Subjected: A Dialogue of Self and Song

by Allison Primak

When I grow up, I want to be Jenny from the National’s album Trouble Will Find Me. When I was younger, it was the Plain White T’s Delilah; later, it was Vampire Weekend’s Hannah Hunt. For me, these songs have soundtracked more than a few self-indul­gent moments—late nights spent in friends’ rooms before middle school dances, getting ready in front of the mirror, singing to ourselves and to each other, pretending that our names matched with those on the lyric sheets.

Our adolescent admiration for these songs stemmed from our desire to grow up—we wanted to experience the kinds of emotions and events that inspired these songs. And slowly, they began to happen to us. Songs in the second person served a therapeutic purpose for my friends and me. When we didn’t get the apol­ogy we wanted, Akon would tell us he was “sorry for the times [he would] neglect, sorry for the times [he’d] dis­respect.” When we felt spurned, desiring the commitment we felt we deserved, Jason Mraz would reassure us, “I won’t hesitate no more…I’m yours.” And finally, James Blunt would simply tell us we were beautiful—“it’s true.”

The lyrical vagueness of pop songs such as these gave my friend group a collective boost of confi­dence, but soon I began discovering music that, I felt, applied more specifically to me. On bad days when I was on the brink of tears, Wavves could cheer me up by singing, “Green eyes, I’d run away with you.” I began to curate playlists full of songs that referenced personal aspects: my green eyes, my long hair, my stubbornness. Maybe it was narcissism, but it made me feel better to pretend that the artists I admired most were singing straight to me.

As a young girl, second-person love songs were fiercely marketed toward me, and that trend has continued as I’ve crossed the threshold from high school to college. Just as corporate advertising and magazines have capitalized on my insecurities, popular music has exploited them as well. The vague valida­tion that I received from boy bands and mass-market heartthrobs taught me how read deeply into songs—to listen more closely and get something out of them that I wouldn’t have been able to before.

Now I’ve come to distinguish the gener­alized, commercial songs that were marketed to me from those with specificity and depth. When I listen to an example of the latter, I can enjoy being sung to and feeling as though I’ve entered the song the same way that I would enter a book. I believe the best way to appreciate a song is to gauge how I’d feel if someone I knew wrote it for me—if I felt like they really meant what they were saying. The best ones are viscerally personal, the ones I can feel like were meant for me without having to try hard to pretend.

If the Jenny character were real, she would have had a serious power trip after hearing Trouble Will Find Me—I know I would. She wrecked this guy’s life—or at least that of Berninger’s speaker. The intensity of his spurned love is evident in both the timbre of his baritone and the melancholy of his lyrics. “Your love is such a swamp,” he sings in “This Is The Last Time.” “You’re the only thing I want / And I said I wouldn’t cry about it.” The validation one feels in being cried over is undeniable, and I feel as though any listener could relate to that. Trouble Will Find Me is essentially so powerful because listeners can come to identify with it, picturing themselves as the subjects of similar situations, similar heartbreaks, or similar pleas for forgiveness or reconciliation. Songs like these don’t just tell a story, but rather they offer stories for listeners to interact with. With lyrics that toe the line between easily-relatable vagueness and deeply felt emotion, they provide a vacant space in which listeners can place themselves at the epicenter of the song. That’s why songs like these make me feel important; they make me feel that the music I listen to values me as much as I value it in return. The songs I listen to can speak back to me.

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