Rihanna’s “Rude Boy”

The pandemic has generated bizarre physiological responses to the stress we’ve all been experiencing, including a rise in clumsiness. It turns out, constant anxiety affects spatial awareness—our ability to be aware of our surroundings—leading to all manner of bumps, drops, and mundane mayhem.

One way to cure clumsiness? Through dance. Apparently, making your body move rhythmically helps reestablish your brain-body connection, anchoring you physically to the spaces you inhabit. If body fogginess is the byproduct of a chaotic year, then rhythmic movement is the antidote.

The brain-body connection has long fascinated me. I tend to live in my head. Add to that the rigorous mental work that grad school primed me to do, which I carry out still, and my brain often overwhelms its side of the partnership. I try to balance that out with physical activity, which itself feeds into a healthy brain: I workout, I walk as much as I can (doing my darnedest to exemplify the “excellent walker” barb Mrs. Hurst hurls at Lizzy in Pride & Prejudice), and I dance.

I love to dance so much that over a decade ago, I went so far as to become a Zumba instructor shortly before it exploded into a craze. By the time I stopped teaching there was a glut of instructors, but when I first moved to Baton Rouge, the local gyms needed more help to meet the growing demand, so I completed the requisite training and began leading my own class.

It started slow—Tuesdays and Thursdays at one of the less-attended YMCAs in the area—but word soon spread, and by the end of my tenure some three years later, I was teaching four classes each week at the number two branch, including leading the downtown Y’s weekly outdoor summer class and co-teaching the Varsity Theater’s nightclub Zumba.

Zumba offered readymade choreography for instructors, but I liked to blend those prepared offerings with some of my own fancy footwork, and one of my favorite “originals” became Rihanna’s 2010 hit “Rude Boy.” I must’ve played it at least once a week over the years I taught at the Y. And no one batted an eye. They shimmied with me, circling their hips, and feeling that magnanimous connection that exists between rhythm and physicality, when a beat practically catches you.

I don’t know why management let me play it. From the song’s outset, the lyrics don’t try to wink at anything—they scream it. “Come on rude boy boy, can you get it up?/Come on rude boy boy is you big enough?” Rihanna sings, as if she’s just kicked down the bedroom door and arched an eyebrow. The steel drum synths add to the song’s island vibe, which updates the dancehall tradition, before dipping down into a distorted bass thump practically designed for grinding.

I blasted it throughout the Y and my class participants loved it. “Take it take it, baby baby, take it take it, love me love me,” Rihanna sang. And they did.

And then all that dance faded into the background. I moved, started a new job, and forgot about the hours and hours I spent creating and learning new routines for salsa and merengue and cumbia and samba. Somewhere in that time, “Rude Boy” also became a thing of the past. Instead, I became smitten with Rihanna’s 2016 sex-on-a-stick album ANTI.

The brain codes rote activities differently than it does facts or autobiographical memory. Once you learn a task, the brain shifts that memory to another part where it’s less consciously executed. “Muscle memory,” therefore, is not about your body storing a memory of how to do a task, but about how once you learn a movement or other kind of repetitive activity, you can perform it almost without thought.

Recently, I was out for a walk when “Rude Boy” popped up on the 2010s playlist I had going. Suddenly, all of those past Zumba classes came rushing back. But, I wondered, could I remember my routine to the song? As it turns out, yes indeed.

My brain searched for the moves, their order. One right step unlocked the entire thing as if it hadn’t been nearly 10 years since I last danced it. From “Rude Boy,” I fell down the rabbit hole: all the salsas and merengues and reggaetons, including my favorite tracks, Celia Cruz’s “La Vida Es Un Carnaval,” T-Pain’s “Booty Wurk,” and my cool down song, “Yo No Se Manana,” which apparently I still know the lyrics to even though I don’t speak Spanish. I must have danced for an hour under the setting sun, feeling a sort of exquisiteness all the more precious for its rarity these days.

