Hype v. Devastating

By Dana May

In one part of the Brodsky Quartet version of Bjork’s “Hyperballad,” the strings take you to the cliff where Bjork keeps returning to help her feel safe with her mountaintop companion.  I allowed the song to throw me off the edge, like car-parts, bottles, and cutlery, with that one slide in the violin solo, as I rode up FDR drive on a grey November day to deliver a painting to my friends Robert and Armando in Washington Heights.  I had finished the 4’x5’ canvas they commissioned me to make for them a few days before and I could not think of another way to get it uptown other than hoping that a driver could fit it in his van. 

This started off as an essay to help me get over a girl I was busted up over during that time.  I started to write this before I delivered that Pollack knock-off of a painting.  Months had passed since the break-up.  At the time, riding up Manhattan, I felt all the shitty feelings I was still carrying were embarrassingly out of proportion with the actual length of the relationship. I needed another way to exorcise this lingering sadness. 

There are plenty of ways to deal with a broken heart: alcohol, orgasms, food, sobbing in front of the right and wrong people (but also alone, which happens most often), exercise, Korean face masks, petting animals, drugs, hot showers, brooding, travel, a new haircut, and writing confessional poetry, for example.  I, amongst such activities, started painting.  

I don’t think I started painting solely because of the broken heart, itself.  I had removed a shelf from my living room wall and needed something to cover the holes left in its absence.  Before this, my main mode of creativity was writing.  I hadn’t painted since high school. Perhaps I needed to disconnect from the stories and words looping in my head.   This type of painting provided such an escape, with its splattering and preoccupation with space and color balance.  It requires the type of physical movement that leaves one sore afterwards.  I showed the painting to Robert and he asked me to make him one to fill in a blank spot on his living room wall.  Both my creative genesis and his commission had practical origins.  

Like most contemporary music consumption, I sat separate from the quiet of the driver in his mobile cocoon, rapt in the drama of a Ms. Guðmundsdóttir creation,.  Maybe the driver, an immigrant out on his grind, would have liked some kind of human interaction beyond me confirming my identity when he showed up outside my apartment.  Or maybe he preferred silence over a strained conversation with a random 30-something white girl.  Regardless, I remained intent on staring out the window with my ear buds, immersed in my inner world fueled by its own emotionally-charged soundtrack.  If I had been a little less self-involved in that moment to offer to share, I think the driver would have agreed that “Hyperballad” is an absolutely Devastating song.  

Devastating is the kind of song that leaves you thoroughly ruined by its poignancy.  It sweeps you up, like a river, pulls you under in its water of emotion, unhindered by the dams of reservation or pretense.  When the song ends, you are left beached at a bend, catching your breath and taking in the gift of life with a reverence you were too numb before to appreciate.  You can’t help but hold gratitude for such a harrowing experience.  You live as a more expansive person after something so Devastating. 

I first identified Devastating when I was happy, sitting with a girlfriend on her couch, listening to “Superstar” by the Carpenters.  Even in a state of relative domestic bliss, Karen Carpenter’s voice, along with the dramatic changes between verse and chorus, transported me to a longing I know well.  I surprised her with how I swayed to the rhythm and waxed on about a pop tune I never considered before.  She started to play the Sonic Youth cover and I stopped her, demanding that she play the original again, and louder, “this, this song is absolutely devastating!” in the elation brought on by my compulsion.   

Because that is the other side of Devastating—the dangerous part, I came to learn.  To the predisposed, we crave the rush of this emotional drug.  We think we do not want that ache in the heart, either at the beginning of a romance or its bitter end, but we will put on repeat to hear the highs and lows in music, the simulation created within us sublime.  “Superstar” became one of a collection of songs on Devastating, a playlist I curated on a popular corporate music platform monolith.  Please indulge me, a child of a bygone analog era, in a brief lament on the loss of mixtapes.  This also acts as a backstory, maybe even some foreshadowing.

To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have—to want and want—how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! ― Virginia Woolf 

I learned how to make mixtapes in elementary school.  I made them for friends, quite a few of whom I fancied.  They were an act of love, and in my case, unrequited.  The mixtapes allowed me hours of a type of devotion I could otherwise not act upon.  

I made one at 11-years-old for a Dutch camp counselor I had a crush on that no one could know about, or at least I had no one who could hold such a secret.  Over a decade later, my preteen dreams seemingly came true when I found myself sharing her bed with her while visiting Amsterdam.  How serendipitous, I thought, she turned out to be gay, too!  Alas, she showed no intention of anything beyond a night’s sleep as we laid there talking.  

