Three Great Things: Jenny Owen Youngs

The musician and podcast host big-ups Buffy, a cemetery, and a state fair.

In Three Great Things, we ask artists to tell us about three things they absolutely love. Musician and podcast host Jenny Owen Youngs tells us she “managed to pick a selection from each of the three places I’ve lived…  I was very stressed out about making sure I picked the right three great things, because there are so many things that I could scream about the greatness of, you know?” Her new EP is called Night Shift.
—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

1. Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn

It was built in 1838. At the main entrance there’s this gothic revival huge arch. It kind of feels like you’re walking into Harry Potter church or something. It’s massive and looming, and then there’s this colony of green monk parakeets that lives in that general vicinity in Brooklyn, but they really seem to be centralized at the cemetery, specifically on the highest spire of this huge entrance archway. You can see their nesting materials jutting out, and they’ll be swooping and swirling, wheeling around up there when you go in.

 Once you get inside, there are all these walking paths. The place is massive. I think it’s, like, four miles all the way around. It contains a variety of wonders. The most magical thing about it is that once you get inside you would have no idea you’re in New York City. You start walking and you come upon a tiny chapel that’s been beautifully restored. If you keep walking you’ll come across multiple ponds. You might see tadpoles or frogs. There’s always turtles sunning themselves, and herons. There are 7000 trees in this cemetery. And they all rock. There are a ton of people buried there who you can visit if you want to. Jean-Michel Basquiat it there. Henry Ward Beecher. Charles Ebbets, who owned the Dodgers. Teddy Roosevelt’s mother, father, uncle, and first wife. Henry Steinway, who founded Steinway pianos. 600,000 people actually.

I lived a couple of blocks away from it, the last place I lived in Brooklyn before I moved to LA. It’s so peaceful and quiet. There’s more natural life than you’d see in other parts of New York. It reminded me of where I grew up in New Jersey. You have that kind of animal/wildlife happening, among hundreds of thousands of human lives that are now at rest. It’s my favorite place in Brooklyn.

2. New Jersey State Fair / Sussex County Farm & Horse Show

When I first started going, it was just the Sussex County Farm & House Show. Sussex is the county I grew up in in New Jersey, it’s very woodsy and rural, farming stuff. Later, maybe when I was a teenager, it was bundled into the New Jersey State Fair. It’s probably a lot like any state or county fair that you might’ve gone to growing up. I love it because… the rides. The Gravitron has been on my mind lately; I wrote a song about it that’s on this EP that’s coming out. If I think about getting on a Gravitron now, I throw up. So many things that I loved when I was a kid, or a teenager, or a twentysomething fall under that column, like Southern Comfort, or smoking a cigarette… But I loved the Gravitron and the Zipper and the Flying Bob. Those were my big three. I love funnel cake with a fiery passion. These are things that you can access very easily at the fair. You can access a lemonade that is unlike any other lemonade, and it’s probably a combination of the fair dust that’s floating through the air, whatever the thousands of people at a fair are releasing pheremonally or whatever. Their DNA is swirling about in the air and combining and falling into your lemonade. There’s also more sugar in fair lemonade than any other lemonade. 

You know what else you can find at the fair? At least my fair. You can find sculptures made out of things that nobody should be sculpting out of. There’s a butter sculptor who creates a beautiful sculpture out of butter. It’s different every year. I’ve seen cows, pigs, buildings. There’s also a hay sculptor, and they’ll create an enormous animal made out of hay bales, and it will be on display outside for the rest of the year. There’s also a chainsaw sculptor who starts the fair with a huge log, and by the end of the fair that tree trunk has been carved into something using only a chainsaw. 

There’s also bunnies and chickens and sheep that the 4-H kids have been raising. All of those elements are fun or delicious or nausea-inducing on their own, but what ties them together is the nostalgic sense of possibility that the fair evokes for me. Everyone went to this thing every summer. As a teenager, there were endless possibilities: Who could I meet? Will I meet somebody that I fall in love with? All of the things that you hope for and think about when you’re a teen were centralized and intensified by the fair.

3. Buffy The Vampire Slayer

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say it’s literally my job. I can tell you everything you need to know. This is what I live for, trying to get people on board! If I’m the last person who tries to get you to watch, and I fail… What does that say about me? Buffy is so special in so many ways. If we think about the great fantasy or genre stories that have been told in the last 25 years… It’s common to see a central character that we would traditionally see as weak or not particularly powerful imbued with a great power. Like, say, Harry Potter. What makes Buffy special is that we see this petite blond cheerleader slowly transform from a superficial, plastic character into the greatest warrior for human existence on the planet.

And what’s way more interesting in that, is that we track her journey emotionally and psychologically as she is tested and beaten and triumphant, and then brought so much lower than you ever thought possible. It has everything. It has the entire scope of human existence, age 16 to 23. You have this beautiful display of human existence, with Buffy and with all of the lives that touch hers. You see incredible narratives about queer life, about self discovery, about chosen family. There are only two queer characters on the show — canonically — and chosen family is such a huge part of queer culture. Because Buffy is inherently different from everyone around her, there is this queer narrative that can be applied, and is sometimes almost directly implied, that gives this extra weight to the people in her life and how they all support each other.

Do you like forbidden love? Maybe I should’ve started there, but I got all caught up in my brain about narratives and chosen family and whatever. What’s there immediately for you, oh my god, is forbidden love. The emotional fallout of the end of season two will destroy you. Imagine a young woman with all of the power she could ever imagine having. She’s incredibly strong and she has a sacred duty to protect humankind from the threat of vampires. Her sworn mortal enemy. And she meets a guy who is amazing. He’s so hot and broad-shouldered and tall and mysterious and he has a long, sweepy coat. They have this strange flirtation, yet they don’t seem to like each other — classic TV. They’re drawn closer and closer together, and just as they’re about to have their first freaking kiss, he reveals himself. To go too much down the line would be a disservice to you, as I’ve already said too much. It just keeps getting better and better as it goes along, and more characters are introduced who will get into your heart. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about what’s in store for you if you choose to go on this journey.

Jenny Owen Youngs is a singer-songwriter whose latest EP Night Shift includes an ode to the state fair staple The Gravitron. She also hosts the popular Buffy The Vampire Slayer podcast Buffering The Vampire Slayer.

(Photo Credit: Tucker Leary)