The rhythms lived in my body still, though they’d been dormant, buried under the stress of a year that left my brain-body connection heavily weighted toward the former. At a time when the battle we’ve faced has been waged in the body, I celebrated the exuberant movement that resides in mine, side-stepping and twirling outdoors, and feeling for a fleeting moment that animating spark they call joy. “Giddy up, giddy up, giddy up, babe.”

Philip Glass’ ‘Glassworks’

One Friday, in the early summer of 2018, I donned my prettiest dress, threw on a cream plum lipstick, and walked to the subway to grab the uptown train. After years away from the cultural nexus of the city, I was headed to Lincoln Center to attend New York City Ballet’s centennial celebration of the late choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Although NYCB is most wildly associated with George Balanchine, who co-founded the company and whose work it most regularly performs, Robbins holds a special place in the repertoire. He choreographed a significant number of ballets for the company, bringing his distinctly Broadway aesthetic to the art form and expanding what it meant to dance modern ballet.

That warm, overcast May evening, I had a ticket to a performance that would begin with Robbins’ beloved Dances at a Gathering and end with his metropolitan Glass Pieces, which is set to the music of Philip Glass—specifically pieces from his 1981 album Glassworks. Sitting in the cheap seats (discounted because you can see most of the stage), I was charmed by the former and wowed by the latter. I knew of Glass, but seeing the dancers embody his music transformed it in a material way. I remember being entranced.

Glassworks is a six-movement chamber work that integrates heavy pop influences—think synths meets classical. It marked Glass’ first album for CBS, which he hoped, he later explained, would reach new audiences. Where some listeners had found his previous music difficult, Glassworks was meant to shed all such barriers.

Robbins selected “Rubric” and “Facades” for the first two movements of Glass Pieces, and they each paint a spirited portrait of city life. On “Rubric,” a central saxophone syncs up with fluttering synths, creating a propulsive energy that mimics a busy sidewalk. On “Facades,” the pace grows more subdued but no less insistent; strings enter the frame and against that backdrop, two soprano saxophones spin a captivating duet.

“Rubric” and “Facades” still wield the power to transport me back to that evening—really to the city itself—and the bright spot of that evening. Less than a year later, in what seemed like kismet, I’d find myself working at New York City Ballet, having taken a managerial role on the company’s editorial team. It seemed—from the outside and even the outset—like a dream job. I thought I’d finally made it.

Part of “making it” in New York means not just what you do, but where you do it. Work and identity are fundamentally intertwined in that city in a way I’ve yet to experience elsewhere. People ask about your job by way of getting to know you, and that becomes your defining trait. Hobbies and interests and other things play a part, of course, but not nearly as much as your title and company, which makes sense: Those who move to New York don’t arrive looking for the status quo—a bland job they could do anywhere with much less overhead. They come to do something big. Your job is your identity in that city, so you better find an interesting one.

By day four at NYCB, I felt the thunder of my mistake—in part because several of my coworkers began regaling me with their horror stories. That fourth day also happened to be NYCB’s annual spring gala, an illustrious and exclusive affair. As I sat eating the most expensive meal of my life (comped because of my employee status) and watching celebrities rub elbows with dancers I’d long admired, the vision tarnished. What should have been the night to top them all—certainly that early Robbins performance—felt gnarled.

(Side note: once I wrapped up my gala duties at 2 a.m., I took a Lyft home, crying on the phone to my then-boyfriend about the alarming mess I seemed to be in. The driver overheard my side of the conversation, despite my attempts to be quiet, and offered a pep talk when he pulled up to my apartment. That exchange remains an equally meaningful and mortifying moment from my time in the city.)

I wouldn’t last long at NYCB; I’d be gone by summer’s end. What should have been a significant step forward for me, after years of struggle, was a significant misstep. But Glass Pieces somehow escaped that particular coloring. While I haven’t seen it performed since 2018, I hear in it not just the thrilling movement I saw explode on stage, but feel for a spell the transcendent energy of the city. It was dazzling, until it wasn’t.

A Tale of Two Covers: “Lilac Wine”

The list of artists who have covered “Lilac Wine” is long—and ongoing—but there are two who stand apart: Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley. Their versions, recorded nearly 30 years apart, offer evocative interpretations of a song that is as much about atmosphere as it is epiphany.

Composer James Shelton originally wrote “Lilac Wine” in 1950; it would go on to debut as part of the musical revue Dance Me a Song. Knowing its dramatic origins, it’s hard not to read Shelton’s lyricism as a specifically vivid backdrop, with the song functioning as a monologue more than other pop ballads of the period. The opening lyrics, “I lost myself on a cool damp night/ I gave myself in that misty light,” pull back the curtains on a hazy yet detailed scene.

“Lilac Wine” is a potent song about intoxication—its fog and folly—but especially how that clouded state can sometimes get you closer to the truth, or the bravado to face it: “It makes me see what I want to see/ And be what I want to be.” The narrator awaits their love, drinking up the courage to face that desire head on, but when that possibility grows nearer, grows surer, so too does the troubling supposition that they don’t want what they originally thought: “Lilac wine, I feel unready for my love/ Feel unready for my love.”

Simone’s version appears on her 1966 album Wild Is the Wind. She plays the piano  scenically, building it as if it were a thunderous backdrop, while the upright bass accompanying her plucks a punctuating note against that flurry.

In her delivery, Simone wields a touch of sorcery. The song’s trawling pace suits her distinctively dusky voice well, curving toward the self-realization that sits at the song’s center. Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal attributed her emotional vocals to the tumultuous relationship she had with her husband turned manager, along with the increasingly violent events of the ’60s, which produced “Mississippi Goddam” and Wild Is the Wind‘s standout “Four Women.”

In her voice, I hear a longing for escape. A lover offers one possibility, but absent that option, she settles on lilac wine, which paints for her the fantasy of a different existence—”It makes me see what I want to see/ And be what I want to be.” There’s a central unspoken pang about Simone’s version that has always felt as intoxicating as the drink she sings about.

Buckley’s version appears on his 1993 album Grace. Rather than Simone’s heavy opening piano chord, the strum of his electric guitar stitches a more delicate approach. His voice makes an emotional leap between the second verse and the song’s central confession—the reason behind the narrator’s drinking in the first place—”I think more than I wanna think/ I do things I never should do.” In his pining call, I hear exasperation bordering on contempt.

Buckley’s sustain draws out the instability lingering around the edges of “Lilac Wine.”  “Listen to me, why is everything so hazy?/ Isn’t that she, or am I just going crazy, dear?” he sings, warbling slightly on “crazy.” Given the song’s theatrical underpinnings, Buckley’s cover feels closer to the monologue I mentioned earlier. The way he delivers that confession (“or am I going crazy, dear?”) serves as the edge, before he pulls himself back for the concluding truth about being unready.

It’s not a matter of playing favorites here. “Lilac Wine” is a fluid song that finds its form in Simone’s and Buckley’s respective approaches. The juxtaposition between their registers—Simone’s lower and Buckley’s higher—and their primary instruments—piano and electric guitar—present two wildly different, yet equally heady, renditions. I find myself returning again and again, asking them to fill my glass once more with their haunting and hanging truth.

 

Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”

Shortly before starting grade six, which Americans wrongly call “sixth grade,” I moved to my grandmother’s house in Toronto. My family shifted around a lot thanks to my dad’s work in TV news, but this year was different. My parents had recently separated, and my mother decided to return home. Having little say in the matter, my brother and I came with.

The relocation meant I needed to start a new school, which marked my third in as many years. It happened to be a Catholic institution because in Toronto there’s a wealth of public Catholic schools, though students have to be baptized in the faith to attend. Try going through that at age 11 when your parents are maybe divorcing and you’re living in your grandmother’s attic and you’re being asked to drink the lord’s blood but not really.

