My Haunted Garden: Lessons from Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher
Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher is a powerful statement, one that resonates deeply with millions of listeners - in millions of different ways. Katie Wallach explores how Bridgers’ album has impacted her and the way she lives her life.
Phoebe Bridgers is my hero. At only 26, she has a knack for sharing all parts of herself – the ugly, the funny, the brutally honest – through her music. Having the ability to not only speak her unabashed truth, but to do so in such a captivating and beautiful way, is what makes Bridgers so enthralling. Her most recent album, Punisher, has served as the backdrop for an incredibly challenging year. Bridgers has inspired me in so many ways; she has allowed me to put words to feelings and to see the beauty and humor in the things I once found ugly and unfunny. Punisher was released in June of 2020 and really helped fill in the blanks of the pandemic for me. In some ways she feels like an old friend, but in others she feels like the cool girl I’m trying to keep up with in the hallways 0f high school. She says the things I wish I knew how to say in ways I could never say them. Bridgers is unflinchingly open. On Punisher’s cover she dons a skeleton costume, which then became her uniform for public appearances. Although this began as somewhat of a joke, it has become her way of showing the world she has nothing to hide, that she is literally baring all for her audience. In this way, she is living her lyrics. Bridgers, through the power of her example, has allowed me to make positive changes in my life. Punisher is a work that has inspired me to push myself and the way in which I think about life and all of its parts – the ugly and the beautiful.
“Garden Song'' feels like an ode to the passage of time, drawing on a sense of melancholy, mourning what once was. Its lyrics drive home a sense of unsettling familiarity, the feeling of things being the same but also different enough to change how you view your situation, like seeing someone after learning a secret about them:
I don’t know how, but I’m taller
It must be something in the water
Everything’s growing in our garden
You don’t have to know that it’s haunted
The doctor put her hand over my liver
She told me my resentment’s getting smaller
It is the attempt to move on from things you always have to come home to, such as familial relationships. After this past year, many of us were forced, grown and weathered by time, back into our childhood homes, and the simplicity of those spaces can feel mocking. Sitting in your childhood bed, being prodded by what once was, what never will be again – the stuffed animals on the bed, the band posters on the wall. The markings of a space frozen in time, bound to former versions of yourself. These lyrics also touch on the feeling of not knowing how you ended up where you are now. I had a moment like that the other day, riding in a taxi during the sunset with the windows down on the outskirts of Cairo. I was looking at the back of my boyfriend’s head from the back seat, wondering how my life had led up to that moment. It was beautiful and exciting and impossible to trace. It is so freeing to look around and find yourself in an unfamiliar situation, to get to know yourself again every couple of years or so. It was a moment of reevaluation for me, being able to take stock of the things that feel unfamiliar, but also those that are familiar – driving through an unfamiliar city, but with the person I love. I got to look around my physical space and see the results of my choices, many of which were the first real decisions I was able to make as an adult. It made me reflect on who I was even just last year. I would have never gotten on a plane to fly thirteen hours to a foreign country by myself – I always had a reason to be nervous about everything. But a lot has changed in a year. My plan to move across the country to LA and start my career was put on hold indefinitely, my commencement was cancelled, and I missed out on some really important family milestones. All I could do was move on. Everything was closed, I was stuck at home, I had to get over myself. I started to think of myself as a garden, nurturing the buds of positive change and hoping they bloom, while pulling out the weeds, the habits I wanted to break. I really worked on myself during that time, and suddenly it is a year later and I feel like a different person, and maybe I’m taller because of that. I welcome the opportunity to become reacquainted with myself, and I was able to do that, driving 70 on the highway, with the wind in my face. But growing is hard. For all of the ways it is passive, it is also an incredibly involved process. It is hard setting boundaries, ending relationships, and being self-critical, which are all essential to growth. It has been hard for me to accept this. I wanted to age without scrapes or bruises, but Bridgers made me realize that the joy is in the scabs and scars. She helped me verbalize this, to find the power in the low points. To pull myself out of the dirt. Many of us grew from haunted places, from dark spots. It is in the letting go that we remove the ghouls from the soil.
Bridgers has never been one to shy away from ugly topics, and “Savior Complex” epitomizes that. The eighth track off of Punisher, it delves into an emotionally abusive relationship where one person is constantly having to save their partner. What I love about this track is the cheekiness Bridgers brings to such a dark topic, in some ways making light of it. “Wake up and start a big fire / In our one room apartment / But I’m too tired / To have a pissing contest.” Although I have never experienced this in a romantic relationship, I have had friendships that have devolved into this dynamic and it is a special kind of brutal. In my case, it was receiving phone calls in the middle of the night alerting me of problems that were somehow my responsibility to solve, random knocks on my door, and me saying the wrong thing and being made to feel useless for it. Loving someone with a tendency to explode before you even know there is a bomb to defuse is one of the most frustrating things to experience. But Bridgers’ wit and humor allowed me to revisit this friendship and come out with a different perspective. She isn’t villainizing her partner; she’s exhausted by their needs. Her partner is not her enemy or her downfall, but instead they’re a crack in her roof during a rainstorm and she’s trying to catch all of the water in her hands. I’ve had cracks in my roof, and I’m sure I’ve been a crack in the roofs of people I love. I sometimes fear I have a savior complex myself, as I indulge in the desire to pick everyone around me up. I’m the champion of putting on everyone else’s oxygen mask first. Suffocating and unhappy, I tighten the straps of those I love before I even begin to fumble for my own. It’s a horrible place to be – wanting to help but knowing it is at my own expense – and Bridgers made me look at this situation and allowed me to be tired of it, allowed me to say no. I’ve always been the kind of person who has a tough time socializing; I’m incredibly awkward by nature. Because of this, I felt like I couldn’t be too picky about the people I spent time with because my options were rather limited. This left me in a really tough spot, having to choose between my social life and my sanity. Cutting out my only friend was not an enjoyable experience, but it was one I would do again if I had to. The crack in my roof got too severe and the rainwater was drowning me. I had to be okay with saving myself for a change.
