What Grief Does: A close reading you don’t need of a song you don’t care about.

Grief is a weird place. I’m kind of odd. It’s definitely been a strange combo. One of the things grief has done for me is permeate. I find it everyplace, whether I’m looking or not. It’s like a new crush, an upcoming vacation, a job search. Like a kid thinking about Christmas in November: even if you don’t want to, at some level you’re making a list of all the things you want under the tree. Except with grief, you’re kind of obsessed with the coal ash at the bottom of your stocking. 
Because I like to use my energy primarily for useless things no one else cares about, one of the ways I process is by reimagining songs in ways their writers never intended. I’m particularly fond of doing this while jogging or driving. But I guess also now blogging! 
I have a new song theory I’ve been nursing since Nina died: Every breakup song is also a song about grief. I don’t know whether it’s because the images used to for heartbreak are universal, or if I’m just warping everything in terms of my own grieving, or both (NB: it’s both). But since Nina died, I can’t stop listening to breakup songs and being convinced they’re actually metaphors for grief and loss. 
Here’s an example: Ezra Furman’s Love You So Bad. There are dozens, but I like this one’s peculiarities. 
Furman wrote the song from the perspective of a young man looking back at his first love, a high school sweetheart — pretty far from a bereavement song on the surface. But the “bad” in the title complicates the narrative nicely — it’s meaning is both the commonplace slang for “so much” and a reference to the fact that the narrator is kind of a fuckup. And it’s a pretty great statement of the feeling almost everyone on the planet has when they try to reckon with love that no longer has a present object: it feels bad. 
The opening lines of the song are: You know I love you so bad / I don’t believe in lovePerfect! I LOVE cognitive dissonance. Yum. People with a severely broken heart are precisely the ones who don’t believe in love, and the deeper the wound, the stronger the denial of love – a defense mechanism that sometimes gets deployed proportionally. Grief is many things, but one of them is certainly a powerful form of heartbreak. 
The next few lines introduce the high-school romance, but they’re not anything that actually happened, it’s all overt metaphors for the way the lover feels looking back — inept, off track, bereft:  
You know I love you so bad / Like the kid in the back of the classroom / Who can’t do the math cause he can’t see the black board
The metaphor continues apace, as the kid goes from being merely inept at math (possibly because his parents never bothered to get his eyes checked, I mean he can’t see the blackboard in high school math? Should someone get CPS involved?), to less and less socially acceptable behavioral metaphors for his angst:  
You know I love you so bad / Like the kid skipping class in the bathrooms / Sneaking cigarettes underneath the football bleachers baby, so bad / You know I love you so bad / Like the kids growing up to be criminals / Tearing pages out the back of the hymnals / For love notes baby, so bad
Furman distances the narrator from these examples by making them metaphors, which is what gives his song its figurative punch. It takes a basic range of teenage tropes and dislocates them from the actual high school context, making them signify for the loneliness, pain, and wistful regret of almost any broken heart. 
This speaks to grief because there is always a fine line between being attached to someone you love and dwelling or wallowing in grief or the past. No one who has lost a partner or other loved one ever wants to be told to “move on,” and I can’t agree more that’s a potentially noxious thing to say to the bereaved. But I also struggle mightily with what my attachment to Nina should be. How much is too much? What is loving even after loss, and what’s loving “bad,” or to excess so that I am not growing beyond that relationship. Even though I want to always have a relationship with Nina, that relationship has to change and grow in very profound ways now that she’s dead. Sometimes I feel like my love is more like the hymnal defacers-cum-criminals than the idealized version I’d rather have. 
Then things in the song get real, or at least, more narratively literal. In the next lines we see the actual people involved instead of the high school abstractions: 
“Still remember so bad / The nights mom got drunker than dad did / She told me never hang out with the bad kids / What can you say to that? / I always knew I was bad.”
But I still only believe these lines metaphorically, or at least I don’t care whether they actually happened to the narrator or, even less to Ezra Furman, which I think is the point. It’s artistic “truth” regardless of the facts, because the metaphors work and speak to our larger, more universal experiences of love and loss. In some ways, even though they’re couched in teen angst, they’re even more universal, because everyone had a childhood, everyone had some bumps along the way, and no one has access to their past except through the lens of memory, sometimes dimmed by nostalgia. And if listen to the song, Furman’s oohs and ahhs throughout the song give the whole piece a punchy, upbeat, teeny-bopper feeling that totally works in tension with the loneliness of the underlying narrative. 
The next bits of the lyrics are the meat of the loss. And it’s a delicious mix of teenage schlock (“came to the beach cause we used to go here”) and lines with wisdom that would apply to any relationship, or any loss (“I know the past is the past / Then again the present’s nothing without it” is pretty great, e.g.). 
Here the lines refer to someone the narrator is never going to see again. Sure, his Ex still sends him the occasional email. But the gulf is absolute here. The difference between leaving their town and leaving earth is metaphorically thin: “you moved away that was that” is a pretty abrupt finality, and “Somehow you got yourself accepted to college … I got a dumb job working in retail” is, on one level, just a description of one person making it out and the other not. But also it’s a wonderful metaphor for grief. 
Grief is TOTALLY a dumb job working in retail!! This appeals to me much more than the literal reading of that line. There are many times grief feels unfulfilling, self-regenerating, all encompassing, like a dead end job.

