In 1997, British pop rock band Feeder released a song called “High”. It got featured in the romcom Can’t Hardly Wait and became a hit in the US one year later.
The song is built on a simple I-IV-ii-IV progression and a wide dynamic range. The song, and Feeder’s sound in general, wasn’t entirely original, and more than a little bit reminiscent of The Smashing Pumpkins’s “Today”. When Feeder’s singer Grant Nicholas puts on a shrill and angsty voice to sing “I will” in the chorus, it’s hard to not hear he’s trying to replicate something.
Some two decades later, American singer-songwriter Soccer Mommy released her single “circle the drain”. The project is run by 22-year-old Sophie Allison. She is part of a female-led indie movement that wears its 80s and 90s influences on its sleeve (see Alvvays, Snail Mail, Faderdaze, The Beths, Sobs, Hatchie, Mitski).
Not only is the chord progression strikingly similar to “High”: the entire song leans in on the era of alternative rock, and MTV. But the repetition is, somehow, less generic than the original. It’s a carefully reproduced pastiche, but it also adds a sincerity that the original lacked.
Musically, “circle the drain” could hardly be simpler. Two verses, three bridges, three choruses. It sounds a bit like an Early Sheryll Crow song; it could also be the prettiest song that Sixpence None the Richer never wrote. As noted in most of the album’s reviews, the song candidly deals with feelings of depression:
And I think there’s a mold in my brain
Spreading down all the way
Through my heart and my body
’Cause I cling to the dark of my room
And the days thin me out
Or just burn me straight through
Like many of the other songs on color theory, the album it’s lifted from, Allison inhabits her sorrow musically as well. She’s hesitant to resolve any of her phrases to the tonic in the verses, and she expresses the album’s motif against a backdrop of controlled feedback, gentle drum machines, and distorted echos.
But perhaps a better term for the emotion that “circle the drain” approximates is melancholy, not depression. In their article “Melancholy as an Aesthetic Emotion”, Emily Brady and Arto Haapala explain the difference:
When we feel depressed we feel unmotivated, unable to complete even the simplest task and unable to see any way forward. It is a pessimistic state that involves pain. By contrast, melancholy is not such a debilitating mood, rather it involves the pleasure of reflection and contemplation of things we love and long for, so that the hope of having them adds a touch of sweetness that makes melancholy bearable (while misery is not). Its reflective or thoughtful aspect also makes it somehow productive.
The contemplative aspect here is clear. The otherwise understated chorus of “circle the drain” opens up with pretty, shimmering synths, and the verses gently sway along with the syncopated drums, a staple of 90s alternative. The music starkly contrasts with the despondent lyrics.
What makes this musical throwback even more interesting is that it comes with a throwback video. It features a group of young skateboarders — the quintessential 90s icon — moving down a water slide at an abandoned amusement park in Palm Springs. They’re trailing down the inline tubes, fashioning a half-pipe from a funnel slide, and doing kickflips onto the rubber flooring while Allison plays her Novo Serus J.
The most well-liked user comments on the YouTube video express the main sentiment that the song evokes: “it feels like i grew up with this song”; “It’s 2020 but Soccer Mommy just took us back to 1996”; “I feel like this would be in a teenage romcom in the 90’s -2000 god Im old”.
But this leaves something out: this video takes place in the present. The water park feels metaphorical, as though it could be the one from Sum 41’s In Too Deep or State Champs’s Losing Myself, fallen into disarray for a generation that lives in its smartphone.
This connects the video to other nostalgic genres, most notably “ruins photography” or, with a critical slant, “ruin porn”. The subgenre of photography focuses on commercial and industrial decay, crumbling structures and desolate atmospheres.
Some examples are the time-capsule photo book “Malls Across America” by Michael Galinsky, or Dan Bell’s “Dead Mall series” on YouTube. Bell visits abandoned, crumbling malls — what George Ritzer once called the “cathedrals of consumption” — viewing their dilapidation with a nostalgia that is instantly recognizable for anyone who was a child in the 80s.
Dead malls, many have noted, are a fitting symbol of the temporary, disposable nature of commodities and consumerism; the state of always searching for the new trend at the expense of the last one. But they are also like water parks: a form of individualized conviviality that is becoming increasingly outdated.
In many of his videos, Bell incorporates “vaporwave” to elicit nostalgia. Beyond a microgenre of electronic music, vaporwave is an ironic aesthetic of poverty and hopelessness. It uses slowed-down, chopped samples of smooth jazz, elevator, R&B, and lounge music from the 1980s and 1990s. In the visual aesthetic that accompanies it, it uses lots of digital effects to signal the degraded materiality of the genre, with “ light leak” and degraded VHS tape effects.
Looking back at Soccer Mommy’s video, it employs similar cues to its material, hence degradable, nature. It features a cropped aspect ratio, saturated colors, light leaks, and degraded VHS tape effects, clearly signaling nostalgia for the era Allison takes her musical cues from.
One other popular comment on the clip notes that “this is so 90s I was thrusted back into non-existence”. And this of course goes for the 23-year-old songwriter as well. Like vaporwave, this is nostalgia for a time in which many who listen to it weren’t alive.
It’s worth noting that vaporwave is often seen as an ambiguous take on consumer capitalism, as it references the popular entertainment, technology and advertising of previous decades. The aesthetic is decidedly cool, distanced, and is often deemed ironic because of it. Looking at the album cover for color theory — its cold, disaffected aesthetic, its winking at the materiality of a Sega Genesis cartridge — certainly evokes a similar obsession with the relics of yesteryear. Like Walter Benjamin’s arcades of Paris, Allison is commemorating a past social order.
Another reference that springs up here, particularly due to the histrionic gesture Allison makes on the cover, is Lana del Rey. But whereas the latter uses Hollywood glamour and grandeur to shore up her performative nostalgia, and where vaporwave attacks its nostalgia with saw wave synths, Allison’s songs are inwardly turned, a shy reflection. If anything, her music is a sincere reimagining of the kind of song written by thoroughly commercial and ‘cool’ acts of twenty years ago. Soccer Mommy is what Avril Lavigne or Michelle Branch might have been, had they not been co-opted by a record label.
Soccer Mommy’s sincere appropriation of the retro aesthetic leads us back to her focus on melancholy. The connection Allison draws between nostalgia and her depressed state is not straightforward, and her song is not a simple reactionary retreat into an idealized past.
Instead, she knows that the past she imagined never existed. What she depicts here is not just the loss of any particularity such as childhood. Freud writes about this in his essay Mourning and Melancholia, where he distinguishes between these two forms of grief. When mourning, a person deals with the grief of losing a specific love object; in melancholia, that loss cannot be fully comprehended or identified. It is a loss of loss itself.
What Allison indicates is not that she is depressed because she is nostalgic. It is that melancholy is like nostalgia: it reaches out for something it cannot have, and it knows that the lack is debilitating. But other than Freud, who views melancholy pathologically, her songs show that the loss of the loss is also productive. It allows one to repair one’s fractured world into something like a whole. It’s not just covering a sharp edge with the grace of music: it’s realizing that they are content and form. They need each other to exist.
Circle the drain’s video ends with Allison standing on a skateboard for what looks like the first time, trying to balance while the skateboarders cheer her on. In the bridge, she sings
Things feel that low sometimes
Even when everything is fine
We can turn that around, as well.