The last song on the record, “I Know the End,” is my absolute favorite. The end of the world and one’s own mortality are topics I think about often, and, once again, Bridgers explores them so incredibly thoughtfully.
Windows down, scream along
To some America First rap country song
A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall
Slot machines, fear of God
Windows down, heater on
Big bolt of lightning hanging low
Over the coast, everyone’s convinced
It’s a government drone or an alien spaceship.
The obsession with the end of the world feels like a uniquely American phenomenon – signs off the highway touting the arrival of “Judgment Day,” conspiracy theorists claiming that the end is near while holding up poster boards with haphazardly glued images of aliens. Most people in this country have experienced waiting for some sort of Rapture, whether it be the apocalypse of December 2012, or Y2K. So much of my childhood was spent with death and the apocalypse on the periphery, as one of my parents is a conspiracy theorist who is constantly preparing us for whatever doomsday is next. I was terrified, staying up for hours on end, reading all the horrible ways in which we are going to meet our end, be it God or aliens or human negligence. This was hard to avoid growing up, and still is now. It is American ignorance that some of us think we’re smarter than others, and that we know the end. We know when it is coming and how it will happen. Bridgers really encapsulates this in her focus on American culture. Many young people have complicated feelings when it comes to patriotism, having grown up in the shadows of Columbine, the wars following 9/11, and the Great Recession. We’ve watched people die in movie theaters, schools, and malls from mass shootings, and we look to our elected leaders for the reform that will never come. We fixate on the end because we feel as though it is just a matter of time until we’re the ones present for the tragedy, until we’re the ones killed in the movie theater or mall. This has made me lose faith in America. We obsess over the end of days because every day feels like it could be the end. As for Bridgers, she accepts the potential of what The End could look like, and is facing it head-on. Everyone thinks they would be the hero, the one to puff their chest out and walk head-on into the burning building, but Bridgers is the only one I really believe – there is no machismo, no performance. I know I can be that woman, and this song really helped in establishing the kind of person I want to be. I want to be brave. I will walk headfirst into the smoke, following in her footsteps.
Throughout my life, I have always leaned on music. As a child it was the music of my parents, artists like Etta James and Stevie Wonder. In my youth it was Jesse McCartney and Aaron Carter, and in my teenagerdom it was bands like Fall Out Boy. My young adulthood shook up my taste in music dramatically, being a time for overwhelming musical exploration. I started listening to artists like Tyler, the Creator and Brockhampton, but I also fell in love with Bob Dylan and The Band. My musical identity was never something I was super proud of, being embarrassed to like the things I liked, based solely on the fact that I liked them. If the songs I like speak to me, it must be because they are not that good. I was always hesitant to share the music I enjoyed, as it left me feeling vulnerable and embarrassed. Perhaps it is in my nature to be nervous about these kinds of personal admissions and letting people into the way I operate. From a young age, I decided to remain quiet in the hopes that someone might find me interesting. When that never came, I assumed it was because I had nothing interesting to offer. This made me something of a recluse, just now trying to learn how to take up space in social settings – a wallflower trying to separate from the brick. Growing up in such a musical family – my father went to Berklee for guitar and my brother is an unbelievable drummer – good music was the most valuable currency in my household. To no fault but my own, I just assumed my music taste was worthless. I didn’t think the musical stylings of Anderson Paak or Joji could really hold a candle to the greats like Aretha Franklin. This was part of what made me so private about the music I listened to: I always felt like I was five steps behind everyone else. This was, of course, until I discovered Bridgers. I saw the person I wanted to be, and she is determined, confident, and brave. She has no fear when it comes to baring her soul, she has an innate ability to say what she feels in whatever way she wants to say it. She has no desire to please anyone, no worries about being embarrassing or weird, and no fear of angering anyone. As someone who feels like they are usually being embarrassing or weird, Bridgers really inspired me to let go of my worries. It is okay to like music or film or T.V. that other people hate. It is okay to like popular things. It is okay if you hate Bridgers’ music. I wish we would all just stop caring so much. This is something I’m working on, and if this resonates with you, we can work on it together.
Phoebe Bridgers speaks my truth for me. She sings the things that were hard for me to say, and does so with such elegance. Punisher feels like an outstretched hand, pulling me out of a self-deprecating slump. It is so rare for a singer to leave a noticeable impact on your life, but that is what Bridgers has done for me. By baring all for her listeners – for you and me and anyone who even had a passing interaction with her music – she passes on a little bit of that confidence. And it is this bit of confidence she passed on that helped me reshape who I am. I’m so thankful for how Bridgers’ music made me look at myself; it made me be both critical and kind to myself. She encouraged me to love myself and want better for myself, to enjoy each passing moment, to set boundaries, and to drive headfirst into what scares me most. ▲
Katie Wallach graduated from Emerson College with a degree in Media Studies. Her two favorite things are watching The Truman Show and forcing her friends and family to watch The Truman Show.
*Wikimedia Commons attribution: David Lee from Redmond, WA, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons