The Unbearable Intimacy of Art (Criticism)

The first time I heard this song, all I could think was “Holy shit, how incredibly brave for a married couple to record a duet together about this kind of relationship failure.” Because the song is about the slow fade, not the dramatic blow-out. It might have easily been true of them at the time (in hindsight we can say it probably was). The song is not, thematically, an obvious choice unless you’ve been there, because the death by a thousand cuts is not the media’s preferred narrative for the end of a relationship. And being in that place in a relationship, where you know something needs to change, but you can’t see your way out of it clearly enough to be certain you want out, is frightening. Maybe it’s time to break your heart and that of this person you love, and give up on a dream that has become a nightmare – or maybe you just need to reconnect, recommit, revive, and leaving would be something you came to regret. It’s a terrible limbo. So choosing to sing about it becomes an act of almost unbearable intimacy, to admit in public to what might be the most painful, shameful truth you have to tell. It’s also the kind of vulnerability that makes for great art.

I have wanted to write all of that for about three years. And I have been hesitant to publish those thoughts for the entirety of that time, because almost as soon as I started thinking through what I wanted to say about the lyrics, I realized: my interpretation was going to say so much more about me, and my relationship, than it was about the song or the singers. What if there is another meaning to these words that is so much more obvious? What if all I would expose in such a post was the fact that my own relationship was in that place, and I was reading into the lyrics far more deeply than someone not in that place could ever do?

So I never wrote that post – my interpretation of the song was more than I wanted to reveal. Maybe more, even, than I wanted to acknowledge, because if I actually wrote those words out I would have no choice but to face them. I wasn’t ready.

But here I am now, and the worst has happened, and I have faced the truth my heart feared long ago.

The chorus:

I’m just too selfish I guess

I know you’re tired and restless

It’s no surprise we’ve come undone

But I can’t unlove you just because

You say it’s better in the long run

I have always heard the first two lines as, “I’m too selfish to let you go, even though I know you’re restless and wanting to leave.” The alternate interpretation, of course, is that selfishness is CAUSING the restlessness – which is an entirely different meaning. I have no idea which way the song was meant to be heard. Maybe it was intentionally ambiguous. But the first interpretation cut me in a way the second did not. Probably because one version spoke to my reality, my experience, my fears, and the other did not.

The bridge:

Maybe somewhere a little down the line

I’ll get a little better leaving us behind

Maybe someday I’ll be fine

You’ll move on, and I will, too

But still I don’t see gettin’ over you

No, no

The bridge and the second half of the chorus sum up the horror of this kind of limbo: on some level you recognize that you’ll be happier out of the relationship, but you can’t bear to intentionally inflict the pain of breaking free onto yourself. Or perhaps you don’t know how to leave (or are afraid to leave, if you fell in with a crazy one who hadn’t decided they were done with you yet).

The further I get from our final end, the truer I believe to be the idea that most of the time a relationship is over before it ends. Most of the time we just don’t know how to get out. We have to wait for things to get so bad that the pain of breaking free is less than the pain of staying.

Or maybe that was just one more accidental revelation of more than I meant to tell.



Filed under Muse Music, Ramblings

3 responses to “The Unbearable Intimacy of Art (Criticism)

  1. You are braver than most. But by now you probably know if you made the right choice, because you ARE farther down the line. If there is relief, then you made the right choice.

    It is sad when the relief is only for one, but it’s still not good to stay if something works only for one.

    It can also be selfish to stay, to settle. To live suppressed.

    Every marriage has its accommodations – and only the people involved, or the brave one, will decide when they are too many or too soul-sucking.

    • It was definitely the right choice! And a relief for us both. I am not sure which of us is more relieved.

      I don’t really think I can call myself the brave one here…if I were brave, I would have at least written a draft of the post about this song all those long months ago and forced myself to face the truth then. Would have made getting out cleaner in a logistical sense, though perhaps not an emotional one.

      But hindsight is 20/20. At least i’m not looking behind me in the rearview mirror and wanting to take my foot of the gas pedal 🙂

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