Trying to Derail My One-Track Mind
Long before I had ever been in a relationship, long before I had ever kissed a boy, I was searching for my perfect breakup song. It’s kind of an oversimplification to say breakup song, though. More like a song for me to cry on the floor of my closet to when I was feeling unrequited. Something to cry to in the tub of my shower. A lot of crying in enclosed spaces, you get my drift.
It was my most noble quest to find songs to hurt and heal to, and I never stopped searching even as I grew up.
Over time there have been some stand-outs. There was 8th grade’s “Gypsy” by Suzanne Vega and “With Arms Outstretched” by Rilo Kiley. There was some Ed Sheeran, too. There’s been Bright Eyes’ cry-classic “First Day of My Life,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird” and “Landslide” (which, feel free to fight me on it, do not have to be as sad as people say), Jake Bugg’s “Broken.” There have been happy songs twisted into sadness. Words morphed from one crush’s story to another. Obscenely improvised, lyrical, tearful dances to “Gravity” by John Mayer performed by a young me in the dead of night in my dark room trying to exorcise the demon of heartache. Spoiler alert: it never works. John Mayer never helps. I just probably embarrassed myself by forgetting to shut my blinds, leaving me, my bad choreography, and my not-so-delicate crying on full display to my neighbors. Gravity, stay the hell away from me.
I needed a song that felt like recumbent weeping into ice cream on the couch, a nervous first kiss, that talked about hope and despair and confusion all at once. I needed words to echo exactly what had happened to me romantically at any given point in time. I needed a song to do closure for me.
That all changed when I first heard Lucy Dacus’ “Night Shift,” especially when it took hold of me this summer. For the first time, I considered that maybe catharsis through music comes from the honesty and comfort of the storyteller in their own narrative, not the degree to which they mirrored my own.
I’m tempted to just paste the lyrics of “Night Shift” here because there is no better explanation of the song than just reading it and listening to it and doing both at the same time. So, of course, I recommend that you go and do that, but I will try to do it justice.
“Night Shift” begins “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit, I had a coughing fit.” Already a “wow” moment, a brilliant confessional of remaining feelings. She finds no triumph in speeding to move on. She then details her mindset going into an interaction with her ex post-breakup, bouncing between the real, logical feelings of anger and jealousy and hurt, and the cool, calm, collected declarations of being under control. The fluctuations feel all too real. In so few words, Dacus gives light to the lack of a simple emotional post-breakup timeline. A note to everyone (myself included) saying “Why do I still feel like this? How could I still feel like this?”. She discusses the common coffee shop ex-date, the meeting to establish détente, followed, of course, by the post coffee shop ex-date solo-processing walk. She recognizes the not-so-sexy trappings of catching up. The ache if you don’t. The talking without talking. How close you can get to closure without actually having it.
The thesis of the song seems to come at the end in building refrains. “You’ve got a 9-to-5, so I’ll take the night shift, and I’ll never see you again if I can help it. In five years I hope the songs feel like covers dedicated to new lovers.” This spot is where I met my first true, structural rejection to the song, in terms of my own story. I’ve never not wanted to see an ex. Even when hard or painful, it’s been essential to me to stay in touch. This stumped me. I wracked my brain; I wanted this song to fit so badly, but the more I thought, the more I realized that it didn't at all. What if there is no breakup coffee? What if all the processing is one-sided? From my own perspective, I was working to process a relationship without knowing the whole story, without having resolution, and I still wanted nothing more than to see them. How could I find solace in words that I would never fully align with or even believe?
Dacus has admitted she was reluctant to write a breakup song, and it shows in the immediacy of the story she tells. It was brewing inside her and needed out. She needed to declare her pain and her hopes. But it’s not from a place of harried assertion, it’s from a place of long thought out and rehearsed breakup doublespeak, with the truth leaking through in places. It represents the steeliness put out to the world with the pain underneath, only coming out if you know where to look.
Lucy tells her story: there are specifics, there are things that make this situation described only hers, but I found my story within it. While I didn’t agree with her response to her ex, she reacted to her situation as she saw fit, and I learned that I could react to mine in turn. Her purpose in penning “Night Shift” wasn’t to give advice to other members of the broken hearts club, but to heal herself and share her resolution. Dacus’ words gave me the ability to begin to find mine.
I’m in a place right now where I don’t know what to hope for, but I’m open. My mind wants the dedication of songs to change, my heart says keep them. I’m choosing to reconcile both of these positions at once and I’m doing the best I can. I try to understand what bravery means. I repeat mantras and encouragements, but I blast breakup songs at night, seeing which method will win out in the end. I know though, as Dacus points out, the only actual remedies are time and growth. Only those two things will tell what way the wind will blow. Over and over again that is proven true.
As I write this, I admit I’m sitting on breakup essays that I’ve written and edited and edited and edited. I believe in what they say, but I’m terrified to say it. To the individuals that they concern, to the world, to myself. I hope that one day I take a page out of the book of storytellers like Dacus to damn the fear of specificity, damn the fear of re-rejection, damn it all, and send it.
Noa Rosenberg is a sophomore at Vassar College from Chicago, Illinois. She has written and edited for Polyphony H.S., as well asReverberations Magazine and can be caught being foolish on Twitter at @illsnowynoey.