So, yeah, it wasn’t the best of times. And yet, a la Dickens, it was.

The school never held dances, so in some strange fit of rebellion, instead of doing more normal things like hang out and watch movies, my classmates and I—all 15 of us—spent our Saturdays gathering in each other’s basements. We’d play music, enjoy pizza and pop, and dance—sometimes to fast stuff but mostly to slow jams. There was Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day,” Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose,” and Selena’s “Dreaming of You.” It was mid-90s power ballad heaven, and we slow danced our little non-chaperoned hearts out.

I came to enjoy these weird basement friend dances because they gave me a chance to get close to Mikey, the cute Jamaican-Canadian boy who was by far the most popular kid in grade six. We often chatted in class and played together during recess, but the dances were different. He’d ask me to slow dance, flaming the embers of my glowing crush as his arms encircled my waist. Even without school officials to supervise, boys chose between hands-on-hips (for friendlier partners) or arms-around-waist. It seemed to suggest something when Mikey went with the latter.

At school, certain classmates and especially my best friend Kalina—who’d moved from Poland a few years prior—used to tell me that Mikey liked me. At times, I thought so too. But in the looks department—and let’s not pretend that doesn’t matter at 11 or any age—it felt as though Julie, the bubbly, blue-eyed girl, would be more his speed. I’d recently gotten glasses and braces, and begun what would become a permanent lean into “bookish.”

At the last basement gathering of the school year, Mikey walked over and asked me to dance to Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” a thunderous, seven-minute ballad about lost love. It’s like he knew I’d one day be a writer and would appreciate its auspiciousness.

That night, I thought Mikey’s ask signaled something more. Rumors had been swirling among our small class that he was going to ask me out before the end of the school year. And that night, I felt the crackle of possibility—of getting something you’ve wanted for a long time. In fact, I specifically remember making myself stare into the fire—I mean, it was a long song—so that I would form a memory of that dance with Mikey. “It’s all coming back to me now,” Celine sings and it’s like she knew what I was trying to do.

But just two days later, as I stood in the girl’s bathroom on the second floor at school, Julie walked in beaming. Mikey had asked her out. Kalina and I rushed downstairs and out to the back field to discuss this hideous turn of events. We didn’t get very far before Mikey found us and asked to talk, sheepishly explaining how he’d been torn between Julie and me for a while, but ultimately chose Julie because she was really fun.

It took an operatic song to match the soap opera of grade six that year, and Celine’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” did the trick, which is funny because it wasn’t even my favorite song of hers at the time. (Yes, all Canadians must swear to a favorite.) That’d be “Because You Loved Me.” Thank goodness we didn’t dance to that. It’s far less poetic. And terribly untrue.

In the end, it’s a good thing Mikey went with Julie. A few months later, my parents newly reunited, we left Toronto for my dad’s new job in south Florida.

What strikes me, even now, is the potency of this particular memory. I remember bits and pieces from my childhood; I often think that moving around so much—all of that change—affected what stuck. But this one, of our weird basement friend dances and especially of Mikey, has always lingered, and I credit that forced fire staring and Celine’s hyperbolic pining: “It was lost long ago/ But it’s all coming back to me now.”

All Hail King Stitt

When I first started collecting vinyl, I was exceptionally—almost stupidly—lucky. I dug up randos, took a chance, and ended up procuring LPs that would go on to become some of my favorites: Ride Me Donkey, Ted Hawkins’ Watch Your Step, and Brazil Forro: Music for Maids and Taxi Drivers (how can you pass on that title?).

Among that collection was Dance Hall ’63, featuring King Stitt. After I put the album on the record store’s test turntable and heard how the woozy sax trigged a warm beat, I was sold. But I had no idea what joy Stitt would bring to my life.

