism more important than other deaths? Are people who die from “ordinary” causes any less dead? Are their deaths any more justified? Do their friends and family suffer any less? Are those other things even any less scary? Is it really more terrifying to think that you might be killed by someone who hates you just because of who you are than to think that you might be killed for no reason at all?
Obviously, everyone’s going to have their own emotional reactions, and there’s very little point in judging people for how they express themselves, but that’s still the same question: why do we care more about terrorism deaths? Why is our instinctive emotional reaction here to grieve publicly and demand that Something Must Be Done, and why is this not our reaction to the rest of this blood-strewn hellscape we’ve been cursed to inhabit? It’s not because terrorism is some sort of “extra” evil that doesn’t “normally” exist in the world. As long as people have conflicting desires and are killable, murder happens. That’s the cost of being human in the first place. We conceive of terrorism as special because we view it not as random death, but as an attack on “us,” and for that reason, we get scared. This is entirely unjustified. The sorrow of this event belongs to the people who were personally affected by it and to no one else. We are not being “compassionate” by proclaiming our own grief. We’re doing the opposite. We’re fetishizing our immediate subjective reactions, imposing a narrative of generic drama, and eliding the real human reality of the situation. We are devaluing real kindness.
Worse, by doing this, we are not opposing the attack, but conspiring in it. We are fulfilling our role in ISIS’s plan. The point of dramatic attacks like this is not to kill people. It’s to make us feel personally threatened, and to make Muslims feel like our personal enemies. It’s to make this made-up “war of civilizations” fantasy feel like a real thing, and to make us assign outsized importance to it. By itself, ISIS is only capable of killing tiny numbers of people, one sad little bomb at a time. It is only with our active support that they are able to terrorize millions.
But, guilty though we may be, we’re no match for the experts. Every time a politician opens their filthy mouth and pollutes the air around these tragedies, the world becomes a more disgusting place. It is now de rigueur for politicians to compete amongst themselves over who has the biggest and most raging hard-on for skull-fucking terrorist corpses. More to the point, the politically mandatory response to these attacks is to do the attackers’ job for them. The fact that ISIS “claimed responsibility” for the attack doesn’t change anything about the event itself. What happened and who died are all the same either way. (Also ISIS “claims responsibility” every time a dog shits on a Western sidewalk.) Rather, the claiming of responsibility is itself a political act. It is the act of declaring war, of telling you which deaths to focus on and how to feel about them, of forcing one particular understanding of the world onto you. And when Western newspapers print up their headlines making the same claim, and politicians declare Terror Threat Level Burgundy Omega Five, they are taking the same action. They are telling you to be afraid. What we should expect from politicians here is not sympathy or respect or what the fuck ever. It is professional decorum, which in cases like this means keeping their fucking mouths shut. Even if this stuff weren’t directly their fault, even if they weren’t themselves mass murderers, they still have no right to care. They’re fine, and they’re going to be fine. We’re the ones who have to live with their decisions.
Which is of course the point. By appropriating tragedies like this, politicians redraw the battle lines. They point out “those people” as our enemies in order to portray themselves as our allies. They’re lying, and we know this because we can run the numbers. If they were really looking out for us, if they really cared about our lives, they would not be spending billions of dollars on the military and intelligence agencies and a burgeoning police state for the sake of slightly ameliorating a statistically insignificant threat. They would be spending it on fixing the things that are actually killing people, right now, in numbers far greater than any bomb-toting jackass could ever dream of. In order to make these things sound scary, people always like to say that every attack is the deadliest of whatever type since whenever – in this case it’s the deadliest bombing in England since 2005. This sounds dramatic, but what this statistic actually demonstrates is the opposite. It emphasizes the fact that these things almost never happen, that preventing terrorism is among the lowest possible moral priorities of modern society. Numbers don’t signify a lack of compassion here. They signify the truth. It was Dwight Eisenhower who said that every bomb dropped and missile fired directly represents food stolen from the hungry and medicine stolen from the sick, and he was right.
Unfortunately, this is still our fault. Politicians aren’t demons, preparing secret rituals to summon beasts and rain fire on the world. They’re lizards. They find the warmest rock in the near vicinity and they plop themselves down on it. They’ve chosen the terror rock because we’ve kept it warm for them. They are able to blackmail us only to the extent that we convince ourselves we can be saved. The mechanism by which we do this is sympathy. We imagine that there is such a thing as “people like us,” that we’re the “good guys,” and that we “deserve” to be safe. We do not share in people’s suffering for their sake; we appropriate it for our own. People who complain about the “us vs. them” effect usually focus on the “them” part, but it’s the “us” that’s really dangerous. The function of public grieving is to create an “us.” An eight-year old Arab girl killed by a U.S. military action is not “us.” It’s a real shame she had to die, but we’re not actually going to do anything about it. An eight-year-old British girl killed by a terrorist attack is “us.” If we have to keep killing eight-year-old Arab girls in order to prevent that from happening, well, that’s just the cost of doing business.
It is of course impossible to bring this up in the American political context without addressing the attack on the World Trade Center. Even a catastrophe on that scale belongs to the people who were directly affected by it and not to the rest of us. When we say that “everything changed,” we are saying that some deaths count and some deaths don’t – that some victims are real people and some are not.1 This dynamic is easy to understand when actual ghouls like Giuliani use it to jack themselves off, but the rest of us aren’t really any better. We do not have the right to grieve for those people. We have the obligation to do the motherfucking arithmetic.
AIDS is the perfect example. People tried to compartmentalize it away, imagining that it only happened to junkies and degenerates, but eventually they realized it could happen to anybody, and only then, only when rich white people started to feel personally threatened (or, if you prefer, when the activism around the issue was successful enough to garner general sympathy for the existing victims, but that’s the same problem), did they start taking it seriously. This is what happens when you make sympathy a prerequisite for action. People die preventable deaths. What should have been done in the first place, instead of trying to sympathize, was to run the numbers. We should have looked at how many people were dying and spent that much money on the problem. That is the only justifiable political response. Note, for example, that every time a terrorist attack happens, the blood banks always have to put out a statement saying that they’re full up and everybody can calm down. People rush into frenzied action when something sympathetic happens, and they sit on their hands the rest of the time. Resource misallocation kills.
This is also why cancelling concerts in the wake of the attack was objectively the wrong thing to do. If Ariana Grande or whoever else couldn’t personally handle it, then sure, they’re only human, but it’s still wrong. The attack didn’t change anything. People could have died driving to the venue, or there could have been a fire,2 or any number of other things more likely than a terrorist attack could have happened. Cancelling events only serves to reinforce the narrative that this is more important than everything else that’s happening, that these deaths matter more than others. It is not just “okay” to enjoy your life in the face of tragedy, it is the right thing to do. It’s how ISIS loses, and it’s also how our own ruling class loses. If you’re going to get sad and broken down every time something bad happens, you are either sad and broken down 100% of the time, or you are a liar. You risk your life every time you go out your door, and you also risk your life every time you stay home. The cliche that “the show must go on” is deeper than it sounds.
The one sort of tolerable thing about death is that it’s just death. It removes a single unique human from existence and it doesn’t do anything else. How we feel about it, what significance we choose to impart to it, and which actions we choose to take in response to it all remain in the realm of the living. The dead have no claim on us and no power to compel us; transitively, we have no further ability to hurt them. Everything remains, as it always is, up to us.
Meaning this is on you. None of us chose to play this game, but the chips are on the table. So, assuming you’re not going to fold, you have to accept the hand you’ve been dealt. If you try to pretend like there’s any other solution here, you are going to get hustled.
In the spirit of intellectual honesty and/or killing one’s idols, there’s a relatively godawful Sleater-Kinney song that is specifically about not being personally affected by 9/11, but being scared of it anyway just because you’re a cute white person with a cute white baby. Not that a song is a political platform or anything, but it’s an expression of exactly the reaction that ought to be avoided. ↩
This in fact happened recently. The Oakland Ghost Ship fire killed 36 people. Fire safety codes are more important than counterterrorism. ↩
A while back I read this rather on-point post about the fundamental hopelessness of the current terrorism situation, and I figured I should fill in the other half of the argument. Because there is a real solution here.
The issue is that low-tech, uncoordinated attacks are impossible to really do anything about. The only way to fully prevent people from doing things like making bombs out of pressure cookers or driving trucks into large crowds is to establish a police state. And while these things are scary, we’ve been hyperventilating so heavily about terrorism for so long that we’ve forgotten what it is that we’re actually looking at. You’re familiar with the statistics, I’m sure; you’re more likely to be struck by lightning or killed by your own furniture than you are to be a victim of a terrorist attack. And it’s not like terrorism is the only source of random, meaningless death. People actually do up and have strokes or step backwards and fall into the Grand Canyon or whatever. So terrorism is neither a distinctive nor a prevalent source of danger. Small-scale attacks can never be stopped, but they’ll also never add up to more than a tiny percentage of the deaths caused by heart disease or car accidents or suicide.
But if this is so obvious, then why do terror attacks scare people? Precisely because they do not feel like accidents or forces of nature; they feel more purposeful than they actually are. This is why it’s so easy to get people to believe that there’s a single belief system called “radical Islam” that is the direct cause of all terrorist attacks: because this explanation makes more sense than the truth. And once you’re there, the natural corollary is that terrorism can be “stopped,” that we can “win” the “war on terror.” When an attack happens, the idea that we could have done something to prevent it is what’s actually scary.
This is more than just irrationality, though. There’s a specific reason we’re unequipped to deal with this problem, which is that the ideal of America is actually just the ideal of perfect safety. Some people use the term “American Dream” to refer to the idea that you can get a job and work hard and you’ll be guaranteed a comfortable middle-class existence. This concept is rather ingrained; even among people who position themselves in opposition to the current social system, you’ll often hear the claim that the American Dream is “no longer” achievable, or that it has been “betrayed.” But even if we assume there was some point in time where the American Dream was within reach of all people (which is not even close to being the case), it’s still bullshit, because it’s just flatly impossible as an idea. You cannot have a perfectly safe, risk-free existence, ever.
I’m not one to give much credit to grand plans; history is far more random than anyone’s really comfortable with. But intentionally or otherwise, ISIS’s actions are exposing this critical contradiction in the American promise. They are proving, the hard way, that Americans and Europeans are not special, that “Western culture” is not a magical force field, and that well-off white people die just as easily as everyone else. And this is the part of the fear of terrorism that is actually legitimate: if you’ve lived your life valuing only comfort and security, if you thought you were safe because you only went to cafes and concerts and never did anything “dangerous,” then ISIS is a critical threat to you, personally. They’ll never actually put a bullet in your head, but they’ve already put one in your heart. They have destroyed the world that you thought you were living in.
One of the more disturbing aspects of ISIS specifically is the fact that people from developed nations have on occasion joined them voluntarily. This is why that happens: America has nothing to offer people but safety and stability, so if that’s a lie, then there’s no reason to stay. The thing about the American Dream is that you either make it or you don’t, and if making it isn’t a realistic possibility – if, for example, you can be randomly murdered at any moment and therefore have no expectation of safety – then America is worthless. If danger is unavoidable, comfort becomes hollow; if you’re going to die, you might as well die in a real fight. And precisely this is ISIS’s pitch: join us, and die a meaningful death.
Of course, this is also a lie. ISIS isn’t actually waging a worldwide holy war; they really are just murderers with delusions of grandeur. Their mythology is just as much of a con as America’s is. And living even a meaningless life in relative comfort is a hell of a lot better than getting shot and dying in the desert. That’s the thing, though: the fact that something like ISIS is able to pose any kind of threat at all to a country as rich and powerful as America ought to be deeply embarrassing. This is what’s so upsetting about all those politicians going on about all the drastic measures we have to take because of terrorism. We’re being ruled by incompetent cowards.
Naturally, there is a third option, which is to say that civilization has a purpose beyond mere comfort. And when you think about it that way, the correct response to terrorism becomes fairly obvious. Everyone has something that they actually live for rather than something that they’re merely trying to avoid, and the extent to which America allows people to pursue such things – minus the extent to which it actively prevents other people from doing so – is the extent to which it is justified as a human endeavor. Valuing safety is a category error; what you actually value is the stuff that safety enables you to do. In other words, the way civilization works is perpendicular to how it’s normally portrayed. We don’t start from a state of maximum danger and then gradually progress towards perfect safety. What actually characterizes the state of nature is uselessness; when you’re constantly focused on survival, you can’t get anything else done. So what happens as civilization progresses – and this is true even in the ideal case – is that people gain more and more opportunities to do different things, and in so doing they are exposed to correspondingly to more and more dangers. Utopia is impossible on the logical level; there will always be another mountain to climb. Given this, we ought to stop aiming at impossible goals. The focus of civilization must be on opening doors rather than closing them, even though doing so lets the monsters in.
