On Phoebe Bridgers, Ghosts, and Copycat Killers

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I’ve had the new Phoebe Bridgers record on heavy rotation since it came out on Thursday, and while Im not yet sure where it stands in comparison to her past work, I seem to keep swinging back to that title track. “Punisher” is Bridgers’ sung letter to the late Elliott Smith, a gesture through the veil at the Portland songwriter she describes as one of her biggest influences, her own signature double-tracked vocals a quiet homage to his. Something about the track feels immediately alluring on first listen, but it’s tough to pin down. Maybe it’s the sweeping melodies, or the keys dancing high behind her vocals, or the yearning, just slightly mischievous tenor of her lyrics: “I wonder if she ever thought / the storybook tiles on the roof were too much / from the window it’s not a bad show / if your favorite thing’s dianetics or stucco.”

It’s sharp writing, but when I listened again after learning the song’s you was Elliott Smith, it bit deep, and I mean really deep. Chipped some bone, maybe. The song assumed this new form, the words and melody I’d heard the first time around molding themselves over something else, something darker in substance, yet somehow brighter for its attempt to hold such an impossible conversation. It’s a letter to a ghost.

One of my goals this year while traveling and working on my writing was to understand my experiences and identities as a writer on a more global, communal scale. It’s easy to think of writing as this very individual thing, something done in your room alone, by candlelight, on a typewriter, wearing black, pouring your feelings out, etcetera. Part of this is owed to notions of artistic genius, this idea that the individual rises above the mores and masses of their time to pen that classic book, poem, record, whatever. Bridgers isn’t exempt from this — she’s constantly assigned this exceptionalism by critics and music journalists, despite her insistence that her new record is “nothing avant-garde,” that she mostly just borrows from the artists she loves. She observes and she writes.

And that’s just the thing — perhaps her music speaks so directly to me and my experiences as a writer because it’s in constant conversation with the art and music she herself holds dear. “Punisher” articulates that feeling of writerly communion so directly: “What if I told you I feel like I know you but we never met?” I’ve idolized (and unidolized) a lot of different artists and writers over the past twenty-three years: Sean Bonnette, Kanye West, Ruth Madievsky, Joni Mitchell, Noname, Terrance Hayes. I can’t help that their words have bled into my own. Sometimes I hear one of their songs or read one of their poems for the first time in a long time and well up with genuine emotion, as if I’ve just gotten off the phone with an old friend.

Sometimes, taking in the work of an artist foundational to my growth, an artist whose voice I’ve internalized so much over the years that they begin to read like kin, feels like communing with an ancestor. I don’t necessarily mean this in a spiritual way. I just mean that writing and art-making is truly such a communal act. Art isn’t made in a vacuum. It is necessarily in conversation with the artists who came before you, the ones who laid the foundations that you’re either building atop or leaping from, the artists you call your peers, the artists you fucking hate, basically anyone, artist or not, who’s ever made an even slightly apparent physical or emotional impact on your life. These are the voices hiding in the crevices of your own.

Art = theft is a cliché at this point, but still, I’ve struggled with this from time to time. I’ve written stories that read like Denis Johnson fanfiction. It’s hard to read Sula and not go ahead and write Toni Morrison knock-off prose for the next week-and-a-half. It’s hard to read Terrance Hayes and not splice his warm warhammer of a voice into your own sonnets. These words are some of the sharpest words to be written on paper. Ever. Why pretend they don’t shape you? Writing is, to a great degree, ancestor worship, and that’s not a bad thing. Why does it have to be corny to love art so much that you begin to see the artist as a ghost you can talk to? Light that incense. Put that bowl of fruit out. Sample that record. Throw that séance.

The last verse of “Punisher” is such a deft move on Bridgers’ part. When she labels herself “a copycat killer,” she unravels for the listener what must be the simple yet overwhelming reality of Smith’s impact on her own understanding of herself — her voice has always curled around the darkness of Smith’s, which circles so often themes of addiction, depression, and toxic relationships. She admits to stealing, but she shades it with the ambiguity of her own admiration: “either I’m careless or I wanna get caught.” There’s a hint of pride there, alive and grinning. It’s a real admission, and it comes just after “I swear I’m not angry, that’s just my face.”

I’ve always admired the ease with which Bridgers can lurch from heartache to humor, the way she can deadpan a crossbow bolt of a one-liner over melancholy strings and hovering synths. Her music is frequently described as confessional, in the vein of singer-songwriter acts as far-ranging as Mitski, Taylor Swift, and Bright Eyes, but it’s how funny she is that sets her apart in my book. The confessional indie singer formula doesn’t quite fit her — she knows when to temper her earnestness with a funny little observation or reference that tips the whole fountain over. That capacity for humor and homage in her writing is what actually feels most honest to me. The delivery is plaintive and quiet, but there’s so much damn heart in every one of her half-spun jokes and sampled turns of phrase.

Anyhow, I’m writing all this from a place of admiration too. I’m at home, still listening to the record, turning it over in my head with each play. I’m writing some stuff that borrows pretty heavily from Seamus Heaney and Diana Khoi Nguyen, not to mention Phoebe Bridgers. I’m making plans to move to a different coast. I’m adding to my roster of ancestors on the daily. I’m a copycat killer with a chemical cut — either I’m careless or I wanna get caught.

Sending love to all my favorite ghosts.

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