It was another hard pandemic year—and the pop music around us often reflected that. Our first full (calendar) year of the pandemic, pop both musically and narratively carried forward our feelings of anxiety and isolation but also yearnings for connection or separation. As I’ve often told students at multiple points during our semester together, one of the most remarkable things about the pandemic is that life has continued. In 2021, mine certainly did: I drove across the country from New Orleans to LA at the end of May to begin a new job in a brand new city—and to try to make new friends, find/build queer community, and restart my dating life during the height of an ongoing (long) pandemic. As I was teaching African American Music Appreciation (previously Race, Gender, and Pop Music) for a fifth time in 2.5 years, I pushed myself to keep up with the new (album) releases each week so that I could talk about them with my students every Tuesday. In this pandemic year that has been full of emotional growth, intellectual flight, and getting the most comfortable with myself (without trying to change who I am) that I’ve ever been, the music that I most gravitated towards had some kind of strong emotional component to it, music where an emotional rawness reverberated through each song’s sounds, affects, and vibrations. In this vein, the three albums that I had most on repeat were Little Simz’s Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Dawn Richard’s Second Line: An Electro Revival, and Halsey’s If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. Addressing everything from anxiety to family history to geography to sexuality to womanhood, queerness, and/or genderqueerness, these albums hit somewhere deep inside me even when there were about things I knew close to nothing about (being an introvert, dating men, or having a child). But this, after all, is the mark of a great pop album: it is about something specific to the author and those who share some or more of their identities while also going beyond that to reach a more general audience at the level of human experience.
I finish this year-end post, as I often have, on the day of the solstice, the darkest day of the year—but also the day after which the sun begins to return. This time, I also write it from Brooklyn, from the house of the queer fam that I stay with to both spend more time with them and to have a place to recharge from interactions with my bio family. While I was walking on Broadway yesterday, I walked by the NYU Tisch building, where I did my MA in performance studies now eight years ago. I moved back to New York City to actually live in the city for once—but, more specifically, to (eventually) attend NYU. Through my queer friends at NYU I got into astrology; through my queer friends in Austin, I got into tarot; through my queer friends and guides at Tea Witch cafe in New Orleans, I fully embraced the Italian American ex-Catholic traditions of witchery. The solstice always means more to me than Christmas, although I am glad to be back to celebrate that holiday with my dad and sister for the first time since 2016 (as much as being back here at this time of the calendar year also brings up a lot of really old stuff for me). As I go walk into some trees later today, there will be lots to release, both from this past year and from everything about this place that continues to move with me—and, sometimes, even haunt me (still). But, at the same time, coming back to the home of my heart that is Brooklyn, New York City, and Jersey City (my actual hometown) is also the perfect place to set intentions, to start anew. Like New York, I am always changing; the people in my life who are my closest people have always met me in their ongoing quests for personal growth. These are songs from 2021 that soundtracked my journey of that ongoing growth.
After the epic and largely upbeat nature of the first nine songs of If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, Halsey’s concept album about pregnancy, childbirth, and sexuality that they co-wrote with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the opening notes of “Whispers” make it sound like it might be a lullaby. The song starts with sparse piano chords, over which Halsey’s voice soon hums “Mm mm mm-mm.” At the next break, her voice whispers, “You do not,” the last t-th of the “not” fading into the next piano chord. After the three piano chords repeat one more time, Halsey comes in and sings, “It’s the thing in your thighs when you’re lonely at night/ Scroll through your phone getting high off the light.” After a few more lines, their voice goes up in pitch to sing “Sabotage the things you love the most,” which will become a line that’s repeated at key moments throughout the song. As the song moves to the pre-chorus (or just chorus? (this song plays a lot with structure, as mental and emotional health issues often do within us)), a synth bass line pulses out, going silent each time that Halsey whispers the second part of each line. Their first four lines here go:
This is the voice in that says, ‘You do not want this’
This is the ache that says, ‘You do not want him’
This is the glimmer of light that you’re keeping alive
When you tell yourself, ‘Bet I could fuck him’
After Halsey sings “Why do you need love so badly?” and delivers the next line, faint hi hat cymbals accent each of her lines. While the song continues to build from here, it’s hard to get stuck on how the parts that Halsey whispers linger: the parts in quotations, the things that the voices inside our heads tell ourselves as we try to figure out whether or not we should stay in a current romantic situation. It’s a song that I first heard while in this very mental and emotional place, meaning that it stopped me directly in my tracks. I felt blown away by how Halsey, in collaboration with Reznor and Ross (who are definitely responsible for the synth and drum machine production things here), could so acutely capture this mental health conundrum of dating in a three-minute-long pop song. It is a song I would continue to have on repeat, even now, as I’m two months removed from that particular relationship.