As a small personal example, I go to shows fairly often, so the Paris attacks spooked me a little bit. Given my temperament, I have on occasion mused that if some shit were to go down while I was standing in the middle of a dense crowd, I would be completely fucked. But it would be absurd for me to consider changing my behavior on this basis. The fact that there’s nothing I can do about it is exactly why I should ignore it in favor of something that’s actually worth focusing on. Indeed, everyone makes choices like this every day; no one actually goes around trying to be as safe as possible, because it’s just ridiculous to even think like that. Applying this broadly, then, while there is such a thing as reasonable caution, there is also such a thing as cowardice. Nobody can “keep you safe”; you are definitely going to die, and you are going to die with regrets. So pointing out those terrorism statistics really misses the point: terrorists or no, there are things to be afraid of, and the only reasonable response to them is to be afraid, to reject the fantasy of security. I mean, it’s not even a good fantasy. Security leads naturally to paranoia, because when you think you’ve got everything under control, each tiny imperfection sticks in your skin like a splinter. The more you hunker down, the more the demons close in on you. So given how bad of a deal this is, the simple alternative is to just not make it, to stop pretending and accept what is inescapably the case.
Politicians aren’t in a position to make this argument. They have to act like they’re tough and they’ve got all the answers; they can’t actually admit that they can neither keep you safe nor provide meaning to your life. And we shouldn’t expect them to be able to do so – the fact that we so often do is our failing, not theirs. Politicians have a job, which is to make policy, and beyond the basics, terrorism cannot be solved by policy. There are few straits more desperate than those in which you’re seriously looking to a politician for salvation. Tolerating the existence of the ruling class is one thing, but it is among the worst mistakes a person can make to adopt ruling-class values as their own.
And yet, this is precisely the situation most of us are stuck in. Even those on “the left,” or whatever you want to call it, too often talk as though the “American Dream” really were both possible and a desirable goal. Conservatives are criticized not for believing in the wrong things, but merely for being factually mistaken about the best way to reach the same fantastical goals. The Sanders campaign was all about going back to good old fashioned liberalism, when everyone had stable jobs and corporations played nice (the unionized New Deal era is the liberal version of conservatives’ hard-on for the cultural repressiveness of the 50s). It does suck that we aren’t even doing that well; it would be pretty great if people had consistent access to things like healthcare and living wages. But politicians want us to believe that these things are enough, so that they can dangle that carrot over our heads for eternity.
And this is exactly how fear becomes fuel for racist resentment. Valuing safety above all else leaves you defenseless against risk blackmail. Any politician can say “vote for me or X will kill you,” and as long as there’s any chance that they’re right, you’ll have to do it. If all you care about is protecting what you have, then anything foreign is a threat. And those of us who consider ourselves more rational than that are far too often complicit in this lie. Naturally, everyone wants to make their own political philosophy sound like the one that’s going to lead to the land of milk and honey, but there are times when good tactics become bad ideology. By accepting safety as a valid goal, by evading our responsibility to push the bitter medicine that is required to cure this disease, we have allowed this to happen.
At risk of grandiosity, it is the task of this generation to fix this mistake. The only way out of this is to come up with a new value system which resists these sorts of manipulations. Yes, the world is a dangerous place. It would be irrational not to be afraid. But it is nihilistic to aim for a life confined within an Absolutely Safe Capsule. If we conceive of our task as “fixing” society in order to “get back” to an imaginary time when everything was in order, we will have failed before we start. The past is what led to the present; we require a different future. We have to have something that makes living in fear worth it, because there’s no other way to live.
Something about the Brexit vote is still nagging at me. I’m honestly not sure why I care – well, aside from the fact that we’re probably watching the opening act for the next generation of racism. I’m not particularly well-informed as to the dynamics of the situation, and the actual consequences of it are likely to be fairly boring after the government jostles and slumps its way into a comfortable position. It’s easy enough to conclude that 52% of any population are uninformed idiots, but this feels like more than just a bad decision. Something about it feels wrong.
The most notable aspect of the voting demographics is the age gap. 73% of 18-to-24-year-olds voted Remain; 60% of those 65 or older voted Leave. The conventional wisdom is that people get more conservative as they get older, but that doesn’t apply here. The conservative choice was Remain; if old people are set in their ways and want to keep things the way they are, that’s how they should have voted. Leaving is precisely the sort of dramatic change that’s considered characteristic of naive young people who want to shake things up.
So what we’re actually looking at here is a values split, and the obvious interpretation is that old people are racist. This is statistically accurate, but it’s a fact that’s never really given its due. We frame racism as a matter of ignorance: racist people supposedly don’t know that there aren’t really major behavioral differences between people of different races. But this is exactly the sort of opinion that should be overcome by the wisdom of experience. The science isn’t difficult to understand, and the topic has been discussed to death; surely anyone who’s been alive for 60 damn years has had enough time to figure this out.
Furthermore, the longer you’ve been alive, the more opportunity you’ve had to be shaken out of your preconceptions by formative experiences. In America, anyone who is in the vicinity of 70 years old today was a young adult during the civil rights movement. As the story goes, this was when Martin Luther King, Jr. calmly and patiently explained to white America that they shouldn’t judge people based on their skin color, so the people who were just becoming politically aware at the time should have internalized this lesson very deeply. Indeed, seeing as today’s young people have not yet experienced a major anti-racist movement, they ought to be the uninformed ones; the demographic situation should be the exact opposite of what it actually is.
From what I understand, British history hasn’t followed the same pattern. Immigration has come up as a big issue only recently, so it seems that even old people have the excuse of inexperience. But then, the same is true of young people, so why the age gap? Again, shouldn’t the situation be the opposite? Shouldn’t young people be reacting naively to immediate events, while old people are able to fit things into a well-developed political framework? The gap, then, must be one of values: regardless of how well-informed anyone is, old people believe in racism and young people don’t (as much). But this is a deeply unfortunate conclusion; it can only mean that values are completely separate from knowledge and experience. If we can’t educate people out of racism, if values fundamentally don’t accord with the truth, then what hope do we have of ever getting this right – of ever getting anything right?
That story about the civil rights movement is indeed the bad kind of myth. What actually happened was that successful political organization resulted in laws and structural changes that made society function in a less racist manner, without changing most people’s minds about it. The result was that subsequent generations were raised under less racist conditions. For example, they were more likely to have childhood friends of different races, interracial relationships were not illegal, and increased financial and educational opportunities meant that adults ended up with more diverse peer groups. The effect was not that anyone’s mind was changed at the time, but rather that a new, less racist generation was created while previous generations stayed the same. The reason people in general are now “less racist” is simply that more racist people have died and less racist people have been born.
(Just so we’re clear, I’m not saying that no one ever changes their values based on experience, just that the effect is dramatically less significant than it’s commonly portrayed to be. Two people can have exactly the same experience and draw opposite moral conclusions from it. Also, I’m not claiming that young people aren’t racist, just that the age gap isn’t merely aesthetic, that it does have some amount of substance behind it.)
This, in fact, is the actual engine of progress: old people fail to indoctrinate the next generation with their ideals, and then they die. The great democratic drama where everyone comes to a rational consensus through reasoned debate is worse than a fantasy; it’s close to being a malicious lie. In the end, the only way to get rid of harmful ideals is to kill the people who believe in them. Right now we’re, uh, fortunate enough to have time taking care of this for us, but if the utopians ever live up to their bluster and do something about death, this would become an immediate issue. Even without resource consumption being a factor, there are certain sets of ideals which simply cannot coexist. We would not be able to avoid choosing who lives and who dies.
Actually . . . this issue isn’t particularly theoretical. There exist people right now who are enforcing ideals that prevent other people from living their lives. If they can be argued out of it, super. If not, well. There are times when moral behavior is not merely desirable, but imperative.
Even with that aside, though, there are still some unsettling political implications here. To be blunt, what the hell are we doing letting old people vote? I mean, it’s sort of a common joke that old people are big voters, but this isn’t just some wacky coincidence. Electoral results are being decided by the people least qualified to be deciding them. To be even blunter, old people aren’t going to get to live in the future, so why do they have any right to decide what it’s going to look like? Given that the Brexit vote was close and the actual implementation is going to be a multi-year bureaucratic process, it’s entirely possible that the vote was decided by people who won’t live to see any of its effects.
There’s a magnificent scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner where, after the boyfriend’s father tries to push him around by going on about how hard he worked and how much he sacrificed to raise him, the boyfriend finally snaps and informs his father that he doesn’t owe him shit, that everything he did for his son was merely the fulfillment of his basic responsibilities, and that he and his entire generation has the further responsibility to die and to let the next generation get on with their lives, with the “dead weight” of the past finally off their backs. (Yeah, I’m not doing this justice. Click the link.) While I don’t hold any particular antipathy towards previous generations, I was deeply struck by this scene, as it was the first time I’d encountered the idea that it is parents who owe their children deference, that part of the wisdom of age ought to be the wisdom to know when something is not your decision to make. If we’re talking about fixing democracy, this might, paradoxically, be a good place to start: don’t let people stick their noses into things that are none of their fucking business.
And yet, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Old people are supposed to have precisely this wisdom; they should be the ones telling us this stuff. America is on the low end, but pretty much every culture has at least some notion of respecting the accumulated lifetime knowledge and highly-developed judgment of the elderly. And yet our current model for old people is basically Grandpa Simpson piecing history together from sugar packets. So, like, what happened?
Presumably, the concept of the “elder” came about because old people used to actually know shit, and, when considering simpler forms of social arrangement than what we’re currently used to, this makes intuitive sense. People used to have to survive in smaller units under particular environmental conditions; people who had done so for a long time would naturally have better knowledge about what worked and what didn’t. But today, for those of us comfortable enough to spend our time writing speculative blog posts, survival has stopped being an issue, replaced by prosperity. And the way you become prosperous in a society like this is by finding a functional niche and filling it, by becoming an effective cog in the machine. Hence, the comfortably retired are those who have spent their lives avoiding moral problems and focusing on a single, narrowly-defined task, which is the exact opposite of the conditions required for the development of wisdom. When we talk about old people being “set in their ways,” then, we are talking not about a natural phenomenon but about a constructed dynamic. And we are talking not about a simple status quo preference, for conditions such as staying in the EU, but about traditional values, such as supporting racism.
I don’t know if there’s anything “to be done” about this, exactly, but I do think this means we need to keep our guard up. There’s a real threat here: the future must not be sacrificed to the past. This may be a bit melodramatic, but I really am reminded of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s a rather important story, since it asks something that is very close to being the only question that matters: if god commands you to kill your son, do you do it or not? That’s basically most of morality right there. The original story, though, pulls its punch, which is rather unbecoming for a story about the mystical profoundness of faith. The fact that Jehovah doesn’t actually want Isaac to die means there’s no moral conflict; the only problem is that Abraham guessed wrong about his god’s will. And even that doesn’t get the story anywhere, because to believe there was a real decision being made here, you’d have to believe that Abraham would be punished for “disobeying,” meaning he would be punished for making the choice that Jehovah agrees to be morally correct. So the story as it is is incoherent. Faith isn’t merely about obedience, it’s about loyalty to the truth that lies behind individual acts.
There are two possible ways to fix the story such that it actually makes a substantive moral statement. In one, Abraham disobeys Jehovah, saves Isaac, and is punished for his transgression. He bears the burden of his decision for the remainder of his life, but he believes without question that he did the right thing, that his god would never truly command a child sacrifice, that he acted in accordance with the true will of the divine. He dies in agony, unforgiven, with only the implicit comfort of having protected his family, of knowing in the deepest part of himself that, god or no, he did the right thing.
In the other, Abraham kills Isaac, Jehovah declares him to be truly faithful, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end.
Freed from the anguish of choosing, music listeners can discover all kinds of weird, nettlesome, unpleasant, sublime, sweet, or perplexing musical paths.
I honestly can’t remember the last time I encountered a howler as blatant as claiming that choice is now less important because of the multiplicity of options offered by the internet. Obviously, the opposite is true: choice is now so omnipresent as to have become tyrannical. It used to be that you were justified in just listening to whatever was on the radio, or whatever the officially-licensed music weirdo at the record store recommended, or whatever bands happened to be playing at your local venues, because you didn’t really have any other options. Now you have all the options; you have to choose. At every moment of every day, you must choose the one thing out of an infinity of options that you will spend this portion of your finite human existence on, and you must do so with the full knowledge that you are damning yourself to miss out on all the things you didn’t choose, forever.
I think that much is pretty obvious. But here’s the important part. This:
These paths branch off constantly, so that by the end of a night that started with the Specials, you’re listening to Górecki’s Miserere, not by throwing a dart, but by following the quite specific imperatives of each moment’s needs, each instant’s curiosities. It is like an open-format video game, where you make the world by advancing through it.
is also wrong. (Also this is a typically terrible video game analogy made by someone who has no idea what video games are actually like, but one thing at a time here.) Just because you have theoretical access to every song ever made (which is not actually the case, but seriously, one thing at a time) does not suddenly transport you into an unfettered wonderland of pure personal choices. In fact, the author cites a rather strong piece of evidence against himself: Spotify carries about four million songs which have never been listened to, by anyone, ever. So it is clearly not the case that people are freely venturing into heretofore unexplored terrain. Indeed, the fact that internet discourse is crammed full of nostalgia suggests that people actually aren’t seeking out new experiences at all. You may have noticed that, post-internet, pop stardom and celebrity are bigger industries than ever. The paradox of internet culture is that a practical infinity of choices makes people more likely to stick with what they already know. Except that’s not a paradox at all, because of course that’s what’s going to happen. The internet does not magically remove society’s existing constraints. On the contrary, by strengthening people’s ability to engage, the internet enables people to cleave more strongly to the things that they were already into. Ergo, Beyoncé’s Twitter mob.
