BOREDOM PART II
Confessing the unconfessable
I wrote this piece several months ago, alongside my previous BOREDOM PART I piece, which you can check out here. While I have your attention, a quick announcement that I’ll be posting here once a month, instead of my usual every-other-week, for the rest of the summer, while I work on a personal side project. Next post will drop in mid-August!
I wake from a sleep.
Outside there’s the same quality of late afternoon light as when I started my nap, which I am grateful for—no waking up after sundown, no concomitant disorientation, grogginess, sense of an irretrievable loss of time.
My sleep was dark and elemental, as if I were in a deep, deep pool of blackness. I awake and here I am. Something felt necessary in the sleep, but I don’t know what.
I’m just glad it didn’t feel like a waste. There’s nothing good in that feeling. In it, there’s only the simultaneous burdensome obligation to somehow redeem that lost time and the crestfallen defeatism that whispers in my ear, “You’ll never redeem that time, you wastrel.”
A decade ago, I thought the real mark of discipline and maturity was not taking rogue naps or sleeping past 9. I’ve since learned it’s not beating myself up for it.
I started the day with high hopes. It would be another day where I not only intended to really work, but also to finish all my work. That tantalizing possibility! Getting to the bottom of the pile before more gets added to it! And then, the dream: free and open possibility, just room and more room, time and more time, to create, to do all the creating I’ve failed to do over the first 30-plus years of my life.
Of course there’s no chance of ever ‘finishing the work’, but my mind believes in it, holds onto it. So it seeks the next best thing: to always be a big step ahead of the work, to be so far ahead of it that no one can make any claim on me. Hark! A client wants a new thing! Alas, a new analysis, you say, prettier charts, you say. Well, it’s already done, and you don’t know it, and I’ll give it to you in two weeks, and in the meantime I’ll do whatever I want, I’ll write the Big Thing I Have Always Meant To Write.
But it never turns out that way. I never get that last set of things done and off my list. The very day I am on the verge of doing so—after so much time! 7 odd years I’ve been working to get here, done, ahead!—I lose all my steam. My lizard soul doesn’t want me to be free! It wants me to keep worrying and feeling behind and feeling ever and always like I have something else hanging over my head.
But to wake up and say, “Everything is already done, so I can choose what I want to do. What do I want to get even further ahead on today? Or what’s simply my vibe, my desire, my thirst, my drive?” What would that be like?
I walked around the block today knowing I didn’t have that, that I still live under constraint. I woke up and I exercised, and then I stretched, and then I ate, and then I walked around the block. Nothing about this should strike you as impressive, because all of this ends at something like 10:30 or 11 a.m., and if I’m lucky I might start work then, and if not one of a million things might have gotten in the way and caused me to start work at 12, or 1—some errand or another, some social preoccupation I need or want to attend to, something that needs to be done but cannot possibly qualify as “work” if I expect to actually get anything done with my life.
I walked around the block, and by now it was 12. I was happy in spite of the later hour and my preoccupations about the day; I had someone to share all this with this morning, someone who passed through my life reanimating areas that formerly felt inert, energies that had fallen into quiescence. Through the conduit of her particular practices of wisdom, she told me what I needed to hear today: “You need to master diligence, follow through, and consistency. Don’t get stuck in a rut where everything moves on autopilot without causing any effective change in your life. Make everything you’re doing a little more sacred, and watch it flow.”
I wouldn’t get into a rut, I resolved. I walked, and in my long grey coat and shabby grey track sweater and 4-day stubble I felt an I-don’t-give-a-fuck cool. And I listened to Tyler, the Creator, because I wanted to feel something and I wanted to ride the high of the conversation a bit longer. “I’ve been listening to Tyler since Goblin” I told her, because we were comparing our respective “I liked them before they were big” artists, and also because I liked the little thrill and frisson of admitting to my appreciation of Goblin, because Tyler was a foul-mouthed unfiltered 19 year old back during the album’s release in 2011 and the album offends every sensitivity it comes across. And it is also a dialogue between him and his conscience/therapist, the Mephistophelean-deep-voiced Dr. TC:
"Tyler, you're going to have to cut down on that "f******" word, that's very, that's a bad...
"I'm not homophobic."
"I mean, I don't think you are but..."
