Music/Features

Phoebe Bridgers models a version of healing that’s familiar, complex, and restorative

On "Motion Sickness," interrogating toxic men, and realizing that leaning on your team can feel like a sword.

April 30, 2019

When Phoebe Bridgers plays “Motion Sickness” live there’s always a caveat. “This song is about being in love with someone who’s super mean to you,” Phoebe half jokes as she tunes her guitar in an NPR Tiny Desk Concert video from 2017. “Here’s my mean song,” she warns over the opening chords in an even more recent concert video from Brooklyn Steel in 2018.

I sometimes wonder if these disclaimers will continue to be part of Phoebe’s stage banter, now that the story behind the song’s lyrics has made headlines. In an article published by the New York Times earlier this year, Phoebe was one of several women to come forward with allegations against musician Ryan Adams. According to Phoebe’s testimony, her professional correspondence with Ryan Adams in 2014 turned into a romantic relationship that quickly became emotionally abusive. When she broke up with him, he rescinded his offers of professional support.

It didn’t take a New York Times article for me to make sense of Phoebe’s experience. Her song about Ryan, “Motion Sickness,” was almost definitely the first song of hers I ever listened to. It was the sticky, stubborn end of summer 2017, the kind of early September weather that feels grossly misplaced, your kneecaps continuing to sweat every time you step outside even as the leaves start to change. I was staring down my fourth year of grad school feeling pretty directionless, deeply insecure about pretty much every choice I was making with my life, and had just frittered away my summer reading feminist essay collections in various Toronto parks.

In the aftermath of a long distance relationship that left my heart feeling supremely worse for wear and several months spent dating a string of questionable characters, J looked like all the stability and surety I’d been missing. He played a Bright Eyes song on guitar for me on one of our first dates, had uncannily good luck finding concert tickets, and our music taste was a respectable enough Venn diagram that when he suggested I come with him and some friends to see Conor Oberst, it was second nature to agree.

Neither of us had heard of the opener, because her album wasn’t out yet. We listened to her singles a handful of times before the day of the show, but I don’t think we even caught the full opening set, still busy drinking too-expensive wine at a restaurant halfway across town.

I think I made it thirty seconds into hearing Phoebe sing live and I was a goner.

Listening to “Motion Sickness” on repeat that autumn, it seemed obvious. “I hate you for what you did, and I miss you like a little kid.” Already deeply suspicious of Ryan Adams for the undue praise he’d received for his cover of Taylor Swift’s album 1989 , it was clear to me from the start what Phoebe’s song was about, and how it echoed against my own experiences. When you have to tell a tough story enough times, it starts to lose a lot of its teeth. You start to build out punchlines, find the right spots to pause and laugh or make a self-deprecating comment to soften the sting of trauma in the past tense. “I hardly feel anything, I hardly feel anything at all.” Telling your story a particular way gives you power over it, makes it more livable, but it can also make those narratives illegible if you’re not used to reading those gaps and jokes for the concealed hurt they’re meant to hide.

When I mention my feelings about the lyrics to J he’s immediately defensive. “That’s not what the song is about,” he counters. Ryan Adams helped Phoebe record her first EP and she supported him on tour in early 2017. Most of the media covering Phoebe’s album release that autumn happily gives Ryan credit for her meteoric rise. “It’s just a song,” J assured me, leaving no room for the nuance familiar to anyone who’s ever been in love with someone who, to borrow a phrase from Phoebe, is super mean to you.

I joke about it all now easily, too. The first time J accused me of being in love with one of my best friends, another queer woman. How he acted sullen and ignored me if I hadn’t texted him enough on a night out, or let him know where I was or who I was with. He was convinced the academic conference my colleague and I were co-presenting at in New York was a cover-up for more illicit feelings, and wanted to come with me. The string of final straws were rapidfire and comparatively small, but the day before Valentine’s Day 2018 I finally bagged up every item he’d ever left at my apartment and told him we were over. “Be glad that I made it out, and sorry that it all went down like it did.” The wave of relief that washed over me in the days and weeks that followed was enough to almost knock me off my feet.

We had tickets to see Phoebe again, and I joked that I lost the tickets in the divorce. I wrote a piece for Alison Lang’s Music Men Ruined for Me zine on my ambivalence towards Conor Oberst, and spent a lot of time loving and being loved by those same friends whose intimacies J had been so suspicious of. When Phoebe Bridgers announced an upcoming supergroup project boygenius with friends Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, I don’t think I’ve ever made note of a concert presale date so fast. The tour t-shirt has all three members’ initials inside a heart, and every time I wear it I think about the friends in my life who have dropped everything to care for me when I’ve needed it. Who show up for me for inconveniently timed video chats and brunch dates and doctor’s appointments and punk shows, and never let me forget that I’m more than my shittiest dating stories.    

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It’s been a weird week and I wanted to say a couple things. Thank you from my whole fucking heart to my friends, my bands, my mom. They all supported and validated me. They told me that what had happened was fucked up and wrong, and that I was right to feel weird about it. I couldn’t have done this without them. Ryan had a network too. Friends, bands, people he worked with. None of them held him accountable. They told him, by what they said or by what they didn’t, that what he was doing was okay. They validated him. He couldn’t have done this without them. Guys, if your friend is acting fucked up, call them out. If they’re actually your friend, they’ll listen. That’s the way this all gets better.