This part makes the failure of analysis pretty clear:
Just five years ago, if you wanted to listen legally to a specific song, you bought it (on CD, on MP3), which, assuming finite resources, meant you had to choose which song to buy, which in turn meant you didn’t buy other songs you had considered buying. Then, a person with $10 to spend could have purchased five or six songs, or, if he was an antiquarian, an album. Now, with $10, that same person can subscribe to a streaming service for a month and hear all five or six songs he would have purchased with that money, plus 20 million or so others.
What’s missing here is very obviously the non-monetary component of opportunity cost. A person has only so many hours in the day to spend listening to music. So yes, it’s great that money is less of a constraint now, but the more important constraint, the issue of what you’re actually going to choose to do with your finite human existence, is as strong as ever. In fact, it’s stronger: there is now more nonsense to engage with, more to attend to, more demands on your attention, and hence less time to make these supposedly free choices we’ve all been gifted with.
These factual inaccuracies point us to the deeper philosophical problem, which is that choice is not simply a matter of the raw number of options you have. Having more options makes it more likely that your choice-set will include good choices, but it also makes it harder to find those choices amidst the noise.
Think of it this way: imagine all the songs on Spotify were unlabelled. All you could do was listen to songs at absolute total random out of its entire catalog. Total horrorshow, right? But this is the maximum amount of free choice: it is totally unencumbered by any kind of bias, including your own. Now imagine that the songs were all labelled, but there were no other discovery tools. This is better, because you can at least find things you’ve already heard of and check out new songs with interesting names, but it’s still pretty hard to discover stuff. Now consider the internet as it currently exists, where you’re constantly being barraged with recommendations and promotions and soforth. This is both more constrained and better than any permutation of the above examples, because you actually have stuff to go on: you can find recommenders you trust and branch out from things you already like and etc.
What’s happened here is that our choices have gotten better as they’ve become more constrained, and the reason this happens is because the constraints are operating in the correct direction: towards things you might actually want to listen to. There are, of course, also constraints that operate in incorrect directions; the reason most of what’s on the radio is garbage is because it’s selected based on what executives think will make money rather than what actually sounds good. So, naturally, there is a situation better than the current one, which is one where all of those recommendation engines and music bloggers and soforth don’t have ulterior motives in the areas of commercial appeal and popularity. This is, of course, an additional constraint that removes things from your search queue that got there because of advertising or whatever, and it, again, makes things better. Choice is a false idol; freedom isn’t free.
And this is a good thing, because if your choices really were totally unconstrained, they would be essentially random, which is to say chaotic, which is to say meaningless. Remember that bit above about “each instant’s curiosities”? Yeah, that’s nihilism. If you’re seriously just going off of your pure momentary whims, you’re an animal. Whereas when you do things like check out formative artists in genres you like, or explore the various bands that were part of a scene you’re interested in, you are engaging with the structure of reality and making choices that are actually connected to the things you care about. While there is a real and important distinction between coerced and uncoerced choices (and lack of options can be a form of coercion), a choice has to be based on real-world conditions in order to be meaningful; the concept of an “unconstrained” choice is oxymoronic. It’s only by being attached to contingent circumstances in the real world that your choices have any chance of being worth a shit.
Indeed, this “free choice” framing betrays a disturbing assumption: that any experience is just as good as any other. If the pure number of options you have is what’s meaningful, that can only be because the content of the options themselves is not meaningful. Which, if true, would mean that all experiences are meaningless. This, for example:
When I hear a song for the fiftieth time, I remember the wall color of my studio apartment on Mt. Vernon Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1996, and I remember how cold the awful landlady kept it, and I remember her shivering whippet scratching at my door so that he could come in and curl up in the hollows of my giant furry Newfoundland.
is nothing but the worst kind of banal egoism. If the only significance of music is that it reminds you of some arbitrary shit from your past, then music is meaningless. It might as well be a scrap of paper or an oddly-shaped rock.
Luckily this is a lie, which is obvious when you consider why this is wrong:
Play the songs you heard on February 2, 2013, in the order in which you played them, and you can recreate not just the emotions but the suspense and surprise of emotion as it changes in time.
Dude has literally never heard that a person cannot step into the same river twice. What makes music powerful is the fact that its substance emerges out from particular experiences, not that it is buried within them. Contingency and temporality are what make existence meaningful; without them, you are a portrait and not a person.
Oh and by the way all of this actually has dick to do with the internet. Internet technology enables all of this, but the actual power sources behind these dynamics are political and psychological, just as they always have been. The basic failing of almost all writing about the internet is that it assumes that the same old patterns of behavior somehow assume an unprecedented radical significance now that they’re happening On The Internet.
So, okay, let’s hit this. The first part is easy: the reason people want their experiences to be permanently frozen in time and eternally retrievable is because they don’t want to die. Tough shit, friends. Your name has not been written in the book of life. You’re going to exist for a while, and then you’re going to stop existing.
Moving on, the choice fallacy is a clear outgrowth of consumerism. The idea that picking your very own very special choice from the largest possible menu of options is the ideal situation is a fantasy concocted to sell shit in supermarkets. If contingency matters, then goods are not fungible and capitalism loses its claim to meaning. Which is of course the case; even under the most charitable interpretation of capitalism, what it’s good for is producing enough goods to give people the opportunity to do things that are actually meaningful. Taking economic growth itself as a goal is a blatant capture of the ends by the means. In the same sense, to assume that having the largest number of possible options for which music or movies or books or whatever to experience is what matters is to forget what makes these things worth experiencing in the first place.
The last piece of the puzzle is why everyone constantly talks about The Internet like it actually has its own agenda, rather than simply being an amplifier (or a suppressor) for existing motivations. This is pure ideology. The internet just happened yesterday, so it’s easy to take it as an explanation for everything that’s happening right now and thereby avoid any examination of the underlying forces. Because those forces are not the lizard people and the reverse vampires; those forces are you. The actual conspiracy is the one inside your head, constantly arranging everything you experience to serve its invisible ends. Aggregating data ain’t going to get you out of this. You’ve got to fight theory with theory.
American Tragic is a breakup album. This is obvious enough that it can’t be ignored, but leaving it at that would be as reductive as it is silly. In general, any worthwhile work of art is about more than its nominal subject; specifically, this album isn’t the type of thing that a breakup album normally is, and the difference is important. As just a convenient point of contrast, the recent Best Coast album opens with a breakup song called “Feeling Ok.” Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, it’s just that American Tragic is not about feeling “okay” or “getting over it” or “moving on.” It’s about being on your knees, tightening your grip, and facing the night. It’s about survival.
The previous Wax Idols album, Discipline + Desire, was where sole permanent bandperson Hether Fortune really came into her own as a songwriter. It’s a broad album that covers a lot of territory, beginning with “Stare Back,” a full-throated statement of intent which takes Nietzsche’s famous warning as a commitment, and ending with “Stay In,” a low-key personal lament that, in retrospect, disturbingly foreshadows the content of American Tragic. In between, it confronts suicide, oppression, mercy killing, and the fundamental emptiness of the universe. It maps out a worldview, and American Tragic is what happens when that worldview has to face up to a specific catastrophe – when ideology hits the ground.
Where Discipline + Desire was more noisy and opaque, the songs on American Tragic are clear and dramatic, though with the same post-punk guitars and gothy atmosphere. The real difference, as noted, is that American Tragic is less of an ideas-focused rock album and more of a personal bloodletting. There’s sort of an open stage in the middle of each song for the vocals to inhabit, and Fortune uses it to basically emote her ass off. Between introspectively murmuring on “Lonely You,” howling in desperation on “I’m Not Going,” vamping it up on “Severely Yours,” and lashing out wildly on “Seraph,” she’s almost acting (or, you know, not acting) as much as she is singing. This is all underscored by the fact that, aside from the drums (by Rachel Travers, who adds a real sense of underlying strength) and couple of supporting bits, everything on the album is performed by Fortune herself. Of course, you can’t actually tell that by listening, but you can tell that everything on here is coming from a single human heart.
There are a number of specific references between the two albums that make the connections explicit. American Tragic begins with “A Violent Transgression,” which contains the following warning: “There are no squares in nature, so don’t create a corner when the pain starts to burn.” This is an extension of a metaphor from “Ad Re: Ian” off of Discipline + Desire, which is certainly among the best songs ever written about suicide:
In these never ending circles
A corner can be paradise
Press your head against the wall
Colors dance inside your eyes
And the promise of eternity
Escape from all the lies
Now with open arms & reaching hands
You give yourself to night
So a “corner” here is an escape – a place where you can go to get away from the constant horror of reality, to get out of the “never ending circles.” The tone of “Ad Re: Ian” is deeply sympathetic; it’s an attempt to understand what things would have to be like for someone to choose to annihilate themselves. Whereas in “A Violent Transgression,” the tables have turned: the singer is now the one on the knife’s edge, and she’s rejecting escape as an option for herself. There are no squares in nature, nothing can be boxed off and avoided, so when you’re tempted to try, you’re creating a corner. The fantasy of escaping from the lies is itself a lie. You have to stay in the circles.
The result of this understanding is that, despite the vibrant songwriting and emotional intensity that make American Tragic the exact opposite of a depressing slog, the album nevertheless lacks of any kind of comfort or resolution. It simmers, seethes, and screams, and there is zero catharsis. Again, this is an album that doesn’t “get over it”; it’s drenched in suffering from start to finish. There’s one particular moment that really drives this home. “Deborah” is given the standard “lead single” positioning: it’s a few songs in and it’s the most “fun” song up to that point, with a strong, smooth rhythm and a catchy chorus, but also with sketchy, twirling guitars that lack the satisfaction of any big riffs. The chorus includes the lines “dream of nothing, cuz it feels that way,” and “flowers wilting, axis tilting,” so, you know, there’s that, but the critical moment comes towards the end. The song is an explicit exorcism, and it seems to be building up to a big cathartic finish. The instruments drop off, leaving nothing but a chattering drum line and sparse, heavy bass notes. Fast, whispery vocals rush in to build the tension, and everything is primed for a big power lift to finish the job. But the lyrics here are a series of unresolved questions, and the drums chop them off before the second repetition finishes, pounding a couple of times to create an arresting tension (Travers really nails it here), which leads in to . . . basically nothing. The chorus comes back again, sounding just as anguished as before, only with the addition of a background full of desperate, repeated cries that drag the song to a limp conclusion. The exorcism fails.
So, even though all this really is as dark as you’d think, this is not a depressing album. Though the album exists in a small space, the songwriting is bright and open, and the key to the whole thing is the fact that it’s actually dance music. As scary and dramatic as it is, it’s also just really fun and exhilarating to listen to. This approach sublimates the album’s deep personal emotion into something new and alive, while maintaining an imposing sense of dread throughout. The obvious reference point for this contrast is Joy Division, but, despite its subject matter, American Tragic lacks that band’s dense haze of oppressiveness. It’s less melancholy and more, like, fire-breathing. (By the way, the title of “Ad Re: Ian” refers to Ian Curtis, so this isn’t just a musical difference: Hether Fortune’s understanding and rejection of the perspective portrayed in that song constitutes both the connection between and the bright line separating Wax Idols and Joy Division.) The inventiveness and energy of the album are central to its message: rather than seeking comfort, it surges forward.
I saw Wax Idols last year around when the album came out, not knowing anything about it at the time. But when they played the new songs, I understood exactly what was going on, even though I didn’t know what I was actually understanding yet. The songs were imposing and unnerving, and at the same time exciting and engaging. You can feel the combination of horror and visceral positivity. The dance aspect is important not because it ameliorates the album’s negativity, but because it synthesizes the negative subject matter with an affirming spirit. This combination is what the album is truly about. It’s both an embrace of the infinite darkness of the universe and a refusal to give in to it – a commitment to life with an understanding of the true terror it includes. This is the apparent paradox that defines the album: “we turn and face the night, that’s where we find the light.”
The lyrics are full of evocative and occasionally mysterious imagery, much of which sits alongside outright cliches. Of course, the “breakup album” itself is a cliche, and this sort of situation tends to inspire people to make big gestures that are as dramatic as they are familiar. But this doesn’t actually imply a lack of insight, because there’s an ironic subtlety to cliches that is lost when you either take them at face value or dismiss them as inherently empty. After all, this is hardly an album that falls back on familiar comforts; even with the cliches, there’s a striking lack of naivete. Cliches may seem like native inhabitants of the realm of fake smiles and Hollywood endings, but they contain truths that can be imported into the real world and applied productively.
