2018: You Have Been Loved Dissolving selves and unfolding absence toward a pop future

Artwork: Tara Jane O'Neil, for room 209 at Ace Hotel Portland (2010)

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

1. The ring has absence built into it. It is raw material circling a nothing until the body enters the frame. The space between the embroidered enamel and no thing (the place for your finger) is void. It is a framing structure. Ring isn’t ring without finger. I need you, ring says. There is a space for you here.

2. Still, absence doesn’t eradicate. If a ring is something else without a digit to clutch, it isn’t no thing. I know this. I still have the ring.

3. In his 1917 book, Rings for the Finger, George Frederick Kunz writes: “The custom of placing the betrothal or wedding ring upon the fourth finger seems undoubtedly to owe its origin to the fancy that a special nerve, or vein, ran directly from this finger to the heart. Macrobius, in his Saturnalia, alludes to the belief in the following words: ‘Because of this nerve, the newly betrothed places the ring on this finger of his spouse, as though it were a representation of the heart.’ Macrobius asserts that he derived his information from an Egyptian priest.”

4. Imagine being able to swear by an anonymous Egyptian priest with some confidence.

5. Did Macrobius and his priest think that the heart would expand or shrink to fit the size of the ring around it? How literal was their allegorical guess at how hearts work? It’s a comfort to know there’s precedent for getting heart stuff wrong.

6. We found out later, after Kunz, after Macrobius, that the nerve in question is the ulnar nerve. The ring finger, in particular, is the site where the ulnar splits into two branches, the palmer and the dorsal. The ring finger is not a direct line to the heart. The veins we see every day as we tamp espresso into the perfect portion or type wrong words on a keyboard or hold (each others’) hands, are called superficial. These are the veins close to the surface of our hands.

7. A ring is a poor metaphor for a union, but I do think about it.

8. We lost so much this year. Our country slogged on in Cronus fever, eating its young, warlike. Our planet fractured and burned, and even as it screamed to us to staunch its wounds, we looked away. Sick old systems licked chops, shot on skin, asked no questions. Children died in schools. Brothers and sisters who went un-murdered fell into depressions they couldn’t climb out of, killed themselves. An Egyptian priest put it to me: “a shit show.”

9. If you listen to this year’s pop music, you could hear glimmers of all our losses. Pop music, a term that grows less and less arbitrary the more it addresses its self (and, in 2018, pop music doesn’t even have to be popular), is a system for addressing absence. In listening to losing, you can hear how was turns to what will be.

10. So, a syllogism: pop music mediates (presence of) absence; absence mediates how we relocate self in scope of another; therefore, pop music mediates how we relocate self in scope of another. Or maybe: pop music is what it’s like to break free of ourselves in losing toward a new future.

11. Pop music has absence built into it. It is raw material circling a nothing until a body enters the frame. Do I fetishize absence? Did I poorly impersonate a pop song while we were together?

12. Hold tight to that, but first, how to break? We did it on a Monday in a car cabin, saying many of the same things we said when we got together, just upside down. Or Marvin Gaye reversed, starting with “Thank you baby,” and then “I just want to stop/ Stop.”

13. How sweet is it, to have been loved by you? “It’s like sugar in my soul.” We took a raw thing and gave it viscosity, “stuck in glitter, strands of saliva/ Won’t you get me right where the hurt is?” To sweeten the ache of days, we dissolved into each other, stirring. “And the waves come in, and they’re golden.” And we gave the raw material a new name for its new shape. And we called it Honey.


14. “Baby it’s so real to me/ Now that it’s over.” Robyn arrived to break the breath of absence. Honey, a glittering gutting, is the first noise after an eight-year absence, like a lover’s letter delivered overseas, like a melody you thought you’d lost track of. But is it sweet? Or does it sting?

15. “Missing U,” the first single, the first song, the first hint that something’s come untethered in the music. Formally, familiarly, the feel is the similar: a shimmer of arpeggiated synthetics crescendo into boom, steady throbs. The sounds, signs of being, are Robyn-distinct disco, if fraught. But the words, the slippery signs we assign to feelings, reveal abscesses: “There’s this empty space you left behind/ Now you’re not here with me.” Worse still, they reveal new presences, void but not ignorable. “This residue, it’s all I’ve got.”

16. Honey is a residue of shattered combs, the structure of the pop song splayed and feelings running. Its songs, at turns shimmering and stunted, make a presence of lost things.

