Allegra Hobbs on the sounds of hot vax summer.
On a Monday in early June, my friend who is an artist here in Marfa asked if I wanted to drive to Los Angeles with them; on Tuesday I said yes and on Wednesday we left, speeding through a desert beset by ominous clouds and heavy wind to reach Tucson by nightfall. Alarming yellow signs along the I-10 tell us in installments what to do if we’re swallowed by the elements, each holding an incomplete thought: “IN CASE OF DUST STORM” screams one, then a few yards later “PULL OFF ROADWAY,” then “TURN VEHICLE OFF” and so on. The blank spaces between each fragment strike me as a little poetic, like if e e cummings worked for the New Mexico Department of Transportation.
I was fluctuating between excitement and dread, plus a nauseating mixture of the two. I didn’t know why I was driving 14 hours through four states, and could barely justify it to myself. I had nothing to do in L.A., exactly, but I had friends there I hadn’t seen in some time and the pandemic was “over,” so the journey felt almost obligatory. L.A. is also a place of immense personal significance, because it’s where I spent some formative years, and every time I return I drive past places loaded with nostalgia and I feel the weight of the passage of time (but not in a sad way). I had last done this at the start of 2020 — a blissful prequel to the misery of the remaining year. It had been the last place I’d felt completely at peace, and now I could feel that way again, I told myself. L.A. would bookend my plague year.
I was among those who had resolved to move on as if the plague had never happened — a sentiment I saw growing on Twitter and Instagram, where people posted photos of themselves sunning in bikinis on the beach, enjoying raucous karaoke in packed bars, and otherwise boasting about their “hot vax summer” plans. There is, understandably, no desire for pandemic-themed content, for art situated in the reality of the past year, for any kind of post-crisis debriefing; the inevitable attempts at a pandemic novel are dreaded, not anticipated.
“A lot of ‘are we all just gonna pretend this never happened?’ tweets,” tweeted Texas Monthly associate editor Ben Rowen. “Please, yes. I’m not a public official, I’m just tryna set up a residency at Barb’s. Don’t make me think about the last year ever again.” I had never hit the “like” button faster. I had tweeted (and deleted) similar sentiments myself. I scrolled past something called “COVID Diaries NYC” on Hulu and felt an instinctive revulsion, maybe even a twinge of anger that a streaming service was already trying to market my own harrowing experience back to me.
So I was going to go to L.A. and see my friends and lay on Zuma Beach and drive through Topanga Canyon with the windows rolled down and everything would be like it was before.
Lorde was the soundtrack of our road trip, and Lorde was what I listened to most while driving around L.A. once we’d arrived. Something about it felt right. Her music is dark but not depressing, exhilarating but not upbeat; songs about incurable malaise are rendered hypnotic, and songs about hedonism are tinged with sadness and haunted by death. She writes from a distance, an observer more than a participant in her own life, analyzing her own disaffection while purportedly having fun. “I hate the headlines and the weather,” she sings on a track about taking MDMA, “I’m nineteen and I’m on fire.” She’ll later threaten to “blow [her] brains out to the radio.” In another song about partying, amid rapturous verses about dancing and drinking with friends, she slows down to paint a vivid, gorgeous picture of dying in a car crash, observing her own bloody death from a distance: “We’ll end up painted on the road, red and chrome, all the broken glass sparkling.” The tempo picks back up, the party continues, like the crash never happened.
I listened to Lorde while driving through both Topanga Canyon and Mulholland Drive with the windows rolled down. I listened to Lorde while driving on the 101 to meet an old friend for lunch in the valley, while aggressively navigating downtown L.A., while desperately searching for a place to park in Koreatown. Lorde was playing when I climbed up through my friend’s sunroof as they wound through Kanan Dume, a long canyon road that slithers between the ocean and the valley — something that should have been exhilarating but left me feeling hollow. I felt like an observer on the fringes of my own actions. I felt unsettled by normal life.
Lorde’s new single, “Solar Power,” came out while I was in L.A., a few days after I’d been at the beach in Malibu. It doesn’t sound like Lorde. The premise of the song is simple — the artist is at the beach with her friends and she is happy. She was sad during the winter, but now the sun is out (“forget all the tears you’ve cried, it’s over”). She is offline (“I throw my cellular device in the water”). It falls into a category of music I would characterize as “lobotomized pop.” Everything is as it seems and everything is good. There is no darkness bubbling beneath the surface; furthermore, the artist is present in her own life, a participant and not an observer.
It made me feel unsettled. Somehow, it deepened my feeling of dissonance with my surroundings. But isn’t this what it looks like to pretend that nothing happened? Wasn’t this the plan? It raises the question of what exactly we want from our artists post-pandemic, and what kind of art we want to consume. I do not want pandemic content. I do not want a novel set in 2020 New York City — I was there. I do not want pop music that references social distancing. But I am also disturbed by the lobotomized pop I heard in the last days of L.A.’s COVID restrictions, during which I narrowly avoided a panic attack while doing hot yoga in a surgical mask. I want desperately for everything to be the same, but everything is different — my relationship to my surroundings, to myself, to others, to the art and content I consume. I do not think it’s going back. — By Allegra Hobbs