on big thief + the value of the art you hate

on big thief + the value of the art you hate

I wrote this essay about a band I hate in a way I hate no other band. I wrote this essay about the depth that can be found in hating something in such a special way. It was supposed to be for a sort of  collection. Maybe it still will be. Enjoy or don't!

I struggle with Big Thief more than I allow myself to struggle with most bands. Most of the time they’re a band that fills me with an incomparable revulsion, but I listen to their music when it’s released and I have seen them play live multiple times. I don’t know that I’m trying to love them. It feels more like I am trying to pull something out of them that just won’t come. It’s like a child trying to suck a milkshake that won’t melt through a straw that will never be big enough. I am trying and failing. I know I’m just frustrating myself, but I can’t stop coming back with the hopes of something sweet to show for my formidable patience.

I haven’t dedicated myself to this for the last five or so years because they’re a band that many people in my life have deemed beyond reproach. There is plenty of music beloved by people in that category that I’m perfectly willing to chalk up to “pretty, but not for me.” I’m frustrated by music that is pretty before it is anything else. Big Thief isn’t that, though. The thing I’m searching for by subjecting myself to their music is real. The thing I’m searching for is “Paul” off their 2016 album, Masterpiece. More specifically, I’m searching for the week in 2017 I listened to it repeatedly in the south of France. I’ve been chasing the feeling of that moment. I listen to it now and I can hear the Nice to Monaco bus engine background noise like a ghost haunting Adrienne Lenker’s voice.

There’s no way to sound anything less than irritating talking about the semester you studied abroad, so I won’t try. I didn’t go there to try to change myself, I went there because I didn’t want to be in actual school. I wanted to spend half of my final year of college in France being the saddest I’ve ever been, then feeling appropriately— and unavoidably— guilty for it. I wanted to be 20 and ungrateful. I wanted to eat a sandwich everyday and drink coffee. Most of my coffee drinking ended up being espressos poured into tiny paper cups at a vending machine in the hallways of school buildings where I avoided talking to my professors who all stood outside smoking on any given break, but I couldn’t complain too much. I sat on the train and I did eat sandwiches. I also lost weight and returned to long distance dating a man that had dumped me at 8 AM Pacific Standard Time the previous year.

When I traveled down to Nice, I’d already fallen into “Paul.” It’s a beautiful song— wistful and as self loathing as it is self indulgent. It’s a song about the worst parts of being the problem— in a relationship, in your own life, in what could have been. It was the perfect song to soundtrack being 20 and ungrateful and self absorbed and unwisely in love.

I listened to it religiously during each moment that sticks with me from that trip. I told one of the Australians running the hostel I stayed in about it when I went to grab a banana from the lobby. I listened to it on a bus to Monaco while my very serious, very Serbian study abroad adviser held onto a bar above me trying not to lose his balance. I listened to it after an evening sitting on the rocky beach with a friend as he explained how he’d been unfaithful to his girlfriend following a recent night out. I was listening to it when the same friend called me over to make a joke about the hot dog on a baguette a vendor was trying to sell on the street and I was listening to it right before we went inside a church to see where Grace Kelly is buried. The song is as present in my memory as the view of the ocean and the cliffs surrounding the harbor. Adrienne Lenker’s voice rhythmically pulls in and out like the waves.

The immediate conclusion is that I’m not chasing the song, I’m chasing a particular moment. I want to be careless and self absorbed and in France again. It’s not about Big Thief, it’s about me. While I know so much music I love has more to do with me than anything, I must not fully believe it because I still find myself chasing the way this song in particular has settled into my bones.

It has led me to listening to Big Thief albums I have disliked so fundamentally that it made me question whether I liked music at all. It has led me to develop such a firm and acute dislike for so much of their music that I can’t even talk to other people who dislike their music. They don’t understand the ways in which I love and hate this band. There are sounds in that music that flip a switch in my brain and I see red for the rest of the day. Their recent albums feel like chewing tin foil. I lost a week of my life to listening to Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You for my podcast. People who don’t get that band don’t hate it the way I do. I hate so much of it with such fervor it has become a guiding principle of understanding my own taste.

