Hanif Abdurraqib’s monthly column, Notes on Pop, muses on the relationship between songs and memory. Read more here.
During my craft talk about poems and sound, I play small parts of songs or music videos. I’m giving away the secret here, but it’s to distract from the fact that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Or, I do know what I’m talking about, but I can’t articulate it in any way that makes sense outside of the hamster wheel of my own brain. In some spaces, there is the assumption that anyone who writes poems wants to talk about the writing of them in front of people, and is equipped to do so. But some of us are just fumbling around dark rooms, occasionally lucky enough to find a light switch. And so, to not give away my fumbling, when I give a craft talk, I play songs. I play spirituals and gospel, and I play the rap songs that have sampled the spirituals and gospel. To talk about the magic trick of pace—of suggesting a big moment only to later reveal an even bigger moment—I play the iconic video of the Who performing “Baba O’Riley.” The one you’ve maybe seen, where the intro swells and swells until it feels like it could fill an entire stadium, and you might think, How can we ever climb atop this? But then Pete Townshend tosses his tambourine, steps back from the microphone, and windmills his arm around his guitar and shakes his ass in white pants while Roger Daltrey holds a microphone to the heavens with both hands.
But first, I play HAIM’s “Want You Back.” A specific part, around the 2:20 mark. All of the instruments drop out for about fifteen seconds and all that remains is the layering of voices, singing out “just know / that I want you / back” before the drums enter and the song rebuilds itself from the vocals up. In the talk, the point is about silence, I think. Or the point I’m trying to make is about how the voice itself isn’t the instrument. That language is the instrument and voice is just the vehicle, like a speaker or an amplifier. The point is about silence and the things we deem as percussion. How, along the landscape of silence, any sound that interrupts can be percussive. I make the point by pulling up a poem that has one word drowning in the otherwise white space of a page. That’s percussion, I say. In the poem “Katy,” Frank O’Hara writes, “I am never quiet / I mean silent,” and I assume people who have been lonely enough or isolated enough know the difference. Percussion can be even the gentlest interruption. Here’s a concrete example I give: two people on the telephone, near the end of a conversation, when the line between them falls into the depths of soundlessness. Even one person saying the words “I love you” is percussive. All our affections, coming on the backs of drums.
The thing I never learned to understand about breakups is that, even at their largest, the moment of the break itself might not be the hardest part. If you have no children together, or no assets worth squabbling over, or no other reason to hover in each other’s lives, the breaking itself can be sudden, with an entire world of grief to stumble into after.
I found myself thinking, recently, about an elevator ride after my last large breakup. Mere moments after our unceremonious uncoupling, my ex-partner and I rode to the ground in a machine. There was something interesting to me about being in such a small space with someone whom I still loved, but was no longer obligated to be in love with. Because we were both in pain, and because there was no one else in the descending box with us, we felt an obligation to comfort each other. Even through our anger, frustration, or hurt. We had to reach to whatever corner of ourselves could still feel compassion, despite what we’d inflicted on each other over the past few months (or nearly a year). We put our arms around each other and cried. It lasted less than a minute, probably twenty seconds or so. It was a moment unlike any other moment I’d ever endured in a breakup. It was a subtle acknowledgement of what could have been, but what likely shouldn’t have been and now wouldn’t be.
And then the metal doors opened, and the sunlight spilled onto our shoes, and we walked in separate directions.
So much of heartbreak is an animal born from past desires. Not just the desires themselves, but the things those desires asked us to ignore. Every person has things that can be easily forgiven in the right moment or the right season. I have known exactly how relationships would end, and I entered them anyway. The ego is always built into emotional undoing—to imagine myself as the one who will love someone into correction, even though I have never been loved so much that love alone undid the worst of me.
To want someone back after a breakup has been a trope of popular music for as long as I’ve been alive, and for decades before I was even a thought. It’s an age-old sentiment. Bonnie hopped on “I Can’t Make You Love Me” half resigned, and half committed to the guilt trip, dragging her sorrow to the center of town where an ex-lover has to pass it every single day. Mariah charted a map of memories on “Don’t Forget About Us,” a trick that has certainly worked on me before. In the sadness after the split, I have found myself missing the memories more than the person, and I’d be willing to reconstruct those memories with anyone, familiar or not. And then, of course, there are the beggars. Player on “Baby Come Back,” or Toni on “Unbreak My Heart,” or countless others. Begging is what comes when all else fails. All that remains is the expression of the desire that was never as hidden as it tried to be. I’ve never been begged, and I’ve not been much of a beggar, but I get it. I’ve stopped myself short, out of an even greater desire to maintain some dignity.
I like HAIM’s version of wanting someone back. I like it most because it begs so unmistakably, but it’s couched in a bouncy, almost celebratory sonic journey, so that we might almost forget it’s about the unbearable reality of grasping at the absence where a loved person once was. In between the chorus, there are smaller, more visceral promises: “I’ll take the fall / and the fault in us” or “I’ll give you all the love / I never gave / before I left you.”
If someone has done you wrong—and I mean truly done you wrong—there can be shame in wanting that person back. I don’t know how to best articulate that, so I’m hoping that you have perhaps felt it. I am hoping that you are not feeling it now, but have felt it before.
