This week’s question is in honor of The A.V. Club’s move to Kinja:
Is there any pop culture that is more about change than Transformers: The Movie from 1986? It’s about space robots that can literally change from robots into cars, but on a deeper level, the movie is also about the way that life itself can change. Transformers does this by brutally killing off a lot of the robots that kids liked in the original cartoon and introducing new toys—er, new characters—who are “cooler” and “better” than the old ones. Optimus Prime famously dies in the movie, and it’s presented as a very tragic event, but on his deathbed he makes a speech about how he’s going to a better place and how the other Autobots will thrive even without him. Sure enough, the good guys make it through in the end and manage to defeat the giant, planet-eating villain played by Orson Welles. The message is clear: Change can be sad and scary, but sometimes change means that you get to be a car instead of a robot.
Neko Case has quite a few songs about revisiting a past you know you’ll never be able to get back to—I know it’s about her home state of Washington, but the lyric “Driving home I see these flooded fields / How can people not know what beauty this is?” from “Fox Confessor Brings The Flood” always hits me right in my Ohio-born heart. But my personal favorite of her melancholy nostalgia ballads is actually a Harry Nilsson cover. “Don’t Forget Me,” originally recorded by Nilsson for his album Pussy Cats, is a bittersweet message to an ex-spouse, asking them to think of you fondly, if they can, and if they can’t, to think of you at all. It’s a sad song, and a wistful one, charting the slow fade-out across the seasons all the way to “When we’re older / And full of cancer.” Sung in Case’s strong, clear voice, with lush layers of piano and spare acoustic guitar, it’s the heartbreaking divorce song you hope you’ll never need. But if you do experience this enormous and painful life change, its beauty will hopefully provide some small comfort.
Like a lot of people who went to college because it was “what you were supposed to do,” I hit the post-collegiate transition like it was a brick wall built across the bottom of a playground slide. And although its heroine technically dropped out, rather than graduating, there are few pieces of pop culture that better capture that feeling of a yawning abyss suddenly opening up under my feet than season six of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. When I first watched that most divisive of the show’s seasons—safely ensconced in my junior year at Purdue—I found it drab and depressing. Looking back, though, I see the show’s writers attempting to play out those grim moments when life flies off the rails that have been guiding you the whole time, when you realize that potential can only carry you so far, and that you’re going to have to just suck it up and get a job at Doublemeat Palace with all the other people who told themselves they were “chosen.” (Willow’s magic addiction plotline still sucks, though.)
Stevie Nicks wrote “Landslide” just after she and then-boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham released their debut record, Buckingham Nicks, to less fanfare than hoped for. Up in Aspen, Colorado, for a spell while Buckingham toured with the Everly Brothers, Nicks was reflecting on her path and how they might move forward if this whole music thing didn’t work out. The song’s “snow-covered hills” and gently descending guitar melodies capture the precariousness of that place, at once terrifying and breathtaking. Its well-worn chorus—“Well, I’ve been afraid of changing…”—feels like the deciding moment, both forthright and bittersweet, but ultimately, “Landslide” is about accepting your potential and facing the inevitability of change with strength. About three months after Aspen, Nicks and Buckingham got the call from Fleetwood Mac.
In an entirely predictable and eye-rolling development, I’m going with the most obvious answer possible from me: “Changes” by Sugar. Listen, I’m even bored writing about Bob Mould yet again, but I didn’t ask the question, okay? It is my favorite song about change. Batting third in the killer starting lineup of Copper Blue, “Changes” opens with Mould’s chiming two-note guitar before the bass and drums kick in, and the song nails the supremely melodic, punk-inflected sound Mould helped pioneer in Hüsker Dü. The opening lyrics couldn’t be more appropriate for our readers nervous about this switch to Kinja: “I want something like I remember / And I want something / That lasts forever.” Too bad that’s impossible.