“Are you flirting with me?” she asked of my advances.  Yes, but I already signaled this first by juxtaposing “Lovefool” with “All Apologies,” or whatever music I listened to in 1997.  Wasn’t it obvious? 

I responded, “No” and rolled over while she continued to talk about her ex.  While hooking up seemed predestined in that moment, I understand a lack of interest in someone you last saw as a child. 

The next morning, I looked closer at photos hanging on her wall, all of her posing with various women.  

“Who are all these girls?” 

“My exes”

“Why would you keep these hung up?” I asked, thinking of what new dates she brought home must think of this menagerie.

“I still love them, I guess.”  I took this as consolation for not actualizing my younger self’s dreams the night before.

Mixtapes became mix cd’s around the time I had any actual potential to date.  I could be overt with my list of love songs, without hiding.  Now, I make playlists, fluid in nature, always with the option to edit, exist only in the ether, viewed on a screen, and consumed primarily through headphones, or the occasional Bluetooth-equipped speaker.  We lose a certain gravity in sending a girl a link and not gifting her a testament.  End of lament.

I had already been thinking about the girl when I went to see Armando and Robert because that’s what I did during that time, and listening to Devastating only brought me closer to the distress of the matter, such that I doubted my ability to write a proper essay about it[1].  Perspective—or at least its cousin sans the wisdom, distance—was what I wanted more than anything that day, so tired of feeling down.  I continued to turn to Devastating to deal with the broken heart I was sick of having but clueless about how to shake, like a nagging cold.  I saw Devastating as a hot tea of ginger, lemon, and honey—bittersweet with a burn, a readily available cure for what ailed me. I can’t tell you about the technical or historical aspects of the work of Rita Pavone, Roy Orbison, and the other musicians featured on this playlist, only about how they move me, or in that state, provided me comfort.  We do not talk enough about how music touches us.  We hide our emotions behind statistics and criticism.[2]

I listened to Devastating in the rented van, caught by the steady climb of Nina Simone’s title question in “What More Can I Say?”  I played this song the morning for myself after I had first slept with the girl I was all busted up over. The lyrics, if one only reads them, come off as basic pop music, with its niceties of devotion: I would give anything/ anything I own/ If you’d be my loveI would go anywhere/ anywhere you go/ If you just be mine.  But Nina delivers these words as bare pledges of sacrifice.  The song is Devastating in its desperation.  Missing an opportunity for reflection, I glossed over the fact that I had put the same song on a mix cd for a girl years prior.[3]  In both those and nearly all instances that I have returned to “What More Can I Say?”, the actual status of the relationships did not match the intensity I felt at the time.  Regardless of this pattern, I felt my body swell with the build of the song, which takes one from a gentle jazz stroll to its Himalayan climax in under three minutes. 

Armando met me at the bottom of the stairs to help me carry the painting, wrapped in a blanket, up five flights of stairs.  He couldn’t stay very long to visit. He had a shoot that afternoon. After visiting for about twenty minutes over cheese, chorizo, toast, and wine, he left me to continue to snack in the company of his husband. 

I met Armando and Robert through Bianca.  Armando wanted a redhead to practice looks on for his makeup artist union application, and she put me in touch with him. Since I first began arriving to their apartment for these sessions, I have been a 30’s vamp, 80’s Blade Runner futuristic babe, and a Marie Antoinette-esque courtesan, amongst other manifestations of his imagination.  Before Armando, I had little experience with glam or make-up, in general.  It took until my junior year of college for a friend to sit me down and put black mascara on my strawberry blonde lashes.  The transformation changed me.  I had the same reaction the first time Armando painted my face in neutral foundation, including hiding my eyebrows.  I saw a breathing blank canvas in my reflection, only to be built up into a new face—and a new persona to go along with it.  

The times with Armando call for stillness and submission, as well as allowing myself to embody a feminine side of myself.  The role of model meant spending more time with Armando, hearing about his life and sharing mine.  Robert, meanwhile, likes to cook delicious meals and throw shade, acting like a catty backseat driver as he dips into the studio put in his two cents on what lip color to use or how to shape a cat eye.  They dispense advice to me, whether I ask for it or not. It wasn’t until recently that I spent more time with Robert, while Armando worked on other people’s faces.  That afternoon, with the painting and the snacks, was one of those moments.  

Robert has terminal liver cancer.  This fact rarely breaches the level of allusion when I visit them, but nonetheless shapes the landscape. Armando reports on Robert’s good days and bad prognosis, in a lowered voice, as if he doesn’t want Robert in the other room to know that he relays such information to me.  Robert doesn’t really talk about his illness, except to say he feels tired and can’t drink anymore. This melancholy layers with the house music and laughter.  Turns out, Robert also did the other abstract paintings hanging in their living room.  “I didn’t ask you to paint me something to blow smoke up your ass, darling, I just like what you’re doing,” he told me as he paid me for the painting. 

