In an interview with The New Yorker, Phoebe Bridgers said “If I woke up every morning and thought about the reality of everything, it would totally consume me, I have to think about it as if it’s happening in a movie.” Her new album Punisher is that movie and that movie is a horror film.
If you were to just read the lyrics of Punisher, you would assume it was just another melancholy rumination on past relationships and pedestrian life. When you listen to the record, you realize that something else is afoot. Many of the traditional sonic elements of the horror genre are present. There are the strings, repetitive ticking, whispers, shouting, and dissonance that have been known to set the mood of a film and raise the heart rate of the viewer. By combining these audio elements with her lyrics about mundane millennial life, Bridgers’ draws attention to the effects of the omnipresent tiny horrors and the constant feeling of an impending apocalypse that has been consistent in young millennials’ lives.
In addition to the sonic elements of horror that are present in the songs, Bridgers’ collaboration with writer Carmen Maria Machado further emphasizes the album’s ties to the genre. Machado, who has published the short story collection Her Body and Other Parties, and the memoir In the Dream House, is known for using magical realism, speculative fiction, and horror to “catch at familiar, unspoken truths about being women in the world” as one NPR article described. In the short story “Yesterday, Tomorrow” that accompanies the record, there is a passage: “After all, everyone knows the world is ending. They’ve been told as much, and they can see it in the streets, and they know the world is irreparably fucked, but most importantly they feel it among themselves; they know this goodness cannot last forever.” This passage exemplifies the way young millennials feel about the constant ominous political and cultural climate they have been steeped in. It describes how we keep on trucking even though our earliest memories are of 9/11, and we’ve come of age through constant wars, political unrest, a disastrous economy, and now are in our mid-twenties during a global pandemic.
The album opens with “DVD Menu.” This short intro to the album sounds like its title with its repetitive, unassuming, sinister-sounding strings, and some chilling wind-like sounds in the background. Like a DVD menu, this track reflects the themes of the record and sets the tone for what is to come. It is eerie and haunting and by naming the track “DVD Menu,” Bridgers’ is letting us know that this record is a horror film and reiterates the fact that she needs to view and describe the world as fiction.
In the tracks “Halloween” and “Chinese Satellite,” Bridgers’ conjures up images of death and trauma in a nonchalant manner. In the track “Halloween,” there are pizzicato sounding guitars and distant wind sounds. The second verse goes…
Always surprised by what I’d do for love
Some things I’d never expect
They killed a fan down by the stadium
Was only visiting, they beat him to death
The song “Chinese Satellite” includes a repetitive beep that sounds alien and has lyrics that go…
You were screaming at the Evangelicals
They were screaming right back from what I remember
When you said I will never be your vegetable
Because I think when you’re gone it’s forever
The way that Bridgers’ shifts from a reflection of her love life to recounting a stranger’s death is a perfect example of her exploration of mundane horror. Millennials have been inundated with this type of trauma for so long that it just becomes a part of everyday life. Hearing about the death of a stranger by a crowd, or by gun violence, or COVID-19, or an unnecessary war, has become part of our everyday existence. Her lack of hesitation and acceptance of trauma is emblematic of the larger millennial culture as a whole. There has been so much death and destruction around our whole lives that we are just expected to trudge through it.
“Moon Song” references another of millennials’ horrors. The song opens with…
You asked to walk me home
But I had to carry you
Like the metaphorical person in the song who offered to help but instead made Bridgers’ life harder, the boomer generation has been offering millennials unsolicited advice while presenting them with an economy that they systematically dismantled over the past 30 years or so. An article by Michael Hobbes in The Huffington Post goes into great detail about all the ways the economy is now stacked against millennials and Gen-Z because of policies put in place by the baby boomers.
Closing out the album is a track called “I Know the End.” The track starts out as a traditional indie-folk song but quickly deviates and becomes a cacophony of sounds. The use of dissonance in this song creates a sonic representation of the apocalypse Bridgers is singing about. By ending the album in this way, Bridgers leaves us with the understanding that things are a lot worse than we were led to believe. Our culture right now is no longer some underlying eeriness like in “DVD Menu,” instead everything has come to ahead. And there is no sign of it getting better.
Bridgers’ ends the song and the album with the lines…
The end is here
The end is… ahh!
That is what millennials are feeling at the moment. They are screaming about how horrible everything has gotten and the attempts to gaslight them into believing everything is fine.
By using sounds that create uneasy and frightening feelings in listeners, and by including work by Carmen Maria Machado, Bridgers creates an album that exemplifies the terror millennials are feeling when they think about their futures. Though innocuous-seeming, these small scale traumas compound, like Bridgers’ use of strings, ambient sounds, and drums, to create an atmosphere that is impossible to thrive in.
Bridgers, P. (2020, June 18). Punisher (Vol. 1–1) [LP]. Dead Oceans.
Hobbes, M. (2020). Generation Screwed. The Huffington Post. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from http://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/poor-millennials/
Petrusich, A. (2020). Phoebe Bridgers’s Frank, Anxious Music. The New Yorker. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/05/25/phoebe-bridgers-frank-anxious-music
Quinn, A. (2020). ‘Her Body And Other Parties:’ Be Your Own Madwoman. NPR.Org. https://www.npr.org/2017/10/08/553978325/-her-body-and-other-parties-be-your-own-madwoman
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