But the party don't stop
The following was written in early October, the end of the long, hot, summerautumn of 2020.
In the early hours of August 16, the ghost of Tropical Storm Fausto appeared over Northern California causing what weatherheads call a dry thunderstorm. This would be the spark for several wildfires that continue to burn at the time of writing, including the largest in California wildfire history. About a month passes; the smoke starts to clear.
September 25, a 25-second TikTok starts to circulate on Twitter. It’s a guy in a grey hoodie skateboarding down a freeway off-ramp, swigging Ocean Spray, and lip-syncing to “Dreams.” Right before the video ends, right after the man and Stevie say “play the way you feel it” he starts to turn outward towards the sun. I’m in love with the man, and so is everyone else.
Two days later, it’s hot and gusty and there are two more wildfires. One thing that struck me about the TikTok is the section of the song he chose. Play the way you feel it. The video demands you hear the phrase. The phrase is a demand itself, though an inviting one.
The smell and look of fire return and the week goes by slowly. By now you should have a sense of the timeline so you know that on Oct. 1 the president tests positive for COVID. Everyone loses their minds. “Dreams” soars back up the charts for the millionth time since its original release. Thunder only happens when it’s raining, or, as another song puts it, when it rains, it pours.
It should be noted that thunder does in fact happen when it’s not raining—e.g. dry thunderstorms—but idioms are never tested on their literal claims. In ‘77, the year that “Dreams” was released, a lightning strike on the East Coast caused widespread blackouts throughout New York City. It was summer in the city and the middle of a heat wave, and people in the city said “let’s play the way we feel it” and stores were looted and set ablaze.
A lot of people think this year is bad. I’m hesitant to agree because that would imply things were good before, or that 2020 is an aberration. The TikTok does a good job of concealing this. “You are languidly gliding down the off-ramp, sipping juice. The freeway and grain silos fade behind.” At the height of the fires, I drive through Vacaville on I-80 where most of the exit off-ramps are barricaded shut. The surrounding hills are a stark black and then gold, from where progress of the burn was halted.
The part of the song the TikTok knowingly leaves out is the part everyone already knows. If you know anything about pop songs, you know that the part that everyone knows gets played over, and over, and over again. But to call it simple repetition would be mistaken; it’s intensification followed by release—coming back to that familiar moment, except things shimmer differently this time. The chorus washes you clean and then you know.
I often wonder if songs would continue to astonish if the world just pulled the emergency brake, chilled out. Like that pop music’s continuous capacity to amaze requires the dynamism and disorientation of the world-system to propel it forward. It’s a dumb thought experiment. I guess it’s better posed as a question about aesthetic consequences, given particular shifts in the world order. Let’s try one. You are in a reality where greenhouse gases were never a concern, cold fusion produces the world’s energy, boreal and rainforests are both thriving. Someone says the words “Bon Iver” and you respond “What,” because you don’t speak French.
This is not the timeline we live in. Seasons have become strange as the summer seems to stretch further into Spring and Fall, and winters feature a short but intense wet period. When forest and brush in mountainous regions burn in the summer, winter rains rush down the burn-scarred hillsides, bringing down with it carbonized deadfall. This is a flash flood, and the combined force of debris, water, and gravity wreaks havoc on anything along its path. People who study climate disaster in California speculate that alternating hot, dry, wildfire seasons with shorter, but more intense wet seasons will create a sort of disaster feedback loop. Each season will get a growing repertoire of destruction that increases in intensity each year. Fires create teflon hillsides, which heavy rain skates down. Rain fosters overgrowth in areas protected by parochial land development and fire management policies, creating a surplus of fuel for the next fire season. More teflon hillsides, rinse, repeat.
Another obvious weakness to the thought experiment above is the case that has preoccupied this writing. We remain susceptible to certain pop songs four decades after the fact, perhaps because some just have that much to give. Both Stevie Nicks and the guy on the skateboard have a beneficent quality to them. Nicks, in her femme dismissal of players who played her; skateboard guy, in his transformation of the former into the insistence that, no, you keep playing. I don’t think he means it in the sleazy way.
This all comes to us in what feels like a lull, the accompanying music appropriately lethargic. But this lull is temporary, an illusion even. This is what he’s telling us. We constantly move atop the embers of history, and our sad fate is a trained discipline in ignoring the heat below. But as the earth warms, as the wreckage piles beneath us, we begin to see fuel everywhere—a single spark the signal to end the illusion of order. Remember the summer? It wasn’t even a heat wave but people said we are in Hell, so let it burn. And they did so with ferocity and scale, more so this time than the last. Remember, he gave us the verse, and a verse is just a turn. Here comes the chorus.