Robert asked me what was going on in my life.  With that prompting, I knew I needed his help, even over a trivial issue such as a short-lived affair, what I knew paled in comparison to his troubles and would mean nothing to me at some point, hopefully sooner if I could talk to him about it.  After I gave a brief summary of the situation, Robert chimed in with his catchphrase of “what we’re not going to do is…” As in—

“What we’re not going to do is be all lil’ miss sad face over here like ‘oh woe is me, what could’ve been’ when you know she ain’t doing that about you.  She probably out there having fun with her head between some new girl’s legs, and here you are all torn up thinking about her!” 

This would be the typical end to the advice, real talk from a real bitch.  But I knew I needed more.  I insisted on asking him, No, really, how do I get over this?  I am stuck.  I need help.  I am in need of some guidance.  He sat up, taking in the gravity of my request, rising to the call of duty as a queer elder. 

“How long was it, honey?”

“Two months.” I lied because, as previously mentioned, I was embarrassed by how short this affair was to fuck me up so much and didn’t want to tell him that it had been only six weeks.

“That’s not even possible, to have a broken heart in such a short amount of time.”

“It sure feels like it.”

“What, what was so good about her?”

Put on the stand like that, I couldn’t really offer the type of testimony to back up my claim.  The sex was hot, at first, before we spent more time arguing than fooling around.  We confessed secrets right away, that I thought were soul bearing, saying the right things to think we were something greater than we were.  But there, talking to Robert, I started to see how the romance got the best of me, the feeling of it all, like a swell of a chorus, a bridge with strings, a crescendo, only to fall flat, the dream much richer than the reality that inspired it.

Specifically, I wanted Robert’s take on what to do about having to see her sometimes when I went to court for work.

“Honey, you gotta strive towards indifference.”

“What do you mean?”

“You gotta go in there, looking your best, looking hot as fuck, looking like you don’t give a fuck, and see her and go, ‘oh, hi!’ like you’re over it, until you are over it.  I remember you when you first started here and you were all shy and didn’t know what to do with yourself, acting like you’ve never been in full face before, and by the end of it you were giving me straight-up Bette Davis.  You were walking around acting like a goddamn movie star.  That’s what you need to do.”

“Be a boss bitch?”

“BE A BOSS BITCH!”  We laughed, I thankful that he met me where I was at and told me what I needed to hear.

“And what we’re not going to do is give your heart up to someone without even fucking knowing them, ok?”  His voice softened, again.  “Yes, give your heart to someone, but, like, in installments, or something.  Be sure they’re worth it.”  

I don’t really talk to my mother about my dating life, or else she probably would have said to me this same golden rule about dating years ago.  I will take it at age 33 from a Puerto Rican queen willing to share some hard-earned insight with me.  Better late than never.  

The next week, I showed up to court every day looking my best, with mascara and lipstick, anticipating seeing her, and pulled off my best performance in saying hello to her with a smile.  I walked taller when I saw her look stunned, and I was shocked myself by how convincing I was in the role of being over it.  I also stopped listening to Devastating.  What I thought soothed me only kept me in the emotional gutter.  I needed a different playlist to bolster me.  Here enters Hype.  

Hype started as preparation for an interview.  The canon grew over time, with newer reinforcements added to accompany me as part of my morning routine, like a coach squirting water in my mouth in the corner of a boxing ring.  Sometimes, I need Beyoncé with a marching band to propel me out of my anxiety-fueled ruminations in order to function in this world with some level of confidence and ease.

I came back to Hype to get into the character I needed to be in to move on.  At the heart of Hype lies “Cocky AF”, packed with all the hot girl shit Megan Thee Stallion shines out to the world like a lighthouse in a dark sea of trepidation and self-doubt.  This song in particular became an affirmation on my way to work.  I am not seeking approval/ I’m number one, I tell bitches what to do can feel like fingers rubbing rosary beads when insecurity tries to kill the vibe.  

I can listen to Cardi B’s “Money” any time of the day and that minimalist yet exacting piano hook will shift my energy to a more independent realm.  Cardi B, America’s sweetheart, using her platform to put out important PSA’s like telling us to fill out our census forms, the Bard of the Bronx, strides in her rhymes: I was born to flex/ Diamonds on my neck/ I like boardin’ jets, I like morning sex/ But nothing in this world I like more than checks.  I imagine her reading this out loud from a picture book, seated in front of a gathering of cross-legged children, or rather all of us as children of the universe, spreading simple but penetrating messages of swagger and drive.  Hype reminds you of your power to shape your life, to achieve your goals, to be responsible for your own happiness.  I found liberation in putting faith in myself, that I would be alright, irrespective of what happened with any other person. 