Stitt overtakes the album with his “toasting,” or hype and chatter which would go on to inform early hip-hop. You can still dance and enjoy the music, but Stitt has shit to say and you will listen.

Some gems: “It’s not magic, it’s miraculous!” and “This sound is on top! On top of the world!”

He also clearly revels in telling the audience who’s playing and what they’re doing. “[Name inaudible] on the saxophone and King Stitt on the microphone,” he reminds dancers. He is as much a star as the music he’s spinning. He’s the MC, hype man, and liner notes, all rolled into one.

A dancehall DJ working in and around Kingston, Jamaica, Stitt (born Winston Spark) was actually a pioneer in the field, though somehow he thought his given name wasn’t suitable for the profession when really DJ Spark could’ve had an equally luminous career. Instead, he chose “Stitt” because of the stutter he’d had since childhood.

According to Stitt himself, he met Clement Dodd (known as Sir Coxsone), the famed Jamaican DJ, in 1955. Dodd was apparently fond of Stitt’s dancing and thought he could be fun on the mic. He had no idea. Stitt began DJing in 1956, and eventually became so popular, he added the “King” that gave him his full name.

I started this post by calling those early finds “lucky,” but really they far exceed that adjective, especially Dance Hall ’63. From my very first time hearing it all the way through, to subsequent listens—usually in mid-summer, after a beach day that soaks past your skin and down to your very core, offering some hint at what perfectly happy feels like—I think of King Stitt: “It’s not magic, it’s miraculous.”

 

 

Kacey Musgraves’ “It Is What It Is”

Sometimes I wonder if my subconscious senses endings before I do and uses lyrics to communicate as much.

Years ago, I wrote about mondegreens, or misheard lyrics, which got me thinking about the equally curious but much more poorly named phenomenon of earworms, or song fragments that churn endlessly—often unbidden—in the brain. On the surface they can be fantastically annoying, especially if you don’t enjoy the song your brain’s manic DJ choices—but underneath all that, could they be a message?

Earworms don’t seem to signify anything more than a recently heard song that’s become “stuck.” For me, these tend to be pop songs, which are repetitive by nature and constructed by masterminds, like Max Martin, who know how to create something not only catchy but catching. One listen to Taylor Swift’s latest single—just one!—and it’ll be with me for a week.

Beyond that, my brain adores language so much that I’ll often link a turn of phrase with a song. Here’s a not-very-interesting example of what I mean: During a scenic drive some years back, a friend said, “This sure is a winding road,” and immediately the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” started playing in my mind. In moments like that, it feels as though my brain is a musical and all the neurons simply waiting to fire and burst into song.

But sometimes the lyrical phrases that affix themselves to my internal monologue (or would it be soundtrack?) feel as though they’re hinting at a bigger picture.

Only a few months into my last long-term relationship, I found myself walking Clinton St. in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill—a path I preferred for its tree-lined escapism—and internally singing the last chorus line of Kacey Musgraves’ song “It Is What It Is.”

The track details a relationship of convenience, one in which neither party is particularly drawn to the other, but they’re both sort of there…so why not? “Maybe I love you/Maybe I’m just kind of bored,” Musgraves sings with a kind of resigned indifference. “It is what it is/Till it ain’t/Anymore.”

The song serves as the culminating moment on Musgraves’ debut album, Same Trailer, Different Park. It’s a quiet track on an album full of reflective moments that don’t rest in more somber poses because Musgraves slips in winks and wisecracks to soften their respective blows. But “It Is What It Is” is vulnerable, raw.

For the longest time, the chorus would break the surface of my mind, and when it would I was tempted to draw parallels to my relationship at the time. We got along fabulously in ways that seemed to matter but don’t necessarily go the distance. Sometimes it felt like we were a convenience for one another, but that didn’t stop us from trying to force something more.