17. “Amorous absence functions in a single direction, expressed by the one who stays, never by the one who leaves: an always present I is constituted only by confrontation with an always absent you” (Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse).

18. It never feels hyperconscious of its structural splits: Honey is not interested in deconstruction. Instead, Robyn makes solubility her focus as a singer and songwriter. She chooses when to let a pang dissolve into sweetness and when to let a phantom hover in its wake. “Missing U” is the former, a damaged site almost convinced it could find someone new to dance with. “Baby Forgive Me” is the latter, a stitter of phantoms, a disemboweled voice right under Robyn’s. “Baby be brave/ Be wise.”

19. Where does that voice go when I turn around to look at it? Void but not ignorable, the space inside a ring.

20. Absence (like ghosts) can only exist alongside its opposite: presence. Imagine knowing missing without having knowing.

21. Of course, I imagined missing without knowing all the time. I’d made a home of it for years, an apartment of compartmentalizing closeness just so and then, feeling its heat, discarding it for fear of burning up. Then I met you. And we fell together, even knowing that someday we’d probably have to leave.

22. Honey is braver than I, like you. Maybe that’s why it took Robyn three years to finish it, time to remember to forget. That’s a lyric she sings in “Missing U” and also a reference to “Remember,” a 1999 Christian Falk song that Robyn sang on. It would be her first of many with the DJ, and they became fast friends and frequent collaborators. He died in 2015 from cancer.

23. “When I wrote this album I think I was quite tired of myself writing sad love songs. But I did anyway and looking back on that now, I think it’s OK for things to be sad. Combining it with something that’s bright and strong and powerful is a way of finding your way out of the sadness” (Robyn, BBC).

24. Honey knows it’s OK to be sad. It knows that if sadness may contort your form, it doesn’t eradicate you. Honey doesn’t celebrate sadness or make a spectacle of it. Instead, it works it like roux and stirs it, dissolving it into the new thing. Where do we go when we dissolve into each other? And how are we split apart?

25. How to break without being first? “I’m a human being,” she sings, and we’re to take the word as a noun and a verb. She goes on, though the beat breaks a little and a whine winds in the way off: “There’s no resolution/ No honey gold.” Then it starts again, tremulous. What else is there to do after a breakup, after death, after? “Move your body/ Don’t give up on me now.”

26. You can miss a person without missing them. I miss your presence, like ships miss each other at sea, like cars miss each other on highways. Dissolution only works so long as the materials are soluble. Collision will not do.

27. I watched The Last Waltz on Thanksgiving instead of being with you and your family. I felt good in separation, and anxious alone, watching Rick and Richard and Levon hide tiny anguishes in the words they’d sung comfortably for years. Why did The Band break up on Thanksgiving night in 1978? To watch is to watch humans in their prime in cohesion, literal harmony, and beautiful improvisation. Is it sad that they separated?

28. Sometimes good things, even as they look good, have lost track of their selves, and then what are they? This is a trite thing to think three pinot grigios in while watching The Last Waltz on Thanksgiving 40 years on, but: I think it was noble of The Band to break up, to bring the bitter taste to a halt. Dissolution is better than failing to dissolve.

Ariana Grande

29. Did we give up on each other? We moved on from us, but that’s not giving up. We stirred until we were insoluble. Sweeteners vary: “When life deals us cards/ Makes everything taste like it is salt/ Then you come through like the sweetener you are/ To bring the bitter taste to a halt” (Ariana Grande, “Sweetener”).

30. The hooks of Honey are less immediate than those on 2010’s Body Talk, which demanded that you transform your body’s motion alongside the sonics. Honey is still a site for transformation (of still limbs into animated ones, of dry eyes to wetted ones) but it’s also a space to be encased in to heal. Its unmooredness gives you time to remember to forget. “Send to Robin” washes around in an ambience for two minutes before a demand (“If you got something to say, say it right away”) and a reminder (“If you got something to do, do what’s right for you.”) “Beach 2k20” is all background noise bounce; “Between the Lines” is an oration of fragments: “It’s not your words, it’s what’s in between them.”

31. Pop music so often says the unsayable. Honey says the unsaid. It’s trite, maybe, but tense matters. In residues and trails, it makes us feel the presence of lost things, ever returning. Why do we have to know to forget? We remember to step forward, moving bodies. Honey treats absence as soluble, creates a new presence from it, a new chemistry. It feels like love, even lost, “because it’s in the music/ Yeah, we were dancing to it/ I’m right back in that moment/ And it makes me want to cry.”