Of course, I could ignore any of Big Thief’s music past what I have loved, but I have spent years believing with so much conviction that, if I choose that path, I will be missing out on something that will change me today the way “Paul” changed me years ago.

The only thing that has supported that particular thesis is that I still find that feeling— that undeniable specialness— when I see them live.

I’ve seen them play three times in the years since I found myself solipsistically obsessed with “Paul.” The first was in Paris that fall for Pitchfork’s festival they held at venues around the Bastille. I ended up having to wait outside for much of the set as the venue was at capacity, but I could hear them in line. I caught the last couple songs inside, but it was almost more beautiful feeling the soft glow of their music as it filled the street.

The most recent was at Pitchfork Festival in Chicago. They started a couple minutes late to avoid competing with the electronic music going on in another part of the park and people were talking. It’s a festival. I didn’t mind the noise or the delay as much as I minded the tightly packed crowd. I can’t imagine anybody could find the beauty in Big Thief’s music standing shoulder to shoulder with people who have been outside all day in the rain and heat— I certainly couldn’t. After a couple songs I left my friends to instead go talk to two men unimpressed with the music then ultimately find a place in the grass to sit down alone.

Once I was sitting under a tree alone I could find the glow once again. I found it in the peacefulness of the dispersed groups of people on the fringes— families with young children sitting on blankets, young women dancing with each other in matching silk midi-skirts, couples draped over each other engaging in the kind of heavy petting that I’d find objectionable if not for being drowned in the thick air of human connection that is inherent to a Big Thief performance.

What I’ve been able to reconcile about the extremes of my feelings toward Big Thief is that I’m not sure it matters if my thesis pans out. I don’t need to be right about them writing another song that settles into me that deeply because the potential for their band to make a song that changes my life again is the whole story.

This is my story, I’m the Joker and they’re my Batman. What would I even be if I didn’t have them? I need them and it’s good I hate them like this. I’ve only been able to land there once I took them away from the way I usually engage with music. It’s not an experience like deciding if I like or dislike any random album. It’s something else altogether, but they’re not the only thing I hate this way. I hate them the way I hate the work of someone like Cy Twombly or the way I hate the Coen Brothers.

Like Big Thief, these are things I violently dislike— except when I love them. Twombly’s “Paul” is a collection of paintings all done in red that I saw at the Tate Modern in London. The Coen Brothers’ “Paul” is Raising Arizona. I’m always searching for the joy of the times I’m moved positively— that joy of when your milkshake is finally melted enough to come up with straw with ease— but both extremes offer something more than most.

I experience Big Thief’s albums the same way I experience going to the The Art Institute in Chicago and, from the time I step through the doors to the modern and contemporary wing, I’m thinking about the rooms dedicated to Cy Twombly. It's a lot of rage and distaste, but I always look for his work there and at any museum he’s featured at because it makes me feel something.

I’ve never liked Coen Brothers movies, but I’ve sat and watched them alone. I’ve watched them with ex-boyfriends and I’ve stood in my parents’ living room while my dad watches them. I keep trying for no real reason other than reveling in the rare feeling of hating a movie so much.

The discomfort and the hate has settled into my bones alongside the pleasure of connecting with a piece of art innately. I think the joy is in the pendulum swing. After all, I’m not alive to feel nothing and there’s nothing to feel in the perfectly fine.

Miranda Reinert is a music adjacent writer, zine maker, podcaster and law school drop out based in Chicago. Follow me on Twitter or Instagram for more insights into the stuff I love and hate and love to hate: @mirandareinert.  This blog does have a paid option and I would so appreciate any money you would be willing to throw me! You may also send me small bits of money at @miranda-reinert on venmo/on Paypal if you want. As always, thanks for reading!