A lot of art came out this summer — and it was hard not to set it in the context of the pandemic. For our first issue back, we asked writers to highlight a movie, book, podcast, or album (or two) that reframe and capture the times we’re living in. Whether a nostalgic animated distraction, or a profound call to silence, these COVID-made pieces put a new lense on quarantine.
A tale of two quarantine albums
Phoebe Bridgers’ “Punisher” is the musical equivalent to “misery loves company.” Released June 18 (which feels like a lifetime ago), “Punisher” is a collection of decidedly depressed songs, and truthfully, they’re the only thing keeping me afloat in the existential mess that has been 2020. If you’re unfamiliar with Bridgers, she first gained recognition in the indie underground with the release of her haunting 2017 album, “Stranger in the Alps,” and has continued building traction from her collaborative records with Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Conor Oberst of the band Bright Eyes. She’s also a menace on Twitter and deserves your immediate follow for her hilariously absurd tweets. Her indie-folk music is strung out and sad, and listening to her new album is like voluntarily getting relentlessly punched in the gut.
For all those reasons, “Punisher” feels tailor-made for quarantine. Song titles like “ICU” and “I Know the End” are bleakly relevant, the latter being a devastating track about apocalypse, disappearing, and (literally) ghosting your friends. Even “Kyoto,” the most uptempo and whimsical song on the album, contains lyrics about forgetting birthdays and hollow promises of getting sober. “Garden Song” and “Graceland Too” are other personal favorites, but each song on “Punisher” is uniquely and profoundly sad, and I recommend all of them. “Punisher” isn’t an album that offers respite from the chaotic, depressing world that we live in — it’s merely a friend with which to quietly bathe in the sadness.
If I had a nickel for every incredible girl-fronted folk-pop album released during quarantine that you definitely shouldn’t do your makeup to unless you want to cry it all off five minutes later, I’d have two nickels — which isn’t a lot, but it’s weird that it happened twice. Of course, I’m talking about Taylor Swift, who surprise-dropped her album “Folklore” on July 24. The album exists as the perfect companion piece to “Punisher.” Look no further than the weirdly similar covers of the two records: Swift standing in a heavenly (if slightly eerie) forest, staring into the sky and across the universe at Bridgers, who’s standing in an unsettling (if slightly beautiful) hellscape staring back.
Similar to “Punisher,” “Folklore” is quiet and intimate, but diverts in its lushness and warmness, even in its darker moments. Swift’s ballads don’t quite approach “Punisher” levels of soul-destroying, but are still enough to make me tear up. My favorite tracks include “Illicit Affairs,” “My Tears Ricochet,” “The Last Great American Dynasty,” and “The 1” because they showcase Taylor’s pristine vocals on top of gorgeous, enveloping background instrumentation.
The track “Exile” is an emotionally potent duet with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. The real shining moment here, however, is “Betty,” one of the best songs of Taylor’s career and a throwback to her sound circa 2008 (on Twitter, Phoebe Bridgers described her own song, “Graceland Too,” as “Betty” for people who hate themselves).
‘Onward’ and upward
If you’re anything like me, being in the middle of a pandemic has made you emotional and longing for simpler times. And as a result, whenever movie or TV characters suddenly die, sacrifice themselves, come of age, conquer their character arcs, reunite, or realize their purpose, you’re in tears before you know it. As one of the last movies to air in theaters before shelter-in-place began, the March 6 release of Pixar Animation Studios’ medieval-set and emotionally charged “Onward” felt perfectly timed.
“Onward” delivers an atypical coming-of-age quest involving sorcery, biker gangs, enchanted drawbridges, and the task of merging onto the highway for the first time. Elf brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot learn to take the road less travelled and realize that we all have multiple people in our lives to whom we owe much of the person we’ve become. “Onward” stands out for being the first Pixar film to feature an openly LGBTQ character — a cyclops police officer voiced by Lena Waithe. Director Dan Scanlon said the choice was “important because it’s representative of modern society.” In addition, the film features remarkable diversity among its folkloric characters, in the variety of character species, body types, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Elves, ogres, cyclops, and centaurs all attend high school together, or at least live in the same neighborhood.
This summer, I watched “Onward” more than eight times, including the night it premiered on Disney+. To me, the pandemic has caused a serious need for hope and nostalgia; watching and rewatching “Onward” reminds me that the past world we knew and loved can always make a reappearance now. “Onward” is not only creative, hilarious, and deep, but poignantly prioritizes diversity, which paves the way for future animated films to do the same. An original feat of synthesizing the medieval with the modern, “Onward” meets the emotional demands of shelter-in-place by providing a sincere cry, a big laugh, and a creative ode to diversity and loss.
The importance of disability visibility
I have never resented my hearing loss more than I did when we went into shelter-in-place in March. COVID-19 has presented unique challenges for all of us, but for those of us with hearing loss, masks became yet another communication barrier, since many of us rely on facial expressions and lipreading. And while technology has helped connect many people, it’s a struggle to follow along on Zoom with hearing loss.
When I heard on June 30 that disability activist Alice Wong released “Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century,” an edited compilation of 37 essays by disabled people, I hurriedly ordered a copy on Amazon. I admire people who accept their disability, but don’t let it define them — I’ve always wanted to be that comfortable and vocal about my own disability identity.
Reading stories from people who have faced similar struggles, anxieties, and anger made me feel less alone, more understood, and more empowered about who I am. I laughed, I felt mad, and I learned from people’s experiences that were different from mine.
Now more than ever, disabled voices should not only be heard but uplifted, and there are ways to make even mask-wearing inclusive. Wearing clear masks is not only helpful for those who are deaf and hard of hearing, but can also benefit the older population and people who speak different languages. COVID also brings to light sanitation issues — on a Reddit post, someone spoke about the importance of not kicking wheelchair buttons: “If the bottom of your feet has touched that button, that is negating any efforts I’m making to keep my hands clean,” fellow Redditor, username buckyhermit, explained. It is harmful to marginalize and leave out disabled experiences, especially during a pandemic. Alice Wong’s “Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century” elevates important voices advocating for a more accessible, accommodating, and more inclusive world.
The argument for listening
It’s ironic that in the internet age of interconnectedness, politics and internal biases seem to leave our country more divided than ever. It feels like we need a bold idea to stitch us back — and I found it in a podcast. It’s called “Listening,” and I heard it on the podcast “The Next Big Idea,” hosted by Rufus Griscom. The show connects people to ideas with the power to change how they view, and in this case, hear the world.
The episode features guest Kate Murphy, the author of the book “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters,” who said, “We are in the golden age of terrible listening.” Alone on the 75th day of quarantine, I couldn’t agree more.
Communication had already begun shifting from spoken word to texting and tweeting, a change which COVID-19 has only accelerated. It’s the wars exploding in comment sections, and the doxing and cancelling of internet civilians resembling public executions. Often, we refuse to listen to those who hold contradicting beliefs. Twitter makes it so that we don’t have to; instead, we bury ourselves in echo chambers.
“Listening” aired May 26, the day protests seeking justice for George Floyd’s death began to sweep the globe, sparking intense debates about how to enact structural change, leaving the public divided and furious. This included me. All I wanted to do was scream and shame those who I considered “oppressors” and “willfully ignorant.” However, after listening to Murphy, I realized this approach wasn’t the way. In the podcast, Murphy said we must attempt to understand people not as ideologies, but as humans if we want to resolve conflict and coexist. Forcing one’s perspective onto another rather than starting a conversation will only push them further away. It’ll be hard with all of us possessing TikTok attention spans after months of mental vegetation. But for both side’s sake, it’s a step towards progress.