Cliches are not at all the same thing as stereotypes, for example. It’s commonly said by stupid people that every stereotype is based on a grain of truth, but this is exactly wrong. Stereotypes are lies specifically chosen to cover up inconvenient truths by overwriting them with the opposite understanding. As a particularly dramatic example, the stereotype of black people being lazy originated during motherfucking slavery, a time when black people were being worked harder than perhaps any other group of people who have ever lived (I guess the people who built the pyramids might have a better case). Acknowledgement of this fact is not compatible with belief in white supremacy. The paradox of slavery is that any group that would implement it does not deserve to be in charge, which is why it requires a supposedly naturalistic justification. Slavery was deliberately reconceived as an inherent defect in black people to conceal the fact that it was actually a chosen defect in white people’s values. In short, stereotypes operate by using power to replace the uncomfortable truth with an apologist lie, and this is why all stereotypes must be destroyed.
A cliche, however, represents an original insight which only seems glib and meaningless after being dulled from overuse and flattened by assimilation into a truthless narrative. The reason cliches are usually intolerable is that they’re being spewed out by people who don’t really have any problems and aren’t actually saying anything, and it’s valid to dismiss them for this reason. But they can also be usefully redeemed by pulling them forward through the spectacle into present reality. Specifically, when everything goes to hell and you need something to hold on to, the hidden insights buried in the static start to shine forth. Shit gets real.
The various cliches scattered throughout the album act as hooks, connecting the album’s perspective to more commonly understood concepts. “I won’t let you hang me out to dry” is elevated into a radical statement of justified selfishness, while “pushing up daisies” is used to highlight the passivity and hollowness of the path being rejected. The moment of deepest connection comes on “At Any Moment.” This is the one purely upbeat song on the album – the one that seems to finally break free of the darkness. It carries itself with a blood-pumping sense of vitality. Rapid-fire drums and slashing guitars hold tough, confident vocals snake effortlessly through the verses and strike hard on the chorus, and synth melodies blare out on top of everything, rising towards an open sky. Yet in the face of all this, the vocals are just as chilling as ever, “wrapped in subtle forms of sorrow, and laced with fear.” The song’s powerful hook is actually terrifying: the singer takes as her saving grace the fact that anything can die “at any moment.” This would seem to be a Pyrrhic victory: there’s no despair, but only because there was no hope in the first place. But the intensity of the delivery makes this reading impossible; it’s brimming with such confidence as to force itself to be felt as genuine triumph.
What connects the song’s apparent cold comfort to its burning blood is its use of cliches. Following up on the chorus, the singer insists that “it’s a damned if I do, damned if I don’t ever-after.” Again, we can’t understand this as a statement of futility. To interpret this properly, we need to know what “ever-after” refers to here, and this information comes from “Dethrone” off of Discipline + Desire. As the title makes obvious, this song is a comprehensive refutation of any justification for rulership.
They take you to the edge of light
“Have a glimpse of ever-after”
They sell you faith, they sell you lies
And you’re the source of all their laughter
The source of the ruling class’s power is their claim on eternity – they extract loyalty by offering the hope of a room in heaven or a footnote in the pages of history. But it’s a mere hope, a glimpse, because there’s no such thing as eternity. As the term itself connotes, “ever-after” is a fairy tale. It’s a lie, masking the true purpose of material gain in this world, the only world there actually is. The “throne” here is the conceptual source of arbitrary authority – the concept of something else that supposedly justifies an obviously unjust state of affairs – and that’s what we have to destroy.
So, with regards to being “damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” what this means is that there’s no hope of salvation, that we’re screwed either way, but also that this realization is the substance of liberation. Letting go of the fantasy of eternity allows us to really be present in present reality, to make free choices. Here, it means that the singer isn’t shackled to an abstract conception of love, and she doesn’t have any arbitrary expectations to live up to. She’s dealing with a direct threat to herself, and she’s facing it directly.
Building on its momentum, the song drives home its final statement: “You fool me once, you won’t fool me twice, I’m not a virgin on the altar of sacrifice.” Again, the cliche here is normally a palliative, a sort of “oh well, maybe next time” at the discovery of having been fucked over. But by making it a promise rather than a hypothetical, both halves become necessary. Being fooled the first time is the unavoidable consequence of real engagement, of caring enough to make yourself vulnerable; when it comes to love, there’s no room for half-measures. And the second half is more than just learning from your mistakes, it’s a commitment to cleave as strongly to pain as to passion, to face up to and actively oppose the things that are trying to kill you rather than merely avoiding them. The statement thus becomes a commitment to deep engagement, anticipating disaster, combined with an obligation to take the pain and use it. Hence, not a virgin, and also not a sacrifice.
Because another thing that’s a stereotype is the “negative” person who “looks for things to be upset about” rather than doing something “constructive.” The truth that this lie conceals is the fact that “negativity” is a positive force. For one thing, it’s very often nothing more than honesty; the insistence on “staying positive” at all costs is a requirement to abandon the truth. Furthermore, “negative” people are the ones doing the real work of reconstructing an evil world into something that actually works for people, and mandating glib positivity is an attempt to cut them off at the knees. While cliches are not inherently political in the way that stereotypes are, they can be politicized. They can be used to construct a world where the pathways to freedom are missing, where the only choice is in choosing how best to get by. A man telling a woman to smile is the entire psychology of oppression distilled into a single gesture.
Our ability to use the components of reality’s present constitution against itself is more than just a means of defense, it’s how we make the world a real place. If this really were “the best of all possible worlds,” there wouldn’t be anything to do except sit around feeling content about it. But in the jagged, ill-made world that we actually inhabit, there are decisions to be made, things to be sought, and things to be driven out. Instead of walking around in a haze of complacency, fated to forever act out the shitty scripts that have been written for us, we can decide what matters, draw lines, and define our own terms. We can be real people.
There are an awful lot of religious references on this thing, particularly for an album written by an atheist (well, I shouldn’t make assumptions about people’s beliefs, but we’re at least talking about the kind of person who capitalizes “Death” but not “god”). What religion and love have in common is that they both speak in the language of transcendence. They’re the aspirations that humans have to be something more than mutated apes shuffling about a crumbing ball of dirt.
Christianity in particular has been very successful at conflating its own particular mythology with the general concept of love. This success is unjustified. What’s notable about Christian metaphysics is that the Christian “God” is literally everything – the world is represented as one big undifferentiated mass of creation. Unlike in, for example, Hinduism, where Shiva the Destroyer is worshipped as one of the universe’s primary forces, the Destroyer in Christianity is the enemy – destruction is always an evil act. In other words, the central claim of Christianity is that nothing ever actually dies.
This is the meaning of the crucifixion: it’s the ultimate affirmation. Jesus affirms the human world even in the midst of suffering its greatest horror, granting it redemption. “Goodbye Baby” uses this imagery in the same sense: “nail me to the cross, I’ll be a martyr for this lost cause.” The singer here affirms love while suffering its worst consequences. This is kind of self-deprecating – when we tell someone to “get off the cross,” especially in the context of a romantic relationship, it’s not because we’re impressed with their commitment – but it’s also kind of serious. The lyric is a testament to the lengths that people are willing to go to for the sake of affirmation.
But of course, as the refrain of the song makes obvious, the point is that this isn’t actually what she’s doing. Like religion, love can oppress as well as liberate, and sometimes the only solution is to cut it off hard, to insist that “I owe me more than I owe you.” And while she accepts the consequences of her decision – “you can call me evil, you won’t be the only one” – she still claims allegiance to the truth (the song actually includes the line “I’m not a liar, I gotta tell the truth,” which seems pointlessly general until you consider it in this context). She insists that she’s doing the right thing – “I won’t let you turn my good heart bad,” which is what can happen when you commit yourself to affirmation over all else, when you decide you owe someone, or an idea, or the world more than you owe yourself.
With Christian ideology having thoroughly percolated throughout secular America, the idea that full, uncritical affirmation is the solution to everything manifests itself in a number of places. We see it in the naive valorization of “free speech,” which asserts that malicious and ignorant opinions are just as valid as deeply considered ones, that expert testimony is just as good as knee-jerk reaction, and that “censorship” is the only true crime. Related to this is the concept of the “marketplace of ideas,” which holds not only that active discernment is unnecessary, but that harmful ideas must be permitted to keep existing. It’s why we can only understand economic activity in terms of constant, accelerating growth. And obviously consumerist ideology is based on the assumption that crowding store shelves with as much trash as possible is an appropriate definition of “abundance.” Hand in hand with all of this is the concept of salvation – the idea that, because the existence of everything is justified, something in there has got to be the thing that saves us.
Obviously, none of this is accurate. If nothing else, the rise of the internet has made it painfully clear that some people really do need to shut the fuck up. More generally, some ideas don’t just represent bad things that should be rejected but are themselves harmful things that must be destroyed. A dramatic example is rape, which is only understandable based on the malformed idea of sexuality as a dominance game. Whereas most crimes are committed for the sake of some other goal, rape is unique in that it is its own motivation. Rapists rape because they enjoy rape specifically and not sex. Therefore, the only solution is dissolution – the concept of sexuality that leads to rape must be eradicated from the collective psyche of humanity. This is why the activist assertion is that rape is not a type of sex but is rather sexualized violence. It’s also why rape “prevention” ““tips”” are so offensive: they presume that the concept has a right to exist.
Back on topic, this ideological malformation also applies to love. Love is supposed to be the thing that transcends physical reality, so we only understand love in terms of affirmation. The adjective that goes with the word “love” is “eternal” (one more example of affirmation-only ideology is the assumption that divorce is always a bad thing). But as anyone with any actual experience knows (which is everyone, as long as they’re honest with themselves), love doesn’t come in a neatly wrapped package. It doesn’t just have rough spots, it has sharp edges. And sometimes it fucks things up bad enough that it has to be destroyed.
Obviously, affirmation itself isn’t a bad thing; on the contrary, as the ability to transform the world into more than it is, it’s one of the great powers of humanity. But it has a necessary counterpart: negation, the power to annihilate things that have lost their right to exist. Together, affirmation and negation are the powers that we as humans use to create the kind of world we want to live in. We decide what deserves to be preserved and what has to die. The problem is that we live in a society that denies the validity of negation. This is done out of fear, which is understandable, because negation really is scary. It requires accepting that some mistakes cannot be undone, that it is possible to lose important things forever, and that everything that currently exists is going to die. But these things have to be accepted, because without the power of negation we’re facing the universe unarmed, carrying a shield but not a sword. As one more example, addressing global warming requires destroying the current means of production. We like to talk about the “positive” ways of addressing the problem: new inventions, green jobs, and “alternative” sources of energy. But because we’re facing a tipping point, there will eventually be no acceptable level of carbon emissions, and because fossil fuels inherently contain way more energy than any possible alternative, we actually are going to have to lower our levels of production, which is the one concept that capitalism absolutely cannot abide. This might end up being humanity’s final paradox: without the power of negation, we’re all going to die.
This whole dynamic is summed up very concisely when the album sets up its situation on “Lonely You”: “What once was always, on its knees, screaming ‘never, never’.” The inherent contradiction in something that “once was always” demonstrates the limits of affirmation. We can pretend, for a time, that the things we love will last forever, but even the luckiest of us will eventually face the final curtain. Once ideation hits the ground – when it’s “on its knees” – reality has to be dealt with. And sometimes the result is horrific enough the only appropriate action is negation – to scream “never.”
Maybe this all sounds depressing, which is another reason why people don’t like to think about it, but it’s affirmation that’s tragic, because it can never really work. Negation can. Eternity is an illusion, but oblivion is real. What this means is that negation can actually offer a kind of inverted salvation. On “I’m Not Going,” this turns out to be the real answer.
Tonally, this is by far the most depressing song on the album. The slow, insistent rhythm and desperate vocals shroud it with the sorrow of a funeral march, and the lyrics back this up with a determined advance into the darkness. The cosmology of the song is established right at the beginning: “This is a wicked world, full of crooks and fools and kings.” This is notably comprehensive: the evil in the world consists not only of malicious people, but also people who don’t know what they’re doing, and people who think they know what’s best for everyone else. And by identifying herself with this complete strain of wickedness, the singer leaves herself without any escape. She can’t position herself as an innocent victim or a principled rebel – whatever evil is in the world is also a part of her. The result is that, when she finds herself in the midst of catastrophe, she has no defense. She can’t claim she doesn’t deserve it, and she has no possible action other than hopeless acceptance. “I roll with the thunder, take me under, wait for god to call.” This line is another Discipline + Desire callback, this time to the defiant “When It Happens”: “I was listening in on phone calls to ‘god’ / I was laughing to myself because I know there’s no one home.” The singer’s desperation here is such that she’s down to relying on the one thing that she knows can’t save her.
And in the face of all this, the the very un-chorus-like chorus is as simple as it can possibly be: “no, I’m not going down.” It’s precisely the overwhelming negativity of the song that makes it a radical statement of hope. As the black sky is met with defiance, screams harden themselves into cries of strength, and the singer finds the power to shine alone in hell. This is the power of negation, the ability to eradicate the possibility of defeat, and its raw force does not require reliance on anything. This is also the note on which the album ends: “I’m not nothing.” This seems like a pathetic understatement, but it’s enough. You can accept that you were wrong about everything, admit your faults, face the destruction of what’s most important to you, and still refuse to go down. You usually can’t win, but you can always not lose.