You, patient reader, may wonder if living on Hype and Hype alone could solve all the pitfalls that come with the more hopeless aspects of my romanticism, but this stands as an impossibility for any mortal.  Take, for example, the droves of people with hearts made to sense a whole universe of feelings and yet walk around in the emotional equivalent of Crocs, comfortable and milquetoast, or just plain detached.  Even they love a good ballad.  We need Hype to help us change our vibration, to remind us that we are worthy of what we want.  But everyone has at least one Devastating song, one that reaches under our armor and touches us at our most vulnerable.  Thinking of Robert and his skepticism over whether I could really achieve a broken heart in such a short period of time, I think perspective yields me this: I wanted to be seen.  We all want to be seen.  And if someone we hoped would see us cannot, we find solace in the music that does.  

Take one of my favorites from Devastating, the Ike and Tina Turner number, “Tell Her I’m Not Home.”  The song starts with a strings riff and a drum beat, before a phone ring interrupts the movement and a dialogue sets the stage.  Our protagonist calls her lover and another woman answers the phone.  Ike, quick and cold, mumbles “I don’t want to talk to her, tell her I ain’t home.”  Tina starts to sing about a type of communication that never happens anymore: Every time I call you on the phone/ They tell me that you’re not at home.  No one is calling anyone’s landline these days (besides maybe their grandma’s) and no one is taking messages for another (we can’t be bothered to leave a voicemail). I ask the creative forces to inspire someone to write a song just as Devastating about being left on read, which is about as close of an analogy that we have now.  Even though the lyrics belong to a bygone time, the soul of the song remains eternally relevant.  Tina’s scream takes over, her no, no, no don’t you lie, an act of pure catharsis, then, now, and for as long as we are going to hurt and be hurt.  

I remember riding home on the bus and realizing that I had not thought of her in some time.  Even still, I waited a few more weeks before revisiting Devastating, for fear of unintended relapse. Since then, another not-so-coincidental development has had me exploring the idea of the “slow burn” for the first time in my dating life.  It reminds me of the crushes I had as a kid, with their excitement and admiration, except now the same is requited to a self-respecting degree.  In tandem, I feed my creative spirit, once considered secondary to the pursuit of a more practical education and living.  It informs this pursuit of love, both of the self and the world.  Despite any periodic emotional upsets, I admire my passions and romanticism in an age that encourages material productivity and fatalistic apathy over the beauty of feelings, in all their colors. 

In a video with over three million views on Youtube, Nina Simone barely holds back her naked contempt for her high-minded audience at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976 as she defends the merits of Morris Albert’s schmaltzy ballad “Feelings.”

            She gives a plaintive start with feelings/ nothing more than feelings/feelings/nothing more than feelings/feelings of love – then she stops to remind her “robot” audience to stay emotionally engaged with her before she continues—teardrops, falling down on my face/trying to forget all my feelings of love.

            “God damn it,” she says, hushed into the microphone, “what a shame to have to write a song like that.”  She goes further, insisting that she is not mocking the songwriter.

            “I do not believe the conditions that produced a situation that demanded a song like that!”  Nina wants to remind the audience of the raw elements that go into the creation of art, to not dismiss them flippantly because of their bare vulnerability.  She proceeds to take the crowd who have long forgotten their feelings of love through a musical whirlwind, with all her classical training expanding the song’s depth, including when she commands “come on, let’s hit the climax!” and points out the “so embarrassingly soft” decrescendo.  This performance is an act of love, of Nina Simone seeing the pain and honesty behind what most would rather look away from it.  

That is Devastating, a song that will take you to places beyond your emotional imagination, where you are left with only your own darkest moments as reference.  It takes a certain bravery to feel that.  We need Devastating for its power in transcendent empathy.  While I felt ashamed of my heartache, I had music to accept me, to remind me that from this low, something worthwhile and beautiful would come from it.  

We can’t escape being alive and its feelings.  This alone is Devastating.  Art helps us to deal with being human, to find grace in the colors, sound, and orchestic movement of emotions.  It wants to help us heal, to teach us how see the world and ourselves as beautiful, and as a natural consequence, how to love.  

[1] You, the reader, will be relieved to learn that I have long shifted away from using the second person point of view to address a specific ex, or, as I envisioned in those earnest first drafts of this piece, writing to a collective “you” of all my exes and crushes.  

[2] “Ah to be a romantic in this century🙃” – A text from my friend Bianca, in response to me using romance in a sentence.

[3] Might have been after the second or third date.  I know, right?

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