When that happened—when things started to get more serious—I’d feel something in my gut rear up like a wild stallion who’s caught sight of the bit, which is when the song’s lyrics would float up from the ether of my mind and stick in my head for a spell: “Maybe I love you/Maybe I’m just kind of bored.”

Lately I got my record collection back and I added Musgrave’s debut to it, which prompted a more focused kind of listening than I’d previously given the song. Beyond the chorus and its one-two truth punch, the song paints a much larger picture. “We’re so much alike it ain’t a good thing. Too dumb to give up/Too stubborn to change,” Musgraves sings.

The chorus that would often crop up as I walked the sidewalks of New York and ponder the big ol’ “why” of it all was enough to signal a message. But hearing the song in its entirety, it felt as though my brain knew something I didn’t—that it had stored all those previous listens of “It Is What It Is” and kept sending smoke signals via the chorus, obliquely encouraging me to put the picture together.

I’m no neuroscientist or psychologist, but if anyone were to ever study the lyrics that ripple the waves of our minds, especially the why and when of it, I think they’d find that certain songs—at least the ones that tunnel into our being—sometimes act like a message in a bottle. If we’re willing enough to listen.

Flock of Dimes’ “Two”

For anyone who has purposely cultivated their independence, especially in order to create in some way, shape or form, it can feel tenuous to want love. Those two things needn’t be at odds with one another, but oftentimes it can seem as though it’s a choice—either me or we.

Give too much to a partner and you’re left feeling divorced from your creative pursuits; give too much to your creative pursuits and your partner will, understandably, be hard pressed to stick around for very long. In matters of attention, there’s only so much to go around.

The desire for independence and companionship create a tension that’s not easily resolved. In Flock of Dimes‘ new song “Two,” Jenn Wasner questions whether a satisfying outcome exists. “Can I be one/ Can we be two/ Can I be for myself?/ Still be still with you?” Wasner sings on the chorus. I hear in that inquiry a plea of sorts—to keep the parts of herself that feed her creativity and her individualism, while still craving the beauty of companionship, of growing together with someone in a meaningful way.

Photo by Graham Tolbert.

“Two” signals a new direction for the Baltimore-born and Durham-based singer-songwriter, who has her hands in many musical pots these days. Beyond her solo project Flock of Dimes, she forms one-half of the indie rock group Wye Oak and wrapped up a touring stint with Bon Iver before the pandemic upended everyone’s plans. As Flock of Dimes, Wasner’s last full-length album came in 2016, but she released a gorgeous, and slow-burning EP Like So Much Desire last year. “Two” appears on her forthcoming album Head of Roses, out April 2.

Melodically, “Two” stretches Wasner’s craft. The song is richly textured, weaving together upbeat, almost-plucky synths with long, luxurious guitar in ways that mirror the song’s query about wanting two things that don’t fit neatly into the same frame. That everything works so well together instrumentally, in a sort of indie-rock-meets-electro-pop-giddiness, signals to the possibility of something larger. Rather than shrinking into categories of ‘either/or,’ there can be room for ‘and’—or at least, for now, the dream of it.

Maps & Atlases’ ‘Beware and Be Grateful’

Winter inevitably calls up a craving for the Chicago-based indie/math rock band Maps & Atlases and their 2015 album Beware and Be Grateful, despite the fact that I first heard them play in the fall.

I’d just moved to Champaign, where I was slowly acclimating to the midwestern sounds that came out of the steely cities surrounding it. That tour circuit sounded completely different from what I’d heard over the past five years in Louisiana—the warm fais do-dos or spirited brass bands in New Orleans and the folk-leaning singer-songwriter scene in Baton Rouge. It was the sound of cold—not just cool—crisp falls, and the burrowing instinct of winter.

Speaking of temperatures, the night Maps & Atlases came to town was frigid and found me questioning whether I wanted to venture over to their show. I tended to walk the 20 minutes it took to get downtown to the Highdive, avoiding a faster (and warmer) drive so I didn’t have to deal with Champaign’s expensive and convoluted public parking system. But some instinct forced me out into the biting October night, and I credit it with helping me find a band I’ve cherished ever since.

