A secret world, in the twilight

Subjects discussed: Olivia Rodrigo, Twin Peaks: The Return, Coming 2 America, YouTube

Not so long ago, Jen and I celebrated our anniversary with a happy and lazy Sunday spanning many activities, including a sleepy hour where after the edible kicked in we laid on the couch, and queued up YouTube on our television. All the many complaints about YouTube and what it’s done to a generation of impressionable brains are, of course, valid — that said, it remains maybe my favorite app, owing to the frankly overwhelming bounty of visual material to peruse for basically free. In particular, YouTube is the also only place where you can queue up a solid hour of contemporary music videos, if you are in the mood for dipping into the zeitgeist, and watch them play out without interruption. (Maybe on one of the tertiary MTV channels, but we don’t have satellite TV, and so this is the most accessible option.)

I hadn’t yet logged into my YouTube account on my recently acquired PlayStation 5, so what appeared before us was an entire blank search history, untrammeled by any ironic or curious or bored queries — the pure, uncut algorithm pulling directly from the mainstream American unconscious. Which meant that the very first recommended video was, at that moment in time, the most popular song in the country: Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u,” released just a day or two before. Both of us were familiar with Rodrigo, owing to the cultural dominance of “drivers license,” but neither of us had heard “good 4 u,” so I booted it up and let it run.

I think we made it two minutes before I turned it off. My first thought: “Wow, she is really young.” My second thought: “This sounds like Disney music.” Jen expressed the same thoughts, and so we just ended up watching Limp Bizkit videos for a while, as part of our ongoing attempts into understanding our uniquely American strain of anger. We went to our first indoor dinner in over a year, as our anniversary also coincided with our post-vaccine grace period, and didn’t talk about the video again.

A couple of weeks later, Rodrigo released her debut album, Sour, to general critical acclaim — and, in particular, a lot of hyper-specific online identification. Some of that was generated by my peers in music journalism, many of whom are not teenagers, and before long a small debate brewed: What was the deal with so many adults expressing adulation for this bratty pop-rock record made for and by the recent procurers of a high school degree? Was it: 1) poptimism run amok 2) denial about the realities of aging 3) some other uncharitable option? And conversely, why were so many people affronted by the 30-something enthusiasm about Rodrigo’s album? Was it 1) rockism run amok 2) sublimated hatred of teen women 3) some other uncharitable option?

You might surmise that this debate, as it angrily played out for a couple of days, was mostly useless, prone to the same generalizations and misreadings of reality and outright bad faith attacks that render almost all online debates mostly useless in 2021. Very quickly it felt like both sides were talking past each other, which is almost always the sign to log off and start thinking about what’s for dinner. But the foundational seed of the discourse wasn’t entirely useless, if you like to (fondly, naively, optimistically, correctly — pick your poison) imagine that one role of the critic is to tease out emotional and logical reactions to any piece of art, and synthesize them into an analysis that feels potentially true. And the more I thought about it, the more most of the reactions to Rodrigo’s album and its reception all felt valid, in a way that made me want to resist posting my glibbest thought possible. (I might have gone with: “Sick of music made for young people that adults try to pretend is for them — now, let me check out this black midi record.”)

Something that I think current arts journalists and critics have a particularly hard time being honest about is the role of lust in art. Partly that’s because for decades, arts journalism and criticism of all strains was dominated by swaggering dick male writers who would write ledes like, “I’m sitting across from Julia Roberts, and to be clear, she is hot… as hell.” Contemporary culture writing has mostly pivoted away from that, but fresh outrage is generated at writers who seemingly go too far — like Vulture critic David Edelstein, whose descriptions of Gal Gadot were taken so poorly across the internet that he wrote a separate piece defending himself, or Thomas Chatterton Williams, whose deliriously horny appraisal of Emily Ratajowski’s sexual appeal won condemnation from the model herself.