This is also essentially what we saw on “At Any Moment”: negation can be a source of hope. The fact that everything is temporary means you’re never completely trapped. And this is why we can’t allow ourselves to surrender to “positive thinking” and relinquish the power of negation. The insistence on affirmation also has a political motive: certain people would prefer it if we were only capable of devoting ourselves uncritically to things that already exist, as this would limit our options to either compliance or despair. Imagination, and hence desire, is essentially an act of negation: it denies the present state of reality in favor of something that doesn’t exist, which is why negation is our only defense against benevolent totalitarianism. We can’t live without devoting ourselves to something, but we have to accept that nothing is really going to last, and learn to live with the expectation of catastrophe. And when devotion inevitably turns poisonous, we have to be willing to excise it. We have to hold back this last card, because there’s going to come a day when it’s the only one we have to play.
“Severely Yours” is the thematic inverse of everything else on the album – instead of a song about heartbreak with desire burning in the background, it’s a song about very explicit desire haunted by implicit tragedy. This is backed up by the vocals, which are less aggressive and more conventionally sexy, but with a wistful undercurrent that maintains the thread of sorrow. That doesn’t make this a mushy love song, though; in fact, it interrogates power dynamics through an emphasis on dominance and submission, illuminating the the inherent political dimension of relationships that is otherwise obscured by the album’s raw emotion.
The key to this song lies at the intersection of its submissiveness and its swaggering confidence. It gets down on its knees immediately, and from there the whole thing takes place on the floor. The singer states her intent directly, with a single line that says both “I want you to hurt me” and “I want you to fuck me.” This whole situation presents a very conventional picture of female desire as wanting to be the object of someone else’s actions, which is what makes it so obvious that it’s a trap.
The chorus provides the first clue to the song’s true nature: “he could be mine, he could be my god” (it’s only here and on “Deborah” where the subject of the song is specifically male, which both emphasizes the gendered aspect and makes the target more specific than the usual universal “you”). Repeating a line and extending it like this is pretty standard songwriting; it’s at least as elemental as “be my, be my baby.” So because it sounds so natural, it’s easy to miss that these two lines are exact opposites. The whole “I’m yours” angle is about as cliched as it gets, but, as the title indicates, “Severely Yours” takes it seriously. If someone is “yours,” that means you own them, but if someone is “your god,” that means they own you. A later repetition of the chorus doubles this dynamic up again by inverting the line to “I could be your god,” and the end of the song conflates everything together by layering all of these lines on top of each other. (The lack of capitalization on “god” has added significance here, as it indicates that the concept is being used in the general sense and not the specifically Christian and therefore patriarchal sense. Also, the hypothetical phrasing shows that the role of “god” here is both optional and temporary.)
Of course, in terms of dominance, this is all blatantly contradictory. Mutual dominance is not an intelligible concept, and that’s the point: relationships are inherently mutual, and they shouldn’t be understood in terms of dominance. The BDSM imagery brings this point into sharp relief, because consensual BDSM makes it obvious that what something looks like isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual dynamics at play. It’s sort of a BDSM truism that the sub is the one with the real power, since it’s the sub’s limits that define the scope of the action, and, despite appearances, what the dom is actually doing is fulfilling the sub’s desires. This isn’t because it’s a “game,” though, it’s because this is a more accurate picture of reality than the one that we usually use to understand dominance. Dominance is typically presented as an act of will, by which one affects others while remaining untouched. But this is a fantasy; there’s no such thing as being “untouched” in a purely physical existence. Any act, in addition to its affect on the target, imposes constraints on the actor. Accordingly, submission is not necessarily failure or even weakness. It can be a means of self-defense, and it can be a weapon.
Taking the song as a whole, the complete situation – two people acting as each other’s “gods,” while also annihilating each other – is more complicated than simple boy/girl dominance, and it’s also more realistic. In fact, the transition from apparent stereotype to complex reality demonstrates that situations which are presented to us as confirmation of easy archetypes are in fact no such thing, that we’re being lied to. Nobody ever has absolute power, and the inherent mutuality of the physical universe means there are always tools at hand to work with. This also drains the venom from the paradox of intimacy: the way to exercise real devotion while maintaining the force of your own will is to belong to someone else, but to do it severely.
This is not a narrow conclusion – it applies to power dynamics generally. Power dynamics pervade everything, from our most abstract institutions to our most intimate relationships, but this does not mean that we’re doomed to live in a world at war with itself. On the contrary, while it does mean that we’re never safe and things are never easy, it also means we’re never truly under anyone’s thumb. Things like having money or holding an official position of authority or being a man are not absolute strengths; everything has a second edge (this is what the term “toxic masculinity” refers to). I’m certainly not eliding the fact that there are real power differentials that really do kill people, but on the level of technique, we’re all on equal footing. Anyone can be outmatched, in any situation, at any moment.
In 1984, O’Brien claims that the only way to know you have power over someone is to inflict pain on them. This is based on the assumption that pain is something absolutely unwanted by everyone in all situations. But this is not true; the basis of non-violent protest, for example, is to deliberately subject yourself to suffering in order to claim the moral high ground. And not only is it not true of pain, it’s not true of anything. Humans are not utility droids; we have complicated relationships with physical reality, and our desires are not straightforward. What this means is that there is no such thing as absolute dominance. Dominance is not the infliction of one’s will on the world, it is a specific, contingent type of interaction with the world, just as writing is not the direct transmission of pure ideas but rather the interaction of ideas with the social medium of language. And, just as the act of writing something down can reveal things that you didn’t realize you were aware of, the act of dominance can restrict the actor as much as the acted upon. When you interact with the world, the world interacts back.
This even applies to the basic predator/prey relationship: predators that become too effective will end up destroying themselves by driving their food source to extinction. In our modern jungle, the same is true of capitalism. If capitalism actually worked the way it claimed to – if everyone really had to pay equal value for everything they acquired – it would be completely untenable. Capitalists would be unable to extract profits, and workers would become so boxed in that they’d have no choice but to rebel. (It’s worth remembering that this is what Marx predicted would happen. It’s actually because he took capitalism at face value that he ended up being wrong; his mistake was putting too much trust in the system.) In truth, capitalism is completely dependent on public goods, and the more it enforces its ability to marketize everything, the weaker it becomes. Thus, the key to capitalism’s ubiquity is its incompleteness; the reason it’s able to cast such a wide net is because it’s full of holes. The same is true even of god itself. Though portrayed as an absolute force, the strength of the god-concept actually lies in how ill-defined it is; the fecundity of a religion such as Christianity follows from its flexibility. It finds adherents in people as far apart as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fred Phelps, all because the relationship between humans and god is not one-way. The saying “if god did not exist, we would have to invent him” does not go far enough: even if god really did exist, we would still have invented him.
In other words, power is a liability as much as it is an advantage. This is why asymmetric warfare is possible. As perhaps a more relatable example, owning a smartphone doesn’t simply allow you to do more things, it changes your relationship to the world. You might, for example, fail to research your destination on a trip on the assumption that your navigation app will take care of it, and thereby end up getting lost because you had an extremely powerful navigation tool at your disposal. It’s not just that, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, it’s that having a hammer at all necessarily creates an orientation towards nails.
And yet, everything in society is based on the illusion of power; every formal institution is organized based on who’s the boss of who. Indeed, our entire conception of civilization rests on the notion that it represents our “dominion” over the world, that it’s our escape from the “state of nature.” Yet it’s obvious that civilization introduces as much danger as it averts. The only reason earthquakes are capable of killing people is because we have lots of giant buildings around to crush us. And of course there are the more explicit maladies we’ve gifted ourselves with, including stress-induced neuroses, nuclear fallout, “collateral damage” in warfare, and suicide. Oh, and global warming, which is poised to make a rather persuasive argument that humanity remains within reach of the red claw of nature.
In case anyone’s thinking something stupid at this point, I’m no kind of primitivist. This argument refutes romantic savagery as thoroughly as it does technological utopianism. Earthquakes can destroy buildings, but only because there is something there to destroy. It’s better to be alive now than is was at any time in the past, and that will continue to be the case until the sea finally rises up to reclaim us all, and that’s why it’s actually going to be a bad thing when that happens. Rejecting progress for fear of backlash is like cutting off your head to spite your face.
We all have our moments when we feel like humanity doesn’t deserve to exist, but to seriously entertain this impulse is to uncritically embrace nihilism. To keep harping on global warming (since it’s really the one topic that can never be harped on enough), you’ll occasionally encounter soothsayers pontificating that, after humanity is gone, nature will be able to “heal itself” and another species will get the chance to “not fuck things up like we did.” This is actually worse than nihilism; it’s a denial of everything good that’s ever happened. Without humanity, it doesn’t matter what happens to “nature”; the state of reality can only be said to be good or bad in relation to beings with the ability to care about it. If we all really do end up struck by stray bullets and drowned in stagnant water, then guess what: it was worth it.
Though it’s somewhat understandable that people would feel this way, since the concept for dealing with this whole situation doesn’t really exist anymore. That concept is tragedy. You can tell the concept is gone because the word has devolved, like an old shell abandoned by its hermit crab, to meaning little more than “sad thing.” In truth, a tragedy is a situation in which a hero is destroyed by her own virtues, and the point of it is that sometimes(/often/always), bad endings are morally necessary, because the only way to avoid them is to destroy the good that caused them in the first place – to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The other way you can tell that the concept is dead is that almost all mainstream stories, whether action or romance, are ones where the protagonist “overcomes” their flaws in order to earn a “happy” ending. It should be obvious that violence never results in a definitive resolution, but it’s equally true that love is never “happily ever after.” The only purity is in death.
By refusing to accept this, we also refuse to accept our moral responsibilities. With the assumption that we’re “good people” who “mean well,” we consider ourselves virtuous not as the result of our actions but in spite of them. America had the opportunity to respond to the destruction of the World Trade Center with the understanding that all the act really proved was that America had something worth destroying, to look at the people who thought that petty slaughter would be enough to shake our faith in ourselves and say nice fucking try. Instead, we immediately proved them right by going bug-eyed and frothy and basically committing ourselves to fucking everything up for the foreseeable future (I mean, worse than we already were). The thing that should never be forgotten is that history’s greatest superpower basically threw a fucking tantrum.
It’s easy to run the numbers and conclude that America is the greatest force for evil in the world in just a sheer mathematical sense, but, just as assuming that America is the “good guy” doesn’t get you anywhere, it’s also not enough to regard America’s actions as “villainous,” as though “defeating” it would fix anything. Just as it is with everything else in the world, America’s crimes are the result of real strengths, and its successes are imbued with failure. It’s because America is nominally founded on ideals of equality and liberty that we have to constantly invent new methodologies of oppression. It’s because we’re committed to open discourse that we end up smothering ourselves in stifling noise. It’s because we conceive of ourselves as a “city on a hill” that we constantly try to bomb everyone else into recognizing that. It’s by impoverishing the rest of the world that we’ve given ordinary Americans the opportunity to achieve the kind of greatness that genuinely enriches humanity. There’s no contradiction in taking our merits and turning them around to attack the very faults that caused them in the first place; in fact, that’s the only thing that actually makes any sense. America must be understood as a tragedy.
The culmination of all this is that there’s no culmination. American Tragic finalizes its commitment to existing in the never ending circles of reality by rejecting the convenience of a comfortable conclusion. The album is structured to make it seem like it ends prematurely – the B-side only has four tracks on it, with “Seraph” as the inconclusive closer. It’s the loudest track on the whole thing, so it almost violently forecloses on any expectation of a peaceful denouement. And like everything else on the album, it’s all drama and no resolution. It’s not even really a climax, it’s all buildup until the abrupt ending, where the last line cuts off mid-roar, leaving only a fading echo. The text that would normally constitute the climax is compressed into a spoken-word rant and submerged into the background – the only time on the album when the vocals are deliberately buried.
And yet, the album does finally arrive in a different place from where it started. “Seraph” is entirely in the first person, lacking the I/you dynamic that characterizes every other song on the album (except for “I’m Not Going,” which is the same idea taken from the opposite perspective), suggesting that the exorcism may finally have worked. But the place arrived at isn’t an ending or a stopping point, it’s a nexus connecting the trauma of the past to the uncertainty of the future. Because, despite its forcefulness, this song is still uncertain – the singer “can’t tell” whether she’s still whole or not. But she does know where she stands: she refuses to let go of her passion, and she’s going to endure. The only sensible response to tragedy is redoubled engagement. This is why her final resolution is to “replenish” herself with “youthful lusting.” After everything’s been poisoned, she goes right back to the well.
It’s also why this album begins and ends with fire. We live in a society that’s constantly trying to freeze people. In fact, we’ve got a good number of rich fucks who literally think they can freeze their severed heads and wake up in magical robot paradise. Even if cryonics worked, though, it would still constitute abandonment of the world that actually exists – it would still be suicide. The tendency to respond to suffering and danger with retreat and denial is what this album stands in opposition to: “they wanna lock me in, iced and wrapped in moonlight satin, kept but never seen.”
This tendency is the result of a deep mistake. It’s based on the idea that the world is something that we have to be protected from, that the point of civilization is to build a big wall around ourselves so that the bad things can’t get in. Cosmologically speaking, it’s the idea that evil has the force of truth and that the light is a mere temporary defense. But the darkness of the universe is actually nothing; everything that exists is contained within the flame of life, and that includes suffering and hatred as much as creativity and love. To fear being burnt, then, is to fear the light itself – to fear life. “Positive” people who think the goal of life is to minimize conflict are liars; seekers of truth are necessarily “negative”: they are engaged with the horrors of reality. This is the final reclamation of the ultimate cliche: the light of the human spirit really does endure, not as a cold glow that remains still amidst the turbulence of existence, but as a white-hot flame that consumes as it empowers. We can only tend to it by embracing peril alongside pleasure, keeping our hearts open and our claws sharp, and refusing the easy escape of eternity. Reality doesn’t have corners, and it doesn’t have simple answers or convenient resolutions. It does have violent transgressions.
I’ll spare you the suspense on this one: In Between is an attractive, enjoyable, well-made game, and it’s a failure. It has strong, distinctive aesthetics and solid level design, and it uses these things in an attempt to convey a serious, relevant message using game mechanics. The bad news is that the significant word in that last sentence is “attempt.” The good news is that the game fails thoroughly enough to be deeply instructive.
The story concerns a man with terminal cancer facing up to the inevitability of his own death. The levels you play through represent his mental journey from shock to acceptance, with each chapter using different types of obstacles to symbolize different stages of the journey. At a basic impressionistic level, this is all very convincing. The backgrounds and the music impart a dull, haunted feeling that puts things in exactly the right emotional space. Some levels feature darkness as an obstacle, and this is portrayed with excellent visual precision. You can feel confident moving halfway into the black, as the graphics make it very clear where the actual danger line is without being obtuse about it. One particularly notable effect is the failure animation, where the screen splits into shards before reforming at the last checkpoint. The slightly jarring feel of this is like running up against a painful idea and mentally recoiling from it. It also works really well in terms of gameplay, since it’s a quick, sharp animation that provides a mental reset and is also engaging.
The story is conveyed through first-person narration, which has a lot of positive effects. First, it solidifies the fact that this is a personal journey that this guy has no choice but to deal with in the space of his own mind. Second, it meshes the story with the gameplay, since you’re going through the levels with the voice sounding in your head. Finally, the voice acting itself is convincing and adds an element of gravitas to the proceedings, even though the substance really isn’t there in the writing.
Easy though it is to make this accusation, the game just has nothing to say about its subject matter. The writing is nothing but bland bromides and generic slice-of-life vignettes, presented uncritically and completely unmined for insight, and in the end, having built up nothing with which to actually form a conclusion, the game finally rattles off some new age horseshit about how we all turn back into stardust when we die or whatthefuckever. Apart from its aesthetic offensiveness, this is ultimately uninteresting. That everything dies is just a fact; death is only a problem in the specific case. This is why one death is a tragedy while one million deaths is a statistic. Death is only meaningful if life is worth living, and the game doesn’t actually show us anything that implies that that’s the case.
Crucially, the game needs to make us feel something about the main character, to get to know him at least a little so that his death actually imparts a sense of loss. This doesn’t happen. His story is sketched in the broadest strokes, as a series of disconnected cliches. He has a strained relationship with his father, he’s stuck in a dead-end job, he loves his wife and daughter. That’s about it, and none of these things really gets developed much beyond the basic outlines. In particular, we learn absolutely nothing about the man’s relationship with his wife, and this is a huge problem, because this is supposed to be the most important thing in his life, and she’s the person most impacted by his untimely death. Any detail at all about how these two people got together or what they share with each other would have done wonders, but we get nothing. It’s the heart of the story, and it’s left hollow.
Of course, there’s a sense in which the man’s specific circumstances aren’t the point, as what’s he’s dealing with is the one true problem that every living being has to face up to sooner or later. That’s probably why the writing is as broad as possible: as an attempt at universality. The problem is that’s not how that works. The more you generalize, the less you give people to hold on to. A completely universal story is one that’s completely inapplicable to anyone’s actual circumstances. Paradoxically, it’s by being as specific as possible that you make your work relatable (this is why James Joyce always wrote about Dublin, for example). I mean, it’s not that much of a paradox; the concept of expressing the universal through the particular is like Art 101.
To the point, In Between didn’t actually make me feel anything about death, and I can assure you that I am highly susceptible to emotional manipulation in this regard. I really doubt that anyone involved with this game has ever actually felt the icy hand of oblivion clawing at their heart. I can’t imagine that anyone who had would allow the subject to be treated so bloodlessly.
As for the gameplay, In Between is a puzzle-platformer, which by itself is somewhat sigh-inducing. The success of Braid has meant that every joker who wants to make a Serious Art Game does so by rigging together a bunch of puzzles and then slapping a layer of half-baked pretentiousness on top of it. See, the fact that Braid chose this genre was not a coincidence: the puzzles in Braid are relevant to its theme in a meaningful way, and so is the fact that it’s a platformer (I’m going to write a big pretentious post about this sooner or later, so get hyped).
Now, In Between‘s level design is actually very good. The central mechanic is the ability to change the direction of gravity at will, which is clever (though meaningless), and the controls are surprisingly fluid considering how potentially awkward it is. There are a few obstacles where it’s just a matter of dodging past them at exactly the right time, but for the most part the solutions are logical rather than twitchy. Though the gameplay is based on the typical challenge/failure/retry loop that is endemic(/pandemic) to the medium, failure is usually a matter of not thinking things through rather than accidentally running into a obstacle. In this particular case, though, the use of the failure loop is a bit of a strange choice. Consider: isn’t it odd for a game about facing death to use death itself as a mere convenience mechanic? Doesn’t this convey precisely the wrong impression, that death isn’t a real thing? Doesn’t it feel wrong to be playing a game about a man afraid of death and to constantly be throwing that man into pits of spikes, only for nothing to actually happen? This is where the problems with the story start to worm their way into the rest of the game: since In Between doesn’t really know what it’s trying to say, it has no basis from which to choose relevant mechanics.
There are a couple of early clues as to what the fundamental problem is here. First, the game has spikes in it. Spikes are the archetypical Meaningless Video Game Obstacle, dating back to at least Mega Man, where spikes were somehow the ultimate weapon against a robot. The reason spikes are used to fill this role is that they’re obvious: they’re simple and pointy, so they connote “bad thing” at the lowest possible resolution (the game VVVVVV, as the title indicates, deliberately exploits this fact for aesthetic purposes). Hence the problem: “avoid bad thing” is not enough of a framework for meaningful action, and it doesn’t work at all if you’re making a game specifically about a bad thing that cannot be avoided.
The other clue is the fact that the chapters are based on the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. I mean, for god’s sake. You can’t possibly expect to be able to say anything meaningful using perhaps the single most overplayed bit of pop-science dumb-downery as your framework. The only explanation for the fact that this is the horse the game chose to hitch its wagon to is that it has no idea where it’s going.
So, while the game makes a decent attempt at tying its mechanics to its theme, the fact that it has nothing to say means it ends up being excessively literal-minded. Each chapter has a few lines of narration implying the relation between the mechanics and the theme, but they’re always a stretch. For example, a level where you have to use switches to open doors has the narrator say, “Things change. Pathways that were open are now closed.” Which is a literal description of the gameplay that also kind of sort of seems like it maybe has some deeper meaning, except that it doesn’t. I mean, the whole point of the story is that there isn’t actually a path for this guy, right?
This is actually really important, though, because this attempt gets to the heart of how video games can be made meaningful to people. Designing mechanics with thematic significance in mind, such that the gameplay actually does the thing that it means to express, is exactly the right thing to do, and too few games are doing it. So it’s not enough to write In Between off as being “not good enough” here; we need to understand exactly why and how it fails in order to figure out how to get this right.
Each chapter of In Between introduces a new mechanic that serves as a metaphor for the chapter’s theme. “Denial” is represented as a big wall of darkness that advances on you when your back is turned, and recedes when you’re facing it. As a metaphor this is coherent enough: the truth will eventually overtake you if you turn away from it, so you have to “face the darkness” in order to be able to resist it.
But the actual gameplay here doesn’t really work. All you have to do in each level is get to the goal, and the darkness doesn’t actually get in your way or anything, so all you really have to do is move fast enough so that you can turn around before you get overtaken, which . . . is really the opposite of what’s supposed to be going on here, right? Rushing through something is basically the opposite of facing up to hard truths. Conceiving of denial as an obstacle that you have to overcome on your way to something else is exactly wrong: the point of denial is that the thing itself must be faced.
This is the first symptom of the fundamental problem that all the levels have: the game is about trying to come to terms with things, and navigating a level to avoid the obstacles and get to the exit is a totally incoherent metaphor for this. Because, you know, you actually win each level, which is not at all what happens when you’re actually dying (i.e. always).
So, okay, this can be fixed though. What would make sense here is if facing the darkness were the actual goal. First of all, it never really feels like you’re “denying” anything, so it would actually make more sense for the darkness to not be a threat in the early levels, so you can start out by ignoring it. Then, in order to convey the theme of “facing the darkness,” the later levels would have to change things such that facing the danger becomes how you complete the level rather than merely something you do on the way to completing the level. For example, you could have to explore each level thoroughly in order to banish the darkness from every corner, and doing so would expose you to dangers that you could otherwise have avoided. As the game actually is, though, the way you finish these levels is by ignoring the darkness most of the time and just focusing completing the level normally, only turning around at certain points where the darkness becomes a problem. The gameplay actually encourages you to remain in denial.
“Anger” is by far the laziest chapter, thematically speaking. Anger is represented as big red orbs that kill you if you touch them, and that’s about it. Unlike in “Denial,” there’s not even any new behavior required here. The anger orbs are just another obstacle, and you avoid them just like you avoid the spikes. As a result, the levels create no emotional impression relevant to what the chapter trying to convey.
There is a slight complication, which is that some of the anger orbs move around in response to certain actions, so sometimes you have to shift them around in order to open up a path. Gameplay-wise, the problem here is that these behaviors are arbitrary, which makes the whole thing an exercise in uninteresting trial-and-error. But this also fails to elevate the levels thematically. Again, a literal-minded narration cue attempts to tie the gameplay to the theme: “there must be a way to control the anger, or to avoid it.” So having to move the orbs around is meant to represent “anger management.”
But even when you have to move the orbs around, they’re still just obstacles, and an obstacle is not the type of thing that anger is. Anger isn’t something external that prevents you from reaching a goal; it comes from inside you, and what’s scary about it is that it feels right. I mean, even without any analysis, it’s obvious just from playing these levels that they don’t feel anything like anger. This chapter wouldn’t have made it out of alpha if the developers had just listened to their feelings.
So, since anger comes from within, since it’s something that affects your own actions, it ought to be represented not as an external obstacle but as a player ability. It would have to be something powerful, something that feels good to use. Since this is a platformer where you have to navigate around obstacles, the obvious thing would be an ability to destroy parts of the level so that you don’t have to deal with them. You could blow away some spikes, or punch a hole in a wall and just walk on through to the exit.
The other half of the problem is the same as in “Denial”: there’s supposed to be a progression here, the protagonist is supposed to be working through these feelings, but the obstacles remain mere impediments to the goal the entire time. In order to portray the protagonist changing his perspective, the means of navigating the levels would also have to change. Specifically, indulging your anger would eventually have to backfire. The later levels could be more intricately designed, such that trying to break through them would actually make them uncompleteable. The player would learn how to be careful about using their ability, to think before acting, to control their anger, before finally completing the last level without using their anger powers at all, but rather accepting the world as it is.
“Bargaining” is the most successful chapter, because it’s the only one where the new mechanic is something other than a new type of obstacle. You control two characters at once on a split screen, and you have to maneuver them both to a point in the level where they can come into contact – each level is completed when the two characters touch. So this is also the only level where the actual goal is changed to match the theme. Also, the second character’s controls are reversed, which adds a nice aesthetic touch: the two halves of each level feel like opposing fragments, with a tension between them that you have to balance carefully while moving gradually forward, until you finally achieve a synthesis where the parts negate each others’ flaws and become whole.
The problem is that the thing I just described there isn’t what bargaining is. The struggle to harmonize opposing parts has a different name: reconciliation. Bargaining is almost the opposite: it’s when you’re trying to get something or get rid of something at any cost. But the only thing to say about bargaining in the face of death is that it doesn’t work. You could probably work this into the gameplay somehow, but I think the developers actually had the right instinct here: reconciliation in the face of death is a much richer subject. Again, sticking to shallow pop-science models = not that great for artistic expression. By inadvertently abandoning the model here, In Between comes very close to succeeding in spite of itself.
But it’s that very success that allows the flaws with the game’s story to come creeping in. Even if you’ve got good mechanics, you still need to connect them to the thing that they’re supposed to represent. And if you don’t actually write a story where there’s something there to connect to, you’re just reaching out into thin air. In this case, all we really learn about the dying man is that he feels bad about leaving his family behind. There’s just nothing there to be represented.