A blurry photo from Maps & Atlases’ October 2014 show at the Highdive in Champaign, IL.

Maps & Atlases’ math rock label comes, in part, from lead singer Dave Davison’s blistering fingering. He skips nimbly over the strings as though he were playing a piano or a MIDI pad controller. (Watch what I mean.) Backed by Shiraz Dada’s warm, husky bass, the combination creates a heady sound that’s always somehow spritely. Layering those juxtaposing textures, Davison’s distinctive, almost-metallic timbre matches his instrument and regularly augments the melody line. It was unlike anything I’d heard up until that night, and the discovery felt like synchronicity.

After I left the venue, I returned to Maps & Atlases time and again that winter, as the months grew colder, darker, and the snow made mobility more difficult. Beware and Be Grateful came to embody the season, even though it’s not a quiet, cozy album. It’s bright and quick tempo’d and signals far more motion than winter typically invites. It felt like an escape from my own weathered insularity, even while, oddly enough, embodying it.

The music you find in—and for—certain moments doesn’t always last. You can outgrow a band or an album for any number of reasons, so what is it that makes something stick? I don’t have a satisfying answer to that question. For some singular reason I’ve never been able to articulate, Maps & Atlases has remained a constant every winter. Beware and Be Grateful takes me back to that solitary winter in Champaign when life was frozen and I was waiting for the thaw.

Weyes Blood’s “Andromeda”

I’ve hinted at, but haven’t talked enough about, timing in music. No, not rhythm. I mean the providence of finding a song (or a song finding you) at the exact right moment. I’ve long thought that, like any worthwhile art form, some songs are windows while others are mirrors. Whether gazing out or in, you’ll only be ready for a song’s perspective if the timing is right.

I mention all of this because it’s timing that reconnected me with Weyes Blood’s song “Andromeda.” The track appears on the California singer-songwriter’s 2019 album Titanic Rising, but its message didn’t reverberate until I heard it in the opening sequence of the 2020 apocalyptic comedy Save Yourselves! The film’s slo-mo dance sequence uses the entire song—a luxurious five minutes—rather than slicing it up to underscore a brief scene. Hearing it in that moment, the lyrics felt crisp and consequential.

Weyes Blood
Weyes Blood, photo by Eliot Lee Hazel.

On “Andromeda,” Weyes Blood (Natalie Mering) depicts the emotional hesitancy that sometimes occurs before the start of a new relationship. Instead of making grand proclamations about starting over, it wavers. It’s an unsteady song, and all the more significant for that vacillation. After all, past a certain age and a certain number of exes, can you really trust that your next relationship won’t follow the same course?

Mering doesn’t reach a definitive answer. “Andromeda” is less about a conclusive “happily ever after” than it is the beauty of willingness—and the resiliency it takes to get there.

The song begins with hazy synths, as though it were a message recorded long ago and only now reaching earth. “Running from my own life now/ I’m really turning some time/ Looking up to the sky for something I may never find,” Mering sings about trying to understand the choices she’s made and where they’ve left her. Having tried things her way, she relinquishes her life to the fates, challenging them, “If you think you can save me/ I dare you to try.” In other words, if the stars have something in mind, she’s listening.

The timing I experienced connecting with the song over a year after its release reminded me of another kind of timing. I never used to pay much attention to whether or not I was ready for certain things. I tended to dive in and figure it out along the way. But being ready is critical. Without that positioning, it doesn’t matter how amazing a connection—or opportunity—you might find.

