On Phoebe Bridgers and 'Punisher'
Phoebe Bridgers in the ‘Kyoto’ music video, 2020. A blurry photo of a white woman with silver-blue hair wearing a cheap skeleton onesie. She is standing screen left in front of a green screen displaying Mt. Fuji across the water. Red leaves hang overhead.
Note: brief mention of eating disorders
I’ve always been drawn to the macabre. The dark and sinister always felt more sincere than the rosy Norman Rockwell world laid out in my Midwestern childhood. When I was allowed to play my own music, unwatched and unheard, I turned to the wistful and depressive. Bright Eyes was one of my favorite early discoveries. Bright Eyes was a favorite of Phoebe Bridgers growing up too, she’s talked about playing “Poison Oak” while busking at the farmer’s market. Her newest album, Punisher, painted the suburbs as a place where kids drive away to stare at the chemtrails in Goodwill parking lots between burying bodies in their gardens. Bridgers grew up in Pasadena, and while not a proper suburb, her lyrics bring to mind the driving culture that permeates not just LA but the far reaches of Indiana.
Musicians like Bridgers have long before attempted to break into the mainstream, even turning out a hit or two occasionally, but Bridgers’ success, from Grammy nominations to collaborations with Kid Cudi and Phoebe Waller-Bridge can seem meteoric. I will not be using the word ‘unprecedented’ as I have attempted to strike it from my vocabulary. Besides, mainstream success for a willowy white folk musician is nothing new--after all it’s how Joni Mitchell made her name in the 1960s.
Other influences, like Elliot Smith, are worn on the sleeve. Describing the title track, Bridgers turns to her own obsession with Smith. She admits she would be a “punisher” if she met him, a fan who doesn’t realize when it’s time to walk away from their superstar crush. In an interview with Stereogum, she outlined the concept further, “Talking to your heroes, you’re like, ‘I can’t wait to tell them this, this, and this.’ I have an opposite response to it now, but I definitely, for most of my life, was a punisher. I was backstage with Patti Smith a couple months ago, which is wild. She waved to me in a group of people and I ran away because I was so afraid that I would be just another person telling her how inspiring she is.”
I know I would be that punisher if I met Phoebe, my apocalypse crush.
There is a rise of the personality economy through growing investments in the columnist, we are told that personalities drive consumer behavior now. We latch onto and pay for people as if they were products. The narrowing of what we pay for into specific people seems an endgame for hypercapitalism. Substack’s concept of paying someone for their particular ‘content’ comes to mind, though they aren’t the only one. Social media can rewire our brains into investing in people’s ‘brands.’ Poets have deals with designer fashion brands, the art is inseparable from the money. Not just artists either, we can begin to see friends or family as a certain type of poster. Maybe they mainly post selfies, maybe they mainly post their photography failures, or maybe they’re the poster we envy-follow. If this sounds like a case for artistic purity, it’s not. People have to eat. In interviews, Phoebe Bridgers has discussed how landing a song in a commercial gave her the ability to take enough time off to record her debut album Stranger in the Alps.
Bridgers’ use of social media crafts a witty, tender portrait. Few can land a joke like she can, skewering herself and mocking men who whine about her guitar smashing abilities. On Twitter, she regularly calls herself Taylor Swift for people with divorced parents. Her tag used to be “traitor joe.” One minute she’s in Playboy and the next she’s against a fence discussing astrology and privilege. None of this is surprising, the duality of aesthetics is always what keeps aesthetics afloat. Those best at the game play both poles, highbrow and lowbrow mixing together.
The dark humor of Bridgers’ lyrics has been questioned by many interviewers. They seem to find something dissonant in her working of tweets into lyrics, the mundane next to the anxious. The dark comic horror of “Halloween” displays it well. “I can count on you to tell me the truth when you’ve been drinking and you’re wearing a mask.” In the same song she idly sings “we can be anything,” but as if being anything is to fall apart. She plays on the emotional resonance of sincerity and irony in equal measure. What some interviewers don’t seem to get is that this is what the socially media-savvy are trained to do. Display your sadness better. Display your depression as a joke, as a little treat for the rest of us consuming you online.
