A Summer of Listening, Part 2
|Sasha Frere-Jones||Sep 16, 2019|
Music in the psych ward was a relief. I drank it all in gratefully, even when it was just someone howling along to “Simple Man” (which I hate). It was not like that in rehab. Music was an inverted pyramid, a hollow tang, sucky dog dirt. The boombox radio in the day room was always on the local pop station. If someone changed it, unseen actors reset it. I had less control when I had control. I could tune the radio to a new station whenever I wanted, but it was pointless. The radio always went back to that one station. I heard “Sucker” by the Jonas Brothers so many times it just became an extension of the day room. Nick Jonas is a milk box to me, a banana dipped in hot sauce, a cup of decaffeinated chicory trash water, a rag dipped in hand soap, wiping down the tables.
This top 10 is what I’m referring to, except we never heard the Sheeran + Bieber. Any of those songs makes me think that I am waiting for the Jello to be handed out while grown men argue about animal crackers.
Everybody sang along to “Old Town Road,” which the DJ only ever pre-announced by saying “coming up, Billy Ray Cyrus.” The opening of the video is pretty much that war of identity rendered as low-key sci fi. Upstate radio did not want to say “Lil Nas X” out loud. Being subjected to this top ten, Gitmo-style, made me think that pop now is just unpushy affirmations and dopey affection, like the 1950s, but with even less libidinal energy. Nothing can offend or imply more than one thing. The dust and rattle of borderline seventies (like 1973) funk-disco was what I dreamed of or anything soggy-in-your-clothes heavy, like Marvin.
I was wrong. “Bad Guy” and “Old Town Road” were the only Number Ones we had all summer, and they are both oblong and fantastic and nothing like each other. “Bad Guy,” with all those synthetic sounds with no specific name: drummy things, tonal things, bleep, tss tss. The twelve genders rendered as two. It was intense to witness the effect on everyone around me. One of my friends there was in her mid-thirties, experiencing her first hard nostalgia, but also believing that pop’s newness was still about her.
Lights out was 10:30, which only felt early when the NBA finals were on. I would get into bed around 9:30, because I didn’t have a roommate after the first week and that hour alone was bliss. The view of the Hudson was good from my window and the air conditioning unit on the floor below hummed and reassured me.
My two dream scenarios were Richard Ashcroft and Gordon Ramsay. I wondered if Richard Ashcroft was OK and was ever going to get over the fact that Allen Klein robbed him of the credit and money rightfully his, because of his masterpiece, “Bittersweet Symphony.” (Ashcroft wasn’t over it but I didn’t know that.) I imagined Ashcroft walking around a big house in Connecticut, the kind that looks like a mental hospital. The fact that I was in a mental hospital was irrelevant. The building spree of the nineties, working behind that Clinton money, created rings of columned estates that looked like early twentieth century sanitariums. I think I chose Ashcroft to dream of because he always seems to be alone. I’d dream of him pacing the foyer and slowly climbing the stairs, trying to reconcile himself to the loss of his song. I think his struggle to accept an injustice was my subconscious at work but perhaps it’s just because I think that Ashcroft is always trying to appear tough even though he probably doesn’t feel tough all the time. When I got out, I found out that Ashcroft had gotten his song royalties back. Dreams come true.
I dreamed of Ramsay less often, and the story was simpler. Ramsay was on vacation with people he didn’t know, and wasn’t allowed to drink or make any of the meals. He also couldn’t leave. When I got home, I saw that he had some awful new tourist cooking show, some stunt boy crap full of Othering and bluster.
The first song I heard when I got home was Bô'vel’s inept and beautiful 1996 single, “I Check 4 U,” which sounds like Massive Attack on SNAP benefits. I didn’t dream the first night back, but when I woke up, my first shower thought was “Salem fell over so Billie Eilish could stand.” I sold my iPhone X for six hundred counterfeit dollars and my summer began.