“Ready” felt like a vague concept for me last year. After ending things with my long-term boyfriend, I certainly didn’t feel ready to date again, especially in the middle of a pandemic. After I moved to Durham last summer, I downloaded Bumble against my better judgment, thinking I’d see what the dating scene was like. But I lasted all of three days before I deleted my account. I tried again in November, striking up a handful of conversations but none that held my interest. That time, I made it a week before I again deleted the app. I wasn’t there yet. Some people can jump into new relationships quickly, but I tend to move slow, as I’ve detailed previously, and have sometimes felt all the more awkward for that pace.

Yet, hearing “Andromeda” that December night I watched Save Yourselves!, I recognized a difference. “Ready” no longer felt nebulous, cast far into the future. Rather, the weight of the past felt less heavy. The thought of a connection with someone new felt more exciting. A certain degree of hope started bubbling beneath the surface.

It was a small comfort to know I’d gotten there on my own, without burrowing down into the distraction of something unhealthy, without moving on too quickly and contorting myself in ways that would only come back to haunt me. On some level, I had trusted that I would get there. And I had. Now, as Mering sings, “More than anything I can think of/ I’m ready to try.” What a beautiful phrase.

Ramblin’ Women

What is it about staying that feels so intimidating? Put another way, what is it about leaving that feels so instinctive?

Compared to most people my age, I’ve shuffled around quite a bit. I grew up moving every year or two thanks to my dad’s job, but I’ve maintained that momentum as an adult. After college, grad school took me to specific locations, and then work became the reason behind relocating. But eventually I chafed at being committed to cities for no other reason than a job, and I set off to try different things: a couple of years in New Orleans, a few in Brooklyn, and now I find myself in Durham because it made sense. But who knows what comes next—if anything does.

I know my life doesn’t always make sense to my friends. To them, all of that shifting around feels manic on some level. Compared to the stability of their choices, I must look a little lost.

But what if some of us are made to wander?

When I first heard Cat Power cover Hank Williams Sr.’s “Ramblin’ Man,” turning it into “Ramblin’ (Wo)man,” I felt as though someone had taken a spotlight to my life. Power turns Williams’ quaint country ditty about shirking commitment for the visceral thrill of locomotion into a heady, jazzy affair. “I love to see the towns go crawling by/ Something I got to do before I die,” she sings against a warbling organ. Although she didn’t write the song, just hearing a woman sing those words resonates in crucial ways.

Women haven’t written about moving or leaving quite as much as men because their boundaries have historically been much different. Forget about the fact that most women have been relegated (cough cough confined) to the domestic sphere since its creation, and consider the dangers that rambling traditionally poses. There’s no up and leaving because that way danger lies.

Maybe that’s part of my exhilaration in hearing women sing about rambling or moving on or just movement for the thrill of it. Miranda Lambert captures the latter on “Highway Vagabond,” a song off her 2016 album The Weight of These Wings. Lambert has always pushed back against the way women should act, embodying a messier persona akin to what more people would see if women could drop their polite, pleasant, personable facades and put their desires on full display.

From the song’s opening bass line, which drops into a steady, pacing drive, it details the sheer pleasure of movement. “There’s something about the way I feel when the wheels go round and round and round,” she sings, drawing out the final two “rounds” to underscore her point. She’s not pulling over anytime soon.

Part of movement, for me at least, involves the unlived lives that run alongside us. Virginia Woolf kerneled that very thought in To the Lighthouse: “And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves.”

Literature has long been taken with the thought of other lives—what happens when a choice takes you down one path and away from another. Most people can shirk those shadows, but moving around—wandering, as I’ve come to call it—feels like a chance to try on a different life, if only for a while. Having lived in some of this country’s greatest cities, I get a taste that most tourists can only grasp at. (Though arguably I’m still a short-term traveler of sorts because I spent a few years there rather than a lifetime.)

What does it take to stay? I have yet to find that answer, but I’m willing to trade understanding for acceptance, embracing—rather than fighting—my penchant for movement. As Power sings on the chorus, “I love you, baby, but you got to understand when the Lord made me, he made a ramblin’ woman.”