Obsessions: Angel Olsen

“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We continue with a piece on musician Angel Olsen by Danielle Truppi. Truppi is pursuing an MFA in Fiction at San Francisco State University and has written for Write Club SF and Oatmeal Magazine. She is currently working on a series of stories about insects.

Angel Olsen tried to put the radio show host at ease. She told NPR’s Bob Boilen that her new song “Intern” is “such a lie,” that her next album would not be a synth album, that the song’s trailer video was meant to test her fans. Yes: it’s about performance, expectations: “people are anticipating something, and so you give them a song all about them anticipating something.”

I am a fan feverishly anticipating Olsen’s new album, and have listened to “Intern” upwards of fifty times. I was disappointed Bob Boilen didn’t trust her.

I became acquainted with Angel Olsen two years ago when a man I loved moved away from me the first time. He made me a mix CD with the song “Iota” on it, a devastating song that left me supine and puffy-eyed. On its surface, the song is a list of regrets, of hypothetical conditions that would bring about an elusive happy ending. But the conditions described are not entirely reasonable and the ending not entirely happy. The song hurts you so much because it has unanticipated barbs buried in its tangle of melancholy. It is mournful, but sarcastic, too—“if only all our memories were one,” “if only all our hopes were to be here.” If only things weren’t so complicated, things wouldn’t be complicated. If only this one little thing—this bleak, nebulous thing—then we could settle down. If only we stayed still, we could rot away together.

It was this tonal complexity that had me hooked. I bought Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014) and found myself playing it again and again, a heavy, vintage coat of sadness I never wanted to take off. The album both cradled and scorned me for my broken heart. It told me it’s all important and real and deep, this pain you are feeling, but you are all you actually have and you need to understand that. The song “White Fire” begins with “Everything is tragic, it all just falls apart,” a statement so huge and simply stated it risks seeming ridiculous. Olsen’s beautiful, quavering vocals invite you to sing along, but unlike, say, Adele or Sarah McLaughlin, it is an experience that is broader than catharsis. Olsen’s songs aren’t songs you belt into your hairbrush because love hurts; they are songs you warble along to because other things hurt, too, like condescension and the labor of communication.

As a woman, this is expected to be your territory—the hairbrush microphone, the pining. Women love love. It’s all they talk about. It fuels their bodies and their simple, fragrant minds. Olsen’s songs are undeniably heartbreak songs, but they anticipate the eye-roll of a detractor: To give your attention to such a frivolous thing is to squander your creative potential, limit your scope as an artist. In “Lights Out,” Olsen sings, “if you don’t believe me you can go ahead and laugh.” In “Stars,” she sings, “you treat me like a child/I’m angry, blind.” These lines characterize a heartbreak familiar to me, living with a heart-shaped child’s face. Participating in a relationship is not just a struggle to align hearts, but a struggle to assure yourself you are being taken seriously, to learn where and how much to bend, how much you can give without being perceived as desperate or feeling disrespected. “It’s not just me for you/I’ve got to look out, too.”

The man I loved expected me to be enlightened enough to get beyond my anxiety. Everyone should feel free to unabashedly pursue what they want. Strong, free-spirited people do this and should be capable of not interfering with others doing the same. I loved being near him because there were never gendered expectations, no jokes about taking too long to get ready, no performances of awe at my made-up beauty or patronizing surprise at my curiously strong opinions—just exciting, often fraught, unwieldy conversations enlivened by an unusually generous quality of attention. I loved his singular laugh of delight, his soft face and wretched locomotion. When he returned to my life a year later, I tried to convince him that the love I wanted to give him wouldn’t suck his soul from his face, wouldn’t nail his feet to the floor. I wanted to metabolize him, but leave him whole. “I [wanted] to be the one who [knew] the best way to love [him].” But then he moved away again. No CD that time.

There is a great deal of rhetoric that friends exchange in the wake of romantic turmoil, shared with the best intentions. He doesn’t deserve you. You deserve better. You’ll meet someone who will treat you right, who will appreciate you. This is all well and good. It is a performance of compassion, which is deeply appreciated and lends you some firmness to get you through the day. But Olsen is a friend who acknowledges your suffering, gives your experience the weight and beauty you feel it deserves. Her work reminds you that you are alone, that’s just how it is. In “Hi-Five,” a song that most playfully sums up the push and pull of our universal, eternal state, Olsen asks, “Are you lonely, too?/Hi-five. So am I.”

I re-immersed myself in Angel Olsen’s work recently after a man accused me of being heartless. A different man. A sweet, serious man. I tried to tell him that I hold back, that I make jokes because I struggle to believe anyone can take me seriously. I am uncomfortable providing straightforward proclamations of affection because doing so has consistently begat humiliation. I can’t say “love” without lifting my voice an octave and batting my eyelashes. To say the word in earnest is to reduce myself to sugar and spice and validate everyone’s expectations.

Some have commented that when Olsen performs she is removed, apathetic. Last year, I had the extreme pleasure of seeing her play at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. She was cool and collected onstage, sassy, but in no way apathetic. She was in control, aware she was performing to an audience, and performed with precision.

At the end of the music video for “Hi-Five,” the camera zooms out to show you the set, the hand releasing the confetti that showers her, the production assistant who owns that hand perched on a stepladder. In the last seconds of her newest music video, “Shut Up Kiss Me,” Olsen asks the camera, “Do I need to give more attitude?” Her dramatic, pouting faces, the tosses of her tinsel wig, the flash of a mischievous smile all suggest she’s wise to the big joke that is romance and knows how silly it is. But simultaneously, she’s telling us that she believes. And I do, too.

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