In the fall of 2005 I was 19 years old and doing a poor job of adjusting to my first year as an undergraduate music major at a conservatory in Ohio. I wasn’t particularly excited by the school I had nevertheless chosen, I was going through a bad breakup, my parents had recently moved away, and so on. I seemed to be experiencing all of the stereotypical ways in which large life transitions can destabilize a person. What’s more, I spent nearly all of my time between a basement practice room (concrete walls, fluorescent overheads), an equally depressing dorm room (same), and a dining hall whose smell was overdetermined by frozen chicken patty sandwiches.
Reflecting on this period from our current quarantine, comparisons between my current daily routine and my life back then are not far-fetched, saving that the latter was self-imposed. Even if private school hadn’t been so expensive (a fact that at least subconsciously motivated us to make the most of our time there) the ethos in the conservatory amongst my peers was one of depression and drive at once: none of us were very good, we knew, but we maintained hope in the idea that we could be. In our minds, we had four years to catch up to our counterparts at schools like Juilliard, and we could theoretically do so by working twice as hard as our more naturally talented, quasi-imaginary rivals. This is all to say that the imperative to spend most of one’s time practicing alone in a windowless room was extremely compelling. For the most part, that is exactly what we did, day after day. Especially in the beginning, I didn’t see much at all of other people.
During this period, before I found any friendship, mentorship, or purpose, I now attribute my survival almost exclusively to two albums, which I played on rotation constantly, and which were both released shortly after I started school: The Strokes’ First Impressions of Earth and Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine. In both, despite their sonic differences, I found (among other things) a series of anthems. In The Strokes I found sardonic affirmations of my angsty sadness (“My feelings are more important than yours…of course!”). With Apple, when I was feeling truly brave or masochistic, I felt I could experience the entire lifespan of a relationship, so comprehensively did her album embody the anger (“Get Him Back”), growth (“Better Version of Me”), pain (“Oh Well”), and resilience (“Waltz”) that comes with the end of something. That album is all muscle, heart included, a rigorous acoustic effort that aspires to put you through something. I am still shaken by the sheer physicality, the force of her music on your chest.
These albums helped me process at a time when I refused to let other people do so. In addition to my natural introversion, learned insecurity, and cultivated musical ambitions, I was also stubbornly attached to my own sadness: in my mind, to “get over” something was a panicked imperative made by those who compulsively fear not being happy 100% of the time, or else was a disservice to the emotions and experiences causing me pain. I take a long time to process because I respect the validity of my reactions, or so I imagined while listening to music alone. Another way of saying this is that I was committed to my own misery.
Three years later, the financial system collapsed. Personally, I was feeling worlds better, rooted in a community that sustains me to this day. But we and the broader generational community we shared with other soon-to-be graduates were thrust very suddenly into a future with bleak prospects. Indeed, as many have noted, the effects of the 2008 collapse on my generation will haunt us for the rest of our lives. During this period of fearful uncertainty, and into the transition of graduation, I once again had Apple and The Strokes on heavy rotation. They had helped me get through a rough time, and I turned to them again with another big transition on the horizon.
To speak about the “millennial generation” is less to identify a certain age bracket and more to point to a certain experience. In large part because of the 2008 crisis, almost everyone I know was just sorting their shit out when COVID hit. We’re in our 30s, mostly, scratching and clawing our way into a version of whatever life we envisaged for ourselves. For me, 2019 brought my first “real” (read “meaningful”) job after nearly a decade of grad school. This year, many of us had finally gotten secure enough to live without roommates, or in some cases to even get a mortgage. A smaller minority were even starting to have kids. The eruption of this pandemic at the precise moment that we finally allowed ourselves to imagine that our struggles were in the rearview is a development we are not even close to cognizing; it’s too early yet, and we have to get through the day first.
Thus, in April, when both The Strokes and Fiona Apple once again released new albums at mostly the same time, it felt to me like nothing less than a collective moan from the generation that I’m assuming still makes up most of their fanbase. This music isn’t for my students, for example, who are perhaps more likely to be digging Doja Cat (for the record, I think Hot Pink is brilliant) or Drake at this moment. Rather, this moan is somehow an expression of our perspective. It is a sound not only borne of exasperation and despair, but also one of longing: longing for a different society, a different world, not just anything different but one in which we would finally be allowed to get a leg up or simply to be secure, one in which you wouldn’t have to trade stocks or code for Facebook just to eke out a stable existence.
That’s why the Democratic primary, to the extent that it exists, has been particularly gutting for most of us. The Democratic party seems constitutionally incapable of comprehending the level of bitterness and contempt the decision to rally behind Biden has boiled up in a generation flattened by student loan debt, chronically un(der)insured, and living daily life draped in the quotidian terror that comes with the certitude of the destruction of our environment during our lifetimes. It is a common refrain during quarantine to hear some version of the sentiment, “We can’t go back to normal.” But while COVID-19 renders the fault lines in our institutions, the wealthy and powerful of this country are actively fighting to return us to the neoliberal paradigm that was so devastating for everyone else. Particularly for those of us who have lost our jobs, who can’t pay rent, who worry about being bankrupted if we get sick, the government’s stimulus spending rings as hollow as the bailouts did 12 years ago, or more so.
