Hi, welcome to Maybe Baby no.4, featuring not a single mention of coronavirus excepting this one, a bunch of my insecurities, and an “essay” on a single topic. So happy to have you! In case you missed it, a piece of mine went up on The Cut last week. Click to read it only if you’re in the mood for quarcon (quarantine content). And if you’re not, you’ve come to the right place:
If you’ve been online in the past three days, you’re probably aware that Fiona Apple just released an album. It’s called Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and it’s her first in nine years. Within hours of its release my Twitter feed was flooded with proclamations of its perfection and suggestions that it could single-handedly “save us.” Pitchfork gave it the rare and coveted 10/10. Beaming critical receptions echoed across the internet from Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New Yorker, NPR, The New York Times, US Weekly (👀). The album was “astounding,” “triumphant,” “a masterpiece.” No one seemed to have a single bad thing to say about it, so when I listened to it and kind of hated it, I was…confused.
There is a particular emotional quality to not understanding something other people love. It can make you feel like you’re 16 and just found out about a party you weren’t invited to, or pretended to know something you didn’t and got called out, or saw two girls look at you and whisper and stifle a laugh. Sometimes I think we never really get over these childhood experiences. That we spend the rest of our lives rewriting their importance, or renegotiating how they made us feel, or repeating them while casting ourselves in different roles. Even after we grow out of our old insecurities, I think they creep around the background of our psyches, waiting to be reinstated when we lose our balance.
I’m not at all familiar with Fiona Apple’s catalogue—she’s one of those cultural touchstones I somehow missed along with David Bowie and The Fast and the Furious. So maybe it makes sense that her most recent album would sound more like noise to me than masterpiece. The songs aren’t immediately catchy or melodic, the tempo changes unpredictably; sometimes she just screams into the microphone or lets her dogs bark for a minute straight (lol, respect). It’s bizarre and chaotic, and while I did like some parts, my overwhelming sense was that I didn’t get it.
I could have just accepted this. I could have reasoned that perhaps I was missing some context, or that it just wasn’t for me, but I instead decided the album and its online reception annoyed me. I began to imagine that everyone singing its praises merely wanted to align themselves with a subcultural icon—or gain whatever cache you’re allotted for liking something largely unlikable. I took my insecurity and projected it onto them in its perfect 16-year-old image.
And maybe I wasn’t categorically off-base—maybe some people really have exaggerated their affection for the album because they like what it implies about their taste (or the way it sets them apart from people who prefer something more formulaic). But I think my paranoia says more about me than them. Am I still so insecure? And how am I so sure that my own motivations online are more pure? What if I’m so intent on perceiving this duplicity in other people because I see it in myself? Obviously this led me down a rabbit hole that had nothing to do with Fiona Apple, who seems like the kind of person who might question these things herself:
In-groups and out-groups are the sociological phenomenon whereby we favor the social groups we belong to and are averse to the ones we don’t. I think we all understand this pretty instinctively, but what I find most fascinating about it is how it can motivate us to actively dislike groups that leave us out, because by doing so we can form a new in-group defined by our otherness, which feels more affirming than simply not belonging. In some sense this is the impetus of subculture—creating something else where the mainstream doesn’t serve us—but like most things it becomes destructive when overemphasized, making enemies out of anyone who’s different from us.
Social media crystallizes this dynamic in a particularly performative way. Not just because it reinforces binaries of taste (are you earnest or ironic? into contour or no makeup? pro-filter or pro-flash?), but because its entire value proposition is about asserting who you are in comparison, or contrast, to other people. This is why I think there’s some truth to the idea that Instagram is a playground for the insecure. Who else is more desperate to find an in-group, and what better way to do it?
It feels like I’m getting at something obvious. But maybe that’s why it’s worth getting at—I think we’ve become so attuned to what certain things say about us online that I’m not sure we’re even conscious of the implications anymore. Or worse, we are, and that’s why it’s so addicting, because we’re embroiled in an endless digital game of chasing confidence and running from feeling inadequate. Doesn’t that kind of sound like being on Instagram? This is probably why I feel so critical of people trying to assert their superiority online—it makes me blatantly face what I’ve always suspected about these virtual spaces, and especially my role in perpetuating them.
I’ll admit I’m kind of saying two things here: That everyone on Instagram is insecure and that I’m insecure for thinking that. But I think that tension is one of the central tenets of engaging with social media—you’re never quite sure if everyone else is crazy or you are. Maybe we’re all a little bit of both, mixing together our more authentic and inauthentic qualities until we can’t remember which is which. I think the performative aspect of maintaining a social profile—the choosing of the photos, the crafting of the words—will always serve as a kind of filter on our lives, whether we’re the filtering types or not.