32. It’s okay to cry. You told me this often, and I am grateful for that. I told it back to you. But to believe this precious tenet of SOPHIE is to remember pop’s mandate: truths and wor(l)ds remain plastic, and often imply additional wor(l)ds. Again: “It’s not your words, it’s what’s in between them.”

33. I did not cry when we separated. I did not cry when we frustrated each other, or miscommunicated, or when love was new and clean and invincible. I used to worry about not crying, and sometimes I still do. Pop music (a set of signs, not expressions) is a home to feel emotions in. It’s a coat to feel life through. It’s proof that it’s okay to not cry.

34. Then yesterday I cried. Locked in momentary traffic, blue and red lights flashing off to the side, pulling slowly past a patrol car, and another, and two police officers, one with a handgun held almost level, a deer barely standing on its feet on the side of the road where the car that hit it was nowhere in sight her eyes open staring at the space where a massive heavy thing had entered her life so abruptly, staring at the empty space that might give way soon to nothing.

35. Our line of cars re-started before I could see a resolution. So I cried and supplied an imaginary answer to this real problem. These tears. This is the work of pop music.

36. “When raindrops fell, down from the sky/ The day you left me, an angel cried/ Oh, she cried, an angel cried/ She cried” (Ariana Grande/ The Four Seasons, “an angel cried”).

37. “Tears are signs, not expressions. By my tears, I tell a story, I produce a myth of grief, and henceforth, I adjust myself to it: I can live with it, because, by weeping, I give myself an emphatic interlocutor who receives the ‘truest’ of messages, that of my body, not that of my speech: Words, what are they? One tear will say more than all of them” (Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse).

38. Sweetener is Honey fortified with flavors, a cocktail of marshmallow and malt and root beer and cherry syrups. The matter at its center is predictive absence or, rather, the fallibility of present presence. It seizes songs of adoration, equating the presence of the beloved to dreams (“R.E.M.”), to respiration (“breathin”), to eternity (“everytime”), to the names of things (“pete davidson.”)

39. That real-life adoration dissipated before the album’s third month in the world. We fall together, knowing sometimes we will fall apart. Or, to paraphrase Vonnegut: “thank u, next.”

40. Even if the songs seem like inverses of Honey, Sweetener follows some of Robyn’s glitter un-tethering. Ariana’s scale is more maximal R&B, less dance-floor disco, but there are similar crevices between the hooks here. “successful” cruises with little more than voice at the fore and quieter voices near the back. “everytime” simmers, never boiling over. “no tears left to cry” is a titanic piece, but doesn’t marry itself to a singular hook.

41. A note: the tears are gone because they’ve been shed too readily. “no tears left to cry” mediates Ariana’s memory of grief, a realer low than anything either of us has ever felt. Twenty-two lives, like so many deer on the sides of roads, were lost in fire and combustion in Manchester, England. Pop isn’t a universal solvent, and it still only manages an imaginary solution. This is what resolution sounds like: we need to do better, if not for us, than for our children.

42. When I first listened to “no tears left to cry,” I misheard its words, or heard them sideways. “Right now I’m in a state of mind/ I wanna be in like all the time.” Or: right now, I’m in a state of mind. The state of mind is “like.” I want to be in “like” all the time.

43. (And I do. Pop songs, or the way Frankie Valli’s high tenor almost always breaks at its edge or the lolling ahhs that render arrhythmia desirable on Carly Rae’s transcending “Party For One” or even how this new white whine from The 1975 wallops unabashed into want, make me like and like and like.)

44. Then I heard the words again, I think, closer to the way they were intended: “Right now I’m in a state of mind/ I wanna be in, like, all the time.” Or: right now, I’m in a state of mind. I’d like to be in that state, or something similar, all the time.

45. Pop music prepares us to believe seemingly different things in the same instance. The sublime note of Sweetener is how it prepares us for a world after absence, in the presence of it. It’s dissolution of self into another in the same instance that the self relocates in solidarity with itself. It has patience with us and our mess. Not being in love now doesn’t mean we were never in love before not being in love now.

46. As things to be swirled amidst our breaking in a broken year, Honey and Sweetener presented pop as a place to heal griefs and renew souls. One taught me love. One taught me patience. And pain?

47. “Similarly, it seems, for the lover’s anxiety: it is the fear of a mourning which has already occurred, at the very origin of love, from the moment when I was first ‘ravished.’ Someone would have to be able to tell me: ‘Don’t be anxious any more— you’ve already lost him/ her’” (Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse).

