Two moments from the last 24 hours:
- I felt the familiar build, build, build behind my eyes followed by tears. I turned my head to look out the truck window at the tan, mountainous landscape of the high desert rolling under a January cool blue sky. I was surprised and relieved by my involuntary reaction. I smiled at it even as I felt hot tears roll down from behind my sunglasses and hit the upturned corner of my mouth. I realized I’d only have a couple moments before Wes realized I was crying, if he didn’t already. My breathing had changed and I’d have to wipe off my face. (Why was I embarrassed about crying in front of my lawfully wedded?! Well…it was a strong reaction, and one that I wanted to experience for myself, more on that in a minute.)
- I didn’t mean to lie down as long as I did on the bright orange little sofa in the (new, to us) cute, modern Airbnb living room in downtown Albuquerque. But I was tired from our day of driving, the edible was starting to kick in, and I got sucked into the little universe behind my phone screen and stayed there for a while. What really hit me? An article about embracing “cringe” in 2023.
I thought, not for the first time: is what they are talking about earnestness? Also, is this me?! This seems like me. I think I have been cringe, enthusiastic, sincere, extra, earnest – whatever you want to call it – since the dawn of me, and if it’s becoming a Thing, well, great. This also relates back to the first moment: why I was crying in the car.
It started here:
“Everything in the natural world is so amazing, but because we’re used to seeing it in one way we take it for granted…The montage is about taking pieces of reality and rearranging them– creating new frames to make you have to stop and look at things in a fresh way. It’s basically taking pieces of everyday reality and rearranging them to show people the magic that is inherent in all of these things already.”
I turned to look at Wes, wide eyed. I said: “He’s talking about why I paint.”
We were on hour three of a 4-hour podcast unpacking the music and origin story of Neutral Milk Hotel, a band whose music is anthemic for me. In his book of short essays, “Songbook”, author Nick Hornby described songs that you listen to so many times over the course of your life that they transcend specific time periods or references. That, for me, is Neutral Milk Hotel.
The interview they were referencing was with the band’s fabled lead, Jeff Mangum. As obsessed as I’d been with the music when I was younger, and for as many times as I’d reverently re-listened to their two full albums (in order, in full) since and vaguely tracked the rumors swirling around the band, I’d never really learned about the main artist or the music until listening to this episode.
It so easily could have felt gross, exploitative, or insincere. But the podcasters, and the fans they invited on at the very end of the episode to share why they love the band, were earnest and as articulate as one can be about something as ephemeral as music. Listening to them describe the music and the people behind it, I felt more connected to and understanding of it. They said things that I hadn’t thought of, but “fit”; and they shared awe and appreciation for fragments of songs or lyrics that also struck me.
They were also respectful of Jeff Mangum as a person and an artist; vs the center of what became a cult phenomenon. They shared snippets of interviews with him but still underscored what he himself did: he is and was a human like any of us, changing and evolving, and part of what he had contributed to the world was this music. It had a space in time and his life for him, and then he kept living and growing however it is that people and artists grow – and that wasn’t toward any growing expectation or indebtedness that some of the fans clamored for or claimed he owed.
Hearing him describe, in an interview, an underlying reason for why he creates his art that is so similar to why I create mine? Eerie and beautiful. Younger me, connecting so deeply with the music, had no idea.
What finally pushed me to cry was when, at the very, very end of the podcast, they played Two-Headed Boy Part 2, the last song on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Not only is it the perfect final song on an album and for the emotional ride that was absorbing all that was shared and resonated on the podcast, but getting back to Nick Hornby’s point – that song and all that precedes and builds to it has been in my life now for over twenty years. There are too many layers of memory to count. It has a life-ness quality to it that is moving; it is perfectly and deeply bittersweet. I wasn’t crying out of happiness or sadness. I was just feeling, so much that it wasn’t one thing.
I was grateful for it; I felt so fully present. The desert landscape rolled by. Everything in me came up and spilled over.
Finally, to tie this back with “cringe”, because of course: the podcast host, Yasi Salek, pointed out multiple times that Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel were creating their music and playing their early live shows at a time when what they were doing was simply not cool. Case in point: Jeff Mangum was scream-singing the lyrics, “I love you Jesus Christ” (if you know, you know) during Nirvana’s heyday. The earnestness and depth of the band, from their dream-like lyrics that at once cut and also did not form a cohesive narrative but instead formed a theme or a feeling of a song, and then the raw delivery, did not, at the time, have a place in irony and anti culture.
(Related: I remember when I was fully into Neutral Milk Hotel as a teenager I had to make an official declaration with my friend group that it was time to retire the word “pretentious” about me. I liked this music because I liked it. To their credit, they stopped, and my best friend even told me later on that she’d finally actually listened to the band on her own, and got it.)
For me, on this same day during this era of life where I feel myself coming into my own in an ever-fumbling but also clearer and sharper (even with all the cutting edges connoted by “sharper”, it’s true, it’s emotional!) way was both affirming and a huge relief. It felt like something pierced a balloon that had been stretching in me. It gave a part of me permission to come out, and out and out.
It was yet another nod to earnestness. Yet another push to keep living life, in all of its messy, cutting, beautiful glory in the light and darkness of it all. Another push to keep being and to keep creating.
If you haven’t listened, I love and recommend the music of this band. I can’t and won’t critically engage with it. For me, it means something much bigger and deeper than that. Their albums are best listened to with attention, in full, in sequential order (the songs feed into each other), and multiple times.