Big Thief, an indie/folk band from Brooklyn, opens their song “Paul” with the hauntingly full voice of lead singer Adrianne Lenker all alone.
There is no instrumental behind her, just a voice singing in the distant fog of a lost love.
As the first line begins, “The last time I saw Paul / I was horrible / I almost let him in,” the chords build up behind her. First in G then in B7, the chord progression builds, only to hide again, just like the narrator hides herself in the relationship depicted in this song.
“Paul” presents itself as a love song, but it’s actually about reinvention, about locking yourself up to keep everyone else out. It’s about being so afraid of getting hurt that you hide yourself in so many personas to the point where the only version of yourself you know is lonely. The chorus of the song walks the listener through the narrator’s different attempts to be the girl she thinks Paul wants:
“I’ll be your morning bright goodnight shadow machine / I’ll be your record player baby if you know what I mean / I’ll be your real tough cookie with the whiskey breath / I’ll be a killer and a thriller and the cause of your death.”
The narrator does what a lot of us try to do. She reinvents herself to be whoever Paul wants her to be. She hides who she really is to avoid the pain of her true self being rejected. This idea of reinvention, as a move of self-defense, as a coping mechanism for not getting hurt, is one I understand well.
For my entire life, I have been the awkward kid. The fourth grader playing alone with herself during recess. The seventh grader who still believed in the tooth fairy. The nerdy high schooler who was obsessed with spoken word poetry, improv comedy, and impressing her teachers with her ability to annotate.
Throughout the treacherous years of my pathetic adolescence, college was sold to me as the period of time when it would all change. In college, I would be cool; I would be able to reinvent myself. Or at least that’s what everyone promised.
I arrived to Pitzer College ready to do just that: reinvent myself and become the girl I mistakenly thought Pitzer would want me to be. I walked into campus basically singing:
“I’ll be your kombucha-drinking yoga-loving laid-back hipster / I’ll be your sativa-knowing weed-smoker if you grab me the CBD / I’ll be a lace bra-wearer with the peach blond highlights / I’ll be a chiller and a filler and the reason we laugh.”
For the first few weeks of the school year, my new persona made me friends and gave me the false confidence to walk up to people and start talking. Yet even as I pretended to be the “lace bra-wearer with the peach blond highlights,” I could feel the high school version of me peeking out. Reminding me that I was too awkward to be friends with the crop-top wearing “juulers.” Telling me that I was keeping myself safe if I was keeping myself alone, that loneliness in itself holds a power that proves I am not dependent on anyone.
But, as the narrative of this song proves, keeping the rest of the world locked out puts you in a car full of people, feeling all alone.
It’s Friday night, and I find myself sitting in one of Pitzer’s demo kitchens as I watch a new friend of mine toss cut-up zucchini into a pot of oil. She has bangs and a playlist playing. The room is full. I am laughing and playing it off as a response to a joke, hoping I am doing a good enough job at acting amused to hide that it’s a response to my nerves.
In high school, I learned how to work. How to study and get ahead. Hand me a flash card, and be wowed at what I can do with it. But college was when that would change. That’s what everyone promised. Here, at Pitzer, even in the warmth of the California sun, I feel myself falling back into who I used to be. Falling into my old fear of rejection.
It’s easier to sit in your room and study than to sit in a room of practical strangers and laugh about the gummy worms or the person who tried to hook up with someone else present. It’s easier not to show up to audition than to go and bomb it, or go and try hard and not get it.
It’s easier to drive in a guy’s car, to make out with him, to pretend to be every girl he dreams of, like Adrianne Lenker does in the song, than to let him in and be the one who gets hurt.
But Big Thief regrets losing Paul, and I am a first-year, and it is a Friday night and here I am surrounded by people. So I decide that for all the reinvention, the biggest change I could make was to let friends in. To be vulnerable with the people around me, to demand myself to throw away my protection of loneliness, and instead participate.
So I ask if I can help my friend stir the zucchini. I say “yes” to finding a party, to going to the after-party, to drinking wine, to telling the group something personal about myself. As the night ends, I find myself back in the same demo kitchen. The same group sitting around.
Someone orders a pizza, and I am smiling. Happy. My friend with the bangs puts on a playlist, and we sit there, waiting for the grease and the cheese, for the drunk to wear off, for the next night.
“Paul,” of all the songs, comes on, like a sign from Adrianne Lenker herself.
The possible hope at the end of the song is the song itself. It’s the idea that you, as the listener, might hear yourself in her vulnerability, will hum along in acknowledgment that she is no longer pretending to be anyone’s anything.
The singer tells the audience that keeping Paul out kept herself out too, and by singing, she’s opening her world back up for dialogue, for truth, or perhaps another ride, this time driving toward a destination she can openly desire.
Anna Koppelman is a first-year at Pitzer. You can either find her reading poetry, hanging out with friends, or ranting about how long it’s taken for Vampire Weekend to release a new album.