But as anyone who has ever been a teenager knows, lust for the stars — be they in music, movies, or even books — is often endemic to being a fan. I don’t think it should ever be controversial to acknowledge this as a simple fact. Famous people are often very good looking, and desire is a widely default human trait, and young people are figuring out their own needs and wants for the first time, so what happens is a fairly obvious projection of needs and wants onto a distant, alluring figure. It’s not necessarily as basic as wanting sex, either, but a general longing for and worship of a person who seems so appealing and collected in all the ways that make one successful in society. Maybe you want to sleep with them, but maybe you want to be their friend, or maybe you just want to be them — feelings that, I think, ebb the older you get, and the more personally assured you become.

Still: Boy, are they strong at the beginning. I love new music, but I’ve accepted that I will never be more devoted to a musician than I was at 15, when I’d scribble lyrics into my notebooks, read up on every single thing about them I could find, idly fantasize about seeing them in concert. And partly this was the disconnect I felt watching Rodrigo: That I was a 32-year-old man who, on a gut level, could simply not connect to the idea of being an “Olivia Rodrigo fan,” because her aesthetic reference points were so distant from my present interests, and because that required being a younger person who still had that kind of emotional relationship to their favorite artists. When we turned off the “good 4 u” video, it wasn’t because we disliked the song, but because it just felt inconceivable that this could be a package — from the teen-movie visuals to the brash pop-punk guitar to Rodrigo’s obviously teenaged existence — that we could consume as anything other than a intellectual exercise eg. “what if I got really into the latest thing for 15-year-olds?”.

But after Sour came out, we both individually listened to the record, and discovered something interesting: We both liked it a lot. Now that we weren’t looking at Rodrigo, it was easier to hear these songs as just songs, and beyond that songs that didn’t exist as part of “the Olivia Rodrigo product” — stuff that we’d just happened to hear, basically. Sour sounded like early Kelly Clarkson by way of Taylor Swift, and as people who like early Kelly Clarkson and Taylor Swift, it was suddenly a lot easier to enjoy. In particular, “good 4 u” sounded great — like, obviously people who enjoy angsty, poppy, upbeat guitar-driven songs with female vocals and personal lyrics would like this. Jen likes to joke about how, as someone who’s two years older than me, there are entire swaths of culture that she’s “just too old for” — like the wave of mall-emo music that swept my high school and others, while she was already getting involved with her college radio station. “If you like this, you’d like Fall Out Boy,” I’ve been telling her, and while there’s no chance she’ll listen, I know I’m right.

Still, there was the question of why so many people my age were eager to identify with Rodrigo’s work — kind of desperate, from one vantage point, a way of saying “look at how down I am despite being in my mid-30s” But let’s be a little nicer than that, if we can. Let me lay out a couple of thoughts. The music industry disproportionately levies attention on younger artists and listeners, and my generation of listeners is slowly aging out of the most prized youth demographic. As a result, lots of people start to feel way too old for new music almost the moment they stop actively paying attention to new bands. Most of my friends from high school and college who don’t work in or around the arts listen to maybe two new records a year, which they find on Pitchfork (if they used to be a little cool) or NPR (if they never were).

There’s nothing wrong with this, but there are psychological advantages to seeking out fresh artistic stimuli, as my friend Jeremy Larson has written about. Beyond that, music is also a way of stitching bonds across generations — a way of sussing out the impulses and thoughts and feelings that animate all of us, regardless of age. A joke I like to make: “There’s a reason why they call it classic rock: because it’s classic.” Which is to say that it’s not exclusively boomer messaging that’s circulated the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and what have you — much simpler is that a lot of that stuff is just really good in ways that still resonate with people whose parents weren’t even alive when that work was being made. And if music can be a way of reaching back into the past, as it often is, and a way of reaching sideways, as it happens when you hear a song that is specifically made for you and millions of people like you (or thousands, if we’re talking about indie rock), then it serves to reason that it can also be a way of reaching into the future, in order to bring down the invented barriers that keep us imagining the worst of each other.

I’ve said this before but I can’t tell you how many cheap and shitty jokes about “Zoomers” I’ve read, all of which are the same as the cheap and shitty jokes about “millennials” that other people made, but one way of avoiding that trap is to earnestly connect with the culture that drives the people who aren’t me. If that’s possible, because of course it’s perfectly fine to hate on some shit you think is wack, assuming you’re not being too much of a jerk about it. (And besides, if someone’s jokes are enough to keep you from loving something you claim love, maybe the problem is you.)

