Every summer, there’s that song. The song that’s everywhere, that defines those sunny days and balmy nights, the one you’ll always associate with a specific time and place. This week, Talkhouse writers talk their song of the summer of 2013.
— the editors of the Talkhouse
The western Massachusetts band Speedy Ortiz’s “No Below” is a strange summer hit. It’s a song about hitting rock bottom, about literally looking down into the waters of a dark lake and realizing that there’s nowhere lower than where you are right now. Oh, come on bro! Why you gotta be such a Debbie Downer all the time? We got two chicks in bikinis in the back seat and a cooler full of Bud Lite. Are you really gonna blast that indie shit out the car window on the way to the beach? Sorry, but I have no choice, for I am sensitive and prone to fits of sadness in the summer. It is summer when the pressure to be happy is most unyielding. Some days, that pressure is as oppressive as the heat, and the big, bright sun just sort of hangs there in the sky like a mild threat.
When you are a twentysomething in the age of Facebook, the idea of happiness looks to you like an endless summer, a steady progression of free outdoor concerts, open-air beer gardens, ice cream sundaes, vacations, house parties, pizza slices, blockbuster movies, and other amusements. The social age fuels a kind of forced externalization of pleasure, until other people’s lives start looking like a 30-second highlight reel showing an aspiring director’s best clips and leaving out all of his amateur mistakes. Sooner or later, you start to wonder what you’re missing.
Call me crazy, but this summer all I want to do is listen to sad, sad songs. The sadder they get, the more real sadness feels, and the more comfortable I get with the idea that happiness might be overrated. Sadness can make you feel alive, if you trust it enough. It can even help you feel connected. Take “No Below.”
It doesn’t start out very nicely for the band’s singer-guitarist Ms. Sadie Dupuis. She’s bullied during those painful, awkward years when kids are most vulnerable to internalizing unfair personal attacks. She breaks her knee, spends a “summer on crutches,” and, finally, her misfortune becomes the butt of everyone’s jokes. After a brief musical interlude, a slightly older Ms. Dupuis gets dumped by all her friends at the same time, and starts thinking she’s “better off just being dead” now that she’s become an outcast. Ms. Dupuis even coins a new phrase, “ditch freezing,” to describe how brutally cold the state of loneliness is. This metaphor should resonate with anyone who has ever spent a winter in the state of Massachusetts.
Nevertheless, there is something undeniably summery about this song. Perhaps it’s the subtle buoyancy of the ¾ waltz time, the warmth of the bass, or the way Ms. Dupuis’ gently strummed guitar shimmers on top of the mix. Perhaps it’s the way the arrangement is so simple as to almost seem effortless, until it culminates in a gleefully messy climax of a guitar solo you’ll want to wave a lighter to as you sway back and forth at some big, summer festival where Speedy Ortiz open for Built to Spill.
Or perhaps it’s the sheer lightness that Ms. Dupuis seems to carry in her voice, a lilt that says she knows a lot more than she’s willing to let on. Ms. Dupuis’ candor is always sassy rather than sentimental. Her bluntness allows her to escape self-pity, and her skillful wordplay lends notes of subtle, tricky humor to a story that could become melodramatic in less dexterous hands. She places the song’s heaviest lyrics right at the center of an extremely poppy melody, and the contrast between form and content is refreshing. You may even find yourself singing, “I was better off just being dead,” as you go about your daily business, without realizing exactly what you are saying. You can’t help it. The chorus is extremely catchy.
Sure enough, there are hints throughout the song that winter and summer, sadness and happiness, often arrive all twisted up in the same moment in time. Even in the midst of Ms. Dupuis’ middle school hell, there’s a subtle hint of something better; the one friend who doesn’t tease Ms. Dupuis when she’s on crutches foreshadows the friend that she finds as an adult, the friend who really “gets” Ms. Dupuis precisely because he went through the same kind of shit as she did when he was younger. “With everything fucked up we both felt before,” she tells him, “I’m glad for it all if it got us where we are.”
It’s a strange form of nostalgia that allows us to look back and forgive life for not making us happy all the time. I’m not sure what to call it. Maybe that’s happiness, the understanding that pain makes us into real people, and that all the sadness we carry will one day become a kind of wisdom.
But it really could be anything, that elusive summer feeling you get for just a moment when you blast a pop song with all the car windows rolled down, or jump into an ice cold pool, or lean in to kiss a summer crush, the feeling of something so true it cannot possibly last, and, before you know it, you feel sad for having lost it again. The idea of happiness is always a euphemism for something more complicated.