"Alright, well, since the last time we..."
Yeah, offensive. Enough so that he got banned from the UK for four years—though ironically, this was at a point in his career in 2015 where he had started publicly teasing the possibility of his own bisexuality and had long since gotten over the explicit homophobia of his teenage work, the target of the UK Home Office. His 2019 album Igor chronicles a love affair between the titular character and a man, and while he has declined to ever explicitly label himself as bisexual publicly, there’s no shortage of the implicit evidence.
And for all this (as he says at the start of Yonkers, “I'm a fucking walking paradox / no, I'm not / Threesomes with a fucking triceratops”) there’s something profound in listening to the raw but confused, insecure but fiery Tyler of the 2011 Wolf Gang era, if you know how to read between the lines, understand the context, and not take the slurs at face value.
Young Tyler’s fuck-you energy is obviously not unknown to hip-hop, but Tyler’s particular brand is somehow less performative, somehow more pure, for being the clear by-product of an angsty teenager who hasn’t yet learned all the tricks of performance yet.
He is, as a result, emotionally honest in a way that lacks any presumption, any conceit. He lays down uncompromising emotions, packaged through these bizarro characters representing slices of his own psyche, without concern for how polished and mainstream his rap appeal is, so the emotions hang out there, full flourish.
He bounces manically between extremes of his unapologetic self-expression and his unmoored sense of place in the world, always at a fever pitch, always making it deeply clear that he has no ground under his feet—even literally so, in a suicide by hanging at the end of his music video for Yonkers, his breakout hit from the album.
In it, he spits his rage while somehow simultaneously broadcasting his confusion and insecurity:
I slipped myself some pink Xannies
And danced around the house in all-over print panties
My mom's gone, that fuckin' broad will never understand me
I'm not gay, I just wanna boogie to some Marvin
(What you think of Hayley Williams?)
Fuck her, Wolf Haley robbin' them
I'll crash that fuckin' airplane that that f***** n**** B.o.B is in
And stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus
And won't stop until the cops come in
Stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus! And yet according to Genius, he just hated the song that Hayley Williams was featured in, in a song by the Atlanta rapper B.o.B. That was his whole beef—nothing apparently personal. And he’s a 19 year old who was getting enough exposure to broadcast his deep hatred for this song, and he broadcast it, because he could!
Because isn’t that the goddamned dream today? That people will listen to the things that piss us off, and care because we’re so important? And not because you have oodles of money and own Twitter, but because you’re a talented, fucked up, pissed off, emotionally raw kid with no clear breaks in the world you live in. The album starts with this very self-identification:
I'm not a fucking role model (I know this)
I'm a 19 year old fucking emotional coaster with pipe dreams
Since Kanye tweeted tellin' people he's bumpin' all of my shit
These motherfuckers think I'm 'sposed to live up to something? Shit
You get your moment to be heard about stabbing Bruno in his esophagus, you take it.
Then there’s the She, about a young stalker and his object of obsession, with Frank Ocean’s lush voice singing the chorus with as much sinisterness as Frank Ocean can muster in his “He’s at your window”.
The blinds wide open so he can
See you in the dark when you're sleepin'
Naked body, fresh out the shower
And you touch yourself after hours
Ain't no man allowed in your bedroom
You're sleeping alone in bed
But check your window
He's at your window
And Tyler, on the bridge, captures all you need to know about this song:
I just wanna talk, and conversate
'Cause I usually just stalk you and masturbate
And I finally got the courage to ask you on a date
So just say yes, let the future fall into place (C***)
And what’s important to see in all this is not that this twisted kid is rapping about stalker fantasies. It’s that he’s rapping about stalker fantasies at 19 years old, and then managing some of the most emotionally-aware lyrics in hip-hop today, unafraid to go neck-deep into the space of emotional ambivalence and contradiction where we actually live most of our lives—whatever we present to others notwithstanding. Actually listen to the verse above and you’ll hear just how much of that same contradiction is present and latent in his early work. This is maybe the most vulnerable (in the original sense of “exposed”) utterance of the C-word you’ll ever hear.