When I said that you control “two characters” in this chapter, that was actually a bit of wishful thinking. You control the main character and like a ghost version of him, or something. It’s kind of funny: it’s like the designers were subconsciously aware that they had nothing to represent here, so they put in something that actually symbolizes a lack of representation. What’s less funny is that they had a real solution right under their noses. In the cutscene introducing this chapter, the screen is split between the dying man and his wife, running home to meet each other after his diagnosis comes in. So, since we’ve established that the point here is that this guy has to think about people other than himself, that even in death, there’s no escaping the web of human relationships, isn’t it pretty fucking obvious that the second character here needs to be one of those people? Most obviously, his wife? I mean, you can stick to the conceit that this is all happening inside the guy’s head by making it like an afterimage of the person or whatever, but if the point here is that this guy needs to reconcile his own trauma with the needs of his loved ones, isn’t it thematically required for those people to actually be present in the gameplay?
I’m going to go out on about half a limb here and say that the problem is sexism. Recent events have indicated depressingly that a female player character with a purpose other than adolescent sex appeal is just a bridge too far for some people. Guess what though: sexism isn’t just a moral issue, it’s a quality issue. It is not at all the case that “inclusiveness” is a form of “censorship” that “dumbs down” games. Quite the contrary: games cannot be made correctly until this problem is solved, until the other half of humanity assumes its place as player characters. As In Between itself demonstrates, a man’s story cannot be told without accounting for the subjectivity of women.
“Depression” is dishearteningly similar to “Denial”: it’s a big wave of darkness that you have to avoid. When you wind up representing two different concepts in almost the same way like this, it’s probably a good idea to reevaluate your chosen means of expression. Also, I think we can do a little better than representing “dark” things as literal darkness. Anyway, the difference is that to get through the depression-darkness you have to move between pockets of light, just like how when you’re actually depressed you have to find the little things in your life that make you feel better and focus on them in order to keep moving.
So this works fine, mostly, except for the game’s lack of specificity again rearing its ugly head. We never actually learn anything about what makes this guy depressed (beyond the obvious) or what makes him happy, so the whole enterprise comes off as hollow. What you actually do in these levels is move glowing boxes around to create lighted areas you can move through, which really doesn’t feel like managing depression. It feels like making whatever arbitrary moves are available so that you can get through a video game level.
I’m really not asking for much here. All that’s really needed is for the light-producing tools to portray something the guy likes, and to behave in a relevant way. Given that this game is about a very practical real-world experience, it’s inappropriate to try to convey it using generic abstract video game objects. A little bit of representation goes a long way.
“Acceptance,” appropriately, is an epilogue rather than a chapter. It consists of a series of trivial rooms that repeat in a loop. One of the rooms has spikes in it, but they’re not in your way, so you’ll never hit them unintentionally. The only thing you can do is “accept death” by deliberately killing yourself.
Straightforward enough, except for the fact that it doesn’t actually make sense. Killing yourself is not the same thing as accepting death. Indeed, because killing yourself is the only way to finish the game, doing so is actually the goal, i.e. the thing that you’re supposed to do, so you’re not actually “accepting” anything. This turns dying into something you do, rather than something that happens to you without your consent. In order for the concept of “acceptance” to actually be applicable, you would have to somehow be required to give up on finishing the game. It really doesn’t count as acceptance if you get an achievement for it. (Actually, there’s also an achievement for going through the “Acceptance” levels several times without accepting death, which I believe establishes a new state of the art in Not Getting It.)
The disease here is the idea that a game must be “finishable,” that it ends when you’ve done “100%” of everything there is to do. So the puzzle-platform framework, where the game consists of a series of challenges and it’s over once you’ve cleared them all, is fundamentally at odds with In Between‘s intended theme. A more appropriate framework would be something like a roguelike, where’s there’s a wide variety of potential things to do, but each playthrough is limited in some way, so you can never get everything at once. The game would eventually end on you of its own accord, while you still have unfinished business.
This would also be a great chance to develop the story. In what little of it there actually is in the game, we learn that the protagonist’s untimely death leaves him with a number of regrets. He never fully reconciled his feelings about his father, he was never able to pursue his dream of being a writer, he’s worried about leaving his wife alone (the wife gets zero character development. I’m telling you, sexism at work), and he’ll never get to see his daughter grow up. So, what could be interesting here is if the later levels in the game gave you the opportunity to explore some of these relationships, but not all of them. There could, for example, be some kind of stamina mechanic that depletes as you play levels, with the game ending once you run out. This would force you to make choices about what to do with your remaining time. It would close off important paths that you wanted to take. It would leave you with regrets.
I’m not picking nits here. There’s a specific and important reason for all of these problems, which is that In Between chooses a means of expression that doesn’t work for the thing that it’s trying to express. It takes standard avoid-obstacles-and-get-to-the-goal platformer gameplay, tightens the design into the form of puzzles, and then paints over it with a series of shallow, literal-minded metaphors. But even if that coat of paint were more evocative, the actual moving parts underneath it don’t move in the right direction. The gameplay portrays the wrong thing – it uses completionist solution-finding gameplay to portray a situation in which there’s no such thing as completion and there are no solutions. This is as wrong as writing an EDM song about the good old days before technology ruined everything (ignoring the possibility of irony, which is obviously not what’s happening here). The means don’t lead to the ends, and this disconnect, irrespective of the quality of the writing, silences the game before it has a chance to speak.
Again, the reason In Between is a puzzle-platformer is because that’s what Braid was, and everyone agrees that Braid is a meaningful game, so obviously if you want to make a meaningful game you should do the same thing. More fundamentally, the misconception here is the idea that any means of expression can potentially convey any message – that one can communicate as though by Mad Libs, taking an existing design and switching out the words. The misconception is that “story” and “gameplay” are separate things.
A work of art is an aesthetic object; once created, it steps in and the creator leaves. The intent vanishes behind the act. But to suppose that this fact robs art of its ability to communicate is to lose sight of the real good while looking for the imaginary perfect. On the contrary, we’re fortunate to live in an ordered universe, one where specific actions have specific effects, and where intent cannot be directly transmitted. This forces us to engage with reality. In exchange, we lose the ability to inhabit the realm of pure ideas, which is a good deal, because that place is fucking boring.
Of course, reality involves danger, and the danger of communication is that you can make an honest go of it and still trip over your own tongue. One’s chosen method of expression comes in between the intent and the interpretation, and once it’s in position, it takes on a life of its own. Galatea was not an anomaly – any work, once encountered, begins to communicate of its own accord. And unless you’re really sure that it’s something you want speaking for you, it’s going to make you look like a fool.
Way to Go is the first full-length album from Survival Guide. You’d probably call it an electronic pop album, but the connotations of both of those terms are misleading. Contrary to the typical “layers of buzzing sounds” aesthetic that the term “electronic” brings to mind, this is a very precise album. It’s not quite minimalist, there are actually a lot of neat effects, but each one makes a specific contribution to the tone of each song, the production is careful and balanced, and many of the songs make powerful use of empty space. As for being a pop album, while the songs are generally short, have simple structures, and borrow from a variety of styles, there’s a pervasive sense of seriousness and urgency that prevents any of it from feeling ephemeral. The overall tone is actually really dark, more in the subtle shadowy sense than the oppressive industrial sense, contrasted by vocals that are both crystal clear and bright as day.
The cohesiveness of the album is what takes it from “impressive” to “serious business.” While the songs use a lot of different styles and tones, it’s not just for fun (I mean, it’s also for fun); it creates a progression of ideas that allows the album to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time (the songs are mostly of standard pop length, but the overall directness and economy give the album a bit of a punk impact). The sequencing, including precise and occasionally surprising transitions, builds an emotional and thematic arc over the course of the album, culminating in a harrowing climax.
The pop angle is also partially subverted, in that the contrast between the inviting song structures and the sober tone makes the whole thing feel kind of unnerving. In fact, it’s more than that; many of the songs are not just ambiguous but outright two-faced. This is apparent right from the title, which, first of all, is kind of overly general and not really evocative, starting things off on unsteady footing. Furthermore, “way to go” is commonly a sarcastic expression, which immediately presents a central uncertainty: is this supposed to be encouraging or insulting?
The other thing the title refers to is death.
“Ugly Side” opens the album with a burst of noise. This is sort of the opposite of setting the tone: it’s a reminder to watch out. The title is, of course, another hint at the album’s two-faced nature, and the song itself carries it though. The combination a strong beat in the foreground and a nervous guitar line in the background gives it an inside-out feeling, with a sort of deranged piano melody completing the atmosphere of uncertainty. The lyrics start out soft and gradually dive into the depths. Each verse feels innocuous at the start, but before long there’s “garbage in tow” and “poison that spreads.”
The other thing about the title is that it means business; we’re not talking about something cute here. The song has a pretty standard “opening single” feel if you’re not paying too much attention, but in fact this only conceals how serious the song really is. The chorus is the exact opposite of uplifting. It’s a passionately delivered statement of hopeless desperation. In particular, it includes a very smart inversion in the line “I can’t shake-shake-shake.” By taking a standard pop song filler line and turning it on its head, the standard pop music theme of liberation through physicality is also inverted; here, not only is the problem something that can’t be shaken off, its physical nature is precisely what makes it intractable. This is emphasized by the aforementioned physical descriptors in the lyrics, as well as the fact that the singer doesn’t have a “shield” to protect herself.
As a whole, the song is neither fully hopeless nor particularly uplifting. The uncertainty builds to a tense, open-ended climax:
Closing my eyes makes me kind of nervous
You’re nearby; I can feel it
I will not succumb to whatever it is you’re trying to make of me
This declaration, though powerful, is ultimately a statement of mere resistance, and this sets the tone for the rest of the album. The alternate version of the chorus drives it home with a sharp, repeated “I can’t.” Victory is not an option.
“Prohibition” goes in for denial, or “how solve your problems using alcohol.” It’s a slow song, but a lopsided, double-time drum line gives it an insistent sense of momentum, pushing into a dense, reverberating haze through which the vocals “whisper how things should be.” Fittingly, it’s the most opaque song on the album, but the horror-movie atmosphere never lets it get comfortable. “The screams are in the distance, but their hearts are pounding loud.” Of course, as the title implies, this isn’t going to work out. Halfway though, the haze breaks, that voice in the background that’s been saying “run, run, run, run” is suddenly right behind you, and there’s nowhere to hide.
“So Super Slow” breaks things open with a direct assault on complacency and obliviousness. The lyrics are a series of direct accusations, carried forward by a hard, straight-ahead rhythm. The delivery is aggressive but also precise, making the underlying rage feel justified. The accusations are contrasted with the singer’s own situation: “I put it on the line and you don’t care.” While this seems like an admission of failure on her part, it actually ends up strengthening her argument. A line like “I made you breakfast, you never showed up” should come across as pathetic; the rational conclusion would be that she shouldn’t have wasted her time. But the framing turns this completely around: it’s precisely because breakfast is made that you’re obligated to show up. The song takes a radically naive approach to the problem of devotion by coming at it from the other side. Instead of waiting to find something that’s worth devoting herself to, the singer commits herself in advance, and then uses that commitment to impose a moral obligation on everyone else to catch up, to make themselves worthy of her efforts. This is a particularly provocative approach in an age of complete information, where we know all the options and they all seem like dead ends.
Yet, while the song uses rock aggressiveness to make its point, it’s not really that much of a rock song. Despite the insistent vocals and the driving beat, the guitar plays coy in the background, leaving the verses mostly empty. The contrast between the vocals and the emptiness, leading into the wrathful anti-siren-song of the chorus, perfectly conveys the feeling of shouting into a void, which is exactly the situation. If you’re talking to someone who has no idea what’s going on, how is exhorting them going to help? The situation in the song is necessarily futile; if you’re in the position of having to yell at someone like this, it’s because you’re out of real options. In this sense, the song’s aggressiveness actually starts to backfire. It’s hard to say things like “you’re doing a terrible job of sticking to my plan” without sounding a little unhinged. Even the one line in the song that would normally read as genuine encouragement, “don’t say you can’t because I know you can,” comes across as domineering.
“So Super Slow” transitions smoothly into its exact mirror image: the supremely chill, discoesque “Get Your Don’t.” The singer’s position is reversed; now she’s the one targeted by devotion, but here it’s an obsession that she calmly rebuffs. What’s enthralling about this song is, ironically, the way it creates distance. The title, of course, is deliberately obfuscatory; despite being a direct quote, the impression that it conveys is exactly backwards. The music pulls you in with a smooth synth line, but the cold tone and mangled chorus keep you at arm’s length, as well as just stating directly: “don’t get your hopes up.” Even the dance break is awkward enough to be off-putting. The vocals pick up but also recede into the background, like it’s a party and you’re not invited.
This song is a great example of how the album uses its electronic effects for good instead of for evil. The verses play it cool, supporting the lyrics and allowing them to clearly make their statement, while the chorus brings out the synthetic droning to push you back, a physical manifestation the theme of the song. The dance break kicks it up into a high, oscillating warble that sticks to the back of your head, gives you a second of calmness to refocus, and then carries it through to the end, leaving you with an ominous feeling that this isn’t over.