48. I wonder when I lost you. I wonder when I lost me.

49. One of pop’s great magic tricks is pointing us towards a sound and saying “See, here you are!” My earliest lesson in dramatic empathy was listening to Fiddler on the Roof at 12. These people, these different voices, they see the sun rise and they see the sun set and they see how time goes on. I see the sun rise and I see the sun set and there must be so many voices like mine except different, sideways, stronger, weaker. Absence of self means presence of others.

Hannah Diamond

50. I don’t hear myself in the singer’s voice through Hannah Diamond’s glitched triptych, Soon I won’t see you at all. I’m there in flashes and shades, but mostly, I hear what you said, at the beginning, in the midst, after the end. “How could you give me something that wasn’t there?/ Why don’t you care?” I want to refute the record.

51. And: “was I just there when you were lonely?” I spilled my coffee hearing this, the stain still slicked to the Honda console. And: “I felt how you thought it should feel to hold me.” It did. I did. Then it didn’t. One of life’s mean magic tricks is how it vanishes bodies and feelings without explanation.

52. Not a refutation, but: “I used to do this, the self I was/ used to do this/ the selves I no longer am nor understand” (Maggie Nelson, “Something Bright, Then Holes”).

53. Hannah Diamond is the biggest and therefore the weirdest effort by the pop-destroying PC Music collective at constructing pop starness. Because PC doesn’t really want to destroy pop, but rather to hold it to task. And in the hands of Hannah, we have the purest version of what comes next now: Soon I won’t see you at all. It glints and shifts, winks and flips, cheeky and throaty. It starts with a blip falling and ends with a human voice lost in the immaterial.

54. Tense is important. Pop looks to the future. Soon I won’t see you at all was late last December, and now it’s “True,” barely a year later. “I don’t need you/ (Don’t need you).” Who are these phantom voices in parentheses?

55. Absence should be kept close. Nostalgia doesn’t serve it: it must be kept fresh and present. Tense is important, and tension too. Hannah’s words, the way the voice warbles and bends in A. G. Cook’s just-touched production are the always-occurring, the stirring of Robyn and Ariana coupled with way the liquid moves around the stirrer. When did I lose him/her? When I lost me in it all.

56. It must be/have been frustrating. It is/was for me sometimes. If I was weak, forgive me, but I was terrified.

57. A reminder: “I’m not ashamed/ Love is large and monstrous” (Maggie Nelson, “Something Bright, Then Holes”).

58. “Concrete Angel,” the EP’s second piece, is a reinterpretation (two separate truths in the same moment) of a song originally by Gareth Emery and Christina Novelli. Is it the crying angel of Sweetener? Pop music, this biggest and brightest structure, could topple at any moment. “If you keep building these walls/ Brick by brick, towers so tall/ Soon I won’t see you at all/ ‘til the concrete angel falls,” is the singer’s/ your warning. And then?

59. It does. The wall goes too high (I know, I put it there), and the concrete angel falls. It happens at 2:23 in the song. It’s preceded by a stitched-in field recording (“and there was a light around me, and I had this incredible sense of peace that just came over me and I knew, I knew, I knew that I was in the presence of an angel”) and the sounds of something ripping, or shimmering, into obfuscation. And then drums, hammers, barely for ears. If Honey and Sweetener detailed dissolution and resolution in unequal measure, Soon I won’t see you at all promises deconstruction. The language of the beloved will break you down and remake you into the new you. It will make “soon I’ll be nothing at all” sound like freedom. Did we free each other?

60. Soon I won’t see you at all ceases (?) at “The Ending.” The ineffable becomes irresolvable, the voice warps and shifts immaterial out of the concrete angel’s remains. Deconstruction only works if you’re willing to transform, not just rebuild. The absent one has gone, but where/how to? “Don’t know if I’m coming or going or coming or going or going or”

61. Gone?

62. And what comes next? Soon I won’t see you at all. Just like we never said goodbye.

63. “Another day, in the rain, we’re waiting for the boat at the lake; from happiness, this time, the same outburst of annihilation sweeps through me. This is how it happens sometimes, misery or joy engulfs me, without any particular tumult ensuing: nor any pathos: I am dissolved, not dismembered; I fall, I flow, I melt” (Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse).

