It’s been more than 120 days since I’ve started listening to “Motion Sickness” by Phoebe Bridgers at least once a day. At first it was the studio version in her album, Strangers in the Alps, and the real fixation began after I found various live versions on Youtube. (The one I recommend most frequently, because of its mix quality, emotive power, and relative fidelity to the album’s tone, is her performance for The Current at Minnesota Public Radio.)
I first enjoyed it in the context of a playlist having compared it to Lorde’s “Liability.” But after my brain ran through the lines “the truth is I am a toy that people enjoy/ ‘til all of the tricks don’t work anymore/and then they are bored of me,” more times than I could count, I adopted “you said when you met me you were bored” as my new refrain.
The song started to hit differently in mid-December. Maybe it was a seasonal low, winter blues, that sort of thing. But “Motion Sickness” became a substantial part of my emotional vocabulary and provided a different lens through which to understand Taylor Swift’s “Dear John,” a song I first heard when I was 12.
Although both songs are ostensibly about young women artists recovering from a destructive relationship with an older male artist, “Motion Sickness” speaks to the difficulty of admitting someone did you wrong while the narrator of “Dear John” openly laments the ways in which she was wounded.
To offer some context, Bridgers has been open about the fact that “Motion Sickness” is about Ryan Adams, who is currently being investigated for his abuse against a number of women musicians and collaborators. Taylor Swift’s “Dear John” is allegedly about John Mayer, best known for having dated a number of “America’s Sweetheart” types and creating music with the kind of bluesy riffs Swift subtweets in the guitar parts of her own song. Blessedly, Mayer was left “humiliated” by the song that 19-year-old Swift never actually confirmed was about him. <Insert .gif of Kim saying “It’s what [he] deserves” and smirking.>
While I appreciate that “Motion Sickness” is rightfully treated as a nuanced depiction of someone reeling from the effects of a toxic relationship, I don’t appreciate that “Dear John” has been unfavorably compared to it. Yes, “Motion Sickness” is certainly a “cooler” song by an indie folk-rock artist and it’s about the man who received accolades for apparently having interpreted Taylor Swift’s 1989 better than Swift herself.
Coolness entails a certain lack of affect, and the narrator of “Motion Sickness” struggles to fully own her feelings, which at times seem to betray her despite her understanding that what he did was wrong. She’s not in a good place, but her expression of pain fits into the “acceptable” realm for women, one of “post-woundedness,” as coined by Leslie Jamison. To be so openly pained and to feel so brazenly entitled to the moral high ground as the narrator does in “Dear John” is transgressive.
Because so much of Taylor Swift’s man-related media coverage has been focused on how songs like “Dear John” reinforce the concept of Swift as a self-victimizing, vindictive, and petty autobiographical songwriter, the potential for conversation about the possibly abusive dynamic narrated in the song was lost. While my fluency with Top 40 pop has waned since I was in 7th grade, I’m having a hard time thinking of other precocious artists with her kind of platform singing about that subject.
And even if it wasn’t abuse described, the point is: he was old and had power over her because she liked him and he was famous while she was young but made to feel like it was her fault for letting him treat her badly.
“Motion Sickness” is what happens when people deny themselves the right to be right. There’s conflicting feelings. There truly are no words in the English language.
The narrator in “Dear John” freely says “you messed me up and screwed with my head and I regret this experience.” And that ability to see herself as a victim is what allows her to convict him, what she needs to transform the “I should’ve known” to “you should’ve known.” Because he really should have.