Earlier this year, our internet and cable went out for the night, which briefly threw a wrench into our routine of watching a movie or TV show after dinner. Not to worry, though, because we own plenty of Blu-Rays — and on this night, we decided to start rewatching Twin Peaks: The Return from the beginning. I didn’t watch the show during its original run, but last year I got Jen the set for her birthday, and we ended up finishing it in about a week. It was, obviously, incredible, and so this time we continued watching even after the internet and cable came back the next day, now with the added experience (for me, at least) of knowing what was coming.

The Return subverts nearly every trope of the revival: We don’t see that much of our fan favorite characters, we don’t get that much emotional resolution from prior storylines (I count one genuine moment of fan service: The reunion of Norma and Big Ed), and because many of the actors from the original Twin Peaks ended up becoming working or non-actors, they look like their actual age. This is not the Friends reunion. There are few artificially recreated faces in front of us — a little Botox here and there, but for the most part, everyone is old. They have grown up. The passage of time has affected them in ways intense and not, keeping in line with the show’s themes.

Several of the show’s actors also died around the filming, and once you’re aware of this, death is even more ever present as you watch (which, considering the underlying narrative is about the clash of fundamental good and fundamental evil, is saying a lot). In a sequence so wrenching that I’m moved just thinking about it, the Log Lady — possibly the most “beloved” character of the original show, in that she’s the only person I’ve ever seen a Halloween costume of — announces her impending death, and dictates her final thoughts to Deputy Hawk.

“It’s time,” she says, with great pauses in between sentences. “There’s some fear — some fear in letting go.” Her expression as she talks is so naked, both afraid and not, and when her death is shared with the other characters, they all acknowledge it as a profound and devastating loss. Catherine E. Coulson, who portrayed the Log Lady, died in September 2015, nearly two years before The Return would air, making for a very real and moving blurring of fiction and nonfiction. Sit with that for a second: an artist giving this speech, as what ended up being her final artistic statement (at least for mass consumption, as Coulson continued working in local theater up until her death).

Not long before that, we also watched Coming 2 America, the sequel to Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America that was pretty roundly criticized upon release. It’s not great by any means, but I found it charming: Wesley Snipes is genuinely delightful, and the Gladys Knight sequence is hallucinogenic in the best way that money can buy. It’s also a throwback to the particular kind of earnest, unironic comedy that Murphy got famous making, and which we rarely see today from our biggest stars.

Like Twin Peaks: The Return, Coming 2 America reunites its original cast, though most of them have had some work done, and the script tries to avoid making them seem old. But the movie still makes you think about the passage of time, most literally when they insert scenes from the original movie as flashbacks, and also because the filming probably felt more like a reunion than anything, given the inside references and appearances from even tertiary characters. Murphy doesn’t make a lot of movies these days, and he is also fantastically and distantly rich, so you have to think it meant something personal for him to reunite all these people from his 20s to make an uncomplicated movie about the importance of family and tradition. There are worse pursuits, you know, and I certainly found it more endearing than most modern comedies, which all seem to center around people who are assholes.

Sometimes it’s as simple as that. We should all think deeply and widely, because most things are worth taking seriously, but at the same time you don’t need much to intuit something more meaningful. I was already warming up to Rodrigo, which is why I added a handful of the songs from Sour to a gigantic, roaming playlist of music I listen to when I go for walks. One recent afternoon, my phone shuffled from “good 4 u” right into M83’s “Kim & Jessie” and I am not kidding when I say I received it as a transcendental moment of kismet that temporarily made the skies part and the birds sing: the chunky guitar of Rodrigo’s outro giving way to those big, booming drums, a Zoomer’s nostalgia for the ’00s shading into a Gen Xer’s nostalgia for the ’80s. Suddenly it made perfect sense why she sounded like this, at this moment in time. That’s the kind of connection I always hope to make, especially because it doesn’t happen all that often. When it does my appreciation for life is deepened immensely, if only for a little bit.

Professionally speaking:

I recently profiled the charming and unique Japanese band CHAI for The New York Times. Their new record is great, but in particular, something their bassist YUUKI said about food has stuck with Jen and me:

Don’t forget to be nice to yourself out there.