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Everything Is Embarrassing: On Loving The National

Music
Photo courtesy of 4AD

Music for a leaking heart

Most of the things we love are the things that embarrass us. Most of the reasons we love people are the same reasons they embarrass us. I got into the National late, after just about everybody I knew, when High Violet came out in 2010. I may have been a dilettante and a joiner, but I joined with the fullest heart, with the most aggressively committed sentimentalism imaginable. I got into the band with my whole face, with my whole bad leaking heart, the kind every one of their songs chronicled; a bad leaking heart that was majestic and untrustworthy and slightly off-key, dragging itself desultory and bloated down the sidewalk to another party to drink at the open bar with everybody else’s bad hearts.

I had never loved a band like I loved this band, and the truth is I never really have since. I acknowledge that quite a lot of music is better than the National, more accomplished, more important, more coherent, and less embarrassing. But we rarely love things for reasons that aren’t embarrassing. The things we really love say more about who we are than we’d like them to say. The National are far and away my favorite band, but if you asked me what music I like and I didn’t know you well, I wouldn’t necessarily mention them. That answer would reveal too much. Maybe I don’t want you to know me that well; maybe I don’t want to be that known. 

The National put out a new album last month, and suddenly there was a rush to admit that you’d secretly always loved them. Everyone I knew loved the National like I did, and many of these people were close friends, and I had had no idea. This may partly be a function of the band not having had an album out for a long time, not giving any of us a reason to discuss them. But bands come up in conversation between albums, at least the bands you love in the way that so many of us were talking about loving them, bands who soundtracked the flow of emotions of from one season of life to the next, whose songs were tagged to our breakups and new loves, rejections and triumphs and walks of shame. 

I’d wanted to write about the National, or talk to friends about them, in 2013 when Trouble Will Find Me came out, but I was embarrassed by my feelings and nobody else was really talking about it, so I kept quiet and told people I was kind of over the band, meanwhile playing “Graceless” so many times on repeat in my headphones that I cannot think of meeting the man who’s now my husband without hearing the backbeat of that song, and cannot hear the song without being thrust back through time to when this person who now lives in my house only lived in my phone. I made a lot of jokes about dad music and dad cardigans, and then I played “I Should Live in Salt” every time I cried on the subway.

Which makes me think that maybe it isn’t that we just never had a reason to talk about the National, but that this is a band so many of us have loved so long and in such a specific skin-close, embarrassing way that we don’t necessarily want to share it. Maybe this is why we all had to say we loved The National by making jokes about how bad it is to love them, and maybe we made these jokes for the same reasons that Sleep Well Beast inspired confessions rushing like a stopped-up faucet from so many people I know. 

Sleep Well Beast is a departure not just musically, but narratively, for the band. For years they were an absolute Brooklyn, New York, cliche, a gang of overgrown sad boys neglecting their families to live in a big shared house in Ditmas together and combatively make music all day long. That fantasy has split up and shattered since the last album, and now the band’s participants are scattered across not just the country but the world, in places as far-flung as Paris and Cincinnati. Sleep Well Beast was a reunion of sorts, recorded at Aaron Dessner’s upstate New York studio, where the band would unite when their schedules allowed for planned bursts of musical productivity and recording. The album is a specific incident in time, rather than a lifestyle, a more intentional album than any other of the others so far. Berninger has called the lyrics “more emotionally direct,” and the music itself is more straightforward as well, with at least two songs—“Day I Die” and “The System Only Dream in Total Darkness”—being the most approachable jams the National has ever written. I have frequently tried to get my husband to listen to the National, but before this, it had never stuck. His only comment last summer, when I put all their albums on shuffle on Spotify and played it in the car was, “Is that guy going to apologize again?”

But last week, he texted me that he couldn’t stop listening to “Day I Die” on repeat, compared the band to the Cure, and then went face-down in the band’s back catalogue, texting me a running commentary of exclamation and discovery and new love that I remember from seven years and two albums ago. Then, I was just barely 26 years old when High Violet came out, and I had just gotten out of a very bad relationship. On the other side of that breakup, the world felt saturated with oxygen, like an abundant holiday table when you haven’t eaten all day, everything for grabbing. I was so profoundly, disgustingly grateful for the world, for each next day, for each new thing. I listened to “Bloodbuzz Ohio” for the first time, and I wanted to put myself inside its majestic, wallowing, self-mocking sound, the floor-dragging baritone of the lead singer whose voice sounded like a car driving with the brake on and the unreasonably optimistic backbeat pulling it forward all the same. 