Allow me to one-up Kyle on obviousness, then, and pick The Dismemberment Plan’s Change. Reader, please know that my devotion to Change is such that I practically yelped my claim to this album the moment this AVQ&A was announced. I first got it the year before I headed to college, and it was like playing a game your PC isn’t quite ready to run. I glimpsed moments of beauty in the band’s dense, polyrhythmic music, their spidery guitars crashing in great sighs of feedback, and knew, innately, that it was significantly better than most of the other guitar-based music I was listening to at the time. The next few years at school would be spent obsessively filling in those musical gaps, trading carefully cobbled-together MP3 collections with like-minded souls and piecing together, among other things, the post-punk context for which the album served as a strange, kind coda. I’d shown up after the party was all over, but the more I learned, the more I returned to Change, appreciating it more as the years went on and my tastes deepened.
But it was in the half decade or so after all of that, when the lyrics I’d long ago memorized started to seem less like short stories about alien urbane grown-ups and more like eerie vignettes plucked from my short-term memory and long-term anxieties, that I finally felt up to the album’s speed. It’s like 17-year-old Clay backed into appreciating the album 27-year-old Clay would need. I’ll make a case for it, when pressed, as the best indie rock album of this millennium, a dreamy, dense, spirited, witty cycle of songs about the gradual ebb and flow of life, full of slow-motion break-ups and late-night phone calls and old friendships and new fears, for the way it approaches all of this with a pragmatic empathy unlike any other in popular music, and also for having those drums. But that’s also all sort of beside the point. It’s an album that both changed me and allowed me to change alongside it, its good humor and steadiness a reminder of why I started listening to music in the first place.
Sure, at first Groundhog Day seems to be about the opposite of change, as weatherman Phil (Bill Murray) has to relive the same day over and over. But Phil has actually been given the greatest karmic test: The only way he will ever break out of this horrendous loop is by changing himself to a tremendous degree. Learning how to help people, bettering himself with musical instruments, appreciating the small town he’s stuck in, realizing that he really is in love with Andie MacDowell’s Rita—the Phil who ends the movie is a marked contrast from the bitter, self-centered man we meet at the beginning. We’re all usually trying to improve ourselves with exercise programs or cautions to work more or less. But Groundhog Day is a nice, helpful reminder that we are all works in progress, and the effort to transform into a better person can continue every day.
I read Jean-Paul Sartre right when I was supposed to, at the fulcrum of adolescence and that first blush of college freedom when teenage nihilism, blossoming adult anxiety, and a whole lot of lonely nights converge to create the kind of intellectualized disaffection that still moves Kerouac books and Nietzsche T-shirts. As such, reading Nausea (and Being And Nothingness on the heels of it) had the intended effect on me. Its central idea that everything is meaningless and you don’t matter—that as its narrator, Antoine Roquentin says, “Nothing happens while you live. The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that’s all,” and to admit what Heidegger called the “profound boredom” of it all is to be in touch with the essence of human existence—is obviously attractive to a young dude, aching to finally do whatever he wants, who’s instead slogging his way through required math courses and minimum wage jobs. As is the idea that, like Roquentin with his sudden, persistent “sweet sickness” when he looks at people and ordinary objects, only you feel this deep, metaphysical anguish beneath the banal illusion of reality.
But what made Nausea enduring for me long after I got out of the dorms—and what some seem to overlook about Sartre and existentialism in general—was the way that Roquentin eventually realizes that nothingness is liberating, that the universe’s indifferent arbitrariness gives him the freedom to change his world through his own actions alone. By the end of the novel, he seems to have accepted change as not just possible but essential, resolving to remake this existence he didn’t ask for and cannot escape, and to live within its prison. We change ourselves because it’s the only recourse to the terrible freedom we are given, and the only thing that gives our lives meaning in all this meaninglessness. It’s been a comfort and guiding principle of my own life ever since.