From the beginning of July through the end of October, I dated someone (new) in LA while continuing to be present in friendships (elsewhere) with romantic moments or undertones. That beginning of July date was the first time that I had led with being poly lite (in addition to not wanting kids)—and that the thing I was most looking for in the moment was to be in a relationship. In a magical, just-arrived-in-LA moment, I had gone to the Divorce party at Bar Franca the previous Thursday and had started talking to someone attractive, compelling, and interesting. As we kept talking for over an hour, we watched her friends slowly peel away one by one to leave us alone to talk. It had not been what I had expected from that party or at the point of being one month into living in LA; but, as I had promised myself that I would no longer make excuses in my dating life now that I had (relative) job security, I soon found myself asking her out on a date with me that following Monday, before I went to Alaska for two weeks. We had some wonderful dates in the beginning, driving all over LA to explore or revisit and spending hours getting to know one another. After dating a string of (mostly) terrible people during my three years in New Orleans, it felt exciting to be seeing someone who was intelligent, kind, spiritual, funny, and adventurous. But, as we continued to get to know one another, that energy started to wane—and how different we were from one another started to emerge: I wanted to talk about everything all the time while she wanted to be able to shut that off, I wanted things to be more serious while she wanted things to be more playful, and I wanted to grow our physical intimacy while she wanted to linger more where we were. In a full circle moment back to our first date, we broke up over a plate of fish tacos. I cried at the table as she sat there silently, a demonstration of our two different emotional coping mechanisms.
Although the breakup was mutual and respectful, the month of dancing around it and the immediate aftermath of it raised a lot of questions about my mental and emotional health in this part of my life that always feels acutely more difficult than anything else in my life (including working towards getting tenure, which gives me close to zero anxiety). The breakups of our mid-30s are a lot sadder than the ones of our early 20s; they carry with them an accumulated herstory that sediments over time. I remember breaking up with my first girlfriend over a decade ago thinking: this wasn’t the right person and that’s okay, since I’ll find someone who is soon enough. I’ve continued to tell myself that across five cities; at 34, I still believe this deep in my heart. Nevertheless, with a decade of dating residue behind it, breaking up with someone in your mid-30s means processing/holding all of your romantic situations that haven’t worked out all at once. If you’ve had mental and emotional health challenges (of which I have plenty), then this can quickly spiral into: When will this actually work out for me? Will this part of my life just never work out for me? Is this part of my life so hard because the other parts of my life are relatively easier? In the style of Halsey’s whispers, you hear a voice in your head telling you that you’re too much, too emotional, too intellectually intense to be with anyone. With a handful of my closest friends often hovering in these same spaces with me, I know I’m not alone. As my best friend from grad school recently told me on the phone, “We’re just too much… awesome.” I know I am not the easiest person to date; my intellectual intensity often intimidates people and my emotional intuition means I can sense how the other person is feeling before she does—or is ready to talk about it. It makes the pool of possible partners for me feel very, very small sometimes—which can bring me right back to the extreme isolation that I felt as a child.
This Halsey song takes me back through all of these places, even as it simultaneously pushes me beyond them. When I listen to “Whispers,” the part that always sticks with me most (after the actual whispers) is the chorus line “Sabotage the things you love the most.” In some ways this is ironic, as I’m not one for self-sabotage or torpedoing things, unless at the very end (which I am trying not to do anymore). If anything (as my housemate from Brooklyn pointed out during a recent visit), I’m so forgiving that I focus disproportionately on people’s best qualities or moments when they do show up—and let everything else go as I afford people the time and space for growth/change. In the end, this just hurts me—and I know it hurts me; I’ve been in therapy for 6.5 years trying to get better at holding space for my wants and needs as I clear so much space for other people’s (and… I have gotten a lot better at it). I also know that my close friends do a lot of listening around my challenges in this part of my life, and I try to spread it out among everyone so it doesn’t become too overwhelming. But, the truth is that I have never not wanted to be in a long-term relationship; what has varied has been the energy I’ve put into it or the prioritization I’ve given it at different moments in my life. When well-meaning friends say things like “Well, you’ve been putting your career first” or “I wish I had your life because mine is so boring” or “But everything else in your life is going so well,” I both hear them and then get (silently) annoyed or aggravated with them, especially if they are partnered. But, we all have parts of our lives that we wish were different, that we feel like we might be sabotaging sometimes. These are the whispers inside all of our heads.