This push-pull of the music, between deadened sadness and unjustified giddiness, drove from one song to the next, each playing on repeat and giving shape to days and then weeks and then a whole section of my life. I spent that summer scheduling the tutoring work I did to coincide with the National’s tour schedule. I took jobs in the same cities where the band would be, and saw them play shows across most of Western Europe. A friend who I’d met around the same time came with me to most of these, and we built our friendship like a reverse-motion house on fire, pouring into each other the most intimate details of our life, all soundtracked by this band with whom we were both newly obsessed. It’s still the reference point for how we know each other, the sound under the conversation, the thread that ties things together, a code language. 

Something about the National has always felt like an escape, which is at face value an odd thing to say about a band whose subject is mainly sadness and anxiety. It’s both easy to and fun to make jokes about this band being the saddest band, the saddest dads, a band full of sad dads who really love being sad. All of these jokes are accurate: The National is a band whose form and content is sadness. But the reason this band’s music seemed to act as an opening of a pressure valve on my own sadness and anxiety and that of my friend is that it’s about sadness rather than grief. Their music is the difference between the two, the luxury of sadness versus the hard edges of grief. 

Sadness spreads like a stain, sadness feels bodied and over-sensitized and ringing, like the first time you got high when you were a teenager, when you lay down on the carpet and nothing had ever been better or more important than the carpet. Sadness often acts as a temporary escape from grief. There are lots and lots of things worse in human reality than a broken heart or an unfaithful lover, and all of them are absent in the National’s music. That’s so much of what’s wonderful in it. Its sadness is a reckless, obliterative escape from the larger griefs of the world, focusing in on the overwhelming, petty, selfish concerns of the privileged heart. This music is enjoyable, squishy, and opulent in all its bad-hearted moping. Nothing in this music howls; everything oozes, everything has another drink and swoons into bed, sad and horny.

They’re a profoundly horny band, too, as much as they’re sad, which gets talked about less but is equally if not more the draw for their fans year after year and album after album. Much discussion and writing about the National skids over the fact that a whole lot of their songs are about one kind of weird sex or another. They probably say various words for “penis” in their lyrics more than all other comparable bands combined. The National’s music is about sex in an unglamorous, desultory way that speaks to how often sex is neither romantic nor sexy, just as their songs about love appeal to the part of us that knows that love is essentially more frightening than it is kind, a claw that scratches us down to the ugly parts laid bare. Every time the National sing a declaration of love, it sounds like a threat, and the most romantic-sounding song on the album is a warning of horrors yet to come. A lot of music thinks that sex is like riding a motorcycle and believing you won’t ever die when in fact it’s the opposite; sex isn’t rock and roll, and neither are the National. 

The thing about having a long relationship with a band is that it signposts one’s life, and sometimes the way it does so is profoundly uncomfortable. I waited a few days to listen to the songs that came out in advance of this record because I wasn’t sure I was ready to perform the taking-stock that I knew would inevitably happen, the way the continuance of the things we love drags us back to who we were at every point in our life when we loved them. Returning to this band when they put out new music is like returning to an old friend: deeply familiar and wholly uncomfortable. It’s a reckoning with the changing self, the truths we look away from and the threads that pull continuance through a life, the things we have lost, failed to maintain, or tried to slough off. 

When I finally put it on, though, the record seemed to be about these very sort of difficult and imperfect returns, these strange and embarrassing continuances. The songs echoed these same ideas. Look at how you have been listening to this music for so long, all while struggling with all the same things, all while trying to find some parts of yourself and your existence meaningful and having some moderate mix of success and failure. Isn’t it ridiculous really that we’re all still here doing this same thing, still, even as age, even as we get old, even as time moves on and we should be better than this? And yet we still aren’t, and here’s another record. 

The thing about loving a band is that they get older at the same rate that you do, and at some point, the music starts to be about the fact that maybe you should be too old to care about all this same stuff, and yet you still do. 

The lyrics to many of the songs echo these uncomfortable returns. “Day I Die,” opens with, “I don’t need you, I don’t need you, anyway I barely ever see you anymore.” I thought of the best friend I made listening to High Violet seven years ago. While we’re still as close as we always have been, we don’t have the kind of friendship where we need to talk each day or even every month. The song seemed to be about that very thing, knowing someone and loving them while your lives have changed around you, when things have become less bright and less urgent. “I’ll Still Destroy You,” does something similar, with a haunting refrain that tugs out the sticky, bitterly delicious sentiment of seeing an old lover for the first time in a while, the strange sense of still wanting someone just like you always did is a crooked kind of homecoming. 

The day after Sleep Well Beast came out, I woke up to a text from this same friend. He was in New York, and heartbroken, and knew it’d been a while but could he come over and talk it out? We sat on the couch all day, messy and sad and indulgent and human, and eventually, we got from talking about our hearts to talking about the new album, and then back again, and again, in the same old easy language, in the same luxurious wallowing sadness. The continuance was ridiculous; it defied ideas of aging and maturity, the imperative to get over things and get better, to gather one’s self up and get one’s shit together. We returned to the same terrain, the same petty and compelling questions of betrayal and loss, the dissonances of love and desire, of safety and contentment, the bleak humor of the space between what we want and how it feels when we get it. Perhaps things don’t get better, says the National’s new album, and perhaps there’s something delicious about that. Look at all of us still here, look at the ongoings, despite the odds, of all our bad leaking hearts. 

Photo by Rachel Dennis

Finally

"What do girls even do together?" This question, or some iteration of it, is frequently posed to me once someone finds out I'm bisexual or hears me mention my girlfriend, or if I make any reference to being interested in girls. I would be annoyed by it, but I have empathy because I know how hard this kind of information can be to find. In fact, the details of how two people with vaginas have sex isn't very widespread information. And, I know that I didn't really have all that much information about girl-on-girl sex before, well, actually having it myself. It's precisely this kind of situation that queer sex educator Stevie Boebi is trying to fix.

Boebi has gained a big following for her informational YouTube videos about how to use a strap-on, how to scissor, how to fist someone, how to choose a vibrator for yourself; any question you could have, she will get you an answer. She doesn't shy away from topics that people wouldn't be quick to ask someone about IRL, either, like BDSM. And she covers the kind of things that are definitely not what we're taught in sex education classes—likely not even in the most progressive curriculums. A study from GLSEN notes that only 4 percent of teens reported learning anything positive about queer sex in their sex ed classes, and points out that in some states, it's actually prohibited to mention queerness at all.

Particularly when it comes to sex with two vaginas, the lack of available public education leads to a general lack of understanding of how we have sex, which then leads to a lack of understanding in the queer community, too. "I just think that lesbian sex is so oversexualized, and we're the least educated," said Boebi when I asked her recently why it's so important for her to spread knowledge about queer sex in particular.

Boebi said that she started out on YouTube making videos about technology, but after she came out as a lesbian, her audience flipped from mostly male to mostly female, though she would prefer a less rudimentary gender breakdown ("the algorithm only deals in binaries, sorry," she quipped).

Ultimately, her sexuality led her to change her content entirely, because she wanted to educate people who couldn't find answers to their questions anywhere else—even on the internet.

"I started getting a lot of what I called 'stupid questions' from very confused teenage girls saying, like, 'How do I do it? Can I get AIDs from fingering someone?'" Boebi told me. They were questions that probably should have had easily Google-able answers, but, when Boebi looked for lesbian sex education content to send to fans who were asking her, she came up empty-handed. "I couldn't find anything. I think I found, like, two articles on Autostraddle, and that was it," she said. "And then I was like, Well, shit! If no one else is going to do it, then I guess I will."

Boebi's audience is mainly comprised of 13- to 24-year-olds, so she keeps in mind that she's helping people who may not be experienced, or even out yet. She uses her own experiences to inform her work sometimes, but also researches extensively and talks to people she knows who "have fancy Ph.Ds in sexology and shit," who can answer her questions or point her to resources she should be referencing.

Boebi's charm is in her relatability; even if she's talking about things we've been conditioned to feel shame around, she does it in such an open and honest way that all that shame disappears—as it should. She does this by perfectly meshing professional talk with jokes and sarcasm, and even uses characters based on star signs. She knows the importance of taking on taboo topics, because there are so many people who won't otherwise find answers to their questions. "I don't actually struggle in my everyday life asking people if they've ever been anally fisted before," Boebi joked with me. "I'll take that burden."

And keeping her tone light and humorous is of the utmost importance to her. "When people are laughing, they're comfortable, and I want people to feel comfortable," Boebi said. "And I want people to know that I'm comfortable talking about sex, and they can be, too." It helps also, Boebi told me, that her audience is separated by a screen, and she's not "in a room with a 12-year-old talking about my labia."

Beyond instructional sex videos, Boebi also deals with other rarely discussed facets of sexuality and physicality. Boebi is polyamorous, and talks openly about it, confronting the stereotypes and the misinformation about the identity head-on. And, she was also recently diagnosed with Ehler's Danlos Syndrome after going years without a diagnosis, and she aims to start working more with disabled queer sex educators to make her work more inclusive of people with disabilities. Though she pointed out to me that her work was already encompassing of disabilities, she "hasn't been a part of the disability activist community for very long," and so she has a lot to learn.

And, though Boebi's happy that she has the platform she does, she wants a more inclusive array of sex educators to join the scene. "My voice is my voice, and it's unique to me, but I think there should be way more," she noted. "Especially people [with intersectional identities]. That would make me so happy if we could diversify sex educators."

