A dumbness that cracks: On art that fills you up

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - 5:35pm

NOSELL

The Cure

Robert Smith said that after he wrote “Friday I’m In Love,” he slipped into a kind of “drug-fueled paranoia” in which he found himself calling everyone he knew in the music business, panicked because he was sure that he had somehow plagiarized the chord progression. There was an effusive quality to the melody that felt too familiar, too easy, too obvious to be real, as if the song had always existed.

I don’t blame him for being paranoid — it’s a perfect song. Like really, fully, honest to God perfect — the kind of classic I can imagine playing softly on the last radio on earth after plural apocalypses. The world could burn, but “Friday I’m In Love” would remain and the aliens would at least have something beautiful to remember us by.

It’s built out of the sort of joy that lifts you from your feet, but is still suffused with a sweet, sad urgency in Smith’s voice that pierces through the warmth the song’s scaffolding is built on. You’ve never once had to think about the lyrics to understand perfectly what the song is about, but if you do think about them you’re pulled into a swirling rush of love and longing. With every verse another week has passed, and when you reach the bridge, “sleek as a shriek / spinning round and round,” you’re brought to a new place entirely.

Smith, who was probably best known at the time for writing moody, gothic pieces notorious for their brooding complexity, told Spin in an interview that he went through hundreds of drafts for “Friday’s” lyrics, trying to, “...hit something that’s not cringing — a simplicity and naiveté that communicates. There’s a dumbness that sort of cracks.”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately — about art that doesn’t exactly articulate anything complicated or particularly specific but cracks you open anyway, not with a blunt force punch of drama or pathos, but with the sweet and awful earnestness of witnessing something unbearably true. It’s like this time, a few winters ago, I was in the dining hall, freezing cold, panicking about something that was probably dumb and looking over at the table next to me where there was a couple. They were holding hands and staring at each other with an open-hearted tenderness all over their faces. I had to look away almost immediately because it was way too intimate, too embarrassing to watch people feeling so deeply and so openly. There’s a reason we say “I feel so attacked right now” — when a feeling is precisely rendered, its intimacy feels like violent intrusion.

I think the art that depicts joy the best has a similar effect. It’s rare, but I’m finding myself less and less interested in anything that doesn’t hit this hard, mostly because the medium through which I discover 99% of the art I love — the internet — makes me numb. Not in the sense that it bores me, but that I think it’s done something to me on a psychological level that’s difficult to define, but feels real anyway.

There’s that scene in “Eighth Grade” where Kayla is lying in bed, scrolling through her phone and we see the changing colored lights flashing across her face along with a montage of all the things she’s seeing — a Jimmy Fallon clip, a Tumblr post about the bees, a picture of the cool girl in class on Instagram, a catty tweet, a Trump tweet, a steady IV drip of information — and it feels so familiar. I’ve been Kayla so many times, sitting for hours experiencing content with nothing really reaching me. My attention is captured but my heart isn’t and the result is a feeling of relentless sameness in the art and media I’m consuming day in and day out.

Some days just feel like an unending feed of content that flits by in a listless haze, everything blurring together and humming at the same frequency, an inescapable low drone. It leaves me uneasy when I look up from my computer, like I’m in this liminal space between thinking and not thinking, feeling and not feeling. Bo Burnham said in an interview with Rookie: “(The internet) is everything. It’s overstimulating, it’s numbing. We’re hyper-connected, we’re super lonely ... the problem with the internet is indescribably subtle and I just go to bed at the end of the night and I have a nervous stomach for no reason and I don’t know why.”

It’s not that “Friday I’m In Love” is the cure (see what I did there) to this problem — and besides, “problem” is the wrong word. I don’t think the Internet is a discrete positive or negative thing at this point in the culture so much so as it operates like a lysogenic virus, embedding itself into the DNA and growing as the host, the user, does. It’s only lately I’ve noticed a shift. It makes me feel, like Burnham, sick to my stomach for reasons I find really difficult to explain. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know if it can be fixed, or if it’s all in my head, or if something completely inscrutable and terrifying really has happened to my brain.

But I know I feel a sense of relief when I listen to that song, or read a book that feels essential in that similar feverish way. I feel, at this point, so allergic to anything ironic or numb in art, whether that’s how it’s made or how I engage with it. So I’m on the hunt for a dumbness that cracks me right open, past all the bullshit and the soundbites and the endless humming monotone that fills up my internet, and cuts to the feeling. I don’t know how often I’ll encounter it, or if I’ll be able to tune out the noise long enough to pay attention to the things that matter. In the meantime, I’ll be listening — tentatively, carefully.