Skip to Content

I don’t know how music critics do this—I feel an immense impulse to just link to the song I’m about to talk about in order to save myself the anguish—but I am going to try to describe in mere words how Caroline Polachek’s “Starburned and Unkissed” hit me. This is a song from a film (I Saw the TV Glow) I couldn’t really connect with—was trudging through, frankly—until Polachek’s music arrived, like spring rain cutting through a merciless fug of humidity. Nothing in that movie was clear to me, except this song. It starts with this little atonal, slightly distorted synthesizer melody. Then a beat drops in, as does a mournful dreamy voice that sounds like it’s coming from some teenager making music on a Casio in her bedroom. It stays low-key like this for a while, but then: a little strum or two, one minor step down, and Polachek sings, “Hey you Casanova,” followed by, “Hey you supernova." Suddenly, there’s a massive wave of distortion, over which her voice soars—“Come hoooooome, the kehhhttle’s whiiiiistliiiiiiiin”—then the pow, pow, pow, of the drums, like a fist banging on a door. Polachek’s voice then stretches out across each separate lyric, sounding almost congested:  “My. heart’s. a. ghost. limb. reach-ing./Star-burned. and. unkiiiiiiiissed.”

I don’t know how many times I have listened to this song because Spotify won’t tell me, but it’s an overwhelming number. It’s definitely in the double digits, probably not in the triples yet. Maybe. At a certain point I had repeated the song so many times, I started to get embarrassed. I started to wonder if there was some employee at Spotify, some stats person, being like: Soraya Roberts is listening to the Polachek again. The fuck? What a freak. I know that’s not how it works but the idea that these numbers were being recorded somewhere, that my obsession was being observed in some way, felt shameful. 

I have been known to repeatedly listen to, or watch, or read things I love to an alarming degree. I think part of it is my slow processing speed. In order to fully get something, I have to do it a million times so I can fill it all in. When I was a kid, I would do this over and over, but because everything was analog—sticking a tape into a VHS player, sticking a cassette into a Walkman, sticking a book in front of my face—the only people who knew what I was doing were my family members. “Again?!” is something that gets asked of little kids who don’t know any better than to request the same book be read to them repeatedly. Adults are supposed to be more adventurous—you can like things, even love them, but performing that to such a relentless degree is, you know, unseemly. Incontinent. Childish.

I watched all seven episodes (ranging from 27 to 45 minutes) of Baby Reindeer and then immediately watched it again a day later. I have listened to the Challengers soundtrack countless times. I have a Wii and I only play Mario Kart on it. I come from a time and a place in which pop culture was not widely adopted as a marker of identity. Sports were, pop culture less so. It’s hard to think of an era when having stills of movies in your locker was out of the ordinary, but that time was 1994 in my Alberta private school. It’s funny to be ashamed now of something I was once so proud of as an adolescent. I think the shame is related to the age thing, but also the gathering of all these fixations under the aegis of “fandom.” Certain pop-culture obsessions were cool back then because there was still space for them in the counterculture. It’s less cool now because fandom, and the strange things it can do to people’s brains, has swallowed everything. Grumpy old Gen-Xers have written about this extensively, and I’m not saying anything new. What feels newer is the shame I associate with my fixations. And I think it’s because I increasingly associate them with a kind of weakness. 

The Turner Prize-winning installation artist Jesse Darling recently described how nostalgia worked as a “legitimate response to collapse” in his work. In this context, he was referring to a sociopolitically conservative nostalgia, but when I think of returning to old bits of pop culture over and over, I think it comes from a similar place of self-soothing, of refusing to advance into the unknown. “I don’t have that nostalgia myself, but I understand it as a position,” Darling told The Berliner. “But that position is fundamentally incurious—an inability or unwillingness to imagine how things could be otherwise.” This goes back to what I said about underexposed kids who get obsessed with the only thing they know—when you grow up, it’s less that you don’t know, and more that knowing can feel so overwhelming. The comfort watch, the comfort listen, the comfort read, so easy to find, is also so easy to use as a way to stave off that feeling of absolute dread.

But there is still a line between incurious salve-seeking and active enthusiasm. I can tell when I’m still engaged in what I am doing, rather than simply plugging and playing. The first few times I listened to Polachek’s song, I looked up the lyrics, read about how she came up with the song (she missed her British boyfriend, hence the whistling kettle), and learned that it fit so perfectly into I Saw the TV Glow that when director Jane Schoenbrun heard it, she formed an entire scene around it. I was surprised to read Polachek describe “Starburned and Unkissed” as “straight-up grunge,” though, because it definitely sounds like dream pop to me, a more effervescent version of the shoegaze gods, My Bloody Valentine (particularly “Only Shallow”). When I am looking up this stuff, I am often trying to figure out how an artist created something so captivating, perhaps to get closer to doing it myself. The irony is that you can’t really figure that out through research; it always involves an alchemy of some kind. 

I remember listening specifically to “Only Shallow” on repeat in the ’90s. It was my own album (or actually maybe my older brother’s that I stole), and I didn’t have the benefit of the internet to fill in the details. I am reading them now. Apparently, Kevin Shields wavers his guitar tremolo as he strums, which makes the band sound like it does. Sure. Sounds good. I’ll listen to it a million more times as the world collapses around me.

Already a user?Log in

Welcome to Defector!

Sign up to read another couple free blogs.

Or, click here to subscribe!

If you liked this blog, please share it! Your referrals help Defector reach new readers, and those new readers always get a few free blogs before encountering our paywall.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter