Summer anthems are not, or are not always, the best song or the most important song. They are the temporary, even disposable songs, celebrating the just right now, even when the just right now combines a terrifying mash up of all that threatens us and all that we want to protect. Yesterday was Bastille day and my daughter H’s birthday. When she crawls into my bed to spoon with me now, she seems almost as tall as I am. Here, inside our lives, she is perfect, she is everything. Out there, her birthday saw another horrifying attack in France, on the streets of Nice. From my window, summer persists, along the dry ridge of the hills. On my screen, in the single column of social media, my friends’ new babies bump up against Trump’s latest vitriol, the Emmy Awards against the day’s attack, cacophony, unbearable. I have to go back to planning a birthday party. I put on headphones. The music is privilege, escape, survival strategy. Summer songs.
Music and the occasions we organize around it plays on, connecting us, connected to how we go on about the living we have to do. It has been a big year in pop. Beyoncé stepped into the full glory of Lemonade. That album and its movie were everything everyone has already said. Hold Up, 6 inch, Daddy Lessons and Formation were on heavy rotation, for me, but I missed the tour. My friend JB sent me a clip from her concert, in real time. Beyoncé singing The Beautiful Ones. This was the year we gained a queen and lost Prince. Our Prince. The music that owned this year is black music.
For my household, this was also the year of Hamilton, of memorizing all the fast parts to Guns and Ships which H. and I can now rap and sing in its entirety, all of it, especially if one of us cues the other by singing “Lafayette” and then “Hamilton” over and over. Yes, I realize that Hamilton himself was all about big banks and yes, I think about problems with big banks all the time. Yes, there is an essay to be written about this, about how race changes a founding father story, about constitutional rights and financial systems, about the nuances of federal power’s relationship to state power and nativist impulses, but not now. If the very mention of Lin Manuel Miranda and his new track with J.Lo triggers your need to explain why I am insufficiently radical, then this summer anthem is not for you. A think piece about how feminism is a distraction from Marxist theory is calling your name!! Go, write it in peace.
None of this is my summer anthem, though, here where everything is madness and 88 degrees will seem cool this weekend and we need some dance tunes. I needed summer songs and I got one, sitting in the airport in Boston in the AC, waiting for a plane home. In the 24 hours before I got to my gate, I had given a talk, jumped in the Connecticut River, turned off the lights in a posh hotel banquet room without asking permission so that everyone would dance, packed up wet clothes in a dorm, almost missed the bus for a four-hour ride — all fueled mainly by alcohol coffee strawberries. The line between work and not work, blurry. At the gate, I felt like the car ride home from the Strawberry Canyon public pool, after sun and popsicles and bullies throwing me into the deep end and the smell of the black rubber mats in the showers. Exhaustion, pure and total.
I sat down, grateful to let my brain do nothing but listen to music for a few more hours. All it turns out I could process was dance tunes by Sia.
There are many versions of Cheap Thrills, many remixes. I listened to them all, one after the other, especially this one:
Normally, I dislike anything that seems frat reggae. But sometimes, pop music is like quenching a thirst, like I never drink soda but suddenly I need the glass bottle sugar tang condensation chill and only Coca Cola will do. The dancehall reggae in Cheap Thrills is weird, maybe a little uncomfortably appropriated. It’s also perfect, also makes it seem like the dance floor she’s singing about is makeshift, at a beach, under a string of lightbulbs.
Sia wears a harlequin wig as a mask, always hides her face, and uses a pre-pubescent child dancer as her avatar. Party girls don’t get hurt is pure irony. Everything about Sia is about the way beauty can be a cage and sadness rages behind our need for release, the razor’s edge between freedom and a new set of chains. She sings catchy chart-topping singles about partying out of loss and fear. She knows the party may not be the answer, but it sure as hell isn’t the problem, and I ain’t got cash, I ain’t got cash, but I got you baby.
Chandelier would have been my summer anthem last year, if I had ever typed a word about it into the file that instead sat on my computer until this year. But Chandelier is focused on the futility, on the impulse to swing before the shame wells up and you can’t tamp it down except one two three, one two three– drink. Cheap Thrills is more anthemic, about holding on for just one more second to the fleeting moment before it all sinks, the sun and the strawberries and the sand. It’s Friday in verse one and Saturday by verse two, it’s about how the moment just before the beat breaks is always the best, just before hit the dance floor, hit the dance floor, I got all I need.
Party girls start out hurt by the tired impossibility of femininity: punished for partying, punished for not partying. You get shamed for being the square girl in the black and white video, and shamed for being the girl swinging from the chandelier, so you might as well dance. You get dismissed for wearing make up and dismissed for the flaws that demand make up. As a writer I like said recently, “The level of security you need to feel to be your loopiest, most playful self isn’t often afforded to women… Nor, frankly, is the absence of anger.” I should invest in a good harlequin wig and hide my face forever more. Or, I should just loop Cheap Thrills on repeat and say fuck it.
A good party is a set of conditions that creates possibility, some place safe enough to be loopy and playful, but not so safe that there isn’t still hierarchy, desire, awkwardness, beauty. This year’s summer anthem knows, thank you very much, that danger lurks around the bend, the lights are about to come on, or else the party is always already over, something like that, maybe go get me a bourbon on the rocks? Longing for something else always burns underneath, une vitalité désespérée, and here we are, in this place. The song is the one we’ve got, for three hours in an airport lounge, under a string of lights, with sand on the dance floor, one survival strategy among many. I want cheap thrills.