Rain on me: Navigating the five stages of pandemic grief through the pop music of 2020
From Dua Lipa to Fiona Apple to Lady Gaga, how music defined my year of mourning normalcy
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Like pretty much the entire world, I experienced a vicious new kind of grief this past year. Mine was, admittedly, of the relatively privileged variety: over the past nine months of pandemic life, I did not lose my job or apartment, and I thankfully have yet to have anyone close to me become seriously ill from COVID-19. But I did experience an unprecedented loss of normalcy and connection ... and, you know, a fear that we were maybe legitimately at the beginning of the end of human civilization. So it's been a bit of a ride.
Obviously, pandemic life is far from over. But 2020 almost is. And, as frivolous as it may seem, I would like to engage in one of my favourite annual pastimes: looking back at the year in popular culture, and how it came to define my existence during that time. And in this year's case, I feel no subset of pop culture will go on to forever provide a grim memento for how I was feeling more than music.
2020 might have been an endless parade of horrible things, but when it came to music, it was uncharacteristically generous (especially if your taste leans pop and gay). From Lady Gaga to Fiona Apple to Dua Lipa to Taylor Swift, we were given an epic soundtrack to implode to. And thank god. Because to push through everything, with varying degrees of success, I did what I've done to get past any major crisis in my adult life: I made a playlist, put on headphones and ventured outside on foot, walking or running to the music until the anxiety was too exhausted to cripple me.
Pop songs have always become relics of my grief. The demises of all five of my long-term relationships, for example, will continue to haunt me as long as I continue to shuffle my entire Spotify library. Depending on my algorithm's mood, any one of those men's faces can resurface in my mind via whatever soundtrack I chose to mourn them at the time. But if everything goes as planned and humanity finds its way to a COVID-free world, what will it feel like in 2025 when basically any song from this year comes on? What will that manifest in us?
That will likely depend on what era of the year it reminds you of, because 2020 was dozens of emotional years wrapped into what scientists insist was technically 12 months that looked very different depending on the context of your life during this time. And I've decided to summarize mine via the chronology of my 2020 pop music preferences ... as told through the lens of the Kübler-Ross model for the five stages of grief.
Denial: Future Nostalgia (and Britney Spears)
Eight months, three weeks and six days ago, I was told to go home. It was only going to be for a couple of weeks, they said. So I walked the 30 minutes from Toronto's CBC Broadcasting Centre to my apartment in Little Italy, feeling a tad put off by the madness in the air: there were so many people with bags and bags of toilet paper manically heading to what I assume were their own homes. I put on my headphones and tuned them out to Dua Lipa's "Physical," which I listened to on repeat that entire walk — and on many, many walks and runs in the weeks that followed.
The first stage of grief, according to the Kübler-Ross model at least, is denial. In this stage, we believe our situation is somehow not really happening and cling to a false, preferable reality. And what more could you want from a false, preferable reality than the world that exists in the power pop of "Physical"? With it as my anthem (according to my Spotify year-end thing, I played the song 367 times in 2020, more than any other track), I would get up, work for eight hours from home, run through the empty streets of my neighbourhood, drink a bottle of wine and dance around my apartment, then repeat. And the latter two activities were defined not just by "Physical" but by the entirety of Lipa's so-very-alive second album Future Nostalgia (which would come out on March 27th), as well as, for some reason, so much Britney Spears. There's something about Spears's discography that just screams, "Let's forget there's an apocalypse!" (I mean, literally on "Till The World Ends") and that's exactly what I intended on doing. Basically, I had convinced myself I was on a vacation from my own existence. And that felt great ... until it didn't.
Anger: Fetch The Bolt Cutters, How I'm Feeling Now and Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
When we realize denial cannot continue, the next stage is supposed to be anger. Though anger maybe isn't the right word for what happened when my honeymoon phase of hell was over. By mid-April, I was starting to unravel. There's something about having all your activities and distractions and physically-present friends taken away from you that forces you (or at least me) to spend way too much time taking long, hard looks at what it all was in the first place. My mind was very, "who am I/where I am/what am I doing with my life," and with all due respect to Dua Lipa, she wasn't quite the right fit for this spiral. Then along came Fiona Apple.
Released on April 17th, Apple's Fetch the Bolt Cutters is unquestionably the definitive album of breaking yourself out of the emotional prison of lockdown. Its raw energy is shattering. The same can be said — in different ways — of Charli XCX's How I'm Feeling Now and Perfume Genius's Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, which both came out a few weeks later. How I'm Feeling Now, which Charli actually recorded during isolation (a process that was well-documented), is as vulnerable as hooky pop can get (please see "detonate"), while Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, as its title suggests, is an epic ode to longing.