After my last large breakup, I found myself there. Someone did me wrong, and then departed. And yet, in the moments after their departure, I still longed for them. And I know, people would tell me that I was not longing for them, but for the space they once occupied. But I am certain that, even briefly, it was for them. And in that longing, I felt sadder, more ashamed. That I would want someone back who didn’t want me, and what that said about how I thought of myself. And then that passed, and I found myself with a new set of desires, probably fueled by the ways anger (even righteous anger) narrows the vision. I wanted an apology, or a scroll admitting wrongdoing. I wanted that person to want me back or, at the very least, realize they’d made some error.
The HAIM song “Want You Back” came out in early May 2017, while I was making the post-breakup move from New Haven, Connecticut, back to Columbus, Ohio. My belongings were still in a moving truck slowly making its way across the country, so my new Columbus apartment was empty, but for a television and a large trash can. The emptiness of the space and the high ceilings allowed for a type of infinity echo. I played the HAIM song on my phone, and each line of the chorus repeated and bloomed anew, furnishing the room with its weight.
The music video for “Want You Back” is a single, long take, by director Jake Schreier. It is filmed while a fresh dawn trots over an abandoned Ventura Boulevard. Part of the magic is in witnessing a place that you know should be buzzing with activity be entirely abandoned. A landscape upon which people shop, or laugh, or kiss, reduced to silence. It creates a fascination for me. Like waking up alone in a bed that you know another person once shared with you, and embracing the sprawl of your body in the absence, while also mourning the emptiness that allows your body to sprawl.
The shot begins with Danielle Haim, the middle Haim sister, leaning on a sign and looking longingly off into some distance. As she begins walking down the middle of the empty street, she is eventually flanked on each side by her two sisters. As the song hits its groove, so do the Haim sisters, each of them occasionally breaking out into a small dance move or two before falling back into step. The dance moves get more elaborate as the choruses pile on top of each other. While a choir of palm trees accumulate in the background, Danielle plays air drums before really committing to her moves, dipping her shoulders in and out of the morning air. Alana Haim, the youngest of the sisters, snaps dramatically, unfolding those snaps into some shimmying.
During the part of the song that I play during my craft talk, the video hits its peak. The moment where all of the instruments briefly retreat to the shadows, and the varied voices of the Haim sisters are all that remain to carry the tune. Alana Haim drifts slightly off, carrying the lyrics all on her own. A strip mall towers behind her, advertising shops no doubt made more generic for the sake of the video: PHARMACY. BAGELS. VEGAN CUISINE. CLEANERS. DENTIST.
This moment is short. Just long enough to create curiosity. When the drums arrive, so do the other two sisters, once again. The three of them step with renewed purpose, keeping time with the drums and then, as the final chorus hits, the contained patience of the music video falls apart in the best way, and the sisters give in to a comically large synchronized dance routine.
I love the video for how it shifts the idea of the “you” in the song. A video that flirts with isolation, culminating in a foolishly joyful celebration of synchronicity. That begins with a vision of loneliness on a lonely street, three people trying out their own individual moves until they find the ones that fit.
The “you” is another person, of course, but it is also the self. And I mean the best version of the self. After my last big breakup, once I began to get over the longing and regret, I looked in the mirror and realized I hadn’t gotten a good haircut in over a month. My beard, its own wilderness, cascaded in several directions at once. We all cope with our various heartbreaks and longings in different ways. I’ve found, throughout my life, that when I’m at my most sad I tend to stop looking at myself in the mirror. To be fair, I am not someone who spends much time in a mirror anyway. But at my saddest, I go to absurd lengths to avoid it: brushing my teeth while walking around an apartment, staying away from reflective surfaces, feeling around my face to see if anything seems out of place. It’s all so ridiculous, but I’ve found it’s easier than having to take real, concrete inventory of the damage.
And so, I stumbled out of the house and found a barber willing to cope with my unruly growth. It is the small things that propel us back to ourselves. The moments immediately after a fresh haircut is my thing. The sharpness of a good line. The reveal that my face might be something beyond a vessel for pain. I went home and cleaned up all the takeout boxes. I made myself a meal that I’m sure was bad, but tasted good in the moment. I gasped my way through a run. I expanded into all the versions of myself that I’d missed.
Longing for something irrevocably in the past isn’t just limited to romance, of course. As I write this, just a few miles down the road from my Columbus apartment, moving trucks are swinging open their wide doors. Parents stand outside of towering dormitory buildings, holding hands and watching their teenagers vanish down a long hallway. Ohio State is back in session, and the city transforms, as it always does. The relative peace of Columbus summer, the ample parking and quiet, is coming to an end. It’s all gone, once again replaced by a new crop of students. I welcome it, but I want the summer months back, always. Another diner closed to make way for what will probably become condos, and I don’t care that I hadn’t eaten there in three years. I want it back. I am reaching my arms toward the old architecture in neighborhoods I don’t recognize anymore. I am already mourning the possible vanishing of everything in my life that is not finite.
And, of course, the sweetness of those who have long departed. I have given up on wanting to bring back the dead, especially to a world that isn’t any better than when they left it. But I do long for the moments when they were alive. A hand brushing across a cheek or a 2 A.M. singalong. It is maybe unfair to have found myself again in so many different types of love, and still with so much desire. The dream of a wide and empty familiar street to stroll down. The marquee of a strip mall listing the names of everyone I have ever fondly missed. A song faintly painting the background while I dance myself away from sadness.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio.