By Janine Rogers
Illustration by Skylar Kaster
Fall 2021 / Winter 2022 issue
And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about. – Haruki Murakami
I fumbled with Zoom while facilitating the listening party, alone in my childhood bedroom while my college friends, alone in their own respective bedrooms, blinked at me from their laptops to mine. A mosaic of pixels created a collage of faces, assembled via video conferencing in the year 2020, for the sake of listening to Lana Del Rey’s 2012 album Born to Die.
The solution we agreed on, a compromise between streaming quality and simultaneity, involved me playing the album on my own computer and selecting “Share Audio” on Zoom, so that the others could listen in as well. This mechanism is familiar, almost second nature to me by this point, but in those early quarantine days it was a different story.
After the logistics were sorted out and the music had begun, there was nothing left to do but sit back and stare at my friends’ digital likenesses while the music settled over us. I realized then that we were in uncharted territory, with no sense of propriety or etiquette — unprecedented. I had co-listened once before, in-person, pre-pandemic: a birthday party was winding down, someone spun an early-2000s experimental rock record on an Audio Technica turntable, and the five of us soberly looked down at our hands and sat mostly in silence, occasionally voicing a soft grunt or comment. I was unsure as to how this would translate to Zoom. Could we talk over the music, reminisce together? Should we use the chat function? Would it be weird to emote? Sing along? Dance?
I found myself searching my co-listening cohort for signs of recognition throughout the record, parsing out who favored which track, which lyrical turn, which instrumental riff as we grinned, swayed, and mouthed along with Lana. The application’s chat function did end up being used: “her NYC era!!” was sent by one friend, the native New Yorker of the group, when the song “Diet Mountain Dew” came on. It was incredible to think we were all once young teens listening to these songs — “a freshmen generation of degenerate beauty queens” as Del Rey writes — before convening years later on a college campus.
Del Rey’s major label debut Born to Die was released in early 2012, a tender and tumultuous year for me and many of my peers. The internet was in uproar over “Kony 2012,” the world was theorized to end in December as per the Mayan calendar, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting shook the nation. Etta James and Adrienne Rich died, Blue-Ivy Carter was born. The term “hot take” was tweeted for the first time, according to some sources. It was an era where the offline world seemed frightening and violent, and the online world increasingly pervasive and surveillant.
Of course we clung to Born to Die while navigating the pitfalls of early adolescence, and, crucially, late girlhood, in this context. And of course it was the album I was drawn to while twenty-two and stuck at home, regressing back to an earlier version of myself while the world turned upside down outside my childhood home’s front doors.
Early quarantine was a bewildering sort of adolescence. I had gone from enjoying my first year of post-grad life in a prosperous early-2020 Los Angeles, to wandering through a deserted Sunset Strip and combing grocery stores for rice or bread or pasta, to hunkering down in my parents’ Northern California home. Furloughed from my entertainment-industry-adjacent job, I revisited graduate school aspirations and began studying for the GRE; my days were spent solving word problems and flipping flash cards between refreshing the Center for Disease Control website.
When would I be able to go to the mall or movie theater again? When could I see my friends? I had found myself once again doing homework at my parents’ kitchen table, totally grounded.
Plunged into the dark ambiguity of epidemic, displaced from jobs and homes, and plugged into networked streams of misinformation, many of us naturally sought out authority in any form available. The CDC, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and various state governors intertwined in the American public consciousness as a grand patriarchal force, thus allowing us to comply with or rebel against this composite “Daddy” at our discretion. Who better to turn to in this time than Lana Del Rey, queen of submitting oneself to darkness, to mortality, and to men?
“I’m not afraid to say that I’d die without him
Who else is gonna put up with me this way?”
Throughout Born to Die, Del Rey contends with her various captors—a Humbertesque “old man” (in the song “Off to the Races”), a deadbeat gamer lover (in “Video Games”), emotional turmoil (“Summertime Sadness”), and tragedies of girlhood (“This Is What Makes Us Girls”). While we were also locked down, frustrated, and afraid, Del Rey’s narratives of helpless captivity rang true to me. It was cathartic to reminisce upon another time wherein we connected with Del Rey’s lyrics, throughout the terror and isolation of teenagedom. Retroactively finding the beauty of that era helped defang the trauma, and doing it collectively offered reassurance that, whether we knew it at the time or not, we were not alone in our angst. Streaming the same music this time was different: we were listening together.