However, there’s also a strange, almost Zen like acceptance, which somehow doesn’t signify as detachment: “I feel fine, don’t even feel sad about it / I just love you baby so bad.” This acceptance can be read as denial — there’s clearly nostalgia, reminiscence, and even pining present. 

There is a danger in any love affair, as well as with any loss or grief, of looking at the object of your feelings with nostalgia colored glasses. We all have moments where we romanticize the good, elide the mundane or outright unpleasant. This is understandable and maybe even necessary at some level, to bear up under the weight of loss or longing. But it can also be pernicious, and it contrasts with a sober (remember “sober nights in your car were transcendent” is compared favorably with getting out of hand and buying drugs from a parking attendant), unflinching apprehension of the past that doesn’t seek to elevate or canonize, but simply re-experience it, painful bits and all, through memory. 
The lines about acceptance can also be read at face value – perhaps despite mixing with the wrong crowd, having alcoholic parents who never took him to the ophthalmologist, and working a dead end job, the narrator has a strong, nuanced sense of attachment? Maybe he genuinely knows that his ex is better off without him. He may be “bad,” but he can still want good things for people he loves. I like this too. It implies that even damaged, hopeless, and bereft, we are capable of noble thoughts and feelings. I not only like this, I need to believe it to function these days. 
The freedom and removal where the narrator’s Ex in “I Love You So Bad” exists by escaping “all this garbage small town rat trap” makes a nice figurative depiction of release from the suffering of life. Even the sand metaphor works on both levels: the ocean washing away the name just as he’s written it can be just the ephemera of youth. Or it can be the ephemeral nature of all things, including human life. 
The overall thrust of the narrative is a deliberate attempt to access someone the narrator has lost, despite a complete lack of hope in the song. There is not one whiff in this of reconciliation — he does not expect to get back together. In fact there’s no even a whiff of an actual breakup or fight, just the Ex leaving and “that was that,” which is in many ways more akin to grief than to a breakup. 
Or maybe I’m just in my head too much. Maybe I see grief everywhere, infer loss of life from every expression of loss whatsoever. Still, I think that’s the real power of metaphor: it gives us access to things that aren’t necessarily evident or at the surface, it elicits meaning even where we don’t see it otherwise or might even actively resist it. That’s why I like listening to song lyrics so much. They feed the dialectic of my understanding even when I’m not hungry for it. 
It also it helps if the song has a pretty killer melody and a hook or two. So queue it up, give a listen, and tell me how wrong I am in the comments.  

2 thoughts on “What Grief Does: A close reading you don’t need of a song you don’t care about.

  1. Music of the 60s always fills me with a pang and a strong sense off loss for my sister who passed away suddenly 3 years ago. I for one love that you are exploring grief. My parents and sister died within a year and a half of each other.I learnt each death was different- each grief response too. All I wrote about and talked about was death and grief for two years…I am starting to feel a bit more comfortable now, but it was huge wake up call on what life is really about. That song of grief is a little nudge towards death awareness for sure. Thanks for sharing….I’d thought of writing about grief on my blog but thought who’d want to read it, so stopped blogging. So keep exploring and writing because we need to talk about grief! 🙏✨Julia


  2. I’m guilty of this, too. After my mom died, I found connection/meaning in songs about loss that weren’t necessarily about death, but could be interpreted that way through my grief-clouded lens.It’s been years, but the one truth I hold onto is there is no right or wrong way to grieve. We all do it differently, and we all have our different quirks and ways of coping.


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