Through their explorations of each creator's human condition, these albums became an unofficial trilogy that helped me lean into the raw, introspective feelings that were initially making me so uncomfortable. And they guided me up and down the streets I was coming to resent for their familiarity (seriously, if you drop me anywhere in Toronto's Little Italy, I could probably tell exactly where I am based simply on the house in front of me). Having lost any desire for my neighbours to view me as sane, I would belt out their lyrics as I ran. And I am fairly certain there will be few moments in my life as cathartic as running down the middle of an empty Palmerston Blvd., channeling Apple's own anger as I screamed out the lyrics from the title track "Fetch The Bolt Cutters" for the first of many times:
I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill / Shoes that were not made for running up that hill / And I need to run up that hill / I need to run up that hill, I will, I will, I will, I will, I will.
Bargaining: Chromatica, Dedicated Side B, "What's Your Pleasure?" and "Say Something"
My bolts cutters allegedly fetched, I moved onto the next stage: bargaining, in which we are willing to concede an outcome but only while still trying to steal as many more moments of "normal" from the situation as is possible. This was made all the more accessible by how lucky we were in Toronto (and most of Canada, for that matter) to have drastically reduced COVID-19 infections by June. For a lot of the summer, it felt like we had evolved into a hybrid of pandemic life and the before-times that was more than enough for me. And I decided to embrace it by having as much fun as possible, and did the appropriate music ever rain ... on ... me.
Had we existed in a "normal" June, the unofficial soundtrack of traditional Pride would have been absolutely Lady Gaga's Chromatica. Made in a lab specifically for gays to explode to, there's no doubt it would have been played on a loop at every single Pride event. So I decided to create an alternative to this scenario by teaming up with some friends to host a small, socially distanced Pride gathering in a backyard, hiring a local drag queen to come perform. Without even asking, she performed most of Chromatica, and to top it all off: it literally rained during the performance of "Rain on Me." It was one of the very few moments of this year where I felt genuine joy and thought, "Maybe everything is going to be okay!?"
Beyond Gaga, Carly Rae Jepsen surprise-released a Side B to her album Dedicated, Jessie Ware gifted us with her escapist disco opus "What's Your Pleasure?", Kylie Minogue gave us an über-gay pandemic anthem in "Say Something" and Dua Lipa came roaring back into rotation as summer generally felt like a fabulous oasis in the middle of the apocalypse. But I knew what was coming, and as August started slipping away into a moment of time, it was harder and harder to ignore.
Depression: The Ascension, folklore, Punisher and Women in Music, Part III
Between a steady increase of COVID numbers, the very real possibility of a Trump re-election, the shorter days and the colder weather, the fourth stage — depression — was inevitable. But I didn't quite expect it to be so severe. I'd gone through some pretty challenging bouts of both depression and anxiety in my early 20s, but had gradually come up with a combative strategy (running, therapy, avoiding toxic people and situations) that worked. But by fall, it became clear that it wasn't working anymore, apparently being no match for the anticipation of a COVID winter.
Gone was the catharsis of my Fetch The Bolt Cutters spring; here was a new era of grief where bleakness reigned unbearably supreme! And true to 2020's nature, a soundtrack came along for this too. Sufjan Stevens's The Ascension, Phoebe Bridgers's Punisher, HAIM's Women in Music, Part III and yes, even Taylor Swift's folklore essentially became my "music to walk around feeling dead inside to," each offering their own special takes on desolation, loss and loneliness. I doubt there will be a time in my life when listening to Swift's "exile," Stevens's "Tell Me You Love Me," HAIM's "I Am Alone" or, especially, Bridgers's "Garden Song" won't make me burst into tears, yet I am grateful for their small comforts. They were there as I pushed myself to do something I had actively resisted my entire adult life: go on anti-depressants. And coupled with firing all cylinders of my combative strategy, it was just enough for me to claw my way to the next stage.
Acceptance: all of the above
The Küber-Ross model says that in the final stage of grief, we find a mindset that essentially says, "I can't fight it; I may as well prepare for it." Armed with Lexapro in my blood, the results of the U.S. election, extremely promising vaccine news and a reminder that I have it so much better than many, that's exactly what I did. I aggressively sought out a routine of activities and habits that I knew were exclusively going to be good for my mental health and shut off everything else, knowing that if I wanted to survive the coming winter, I had better work.
Although there wasn't one defining album that represented this ongoing process, in line with this calm, retrospective view that often comes in the acceptance stage, I just put the entire year into one exhaustive playlist. Every single evening for the last month, I put on those headphones and head out into the same streets I've excessively walked for eight months, three weeks and six days, bravely hitting shuffle. And whether it's Phoebe Bridgers, Dua Lipa or Fiona Apple, I'm reminded I've made it this far — and so have all of you.