First off: if you haven’t watched the video already, I’ll ask you to join the 5.12 million who have done so before you read any further.
So I saw Lorde last night, playing a sold-out show for 20,000 people. I had nosebleeds — or, rather, one singular nosebleed, adjacent to a very sweet, soft-spoken fourteen-year-old boy and his extremely gregarious dad, who volunteered his entire life story to me while his son retreated further and further into his wrap-around scarf and puffy coat. Actually, I don’t know why I’m bagging on this kid for being shy. I literally showed up by myself with an Elif Batuman novel in my bag to read between openers. I was that kid, and I am now this adult, settled comfortably into my own elemental uncoolness.
This, it turned out, would be a key tenet of Lorde’s sermon to us, delivered somewhere between “Writer in the Dark” and “Liability.” A tiny speck, resplendent in a sea of glowing halogen bulbs, she sat on her knees and spoke to us about how life gets easier when you just stop trying to be cool.
Which is easy to say, maybe, if you are sitting in front of 20,000 people who think you are very, very cool, who carved money out of their paycheques to come see you and cheer for you and make their appreciation known. But maybe not. Accepting praise, accepting love, can be a stressful thing in and of itself.
At any rate, Lorde, in the lyrics of Melodrama, is refreshingly unconcerned with keeping her cool. She’s pissed and sad. She’s a liiiiiiiiability. She’s brimming with love, but the love is embarrassing, intense, intensely unrequited. Hearing these songs in the dark, in the privacy of your own room, is a kind of catharsis, an opportunity to make peace with your own messy, ugly yearning. But the live show, with its radiant light rigs and Jumbotrons and sleek choreography, can’t help but shift the context of these songs. The show is polished and pretty in a way that privately snot-sobbing to “Supercut” is not. The show is a breakdown made beautiful.
And that brings me, at last, to Emmy Hartman, the young woman who went just preposterously viral last October when she filmed herself weeping after receiving a traffic ticket. As she tells it in a later, explanatory video, she drove past a cop — specifically, a “fatass Indiana cop” — who had parked in the berm, and she neglected to leave a lane of space between herself and said cop. He veered out, pulled her over, and gave her a ticket. It was an unambiguous screw-up on her part; the ticket was a banal, predictable outcome. And it was also just one more goddamn thing, one more blow to the spirit, one more piece of bad news in a week, a month, a year of bad news.
What’s remarkable isn’t that Hartman lost her shit. It’s that she made a permanent record of the loss of her shit. She then chose to make that record public — surely not anticipating, of course, that literally millions of people would watch it, but still. And for all the theorizing about how social media pushes us into panopticism and impels us to smooth out our imperfections, Hartman’s live broadcast from rock bottom was met not with scorn, but, like… love.
I don’t know you but I love you, replied one Twitter user. And then: Are you ok…? I just want you to know I love u and I feel u. yous a great singer. my mom says you have really pretty eyes. Hun… do you need a hug? I wanna be friends with you girl you’re so funny I need that in my life. this is adorable ! whats your paypal and how much is your ticket ? ill trow in an extra for being awsome lol ! Too funny! big mood. dude please upload any more gems u might have thx xoxo. I literally cried laughing while watching this but I feel so bad for you shdkdhdjdjfj are you ok now? Countless variations, too, on THIS IS SO ME! and THIS REMINDED ME OF YOU! and THIS IS US!
The video arrived on my dashboard last November on an aggressively shit day. A friend of mine had died two days prior — at only nineteen, of inexplicable cardiac arrest — and I couldn’t go anywhere without seeing memorials and photo collages and posts sharing biographical details of the patients who had received her donated organs. As if that wasn’t enough, I was having relationship problems, and financial problems, and creative problems, and, and, and.
Unsurprisingly, my diary entry from that day is so fucking bleak it borders on self-parody. I noted that I was listening to Sufjan. I copied down the final stanzas of Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s “Sunday, I-80” — I will survive my grief, amen; I have run into the darkness and arrived in the morning still living, amen — and then, just for good measure, the entirety of Mary Oliver’s “Morning Poem.” somewhere deep within you a beast is shouting that the earth is exactly what it wanted, I wrote in blue ink, in messy, loopy handwriting, whether or not you have ever dared to be happy. All that before the actual meat of the diary entry, which read, in part:
I can’t do it today. I can’t do it right now. And I can’t give up, but it feels important to acknowledge that right now, in this exact moment, I can’t do it. I have exhausted my available emotional resources. I don’t have anything left to give… I have to somehow find it within myself to not give up. But not right now. Not just yet. Right now I just need to lie down and be nothing for a while.
Shortly thereafter, I retreated to Tumblr for a few minutes of the sweet, numbing catatonia of scrolling. And that, friends, is when Hartman’s video hit me like a fucking hurricane. Whatever comfort I’d gleaned from Sufjan, from those beautiful poems, from emptying my feelings onto blank paper — it was nothing compared to watching this girl weepily bleat, “It’s so much money and I only have forty-seven dollars and I’m not even supposed to go under fifty and I’m gonna get fined by my bank…” at which point her friend in the front seat starts to say something, and Hartman reels back, camera close on her salt-shiny, acne-scarred cheeks, and bellows, “SHUT! UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUP!”
In 2013, scholar Mehron Abdollmohammadi coined the phrase “generous narcissism” to describe a kind of self-expression they’d observed in online queer communities: “a generous practice of mutual and excessive attention that worries excess… a becoming-self, a care for the self that recognizes and celebrates the strength of the slippage between self, image, and other… fashioning, from the refuse of culture, tools with which to navigate the crippling distance between one’s sense of self and the vehicle of self, the body.”
I thought about generous narcissism last night, watching Lorde sing, watching 20,000 people quote the crushing chorus of “Liability” back to her. The comedian Rachel Bloom does a bit on her TV show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, where she strides out in a ballgown, greets a crowd of screaming fans, and belts out, “You ruined eeeeeeeeverything, you stupid bitch! Bitch! You’re a stupid bitch! And lose some weight!” Lorde doing “Liability” is, like, a hair’s breadth removed from “You Stupid Bitch,” conceptually; a kind of “self-indulgent self-loathing,” to use Bloom’s words. There’s this perverse sense of belonging and warmth and tenderness that comes from being driven back upon oneself, breaking the fuck down, and hearing me, hearing same, hearing big mood.
“Generosity and narcissism,” writes Abdollmohammadi, “are widely understood to be polar opposites. What happens, then, when narcissists create a community?”
Earlier this year, Hartman posted a cover of “Liability” on her YouTube channel. Her voice is absolutely lovely, inflecting each brief word of the chorus with soft melisma. That she loves to sing is no surprise. The unequivocal highlight of her breakdown video, of course, had been when her speech unspooled into a bit of silly warbling: “My parents are really mad at meeeee! And my life’s going downhiiiiiiiiill!” The distance between Hartman’s miserable backseat freestyling and Lorde’s play-by-play account of cryin’ in the taxi is, honestly, negligible.
And there’s comfort in that knowledge, I think. We all loathe ourselves from time to time, and we all try to camouflage our resulting insecurities. Because asking for help is selfish. Because imperfection renders us unworthy of kindness, of generosity. But to resist the cultural imperative to shut up and smile and self-censor, to proudly put your mess on display, and to be met with resounding, abundant love and empathy — is there any greater joy?