The music video for Punisher’s first single “Garden Song” has ghosts and bongs in equal measure. Phoebe’s newest album, Punisher, brings to mind a life full of painfully discarded crushes, Midwestern anti-abortion signs on highways, roaming CVS for stickers, and crying over exes who don’t remember you. Somehow Phoebe’s relationship with the internet helps us feel better about the nightmarish lullaby of being online. Like we’re all sad together. Or I’m sad and someone else is watching it and we’re all thinking the same depression song on loop. Whether in front of the Oval Office, a piano bar, or performing karaoke to her own song while driving doughnuts. Her music performances during the promotion of Punisher have shown a light on the absurdity, loneliness, and cardboard feelings many are going through. The now-iconic onesie skeleton costumes felt both mocking and sincere, attempts to feel something. “Don’t wanna be alone anymore,” she sings on “Demi Moore.” The Genius notes for this song note the sadness of the song and the contrast with its opening line “Take a dirty picture babe/I can’t sleep and I miss your face.” The second single for Punisher follows a similar path, beginning to describe a “day off in Kyoto” to cheery synths before descending into a chorus of rage. “I’m gonna kill you,” she mouths in the music video dancing in front of a green screen Godzilla.
Phoebe described her songs to Apple Music as “the idea of having these inner personal issues while there's bigger turmoil in the world—like a diary about your crush during the apocalypse.” The final song on Punisher, “I Know the End” is the best example of this. What starts out as a ballad about sitting on a swing with an ex, knowing the relationship is over, turns into a whirlwind car ride through the end of the world. “It’s a government drone or an alien space ship,” she informs us. Tweets and social media posts about the end of the world have grown in popularity this past year. Apocalypse narratives have continued to gain steam. Science fiction titan Octavia Butler finally landed on the New York Times bestseller list. Climate activist Greta Thunberg has risen to prominence through numerous documentaries and speeches. I know the dread and fear many felt over the past year wondering what superstructure would collapse next.
Throughout last summer and beyond, I began relating to Punisher as a fellow goth girl. I walked to the graveyard in a band t-shirt, a choker, and black skirt thinking I had become a parody of myself. I wanted to dye my hair silver, I joked, and wear all black. I thought if I was a public trans girl in mourning I would beat everyone else to the punch. I listened to Bright Eyes and 100 gecs, walking around in circles “to the same three songs over and over'' as “Chinese Satellite” told me to. It was a brand of womanhood that I could see myself in. I had given up on living a polished social media life, I knew I would never be the polished influencer. I wanted to retreat into Tumblr aesthetics, pretending I knew a lot about vinyl, and listening to Joni Mitchell with religious zeal. There was a sadness in Phoebe’s music that got at the core fragility of friendships and relationships that I’d always felt. I felt a girlhood in her music that I could be a part of, the good and fucked up parts in equal measure.
Occasionally, Phoebe would hit on something big during an interview, whether discussing the insidious behavior of men or her kindhearted relationship with paramour turned best friend and collaborator Marshall Vore. Her music mirrors these ambiguous feelings towards herself and others. During a Twitter Q&A, a fan asked what a line from “My Dog & Me” meant. “I want to be emaciated,” she sang on the boygenius track. Bridgers responded that it was “literally” about an eating disorder. “Graceland Too” feels like the country song opposite, a coming back to embodiment through MDMA, Elvis, saltines, and friends. “I would do anything for you” she sings to herself. “No longer a danger to herself or others…” Phoebe knows herself and her audience and that many of them cycle through self-help, depression, and burn out. Her songs connect the tenderness of loss to aesthetics of decay.
Listening to her talk, I felt like it was possible to live a life in the midst of depression. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal of Punisher, failure is not just an aesthetic, but a part of life, a part to mourn and celebrate and move through. Punisher was a way of grieving and remaining, of being in the present, seeing an artist who could contain those multiplicities, sadness, humor, joy, therapy, meme culture. In Punisher, listeners are able to hold the nostalgia of pain and the barbed wire of “I’ve been playing dead my whole life” or “I don’t know what I want until I fuck it up.”
I was going to dress up as Phoebe Bridgers for Halloween, just as she had hoped to be Phoebe Waller-Bridge for Halloween. Like countless other basic Brooklyn girls and gays, I wanted to play the part. Instead I watched Kiki’s Delivery Service and ate candy for the first time in a long time.
I also wrote about Alice Zeniter’s incredible newly translated novel The Art of Losing and a retrospective of photographs by Mariette Pathy Allen. If you want to commission me, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org as I would love to escape Substack. Have a good week and I hope you’re able to welcome spring warmly.