Well, it’s no Jean-Paul Sartre, Mr. Fancy-Pants, but I happen to think Sigmund Freud’s Civilization And Its Discontents still has some fascinating things to say about change (and the lack of it), and it registers with me in a deeply profound way. Feel free to spurn him for all his penis-centric nonsense, but the man had a sharp take on modern existence—specifically, the idea that we are doomed to be unhappy and discontented. Civilization, essentially a set of rules we set up in order to live collectively without it descending into a survivalist nightmare, necessarily imposes rules on us. Those restrictions in turn by definition breed a sense of discontent. We can never be who we “truly” are, so to speak, because we’ll always be constricted by some limitation or other. So we’re always unhappy to a greater or lesser degree. That’s very comforting.
Additionally, there’s his famously ambiguous “death drive,” the idea that we’re all constantly struggling with an inner tendency toward destruction of some sort. While philosophers castigate him for being so unclear on this, I find the open-endedness of it to be a tonic, and an incentive to form your own understanding of the realization we’re all going to die one day, and that some part of everyone is already on board with that plan. It’s vague, but that vagueness means you can make of it what you will—and really, just about every great writer, filmmaker, or musician I’ve ever loved seems to be essentially offering up their own theory of a death drive: What does it mean to be in the world knowing you’re hurtling toward inevitable destruction? Given that none of us can really be our “real self” (something that’s especially comforting given the misguided American obsession with authenticity and being true to yourself), this is a hopeful way to acknowledge the perpetual see-saw of dissatisfaction that is life. Or at least it is for me.
On second though, maybe I should just say Mulholland Drive? I’ll just say Mulholland Drive. It’s probably the better artwork about change.
It’s funny and fascinating to read over these responses and recognize that, despite the vast array of works referenced in the conversation, there’s a lot of similarity to how and when we first encountered them. I’m reminded of the vintage A.V. Club feature My Favorite Music Year, which could’ve been renamed “What I Was Listening To After I Moved Out Of My Parents’ House,” so flush was it with columns about the discoveries the staff members made during that period of profound change. Maybe I’m making that connection because my pick here is an artist I wrote about in My Favorite Music Year: I’m a sucker for any song about change by Death Cab For Cutie. Ben Gibbard is a top-flight chronicler of the fleeting and the ephemeral—“an expert at documenting the precise moment when things change or feel lost forever,” as Andy Greenwald once wrote in Spin. On “Photobooth” and “Summer Skin,” Gibbard wraps those moments up in the metaphor of summer turning to fall; the lyric that gives “Tiny Vessels” its title keeps things anatomical, yet pragmatic: “As tiny vessels oozed into your neck / And formed the bruises / That you said you didn’t want to fade.” As a college kid drawn to melancholy guitar music and premature nostalgia, who was looking back at a part of my life that was ending while another one began in fits and starts, I was magnetized to those tracks. These periods of wistfulness are fewer and farther between these days, but when they crop up (usually around this time of year), I’ll reach for Death Cab. When I do, I’m more prone to hearing advice, rather than regret, in the final line of “Photobooth”: “I’ve packed a change of clothes and it’s time to move on.”
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain is completely bonkers: absurd, indulgent, and visually packed. Describing the plot is a wasted exercise, but at its most basic, it revolves around a thief who becomes apprentice to an immortality-seeking alchemist. Early on, the Thief is made privy to a secret process where his own excrement is turned into a massive lump of gold. “You can become gold, too,” the Alchemist tells him. Commonly, the alchemical transmutation of base materials to gold is depicted literally—as a get-rich scheme. It’s less frequently explored as a spiritual analogy: Gold is the divine metal, the purest and closest to god. And so we should all strive to remove the impurities that weigh us down. In the movie, the path the pilgrims follow to immortality ultimately proves to be a false one (depicted in singular Jodorowsky fashion). But even with a truncated ending, and even through all the weirdness and excess that I still won’t pretend to entirely understand, the movie’s simplest message resonates with me: We may all begin as shit, but we can also all become gold.