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Phoebe Bridgers
Photo: Frank Ockenfels / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

Phoebe Bridgers’ Lyrical Melancholy Soothes and Challenges

Phoebe Bridgers’ lyrical concern with boredom is not just creative wordplay or the avoidance of cliché but argues a more engaged stance on the melancholic.

In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers remembers her first time meeting her personal idol. It came on a childhood trip to Disneyland, she says, when she ran into Eeyore–the downtrodden donkey from A.A. Milne’s children’s book series, Winnie the Pooh. Tongue-in-cheek or not, Bridgers’ music is certainly melancholic, something of which she appears to be aware. “It’s so fun to play a show […] and then have somebody come up to you and you’re laughing about trauma, basically,” Bridgers says in an interview with MTV, “You’re laughing about […] a shared experience.”

Beyond themes of traumatic experience, this melancholy is evident in her song titles alone: from “Funeral”, the fourth single off her debut album, Stranger in the Alps (2017) to “I Know the End,” the final track on her most recent album Punisher (2020). Bridgers’ music is tender and compassionate, but rarely ever is it tranquil or peaceful. On their surface, her songs seem like they would be good company for a lazy morning or a solo night drive, but they quickly reveal themselves to be more effective for processing unshakeable, pensive sadness. 

Lyrically, Bridgers’ songs are concerned with the mundane. Her protagonists often express boredom with the world with an acute honesty and the absence of hyperbolism that lends itself to her uniquely identifiable sense of melancholy. On Punisher’s first single, “Kyoto”, the character finds herself bored while exploring a Japanese temple and subsequently becomes disinterested in the entire trip abroad.

On “Funeral”, she is “bored to tears”, a lyrical play on the expected “bored to death”. On “I Know the End”, the protagonist acknowledges an apocalyptic end of the world – “No, I’m not afraid to disappear / the billboard said, ‘The end is near’ –while simultaneously accepting it – “I turned around, there was nothing there / yeah, I guess the end is here.” These lyrics reveal a mundanity of the world that her characters are regularly let down by and which often leaves them feeling melancholic. However, Bridgers’ songs refuse to let her characters withdraw from this revealed world and instead encourage them to engage with it and find an acceptance in what it is. 

Bridgers’ lyrical concern with boredom is not just creative wordplay or the avoidance of cliché but argues a more engaged stance on the melancholic. Blended with her music, her lyrics offer a distinct picture of an age when technology and social media do so much work in world-building and present the world as more exceptional than it really is. In this, Bridgers’ songs reveal an intimacy with a kind of melancholy that is formed through recognizing the reality of life. This is a mood that Freud defines as a “profoundly painful dejection, abrogation of interest in the outside world” that develops after the failure to properly process loss.

Bridgers’ melancholy, however, comes instead from an acute awareness of what that outside world is: indifferent to our romanticizations of it. It is a world that Bridgers wants us to know only truly reveals itself when the search for exceptionalism has been abandoned. The boredom found at the temple on “Kyoto” comes from an unfulfillment of what the world is built up to be, either by ourselves or others. The speaker laments, “I wanted to see the world / then I flew over the ocean / and I changed my mind.”

Kyoto falls short of the speaker’s expectation of it, and the temple ends up equating to nothing more than “look[ing] around at the 7-Eleven” of the verse’s next line. The melancholy that Bridgers’ speaker experiences during this trip abroad, then, comes from her personal regret of flying to Japan from LA (where the song ultimately returns) nor through an unprocessed lost object as suggested in Freud’s understanding of melancholy. Bridger’s melancholy forms from the promise of the experience and its reality.

Bridgers’ songs also express the experience of loss (an important component of melancholy); however, it is a loss not in the form of a tangible lost object (or person) but more in the vein of unmet expectations. When the temple, for example, in “Kyoto” is experienced, and the promised experience of, say, a sense of spiritual enlightenment or the recognition of an object as a sacred artifact is unmet, new knowledge of the world then forms. Less clinically than Freud’s use of the term, this fits in with more engaged cultural interpretations of melancholy, such as one offered by scholar Jonathan Flatley, who, returning to Robert Burton’s term, melancholizing, argues that melancholy is something more active, a “brooding over absent objects and changed environments, reflecting on unmet desires […] it is a practice that might, in fact, produce its own knowledge.”

The melancholy of Bridgers’ lyrics forms from an active engagement with the outside world, where loss manifests in the everyday mundanity that permeates her lyrics. This active engagement allows Bridgers’ to present the listener with new understandings of the world: one where it’s okay to be let down by a trip abroad; make failed small talk with an ex, as the protagonist on “Scott Street” spends the entire second verse doing; or even to sit and do nothing but listen to a looping DVD menu, which the first track of Punisher, plainly titled “DVD Menu”, invites the listener to do.

This new, engaged melancholy is prevalent throughout Bridgers’ songs, where expectations for what the world is are constantly being set up only to be quickly undone. Yet, it is only after this undoing of expectations that the speaker (or the listener) are able to come to terms with the melancholic sense of the world. In “Kyoto”‘s second chorus, the character sings to her inattentive father, “I’ve been driving out to the suburbs / to sit at the Goodwill and stare at the chemtrails / with my little brother. / He said you called on his birthday / you were off by like ten days / but you get a few points for trying.” In “Smoke Signals”, the character imagines sitting on the floor of a Holiday Inn with a past love, wishing to “watch T.V. / while the lights on the street put all the stars to death.”

In “Garden Song”, the speaker sings, “When I grow up, I’m gonna look up / from my phone and see my life / and it’s gonna be just like my recurring dream” – a dream anyone with a phone knows is bound to fall short in matching the exceptionalism of the worlds promised by (and formed on) social media. The expectations of what the world could be – a loving father, a starry night sky, or a dreamy life – create the boredom of Bridgers’ characters because the world experienced fails to match those expectations, and what the world actually is, by comparison, is unbearably mundane.

However, this boredom Bridgers’ speakers feel with the world is not a withdrawal from it, but rather a new engagement with it – a realization of what the world actually is after the romanticization of it has been stripped away. The cultural experience promised in the Japanese temple is instead found in the differences of a global chain convenience store; a father’s inattentiveness is somewhat forgiven in the acknowledgment of trying; the starry night the American pioneers slept beneath is instead polluted by the parking lot lights of the American roadside motel industry (capitalism is its own kind of colonizer), which is enough reason to watch an extra episode of a television show before bed. None of this acceptance comes, however, without leaning into the melancholic sense that a failed expectation of the world instills in the songs’ speakers, or, for that matter, their listeners.

In this honest confrontation of worldly ennui, there is something to be said about Bridgers’ abrupt rise to success during a pandemic that forced the world into social isolation. Indeed, Bridgers is a 2021 Grammy nominee for Best New Artist following the success of Punisher’s release.

With any kind of pleasures that made the pre-pandemic world enjoyable suddenly stripped away by social distancing measures and other public health policies, the world was forced to face the banality of everyday life. Bridgers’ music reminds us of what life looks like when it’s peeled back. Her music also offers listeners companionship through the process of acclimating to daily routines that rarely offer new experiences and encounters. It confirms the disappointment felt in cancelled travel plans but also tells us that maybe it is okay to change our minds about travelling and instead spend our weekends at home. Her music reveals the emptiness of an Instagram post, but suggests that we can wait until we are a little bit older to look up from our phones. It knows the nights are starry, but we can’t see it, so it’s okay to sit on the floor and watch TV a little bit longer.


WORK CITED

Bridgers, Phoebe. Stranger in the Alps. Dead Ocean. 2020. Spotify.

–– Punisher. Dead Ocean. 2020. Spotify.

Flatley, Jonathan. Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Affects of Modernism. Harvard University Press. 2008.

Freud, Sigmund, James Strachey, Anna Freud, Alix Strachey, Alan Tyson. “Mourning and Melancholia”. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 243–58. Vintage. 2001.

MTV. “Phoebe Bridgers on Making ‘Punisher’ & Grammy Nomination”. YouTube. 29 January 2021.

Rolling Stone Magazine. “Phoebe Bridgers: The First Time”. YouTube (1:25). 27 May 2020.

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