64. A woman sits in a room under scrutiny. She answers the questions, but seems unmoored, like she might phase out of frame at any second. Something hangs in the air, a bright arid intangible. A man pushes, insists, “It came here for a reason. It mutated our environment, it was destroying everything.” And suddenly she is forceful in realizing: “It wasn’t destroying. It was changing everything. It was making something new.”

65. And this challenge is more terrifying than anything the man could have dreamed. He blinks. “Making what?”

66. “I don’t know.”

67. Concrete ruins itself endlessly. At its erection, it begins erosion. We’re taught this early on, maybe seeing a dead deer on the side of the road or when we finish a glass of water. Eventually, we’re reminded, things won’t be. Absence’s best trick is finiteness: all the things you could feel or be are segments that eventually, unchangingly, end.

SOPHIE, “Faceshopping” video

68. I want to unlearn despondency. “There’s a world inside you.” I want to stop, thank you, baby. “I wanna know what it feels like.” I want to remember to forget. “I wanna go there with you.”

69. OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, annihilation and re-formation, is the stretch of the new self emerging from the ruins of old architectures. Shape shift with me, it says. There is room for you here.

70. If absence molds us with despondency, SOPHIE frees us from that fixed notion. Slick and running, around and between the places you think are empty, her treatise on immateriality beckons us towards understanding being better, stranger, hotter, bolder. Gender and want, identity and fashion, the way things are and the way things could be run together and apart.

71. It starts with the end of love, or maybe the beginning of seeing (“Whatever it is, just know that it’s alright.”) The material world of “It’s Okay to Cry” crumbles near its end in a set of spasms and flanges similar to the mid-point meltdown/deconstruction in Hannah’s “Concrete Angel.”

72. With Hannah, like in Honey and Sweetener, the sonic material dissipates even as it ruptures and crumbles, leaving new space. These sounds showed us how loss could transmogrify back into want, or how want could transmute into salvation, or just how it’s okay to cry. In SOPHIE, though, the angel falls and the sonics schism and the world continues anew.

73. We weren’t destroying each other or even self-destructing. We were changing.

74. “The presumptuousness of it all. On the one hand, the Aristotelian, perhaps evolutionary, need to put everything into categories — predator, twilight, edible — on the other, the need to pay homage to the transitive, the flight, the great soup of being in which we actually live” (Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts).

75. The great soup. Pop music treats absence as it treats presence, a state of being in flux. And: “Is it cold in the water?/ I’m liquid, I’m floating into the blue.” And: “The heart too, is porous;/ I lost the water you poured into it” (Maggie Nelson, “Something Bright, Then Holes”).

76. The Argonauts, the book I was reading as we first tiptoed into each others’ presence and turned back to at our leaving, is a pop text of constant becoming. It is a celebration and atomization of all voices at once, each one expanding how we talk about being. It is radical, like OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, because of its voices. It contains multitudes.

77. Who are these voices, disemboweled and re-bodied? SOPHIE’s multitudes defy categorization or location or knowing. They are, by turns and simultaneously, guttural and whispered and masculine and feminine and neither. They fade into each other and cross pollinate, sometimes flanging into raw digital noise, like “Femmebot” by Charli or “Fembot” by Robyn. OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES creates a (brave/pretend) new world for voices to be anything of themselves at any moment.

78. “Infatuation/ Who are you, deep down?” And where does that voice go when I turn around to look at it? Void but not ignorable, the space inside a ring.

79. SOPHIE’s promise, as radical as Barthes or Nelson or you or me, is that these are all us. Past strict materiality, every voice is every voice. (The opposite then, holds true: no voice is no voice. Silence is untenable, pop reminds us.) In finding a singular self, an explosion of all selves. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”).

80. Pop music, like Maggie Nelson, is something bright, then holes (“how a girl, newly-sighted, once/ described a hand”). It is a lover’s discourse, a set of signs but not feelings, a way to remake our breaking world, newly sighted. And all we have to do now is take these lies and make them true, somehow. It dissolves, it sweetens, it shatters, it transforms. Find the love in the crevice in your chest. Weaponize it as tears, as remembrance, and let it shimmer in every direction. Plant it in the place inside your lungs and limbs. Explode into brightness. Throw away the ring. All we have to see is that I don’t belong to you, and you don’t belong to me.

81. My beloved then like now, be brave, be wise. Wrench your fist inside of love and turn it inside out. Our absence and presence in and of and out of each other has transformed this world, even a little. And now a new future: it was making something new.

82. “Where do I live?/ Tell me, where do we exist?/ We’re just.”

83. That is enough.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

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