I will follow you into the dark

reflections on musical nostalgia

Hi, I’m Anna and you’re reading the Verve Letter – my bi-weekly column on feminism, modern life and pop culture. If you enjoy it and want it in your inbox regularly, you can subscribe here.

Lately, I have spent many of my pandemic walks accompanied by the sincere and soothing voice of Ben Gibbard. If you don’t know who Ben Gibbard is, we probably belonged to different subcultures in our teens. Gibbard was – and still is – the frontman of Death Cab for Cutie, an indie band which shot to commercial success after being introduced as Seth Cohen’s favorite band in The O.C.. They feature heavily on the soundtrack of my teens and early twenties, accompanied by the usual suspects of the genre.

My relationship with Death Cab over the past decade has been like one of old friends, who only meet up once a year, but just pick up where they left off the last time. The pandemic has changed this. Because when our yearly catch up rolled around in early spring (courtesy of the Spotify “Discover” Weekly), I was prepared to dance and cry and wallow in memories for the next 24 hours. But months later… I still got Kintsugi on repeat?

I suppose that in a time where it feels like our lives have been put on hold, it’s not surprising that we turn to the past. That we try to take stock. Try to figure out if we have lived up to the expectations of our 16-year-old selves. And nothing propels us faster into the past than the music of our formative years. Researchers have actually proven that our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers more tightly than anything we’ll hear as adults. As our brains undergo rapid neurological development between the ages of 12 and 22, it makes sense that the music we loved back then got wired into our lobes for good.

So, the powerful, swipe-the-rug-from-underneath-you-way in which music connects you to people, places and moments that made you who you are is not just sentimentality, but neuroscience.

What makes me press the repeat button, however, is only one part neuroscience. The other, much larger, part is nostalgia. Nostalgia has become one of the core conditions of this pandemic – it describes the notion of an impossible longing to go back in time, or as David Berry wrote: “it is yearning distilled to its essence, yearning not really for its own sake but because there is nothing else to be done.”

Yearning because there is nothing else to be done.

That’s it, isn’t it? I howl along to “I will follow you into the dark”, while I dream myself away to the days when life stretched out in front of me, filled with an overwhelming amount of possibilities. When I was faced with life altering questions like what I wanted to study, where I was going to spend my semester abroad and whether I’d regret dying my hair black (I would. Very much so.).

When there were no future plans to lean on in the last few months, the memories of past bliss held me upright. If nothing else, this Covid-year has been a painful reminder to never take anything for granted, a reminder that nothing will go on forever, but that we must absolutely live like it will, because otherwise we will fall to pieces. Which is the core of nostalgia, according to Berry:

“The idea that things will go on forever is simple delusion on our part—all things pass, etc.—but, as delusions go, it is surely among the most understandable if not the most fundamentally necessary. The knowledge that life is fleeting is barely digestible in retrospect; in real time, it’s debilitating. We yearn to go back because life is loss, loss, loss, all the way down.”

I suppose it’s this gloomy undercurrent of nostalgia which has me blasting Death Cab and not Destiny’s Child. As Ben Gibbard once said: “People turn to us because they don't want to feel alone in their melancholic moments.” Which, by the way, is a much more accurate description of their music than the one Summer gave in the first season of The O.C. (“One guitar and a whole lot of complaining.” – EXCUSE ME).

The amazing thing about Death Cab is, that they have managed to mature together with their fans without changing their tone or style. Hell, Gibbard even still wears the shaggy side fringe at 44! They used to sing about teenage heartbreak, now they sing about adult heartbreak. About divorce, loss and life. Kintsugi for example, which is their best studio album ever (and that’s a hill I’m willing to die on), is heavily inspired by Gibbard’s divorce from Zoey Deschanel.

Anyway. Before I drift too far off into indie band trivia, I just want to say: Lean into whoever your Death Cab is. Maybe it’s Destiny’s Child. Maybe it’s Coldplay. I won’t judge. But put in on your heavy rotation. Because there are three things I learned about listening to the musical loves of my teenage years:

  1. Lyrics you once knew by heart will come back as soon as that first chord gives you goosebumps. And singing along to an emotional song is wonderfully cathartic.

  2. They don’t make indie music like they used to anymore.

  3. Music is the truest of comforts. Most comfort foods have been ruined by diet culture. TV shows of the 90s and 00s are deeply problematic in 2021. And while some music of our teens hasn’t aged well either, a lot of it can still be enjoyed simply for what it is: A wormhole into the years when everything seemed possible.

And after a year of soul searching and reflecting, I am determined to “send my thoughts to far off destinations / so they may have a chance of finding a place / where they’re far more suited than here” and believe that life is as full of possibilities at 32 as it was at 18.

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pop culture pleasures

Just in case you missed the hint in the essay above, Death Cab’s 2015 record Kintsugi is a true joy to listen to, if you’ve got an ounce of indie left in your soul. And knowing who inspired most of the break-up songs, makes for a whole new listening experience.

Fun fact: To balance out his rockstar life, Ben Gibbard runs ultra marathons. In this short, scenic documentary he shares how the trails keep his ego in check. (Even funnier fact: Last week I realized that we must have run the same race – different distances, I’m not crazy – on the Faroe Islands in 2018. I guess I was too busy trying not to slide down the face of a cliff and right into the Atlantic ocean to notice. Bummer!)

I got influenced by all the Brits in my timeline going wild over the sixth season of Line of Duty – so I binged the first three within two weeks (they’re very short seasons). It’s basically like Scandicrime on crack: super intense, awfully brutal, well written, and really bad for my blood pressure.

I found these NYT portaits of women who have decided against motherhood very interesting, as childfree women are still so heavily stigmatized. Maybe we can agree on this: As long as asking parents whether they regret having kids is still frowned upon, we’ll refrain from telling women that they’ll regret NOT procreating. Cool? Cool.

Mary Retta wrote a great piece on shame and how it ruins us – and how laughter is often used as a violent tool to hold up a system that doesn’t serve the majority of the people:

“When people laugh at the word “patriarchy,” just as when I once laughed at astrology, we are sending a clear message of cultural and intellectual superiority: This thing you are passionate about is stupid. You should be ashamed that you are stupid and ashamed that you have passion.”

Anne Helen Petersen interviewed the writer Rainesford Stauffer about the notion of coming of age and how to deal with outdated milestones rooted in capitalism.

I also found Rachel Thompson’s piece about the pressure which the pandemic put on our personal to-do list quite relatable. We’re not as close to post-lockdown life in Germany as in other parts of the world, but you can feel people gearing up towards it and anxiety is tangible.

Podcasts episodes which I enjoyed recently: Brandon Taylor on In Writing, the You’re Wrong About episode about Political Correctness and, in German, Tilo Jung im Hotel Matze.

🇩🇪 Auch ich habe mal wieder in ein Mikro geredet, diese Mal als Moderatorin des Nachschlag-Podcasts, den ich nun im Wechsel mit zwei weiteren Kollegen moderieren werde. In meiner ersten Folge durfte ich gleich über mein Lieblingsthema sprechen: Inklusive Sprache und warum dieses Thema immer die fiesesten Trolle auf den Plan ruft.


let’s end this music issue in: style.

That’s it for today! Thank you for taking the time to read my musings and for tolerating that bad pun at the end, I don’t deserve you.

You can support my work by sharing this issue and getting the word out, as well as by treating me to a cup of coffee or sending me your most nostalgia-inducing Death Cab track.

coffee ☕️

Until next time,

Anna

PS: You can also follow me on Instagram, I mostly share book and podcast recommendations, memes and hot takes from feminist queens I admire.

// image credit: Andy Witchger, creative commons