Admittedly, while both Fetch the Bolt Cutters and The New Abnormal are genuinely timely and beautifully titled for our current crisis, I am not claiming that they constitute a kind of soundtrack for quarantine. No, focusing on these two albums is obviously a personal entry-point into thinking the pandemic — I simply associate these sounds with transition and unwelcome upheaval. Nevertheless, (1) all music exists in the coincidence between individual and collective experience, and in my imagination at least, this musical pairing is the sound of an emotional turmoil that speaks to people in my age group simply by virtue of the historical coincidence between an artist’s production and the events that tie us together. At any rate, whether or not many others share my feelings about Apple and The Strokes, what seems incontestable (2) is that this quarantined moment is one in which most of us are reaching for nostalgic pleasures in order to cope with isolation, or in other words, for a kind of refuge. Whatever that means for you, whatever music makes you feel the comfort and affirmation of your formative years, that’s the soundtrack to your pandemic.
What this means, finally, is that in this period of non-time, we are collectively regressing. Or if that’s too pejorative, it means that we are collectively bracing for whatever comes next, hiding out in the safety of old sounds until it’s safe to come out again. Unfortunately, “safe” is a relative term, and what comes next is absolutely uncertain. From the healthcare system to the gig economy to my (for a little while longer) field of higher education, returning to business as usual means utter catastrophe for most people, means perpetuating systems built on brutal exploitation and indomitable hierarchies. And yet, as impossible as it feels to imagine voluntarily re-upping those ways of doing business, at the moment, the conservative impulse is the one that seems to be winning. We are not passing bills to help the most vulnerable; precarious workers aren’t getting hazard pay or paid sick leave or else are out of work entirely; the rich are getting richer, as they have done for some 30 years, and the rest of us are increasingly worse off.
Taking shelter in the music that affirms us seems powerful and necessary work during this time. And yet, as Robin DG Kelley points out, the language and the practice of “sheltering in place,” while necessary to flatten the curve, is also dangerous if it also means simply waiting to return to normal. Kelley sees three possible paths awaiting us after this period. One path — the one that seems impossible if we are all doing the responsible thing by hiding out in our homes — is the fight to create a new world, to reimagine our institutions in such a way that might allow not only my generation, but also retirees whose pensions have been obliterated, as well as recent college grads and everyone in between to have a fighting chance. As of this writing, we see little evidence of this path actualizing.
A second path is the deepening of authoritarian tendencies, which we are already seeing in various forms, from the white nationalist protests of social distancing to the White House’s naked prioritization of its own self-preservation over public health, seen for instance in Rick Bright’s whistleblower complaint. But lest we confuse the issue by blaming 45, Kelley describes the third path: “Equally dangerous to me, is the [path] that we’re moving towards, which is ‘let’s return back to normalcy.’ Normalcy, in this discourse, is Clinton, or even Obama. It’s like, ‘Let’s go back to those days… let’s put the same corporate figures from Goldman Sachs in positions to run the economy.” In this oblique reference to Biden, Kelley also describes the larger contestation for power that is taking place in every institution we have, in real-time, right before our eyes.
If that all sounds a little too abstract, we can take the concrete example of higher education, an entire project in the process of failing. As with other institutions, COVID-19 did not cause the collapse we are witnessing, given that higher education has been built on a broken model for decades. Nevertheless, the pandemic instigated a crisis when it closed campuses, and projections are that it will result in a drop in fall enrollments (if we are allowed back at all) of some 20%. In a publicly funded education system, this drop in enrollment would certainly still be cause for concern; but it would not be an existential crisis. However, for universities in the US, which, even if they are technically “public,” depend almost exclusively on student tuition dollars for revenue, this is indeed a catastrophe. The system itself is engineered in a way that makes higher education in this country dependent on consumer spending, rather than on government. For as much as we might like to imagine that higher education has a more noble purpose than J. Crew, in this country, both businesses are vulnerable to fluctuations in consumer demand.
Rather than questioning this logic, the same logic that ultimately leads to bloated college administrations, who pay themselves lavishly while firing the most vulnerable teachers, places like Ohio University are doubling down on the neoliberal framework that prescribes mass layoffs, the shuttering of critical humanities departments, and the maintenance of the status-quo. This is exactly the time when increased state funding could have a transformative effect on our schools, but state funding is instead set to be slashed, as it has been continuously in Ohio under successive Republican governments. In short, a bailout for the top earners, achieved through austerity imposed on everyone else. It’s Neoliberalism 101: the revenge of the same.
But let’s return to the music. To be sure, neither The Strokes nor Fiona Apple have made albums about these issues. Indeed, I have not even mentioned any of the specific things that make these two albums so wonderful, and particularly in Apple’s case, powerful (there are many others who have done so). I am not talking at all about the sonic vocabulary that makes The Strokes so singularly tuneful, nor the profound political significance of Apple’s home-recorded magnum opus, a masterpiece of intimate spaces, found sounds, and women’s voices. Here, I am simply talking about the way these albums might resonate together, for as much as this pair speaks to a state of anxiety, it is also surely a gift to us in a dark time. I don’t know if staying home and seeking refuge in this music is a dangerous abdication of the action this moment requires, or if survival is the extent of what we are capable right now. On a good day, it helps to feel even a little bit that those of us who were thrilled at the release of these albums were so because we belong to an intimate public, tied together by a shared condition, and listening to music that feels like it was made just for us.