CW: sexual and emotional violence in this section
The beginning of “I Love You, I Hate You” opens with some soaring horns and sparkling keys, a continuation of the fairytale hip hop narrative of Little Simz’s Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (SIMBI) as a whole. After about 20 seconds, a sample from a soul song enters: “I love you/ I hate you.” This sample will be looped throughout the entirety of the song, with Simz rapping alongside and around it. After the next “I love you,” Simz raps, “So much I would give my life for this.” Over the next “I hate you,” meanwhile, she adds, “If the bullet were the beat, I would probably die for this.” As she continues rapping, Simz moves from reflecting on anxiety and trauma (“What we have in common is our pain, we’re given the keys/ To unlock what it takes to fight for what we believe in”) to naming and addressing the source of both of these things headon: her absent father, who seems to have not been in the picture during her childhood. At the end of the verse, she closes out with:
Your pain threshold will determine if you survive
I’m amazed by it
Lyin’ to myself, pretendin’ I was never phased by it
Maybe ’cause you’re in my DNA, that’s why
After the music volume dims down with her rapping “Lyin’ to myself,” the instrumentation drops out entirely when she delivers the line “Maybe ‘cause you’re in my DNA, that’s why.” And then, with the (momentary) release of the trauma, the volume kicks back up and the sample roars back in. As anyone who has (also) struggled with this can attest, this is exactly how anxiety can work: things get amplified in your mind, attached to emotions that viscerally tear through your body—and/or to other memories that you’ve come to group together with a particular activation point. Throughout the song, Simz shows how much releasing it through writing or song can help, how it can give all these feelings around parents or family or love an outlet so you can momentarily let go—and, eventually, heal. As she compellingly raps for the last line of the final verse: I’m not forgivin’ for you, man, I’m forgivin’ for me/ And sometimes/ (I love you/ I hate you).”
Like Little Simz, we all come with a lot of old shit, family shit (and other kinds of childhood trauma) and (previous) relationships shit and all the shit we create for ourselves when we internalize all that. When you first enter therapy for the long haul, it’s all about getting to foundational trauma. When I began this (life?)long stint in therapy in Austin in April 2015, I was barely holding myself together while trying to get out of my latest deep depression. (I wouldn’t have one like that again until fall/winter 2020.) We talked about all that, of course, but what we really talked about was all the constant (endless) activation points keeping me locked in that depressive place. Suddenly, I was barraged with all these questions about my childhood: How was mom not there or too there? And how about dad? What were the (real or desired) qualities from either or both parents that I kept seeking out in your romantic relationships? Conversely, what were the qualities from either or both parents that reactivated old trauma for me? The first full year of being in talk therapy like this is brutal; if you’re really in a bad place, then this can be the place when you say that the work is too hard and you drop out. It can also really make you hate your parents and blame them for everything that’s hard in your life (for a minute—or for a much longer time), even if you try to simultaneously hold onto all the love that you have for them, which is also just as real. Since my parents have been separated or divorced for over a decade now, it was easy to be angry at them for my lacking romantic life. No wonder I couldn’t be in a healthy romantic relationship after their strife and anguish (which I started sensing as a young child) was my home environment!
As I moved on from my therapist in Austin to my therapist in New Orleans, I started to push back on this model of tying everything back to foundational trauma from our parents or families. When Simz raps, “Never thought my parents would give me my first heartbreak/ Anxiety givin’ me irregular heart rate,” that’s real—but it’s also not the entire story. This became really evident as I spent the bulk of my entire last year with my New Orleans therapist processing the rape that I experienced in late May 2020, about how many lightyears away it was from any of the other trauma I had previously experienced: an abuse of age, an abuse of seniority, an abuse of maniuplation, coercion, and narcissism. I am still letting go of the anger from that rape; while moving away and restarting my dating life have certainly helped, there’s no amount of therapy or work on myself that will erase that from my bodily memory. As I continued to process the rape, the framework of “Does this person remind you more of mom or dad?” started to become a lot less helpful. But that is what rape does: it shatters our ideas of self, of what it means to be a sexual body, of what it does to have sex with someone else. (And, as I write this, I know this is the spillover from the in between the lines of an academic article I’m simultaneously working on, about Adrian Piper and Kelela and rhythms of re- and disorientation.) In my last session with my New Orleans therapist in May 2021, I fell back into trying to categorize a recent romantic situation in terms of the two types of people that I supposedly seemed to date: present but physically/psychically helicoptering and emotionally unpredictable (like my mom during my childhood) or distant but intellectually stimulating yet emotionally unavailable (like my dad during my childhood). And then, to my surprise, my therapist told me that I couldn’t just put everyone into these two categories, effectively exploding this sorting mechanism of our past three years of working together. “People don’t just fit into boxes like that,” she said with a smile. “And besides, you’re still info gathering” (how predictive that would be).
Recently I told my therapist in LA that I don’t find the model that we look for our parents and/or to fill in their lacks in our dating lives to be very useful. Instead, I prefer to think about how the traumas from our pasts enables what we’ll tolerate in our presents—and then also highlights the things we need to draw better boundaries around in the future. Such as: I have a herstory of feeling like my emotional needs haven’t been met in my intimate (romantic) relationships, so I need to date people who are actually emotionally available and can meet me in that space. That has very little to do with my parents at this point—and everything to do with me and the decisions I make in my intimate lives. This, to me, is what Little Simz’s “I Love You, I Hate You” is about at the core: about how you navigate your emotional life in the present while recognizing the things that you’ve endured there in the past. It’s recognizing how your parents weren’t there while also remembering that they are people who make mistakes. It’s taking responsibility for your own anxiety instead of blaming it or unloading it on other people. And besides, I’ve stopped being mad at both of my parents a long time ago at this point. My dad wasn’t there because he was working, often as the sole income for our household. He’s become a bigger part of my life since college, when we began to build more of a friendship whenever I was home. And, my mom was both there (too much) and not there because she was doing the emotional work of two parents. She understands and respects my need for space now—and this has allowed us to become closer as adults, especially since we hashed some things out at a holiday two years ago. And, my sister is one of my best friends. For the first time in my life, I don’t have any drama with my immediate family. It’s something that it’s taken close to my entire lifetime (thus far) to achieve.
As the first single from Second Line: An Electro Revival, “Bussifame” was always going to set the tone for Dawn Richard’s best album so far. Continuing on her use of family herstory and/or tribal history from her previous album, new breed, the song begins with an interlude from Debbie Richard, the pop artist’s mom:
A Second Line is a dance where everybody is happy and they’re doing how they feel
They don’t necessarily have any set steps to do
They’re just getting down
After the end of the interlude, a burst of the last kind of music you’d ever expect to hear at a second line in New Orleans enters the song: an electronic crescendo gives way to some drum machine hi hats and deep, drawn-out bass synth lines, a mix of electro and dance music. In perfect 4/4 time, Richard begins to rap along with the beat: “Oh, this feel good/ Turn me up/ Hi hats/ Yeah, uh/ They’re just getting down.” After each verse, she delivers a refrain of “Bus-si-fa-me,” a slurring together of all the syllables of “bust it fo’ me.” As she runs through the refrain for a third time following the third verse, she begins to add in instructions for how to move along with her: “Feet/ Feet move with the beat/ Feet/ Feet move with the beat (woo).” When I hear these lines, I reminisce about trying to do footwork along with my white male ethnographer friends, who were much better at it than me from always being at second lines, back in New Orleans. (In the music video, Richard and her dancers offer a visual—and movement—demonstration of these moves.) The song is just as much a call to collectivity as it is a call to action, a vibrational pull to get onto the rhythms of those to whom you feel the most connected. Every time I listen to the song, I think of the three pockets where I most feel this: with students, with friends and/or romantic interests, and with queer community.
“The exchange of ideas is an erotic exchange.” On the verge of moving from Austin to New Orleans, my Ph.D. advisor shared this insight in the last of our in his office chats. My mentor since day one of the program and the only male member of my dissertation committee, this advisor was nevertheless my emotional confidant, the person who knew all about my emotional and romantic and intellectual lives as they were unfolding in real time. “You’re already seeing this with your colleagues—but you’ll see it in a new way once you have students in seminar.” In writing about the erotic, Audre Lorde positions it in opposition to the pornographic, the latter of which she describes as acts for the sake of sexual exchange alone. For Lorde, the erotic is instead a site of connection between women (she was a Woman-Identified Woman after all), of extending towards one another via knowledge and shared experience. More than that, it’s about intimacy, embodied knowledge, and feeling/sensing our ways through things together. I would experience this kind of intimacy in a classroom for the first time when I taught my first seminar in fall 2020, with a class of students who had (largely) followed me from the 2019-2020 school year into this second—or third!—class with me. In an affect theory course during a pandemic semester and presidential election year, we would get raw in the classroom, slipping from talking about the readings to talking about real life in that queer theory way that illuminates how absolutely inseparable both of those things are. I held a lot of emotions that semester, which both gave me an anchor away from my recent abusive relationship but also showed me how I needed to readjust my emotional boundaries with students going forward. But, this is what it’s like to think and listen and (Black) study together. I miss those students all of the time, just as I miss teaching seminar (someday).
Then, there’s also the erotics of sharing ideas and feelings with your academic friends and/or collaborators, which has (in Brooklyn and Austin and New Orleans and LA) sometimes spilled over into being something else for me too. And I’m being both extremely vague and exactingly specific here, in the style of Fred Moten waxing poetic about rhythms and refrains. We had been dancing around this erotics for some time, you and I. Then, after years of my hoping it would happen, we started to get closer as friends and colleagues, which brought some of those other feelings back to the surface. Zoom happy hours extended into sharing tarot spreads via text, our work via email, and our (work) lives over the phone. Soon, I found that you were one of the people that I was trusting with some of my hardest things, as you did the same with me. And then, because it was no longer avoidable, we started to talk about those other feelings too. In the end, we made a decision to table all that, due to where each of us individually is geographically, career-wise, and emotionally. It was a hard moment for me and still hurts my heart at least a little bit, if I’m being completely honest about it. Yet I also don’t want to give up my closeness with you, even if that means still figuring out which kind of rhythmic recalibration is required for the next rendition of our friendship. I still want to be in queer and feminist and intellectual collaboration with you, in the rhythms of our work—and how much they’ve been moving alongside one another’s for the past 5.5 years without us even realizing it (there you were, (also) writing about vibration the entire time). I haven’t said it like this to you yet but those moments where you emotionally held me during some of my most difficult career concerns/new job moments (and vice versa) helped get me (and you?) through the semester. In just one semester, you’re already one of my people. These are our queer and feminist rhythms, connecting all these different parts of our lives.
Even while staying present in all these shifts, in early November I nevertheless turned the majority of my energy towards the biggest lack in my LA life at that point: that of queer community. After balancing a new job, a new relationship, and PT to repair a small tear in my right shoulder during the first half of the semester, I didn’t have much energy for anything else. Upon becoming single, I started to spend more time with my queer friends from work/school, particularly one who had also just become single again. By the last weekend in the month, it all already started to come together, with two new additional friend groups of queer folks from the academic, art, and/or activism worlds. That weekend was the first time that I felt I had really arrived (and could stay in) LA—and it was the first time since my time at NYU performance studies from 2013-2014 that I felt that my queer community life could sustain and nourish me in a long-term, ongoing kind of way. (I felt this a lot of this all over again when I connected with two different sound studies colleagues from UCLA during the first weekend in December.) Because, above anything else, the meaning of “Bussifame”—and the meaning of my queer-feminist intellectual-emotional life—is to be in these kind of affective and vibrational exchanges with others, to meet where our rhythmic wavelengths cross paths. Often, that means that we don’t know where exactly things will go, and on which timelines exactly. As someone who (still) struggles with giving up the idea of control/knowing how everything will unfold, this can be scary for me. But this is also what it means to be in the queer and/or Black refrain, what it does to live your life outside the constraints of normative time and space.
Here’s to a 2022 where we get on the rhythms where we want to be.