Connecting the dots between his young insecurity and his mature awareness is to highlight something deep not just in Tyler but in human experience—maturity and connection may increase, but confusion and contradiction still remain. Take WILSHIRE, a story about a unfulfilled love affair he has with a woman who’s dating his friend:
He see it, he know it's somethin'
We fronting like, "Ha-ha-ha"
Whenever we "Ha-ha-ha" we subtly press his buttons
Not on purpose, but, man, I found my purpose
If I fucked our friendship up for you, I think it's worth it
But, nah, I can't do that, that n**** don't deserve it
And plus y'all got depth
I'm just a n**** on the surface, for real
I said surface, like, 'cause they got roots
Like, I'm the new n****
You know, they be fuckin'
This is a reflection not just of one artist’s specific emotional awareness in a snapshot of time, but of growth over that artist’s—that human being’s—whole life. That’s what’s inimitable about seeing the full arc of Tyler’s career, and what’s so indigestible to our present culture. We prefer our judgments to be in the form of those clear snapshot judgments, which is why it’s easier, generally, to just ignore early Tyler completely, or to regard it with the kind of quizzical hedging embarrassment of “I mean, great artist, but yeah those takes…” and almost treat late Tyler as if he’s a different artist and person entirely.
But what’s more clearly honest, what’s more clearly emotionally real? A Tyler, whose teenage crassness got him banned from the UK but who evolved into the artist he is today, or one of our high-powered modern business leaders or celebrities who’s read a little Brené Brown and can now cry on demand for their employees or fans whenever it feels like the right PR thing to do.
And how can we tell the difference? Because we see the evidence, we see the trajectory. He’s not just a performative snapshot, vulnerability airbrushed on for the sake of the cameras and the social media optics. He’s shown himself, already, in all his ugliness and all his good, over the course of his whole career. We know who the fuck Tyler is, where it counts. There’s no mistaking that.
I saw a live-streamed performance of Tyler’s several months ago, and he had a moment of his show where he snuck in a few of his top hits from his back-catalog, with a wink to all those who were familiar with these songs and knew why they needed to be only snuck in, playing only a verse and a chorus or two of each of these. “She” maybe lasted for a minute and a half of its usual 4 minutes and 15 seconds. And this was right—this was appropriate. The lyrics of “She” are fucked up, still more so out of the mouth of a grown man no longer his tumultuous 19-year-old self.
But how many rappers even mentioned masturbation in this candid a way before Tyler? How many still do? This was an actual 19 year old, an actual kid coming of age in a disorienting world, a newly digital world, a world which in the space of a half a generation suddenly expanded its ways of reaching into our brains to mold, shape, manipulate, muddle, compel, addict, and confuse us by an easy order of magnitude. And this actual 19 year old was not willing to swagger falsely for the cameras, or to cut his anger and resentment with an iota of tact and discretion, much less concern for the mores of others. Because, at that point, he had nothing to lose anyway.
And of course those mores are important, they have their essential role to play. So, too, does acknowledging the fact that what Tyler described in Goblin is the lived experience of many, many young men. Resentment, anger, aloneness. They hardly have an absolute claim on these emotions. But everyone, everyone should see their specific emotional darknesses and difficulties captured and expressed unabashedly by someone else with the same identity and identity struggles they have, at some point or another in their lives. That’s the greatest role of music there is.
Because it’s only therein that we learn to grow beyond those darknesses and difficulties. To see them, to have them be seen by another, to let them go.
And to grow up.
What is it to be bored?
To tread water, floating on the sea of too-muchness that our culture swamps us in. An undifferentiated ocean.
To have the same select selves of ourselves continuously reflected back to us, reiterated and reiterated. The same ads preying on our same fixations. The same fixes, meted out to keep us in cultural junkiedom.
No growth. Static. A continuous fuzz that doesn’t let up, doesn’t abate. No clear view onto what might be new, what might reshuffle the deck, what might throw the whole deck up into the air.
Yet we have artists that are not just static snapshots, their public personas frozen in time.
Yet we have our own experience that show us that we are not said snapshots, not incapable of movement and change.
I will part with the words of the strange and beautiful man, poet, John Berryman, wild-eyed wild-bearded Berryman (in the words of his friend Saul Bellow, “meteor-bearded like John Brown,”) who jumped off a Minneapolis bridge in the dead of winter to his death at the age of 57.
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
To all those who confess whatever is presently unconfessable, here’s to you.