And, though Boebi says there's no "ideal way" to educate people about sex, she's definitely on a better track than the public education system, and she makes clear that there's nothing shameful about sexuality—in fact, it's just a part of being human, and a really fun one, at that.

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FROM THE WORLD WIDE WEB
Photo by Nicholas Hunt / Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images.

This photo makes me so happy

It can't be understated how big of a phenomenon the Spice Girls were during the late '90s. Their impact was felt from the bustling streets of London to the dry desert land of Scottsdale, Arizona. The latter place is where a young Emily Jean Stone was so immersed in fandom that she asked her second-grade teacher to call her Emma, after Emma "Baby Spice" Bunton. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and Emily is the Academy Award-winning actress Emma Stone. What's even better, she's still a huge Spice Girls fan.

Stone went to the Spice Girls reunion tour at the Wembley Stadium in London and finally met the woman who inspired the name the actress is now known by. Bunton shared a photo of the two of them outside of the venue on her Instagram. She captioned the photo: "When Emma met Emma."And even added the hashtag #2become1. I can't figure out if I want to cry from sentimentality or serious envy.

As for Stone, she once cried when Mel "Scary Spice" B. sent her a video message so I can only imagine what this moment felt like for her. Let this be a reminder that even Oscar winners can be stans.

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Screenshot via YouTube

The band shared details about their new St. Vincent-produced album that will drop "you into the world of catastrophe"

Sleater-Kinney just shared more information about their St. Vincent-produced album and dropped a new single.

Per Billboard, Sleater-Kinney revealed that their new album, which they've been teasing since early this year and will be their first since No Cities To Love from 2015, will be called The Center Won't Hold. It's due out on August 16 via Mom + Pop Records. "We're always mixing the personal and the political but on this record, despite obviously thinking so much about politics, we were really thinking about the person—ourselves or versions of ourselves or iterations of depression or loneliness—in the middle of the chaos," Carrie Brownstein said in a statement. Corin Tucker further noted that the new album will "[drop] you into the world of catastrophe that touches on the election."

Janet Weiss noted that the band will "explore a different sound palette" with this album, and pointed to St. Vincent as the reason behind it. She said that St. Vincent "has a lot of experience building her own music with keyboards and synthesizers so she could be our guide to help us make sense of this new landscape and still sound like us."

To satiate us until then, the band released a lyric video for new single, "The Future Is Here," which is very grungy. Bump it, below.

Sleater-Kinney - The Future Is Here (Official Lyric Video) www.youtube.com

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This is so satisfying!

Even Jon Snow knows just how unsatisfying the final season of Game of Thrones was, and he's ready to apologize. Well, a deepfake of him is at least. A heavily-edited version of Snow's speech from the fourth episode—just before the bodies of those lost in the Battle of Winterfell get burned—now features Snow apologizing for the conclusion of the show and lighting the script on fire.

"It's time for some apologies. I'm sorry we wasted your time," Snow begins. "And I know nothing made sense at the end. When the Starbucks cup is the smallest mistake, you know you fucked up! We take the blame. I'm sorry we wrote this in like six days or something," he adds, before signaling to his peers to light the script with torches and "just forget it forever." "Fuck Season 8," he says before the pages begin to crackle and burn.

If there were more lines left to alter, we would have loved to see Snow also tackle how messy Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister's story line ended up, as well as Bran's kingship, Cersei's boring demise, and the water bottle appearance.

Watch the entire deepfake and try to heal the wounds left by HBO below.

BREAKING: JON SNOW FINALLY APOLOGIZED FOR SEASON 8 youtu.be

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Photo by Darren Craig

It premieres today, exclusively via NYLON

In LP's song "Shaken," the most recent single from her 2018 record Heart To Mouth, she tells the story of seeing her lover out with someone else—ouch. Today, exclusively on NYLON, she releases a cheeky animated music video that pokes fun at the song's heightened drama and perfectly demonstrates all the angst that comes with falling hard for someone.

"She looks at you like I used to/ And I'm just sitting in the corner sh-sh-shaken," LP sings, as the visual—with art by Maayan Priva—depicts the singer hanging out in a bar, watching the girl she likes meet up with another girl. Despite the situation's inherent drama, "Shaken" is less of a ballad and more of an upbeat bop. LP told us she loves the way "this little video captures some of the fun of the song, and its inherent comical anxiety." Sure, heartbreak isn't that funny, but our (sometimes) overly dramatic reaction to it kind of is.

"'Shaken' feels like a bit of a wild card on this record," LP says. "It's the closest I've come to writing a musical, which I hope to do one day." We heartily endorse this idea: Please, LP, give us the queer jukebox musical we crave.

Until that day comes, though, you can watch the music video for "Shaken," below.

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