A post shared by Phoebe Bridgers (@_fake_nudes_) on

The photo that Phoebe posted to her Instagram the week after the Times article broke features the three friends laughing together. “Thank you from my whole fucking heart to my friends, my bands, my mom,” writes Phoebe in her Instagram caption. “They all supported and validated me. They told me that what had happened was fucked up and wrong, and that I was right to feel weird about it.” Healing looks a lot like laughing sometimes, and nobody does devastatingly funny like Phoebe. “Why do you sing with an English accent? I guess it’s too late to change it now.” It’s the best kind of resigned humour, a kind of practiced punchline we’ve all used to cope with a supremely unfunny truth.     

“Ryan had a network too,” Phoebe continues in that same Instagram caption. “They validated him. He couldn’t have done it without them.” A lot has been written about the legacies of abuse and power in the music industry. How much music and culture has been silenced or lost because of the power certain men wield over the industry? How do we continue to live with the legacy of a music industry that has normalized harassment and abuse? Why do we continue to forgive those who have refused to take accountability for it?

According to her conversation with the Times, Phoebe accepted her spot on Ryan’s 2017 tour after much deliberation, eventually deciding it was worth the exposure in the lead up to her debut album. Phoebe’s story is a single example of a reality the entire music industry is grappling with. One where not only do we have to acknowledge that there are entire careers that never get off the ground due to toxic men, but that there are many artists who enter the industry, knowingly and calculatingly, weighing the cost of their safety against numbers and name recognition.

The fact that Phoebe consciously softens so many of her live performances of “Motion Sickness” with disclaimers and tongue in cheek apologies is significant precisely because of the systemic barriers that preclude so many survivors from speaking openly about their experiences of abuse. Similarly, the fact that it has taken this long for Ryan Adams to experience any kind of tangible consequences for his behaviour speaks to the powers at work behind the scenes at every level of the industry invested in upholding the status quo. The same access to status and success that historically have kept toxic men in the music industry invisible might eventually grant survivors the opportunities and space to speak out. But I’m tired of waiting. I’m tired of people who are surprised that their heroes are fallible, and I’m tired for everyone else who has become too desensitized to be surprised at all.  

After months of no contact, J reached out and asked me to lunch. Sitting across from him at Fran’s, he suddenly seemed so much smaller. I thought of all the songs I’d listened to since we’d broken up, all of the joy I’d felt screaming along at concerts that he would undoubtedly deem uncool, the unblemished morning light in the coffee shop the first time I felt enough distance from everything to put on a Conor Oberst album. After our goodbyes, I was suddenly struck by a need to somehow mark this moment; to put a tangible marker of distance between the person that J had just sat across from eating reconciliatory waffles, and a future where our shared memories didn’t call up an all too familiar knot of dread in the pit of my stomach.

I called the tattoo shop on my walk home from the subway, and less than two hours later had a pair of overlapping lavender sprigs settling into the tender skin of my upper arm, a visualization of a lyric from Phoebe’s song “Smoke Signals” — “I buried a hatchet, it’s coming up lavender, the future’s unwritten, the past is a corridor.” In that moment, it was the most obvious thing I could think of to mark the moment I realized I never had to see J again.

The aftershocks of gaslighting or abuse or otherwise toxic relationships are real, and they don’t just stop once you’ve decided to make peace with the other person.

I love Phoebe for her wry humour and dry acceptance of her past, yes, but more than anything I love that she models a version of surviving that is as complex and messy as we are. In the aftermath of the Ryan Adams allegations, a fan wrote a blog post ranking every line of “Motion Sickness” in order of how much it made them want to give Phoebe a sword. The singer retweeted the post, clarifying that a few years ago when her tour with Ryan fell on International Women’s Day, he gave every women on the crew a sword except for her. A week after her tweet, a fan gave Phoebe a sword at a show accompanied by a note of support: “you don’t need it, but you deserve it.”

Some days healing is going to look like lavender and forgiveness, some days it’s going to look like a sword.

On the anniversary of our breakup, literally to the day, two things happened: J moved out of Toronto, and the Times published their article covering Ryan Adams’ alleged abuse and sexual misconduct. I spent the day rereading it and the slew of thinkpieces rapidly multiplying across the internet, then drank enough wine at that night’s party to turn myself into a kind of indiscriminate human rosé geyser. Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst had recently announced a collaborative album and tour as Better Oblivion Community Center, and it was rapidly occurring to me that I was never going to be able to fully untangle Phoebe from the stories I told about my time with J.   

It turns out that it’s really hard to grapple with the complexities of having a favourite artist introduced to you by someone who hurt you. The aftershocks of gaslighting or abuse or otherwise toxic relationships are real, and they don’t just stop once you’ve decided to make peace with the other person, or a full year has past, or you’ve fallen in love with someone new.   

J sent me a short video from a Better Oblivion Community Center show last month from somewhere in California, of Conor Oberst singing a verse from one of Phoebe’s songs, “Funeral.” “I have a friend that I call, when I’ve bored myself to tears.” The guitar in the background is heavier and — in much the same way I always feel the drums are too loud the handful of times I’ve heard “Motion Sickness” live — distracts from the cut of the lyrics, turning their original delivery, which catches you off guard in its melancholy, into something more immediate but somehow much less powerful. “And we talk until we think we might just kill ourselves, then we laugh until it disappears.” I’m not surprised J loves this version, just like I’m not surprised that I hate it. For him, it was always about who could make it sound the coolest.

“I have emotional motion sickness, somebody roll the windows down.”

The people in the songs never recognize when they’re about them.

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