In April of 2020, as New York’s initial lockdown to combat the global pandemic of the novel COVID-19 virus set in and my last semester in college began transitioning to online learning; Pasadena, California born, singer-songwriter, Phoebe Bridgers released Kyoto, the first single from her critically acclaimed album Punisher. The album’s despondent, yet engaging instrumentation and lyrics of apocalyptic dreamscapes, childhood resentment, drugged-wanderlust, and self-resolution were a much needed refugee for someone like me: a young adult, transitioning out of student life, while watching the cracks in our societies become exacerbated by a global pandemic.
Phoebe’s 2017 album, Stranger in the Alps, initially went past my radar. Yet, Kyoto was mentioned on my timeline by musicians and music journalists alike and after the first listen, I immediately played Stranger in full and felt compelled to keep my eyes open for Punisher’s release. Both albums are gripping, emotional and intimate; yet Punisher is able to achieve this, while also presenting faster tempos and anthemic instrumentation, a great move forward from Stranger.
On Punisher’s final song, I Know the End, Bridgers, uses lyrics that are both damning and personal; blurring the lines between imaginative and confessionary. Allowing the listener an experience of societal purgatory, hyper-consumerism and anxiety. A near time-stamp in a world facing record-setting unemployment, the highest voter turnout of any American election in history, speculation-driven market volatility, exposed underlying class divisions and massive world-wide protest from both sides of the political spectrum and a continuing series of revelations into the oppressive frameworks by which our postmodern/corporatist societies exist.
The first verse of I Know the End begins with Phoebe weaving stories of her colleagues with stories of her own, taking the listener from Germany to Texas, then closing her eyes to fantasize a quiet life in the refuge of her room in California. As the chorus comes in, apocalyptic events have driven most native Californians out to where “not even the burnouts are out here anymore”. The second verse takes us to Phoebe in a position of social dissonance, brought on by her own anxieties; watching a sunset from a swing set, with a partner that may not be as engaged in the moment as she may want them to be. After a brief instrumental break, the third verse finds Phoebe in a purgatory state, that she further describes in her 2020 interview with Apple Music:
“I wanted to write about driving up the coast to Northern California, which I’ve done a lot in my life. It’s like a super specific feeling. This is such a stoned thought, but it feels kind of like purgatory to me, doing that drive, just because I have done it at every stage of my life, so I get thrown into this time that doesn’t exist when I’m doing it, like I can’t differentiate any of the times in my memory. I guess I always pictured that during the apocalypse, I would escape to an endless drive up north.”
Phoebe, taking us from the refuge of her room to an endless drive up north is similar to her lyrics in Garden Song, Punisher’s 2nd track, where she sings: “…and when I grow up I’m gonna look up from my phone and see my life and it’s gonna be just like my recurring dream: I’m at the movies, I don’t remember what I’m seein’, the screen turns into a tidal wave.” The tidal wave of this endless drive up north reaches its precipice, as the third verse finds Phoebe driving out into the sun, being burnt in looking for a creation myth and screaming along to some America-first rap country song. In discussing the third verse of the song for Genius’ Verified, Phoebe explains:
“Pop-country radio has always been kind of close to my heart because my grandparents listen to it, my mom listens to it, but ever since the [2016 Presidential] election, it’s made me realize — I mean I think this is like, the root of white privilege, where I’m like: ‘a lot of this stuff is racist’. Even though, it’s so f**ked up and even though there’s no place for me in the pop-country world…but when I’m alone in my car, trying to stay awake, especially, I’ll turn on pop-country and I’m like: ‘Oh, I actually do know all these lyrics.”
As Phoebe’s drive continues, she passes a slaughterhouse, an outlet mall and slot machines before mentioning the fear of god, Phoebe then confuses, if for a moment, a SpaceX launch, with that of the sighting of an alien spaceship. These images of American industry, in relation to our fear of the great unknown, feel similar to Allen Ginsburg, in his hungry fatigue, shopping for images in a neon fruit supermarket and strolling past blue automobiles in driveways to a silent cottage, while dreaming of a lost America of love. All while accompanied by visions of the American poet Walt Whitman, as his spiritual guide, in Ginsburg’s 1956 poem, A Supermarket in California.
As the third verse continues, Phoebe states she’ll find a new place to be from, referencing a “haunting house to hang around and ghost my friends”. While rejecting the fear of disappearing, Phoebe notices a billboard that reads: “The End Is Near”, only to turn around and realize everything has disappeared and the end’s not near, but here. In speaking of the song’s ending, Phoebe annotates:
“I did see a billboard that said: ‘the end of this near” and you know, lots of [billboards of] aborted fetuses on the [Interstate] 5 Freeway, like: ‘Who were they giving Billboards to?’ but then you know the kind of like whimsical — it’s really like — nothing in that verse has been whimsical yet, but then the idea — like even the haunted house with the picket fence, it’s like — I see it and I want it and then you turn around and the world is gone behind you…”
I Know the End concludes just as most existential tales do, with the protagonist of the story facing an inevitable death, or an end to a purgatory state of being. As Freddie Mercury put it: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” Every generation comes with its respective mythos, the most notable being the 1950’s American dream, where everyone belongs to a nuclear family, owns a suburban home with a white picket fence and a brand new, reliable convertible in the driveway. For Phoebe and many other millennials (born between 1984 and 1996), there are new additions to this national socio-economic dream, including cheaper computers, faster internet, the pique of the American Mall and the rise of social media. As American writer Joan Didion puts it in her 2006 collection of non-fiction stories, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, these malls were, similar to the internet, in being the: “…perfect fusion of the profit motive and the egalitarian ideal…” formed in “…toy garden cities in which no one lives but everyone consumes…” Though this may sound like paradise, stories of dystopian societies have taught us that most dystopias started from groups of influence whose aims were originally to create utopias, or “perfect societies”. In an attempt to make something unattainably perfect, we as humans often end up creating something that can be argued as corruptive.
Today information is tracked and logged at a greater speed than past eras. The consumer is not only the product, but often an accomplice in the trend-based media landscape that continues to shape, not only the millennial generation, but society at large. Or, as Josie McCoy as played by Rachel Leigh Cook refers to herself in the 2001 film Josie and the Pussycats, which stands as a satirical take on American pop culture: “Oh my god, I’m a trend pimp.” It’s almost as if we are aiding in our own desensitization and though this hyper-consumption has often led to a distraction from societal woes, the internet has also proven to be not just an escape, but a magnifying glass into the realities we often brush aside, whether occurring in our native spaces or existing far out of our world-view.
As the world continues to face the dangers of the novel Coronavirus, the internet has become just as essential of a resource as it’s ever been. We, as human beings will continue to be presented with newer reflections of who we are as technology evolves. Hopefully, these new experiences will help shape a generation caught in capitalist-driven societal-purgatory to find a greater sense of self and community. Hopefully, the end isn’t here.