As I considered all this I was still thinking about Fiona Apple. So I started learning more about her—watching her famous VMA speech, reading Emily Nussbaum’s recent New Yorker profile of her (which is brilliant), giving that Pitchfork review a closer look. My friend Max made me an entire Google doc called “Fiona Apple Appeal” filled with links and explanations. I’m not sure if he intended that title to be a double-entendre, but I love that it is. I read every word.
The irony of Apple being the specific catalyst for this spiral is that she’s centered her entire public persona around disavowing the kind of posturing I was accusing her fans of. I began to understand why people are so drawn to her; why her refusal to heed to the rules of conventionality or in-groups makes other people feel less alone, or less out. These values are baked into her lyrics (“I resent you for presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure”) but also the music itself. In the words of Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly: “The very sound of Fetch the Bolt Cutters dismantles patriarchal ideas: professionalism, smoothness, competition, perfection—aesthetic standards that are tools of capitalism, used to warp our senses of self.” It’s not an album for social media. It might be its moral opposite.
That doesn’t mean it can’t still be used to underline someone’s identity online; maybe that makes it an even more potent tool for doing so (or even a hypocritical one). But it helped me understand that there’s more to the Fiona Apple fandom than a rejection of the mainstream. Or a rejection of—just to throw out an example!—someone like me. When I asked my friend Mallory, who is a fan, about the album’s online reception, she only felt joy in the hype. To her there’s nothing “inaccessible” about Apple’s music—it’s just raw, unfiltered, and emotionally generous. The idea that posting about the album might indicate anything other than the fact that she’s hiding a lot rage hadn’t occurred to her. This confirms what I think about Mallory, which is that she’s not the posturing type. (Is there any better quality?)
I listened to the album a couple more times, my ears perking when I heard a pleasant piano, my body recoiling when it sounded like pots falling off a kitchen shelf. I gained a new appreciation for the nuance of her tone and words, but I don’t typically listen closely to lyrics, so the experience felt out of step with how I prefer to engage with music. An old adage I haven’t thought about for a while resurfaced in my mind: Amy Poehler’s “good for her, not for me.” I remember finding the notion refreshing (if twee) when I first heard it, and then growing tired of it as the cultural conversation around feminism became increasingly hollow. But I think I have a better understanding now of why such a simple sentiment could solicit the response it did.
So much of modern life is working against our security—not just the competitive edge to performing our lives online or the social strata around which we organize, but even our childhoods memories. I think “good for her, not for me” is a call to let differences lie. To not engage them every time as if they’re an affront to who we are (even if they were intended to be). Obviously it’s not a blanket solution, especially where valid criticism is warranted and useful, but it’s an offer to resist our evolutionary instinct to prioritize self-protection over something less navel-gazey.
This isn’t necessarily a complete thought, and it’s obviously low-stakes…given everything. But I’m pushing myself to use this space for incomplete thoughts (if you’ll permit me!!!). So I’m going to leave it. I promise to mention the single tear I shed on a walk today in a future newsletter and, in the meantime, I welcome your Fiona takes in the comments. Or if Fiona doesn’t stir you, what’s your equivalent? I think she can stand in for any cultural touchpoint liable to make you feel like you belong or don’t. (I think fashion is a big one.)
Also, for an upcoming Maybe Baby I’d like to answer some subscriber questions, so if you have one (whether it’s about me or about you), please drop it in the comments or reply to this email. It’s slightly easier for me to track comments but either works! And lastly, I’m still figuring out a cadence that makes sense for this newsletter—or how much a specific cadence matters—so thank you in advance for bearing with me as I try out different things.
Sincere apologies for using the phrase “thank you in advance,”
P.s. For the sake of adding something to this email that isn’t a wall of text, here are 5 pure things I bookmarked on Instagram this week to lighten your emotional load:
1. Sarah Ramos has been reenacting movies scenes on IG and I’ve watched this one from Holiday in the Sun at least 15 times.
2. This NYTimes recipe for crispy roasted potatoes, for, I’ll be honest, Avi.
3. A cover of Harry Styles’ “Cherry” by—gird your loins!!!—Rebecca Black. (I follow)
4. These carafes for sale on Coming Soon.
5. A cattoo by Dima, who did my most recent tattoos.