The very fact that the song expresses itself so well is actually its own contradiction. It’s so much fun that it ultimately fails as a blowoff. After all, getting your hopes up is kind of the point of music. This is acknowledged by the sharpest line on the album: “You hope these words are the key to your own personal mystery.” Clearly ridiculous, but at the same time, who hasn’t been there? As with “So Super Slow,” this song implies its own futility; the fact that you’re telling someone not to get their hopes up means it’s already too late – and doing so with a song is only going to make things worse. In particular, “it’ll hurt worse on the way down” comes off less like a warning and more like a prophecy.
By this point things are tied in a bit of a knot. These are two contradictory songs addressing the same subject matter, and they each contradict themselves. But the songs aren’t exact opposites; by using negativity to close off the bad options on either side, but leaving space between them, they imply a correct path. For instance, one of the singer’s accusations in “So Super Slow” is that “you’ve got it easy, I’ve been studying,” while in “Get Your Don’t”, she warns not to “jump ahead and read the end before you start.” These lines are actually making the same point: you can’t be complacent, but you also can’t expect to get everything at once. You have to put in the effort to do things the right way, even without knowing how it’s all going to work out.
There’s another hint in the careful line that “Get Your Don’t” traces through its subject matter. The singer refuses to “bare her soul,” choosing instead to “keep [her] gold armor on.” But as the confidence of the delivery makes clear, this isn’t about giving up. It’s an argument that active artifice (it’s specifically gold armor) is not just healthier but better than basic emotional rawness. In terms of popular music, it isn’t just that perfect authenticity is impossible to ask of any performer, it’s also bad for the listener. It’s a con; it makes it seem like you’re getting something you’re not. There’s no such thing as an unmediated experience. Since everything has to go through the veil of subjectivity, pretending like you’re directly conveying your raw emotions is a lie, and it ends up making for worse communication. What’s required, for both the performer and the listener, is to work through the necessary complications rather than to pretend like they don’t exist.
So, despite the overall negative focus of everything so far, it feels like we’re getting somewhere, and “January Shock” picks up on that feeling. It begins with a jarring transition from fading synths to rising acoustic guitar, emphasizing the song’s anomalous position on the album. It’s right in the middle, and it’s the one song that actually feels bright and open; compared to the rest of the album, it’s like the break of day. It seems, at first, to be responding to the negativity of the first half of the album with a message of hope. We’ve all got problems, but “it’s not the end,” and you can always count on the fact that “the sun will rise again.” Unfortunately, this song also has an ugly side.
The first verse is a series of sarcastic statements mocking the sort of excuses that justify a fatalistic outlook. This is simple enough at first, but by the end of the verse it gets a little too real, particularly with the line “love is useless when I die.” It’s true that this isn’t an excuse, but it’s still kind of serious business. The second verse is more straightforwardly vicious, hammering home the point that fatalism ends up becoming its own justification. But it does this by compounding the problem: if “you blew it all in the last seven years” because you “thought you were safe,” then yeah, you’re kind of throwing yourself a pity party, but you’re also actually fucked. When the singer rejects this defeatist attitude with a blithe “not sorry now,” she’s washing her hands of the problem without actually resolving it.
The fact that the lyrics in the verses are actually fairly cruel is the first clue that something’s wrong, but cruelty isn’t really the problem. The arguments are still valid, and the kind of attitude they’re addressing deserves at least a little harshness. The problem is that the verses recontextualize the chorus. If the problem is that you’re stuck in a situation where it seems like nothing is going to work out, then the fact that the world is going to keep moving on without you doesn’t help; it makes things worse. With this in mind, the exultation of the chorus starts to feel a little disturbing. The thundering drums and soaring vocals rise up and tower over you, shining with an imposing brightness as terrible as daybreak itself. It’s not a promise, it’s a threat.
In particular, with the subject of death having been broached, the chorus acts as a reminder of what the actual endpoint of the sun rising over and over again is. Rather than offering reassurance, this brings the first side of the album to a unsettling conclusion. Identifying your problems and making plans doesn’t actually affect the implacability of reality. You can’t control your circumstances, especially not the circumstance of being a temporary physical object. Thus, rejecting fatalism seems to come at the cost of hope; the fact that you have to do something doesn’t imply any possibility of success. This new problem sets up the second half of the album, where the self-assured nature of the first half begins to fade, the pop sheen diminishes, and the negativity turns inward.
“Nowhere Anywhere” begins the process by creating a parallel structure between its two verses that brings two perspectives face to face. The song’s clanging guitar and insistent staccato rhythm create a claustrophobic atmosphere, making the confrontation feel tense and personal. Furthermore, the song anchors itself in specific locations and uses physical objects to provide evocative details, bringing the album down to a more mundane level.
The first verse builds an atmosphere of alienation, starting with the first use of third-person perspective on the album (“he” is literally the first word), and continuing through a series of oppressive physical details. The setting is, in fact, an office building, which is about as alienating as it gets. Furthermore, the lyrics never manage to reach inside to the actual perspective of the subject. “He looks in the mirror, nothing is clear, where’s he taking it from here?” We can tell what’s going on, but what “he” is actually thinking and feeling about the situation remains a mystery.
The second verse sets up the contrast immediately: “I have a hard time wanting to help.” Not only has the perspective shifted, but the focus is now on the singer’s feelings and desires. The setting shifts to the domestic, emphasizing the personal while staying grounded in reality. The physical details are now considered in relation to the singer’s viewpoint and actions, as things that people use rather than as mere objects. The most direct example of the difference is the way that doors are referred to in both verses. In the first, “the locks are turning, doors in the hall, there’s no way out.” A door here is merely a physical obstacle that closes off space, regardless of whether any actual humans are present (or care). In the second verse, the singer won’t “open the door, no matter who for.” Here, not only is the focus on the decision being made, but the importance of the door is in its social context: it’s a threshold that brings people together, or, as in this case, keeps them apart.
And that’s exactly what happens. The parallel construction highlights the failure of the two perspectives to connect, and it also implies the singer’s acceptance of her share of the responsibility. Her target may be hopeless, but regardless of the situation, she’s the one making the decision to disengage. There’s ultimately no point in blaming someone else for your inability to get through to them. No matter how frustrating other people’s failures are, all you can really control is yourself. There are hard limits on our ability to ever really get inside someone else’s head, and sometimes there’s not really anywhere to go from there. Thus, the conclusion is that “we’re two brick walls.” It’s not just that the singer has run into a wall, but the frustration has caused her to turn away herself. The song’s anticlimax is finalized with an abrupt ending, and this sense of resignation leads into the album’s darkest hour.
The inward turn continues with the deeply introspective “One to One.” A dirge-like keyboard presides over a jittery rhythm and repetitive, brooding lyrics. The previously accusatory “you” turns in on itself in lines that start out as accusations but resolve into personal failures: “you put it all on me,” “turn on the light but I can’t see,” and especially, “what do you want from me?” The tone is entirely desperate. The negativity seems to be taking its toll; the singer has tried everything, and she’s at the end of her rope. The vocals are alternately rushed and plaintive, overlaid with a heavy sense of dread, suggesting nothing so much as an impending nervous breakdown.
Which doesn’t happen. Just as the desperation reaches its peak, the song drops off into nothingness. A few scattered notes and beats barely hold the line. And just as everything seems to fade, it all comes roaring back. The piano surges and the vocals build to a final cry of, despite everything, strength. There is, finally, a line that can’t be breached. Even under the weight of everything, it turns out there’s still one viable option – a forced draw. “Say whatever you want to say, it’s always one to one in this game.”
The title track carries this strength forward, though it might not seem that way at first. Its tone is mournful; the soft, choppy vocals are suffused with pain. Lines like “friendly fire, it never ends” are presented without any kind of resolution or even consolation; they’re just the way things are. The fact that people who care about you are going to hurt you isn’t something that can be changed or even really addressed. Even when the song says that the “only way to move is forward,” is doesn’t feel encouraging, it feels like a lament. It isn’t the “only way” in the moral sense, but in the physical sense: it’s literally the only possibility. This is underscored by the marching band-like drums that accompany the chorus. A march isn’t really “encouragement,” it’s forced forward movement. The chorus even drifts off before finishing the title, as though lacking the strength to continue. This isn’t a song providing motivation to move forward, it’s a grim acceptance of the fact that moving forward the only thing you can actually do.
But grim acceptance is actually the song’s positive conclusion. “Way to Go” pulls the same trick as “January Shock,” but in reverse, and harder. It’s here that the album actually retracts its commitment to ambiguity: the contradictory nature of this song doesn’t offer two competing interpretations; the contradictions resolve into one deeper interpretation, the only one that works. Despite how deeply sorrowful the song is, and despite everything the album’s been through up to this point, it can’t be interpreted as a funeral march. “A voice in my head says stand up and be brave.” This doesn’t really amount to encouragement, it’s just a fact, but it’s one place, at least, where you know you can stand, even when you’re on your own. The album has finally arrived at a reliable source of strength: the paradoxical strength of active, considered acceptance. The song insists on this interpretation, less because there’s any compelling reason to than because it’s the only way.
And that might have been a nice ending, but there’s still the issue of whether it’s actually possible to accept the unacceptable. “Shrouded in Steel” is where the terror that’s been lurking in the subtext the entire time finally breaks loose.
This song is actually kind of off-putting at first. It starts out painfully raw: dramatic vocals that barely establish a meter are accompanied only by storm noises and a few guitar twangs, and it stays this way long enough for it to get uncomfortable. It starts off seeming like kind of an overwrought torch song; the first appearance of the chorus – “I was unaware of the pain involved, and I’m a little scared of emotions so strong” – comes across as almost embarrassingly naive.
But by the second verse, the fear starts to seem justified. “There’s no telling fire what to do, and metal can go straight through.” It’s even punctuated with a gunshot to make sure you get the message. The real subject here is the intersection of love and death – the fact that the extent of your devotion is precisely the extent of the universe’s ability to destroy you. In which case, it turns out there really is something to be afraid of.
The title comes from the line “your heart’s not shrouded in steel,” meaning not protected. But that’s not what the word “shrouded” means – it means “concealed.” It means that you can’t hide from your own humanity, your own emotions. The fact that you’re “unshrouded” means that you’re constantly exposed to the fundamental brutality of existence, and that everything you think and feel is on the chopping block. The flipside is that a “shroud” is also what covers a corpse; the fact that you’re not shrouded also means that you’re not dead yet.
After the first half of the song establishes its raw emotional basis, the second half kicks things into gear. The guitar wakes up, and a low, driving beat propels the song forward. The helplessness of the first half transforms into a hard determination that pushes itself through mounting agony. But what’s most important isn’t the change, it’s the continuity. The chorus stays the same, becoming more haunting with each repetition. It stops feeling naive and starts feeling like a radical understatement. The maelstrom of emotions continues to build, reaching the limits of tolerability with the line “it scares me a bit too much to know that someday it’s all going to end.”
Am I being clear about the fact that this song is completely incredible? The power and emotion in the singing here is unbelievable. It would be otherworldly if it weren’t for the fact that it also feels deeply real. You can actually feel the “chill spread fast and deadly,” it actually feels like “cutting away.” The whole thing builds up this incomprehensible amount of emotion while staying sharp and focused and engaging. I think maybe I’m being a little too reserved here. You really need to listen to this thing.
So, okay: this song is about death, and this is what crystallizes the entire album. It’s what makes all of this matter: both the fact that we only have one shot at this and the fact that there’s only one conclusion. And through all of it, we really have nothing more to go on than our own dread. There’s nothing approaching an answer here; that country is going to stay undiscovered.
“Shrouded in Steel” is a pure cry of torment; it not only doesn’t but can’t provide any kind of resolution. It puts everything right on the surface, leaving nowhere to hide. It could be read as an expression of nihilism, if it weren’t for the fact that that’s impossible. Music is transient by nature; performing a song is a commitment to expressing meaning in the face of oblivion. More than that, it’s impossible to actually be a nihilist, because you have to make some kind of decision based on some kind of values (choosing to do nothing is just as much of a decision as anything else). The only way to go is forward. And it’s totally impossible to express nihilism in a song, that is, an intentionally constructed artistic object that conveys emotions. This is why the “nihilism” of punk resulted in an explosion of creativity: it wasn’t actually nihilism; it was actually a revolution of values.
So, if the existence of art is the ultimate argument against nihilism, then the subtext of this song is the fact that it exists at all. It proves that even this amount of pain can’t force a surrender. The point isn’t that the pain is “worth it,” it just exists, it’s part of a deal whose terms have already been decided. But what also exists is the other half of the deal: the fact that we have to keep moving forward in time and making decisions. And this is where finding strength in acceptance stops looking like quite such a raw deal, because one of the things that you have to accept is that nihilism, and consequently any other form of philosophical surrender, is physically impossible. The universe is actually on your side on this one. The final repetition of the chorus echoes out with a piercing intensity, not as a lament, but as a commitment: to accept what’s certain and what’s unknowable, to keep suffering and being afraid, and to keep moving forward.
With the earth having been thoroughly scorched, the closer, “Remembered in a Song,” is necessarily desolate. The suffering hasn’t gone anywhere; the slow, effortful delivery evidences the weight that’s still being carried. But in the context of everything that’s led here, the deep melancholy of the song doesn’t feel maudlin. It’s a clear-eyed, determined gaze into the future – a future that’s not dark.