Finding company through co-listening is a long-standing tradition. In his book Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945, scholar William Kenney introduces the concept of “alone together” to describe the paradoxically collective yet individualized experience of co-listening through a phonograph. Either by coincidence or allusion, in 2020 the phrase aptly infiltrated online spaces via #AloneTogether, a viral campaign launched by ViacomCBS that promoted socially-distant methods of tending to one’s mental health and connections with others. The hashtag popped up on cozy-at-home Instagram Stories, celebrity PSAs, existential tweets, and unboxing videos, plastered on every other bit of social media from all genres.
#AloneTogether ended up winning a Shorty Award for Best Multi-Platform Campaign, upon successfully “delivering a brand agnostic toolkit that’s seen adoption across the media, marketing and advertising industry” and “developing a platform that provided a sense of community through entertainment.”
Eliciting Kenney’s “alone together”-ness through virtual co-listening is a paradigmatic Covid-era #AloneTogether activity. It is collective, in that a piece of media is consumed in synchronization with others, yet individual, in a most literal sense, in that the activity can safely be conducted from one’s own sanitized home. It is also individualized in that it discourages, in fact, practically prohibits, chatter — thus creating a more introspective environment and offsetting the oft-reported “Zoom exhaustion.” Those whose jobs required them to spend hours on glitchy video conference calls could find relief in simply listening, just for fun.
Working as a virtual test prep tutor several months into quarantine, I grew tired of animatedly soliloquizing into my webcam and gravitated towards low-engagement listening experiences. I found relief in anonymously tuning in to a variety of digital streams — the live release of an indie instrumental album, camera feeds of a drone-scored work of performance art in an echoey museum, a durational virtual concert of minimalist music — all of which allowed me to settle into my couch cushions and silently watch some of my co-listeners’ comments tick across my laptop screen under the glowing red eye of the “Live” icon. The name of the game was meditation, as I floated in the knowledge that others were experiencing the media along with me, without any obligation to interact with them.
In Spring 2021, amidst the advent of the Covid vaccine, something was in the air. People ventured back into pubs and airplane cabins, cultural institutions announced tentative reopening plans. My formerly furloughed friends found new gigs; my work-from-home ones were transitioning back into the office. A new era was unfolding for me as well: I was slated to start graduate school in the fall, and my childhood home would soon be sold. We had come so far since our early quarantine Born to Die era. In fact, a new album readily volunteered itself as an emblem for this brave new age: Taylor Swift’s Fearless (Taylor’s Version).
Many have found Swift’s career to be a fascinating progression of archetypes: from girlish country singer, to pop princess, to transgressive queen, to her current folksy, cottage-core era. The result of an intellectual property skirmish, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) was the latest installation of the Swift saga to date. The re-recording of Taylor Swift’s iconic 2008 country pop album embodies the perfect storm of late-aughts nostalgia coupled with the enticingly contemporary political narrative surrounding its production and release: Taylor reclaiming her voice.
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) reminded me that before I was an adolescent identifying with Lana Del Rey’s abjection, I was a child inspired by Taylor Swift’s poetry — and while I was previously quarantined and disillusioned, I had since developed new hope for the future. I was no longer in the mood to commiserate with my cohort over Lana’s morbid ballads (I was not alone: Del Rey had, in fact, just released her own dreamy, folk-inspired album entitled Chemtrails over the Country Club); I was ready to revel in young Taylor’s energy and courage.
I sat outside for this listening party, perched on a lawn chair with an ice-cold lemon soda. As luck would have it, only one of my friends was available to stream the album with me in its entirety — the rest wrapped up in work, travel, or simply enjoying an afternoon free of Zoom — but we did not mind. My listening partner had prepared pages of notes comparing minute yet profound differences between the rerecording and the original, and I was buzzing with ideas as to which album would be rerecorded next. I deftly queued up the album, shared my audio, and hit play. Taylor’s voice was sweet and low, and we chatted over her the entire time.
Janine Sun Rogers is a freelance writer and doctoral student in Theater and Performance Studies at UCLA. Her writing appears in in Westwind Journal of the Arts, Theatre Bay Area, The News Lens International, and Variable West. You can find her writing and other projects at janinesunrogers.com