Navigating victimhood and strength through pop music
by: Brianna Albers
I’m 18 years old when Taylor drops “Blank Space”, the first single from her album 1989.
The boy I love—a boy I met online—is emotionally abusive. It will take me a year and a half, two years, to understand what that means. But in 2014 I am 18 years old—sparking, limitless. We’ve been flirting for months now, so a few days before my 19th birthday I bring up “feelings.” He does not feel the same. I tell him it’s fine, it’s okay, I’m more concerned with being his friend than anything else.
The boy I love is emotionally abusive. He continues to flirt with me, even when I ask him not to. There are moments of closeness. Most days we’re inseparable. But then, without warning, he withdraws, and I am left to watch the void of morning, how it fills with quiet winter light. There is a heaviness in me, one I cannot locate. When my friends tell me he’s not worth it, I argue in his favor: they don’t know him like I do.
I wait, and Taylor keeps me company. “Blank Space” plays on repeat, the lyrics an omen: Boys only want love if it’s torture / Don’t say I didn’t warn ya…
I spend 2014 in a haze. I reach out, but there is nothing for my hands to hold, nothing for me to grasp. I break open for him—fingering that crack in my wall, ripping and tearing at plaster. The air around me goes pearl-white with smoke.
One night, YouTube suggests the music video for Selena’s 2014 hit, “The Heart Wants What It Wants.” I watch the whole thing, utterly transfixed. The song feels intrinsic, a part of me I thought was lost (Then you disappear and make me wait / And every second’s like torture … I’m not alive until you call), but it’s the opening monologue that splinters me: I know him though, and I know his heart … but then you make me feel crazy, you make me feel like it’s my fault—
He loves music, and whenever I send him my newest find—usually pop, and usually something from a girl group—he laughs.
He finally admits his feelings for me, only it doesn’t feel like it’s supposed to. Moments of closeness now seconds of weightlessness, then impact, then the bruising crush of skin and bone.
He withdraws. I always take it hard, but this time it feels different. Like it’s something we won’t survive. And maybe there is truth to that. I always take it hard, but this time my body stiffens. My fingers curl—brittle things, and cold as death.
I am 19 years old, Adele’s “Water Under the Bridge” my anthem for these long, awful months. He and I rarely talk and, when we do, it is more like a bloodletting. Performance art. Apologia. I blame my anxiety, when really I just don’t know how to function in his absence. It leaves a hole in me, all teeth and hunger. I fill it with poetry, therapy, but nothing comes close to the briefness of his attention, so much like choking.
“This time it feels different.
Like it’s something we won’t survive.”
My greatest fear is earning his unlove. I never know why he disappears—only that he does, that it somehow must be my fault. It’s so cold out here in your wilderness—
I ask if he still has feelings for me. He evades the question. “Just give me a yes or no,” I beg, but even that is an impossibility. If you’re gonna let me down, let me down gently / Don’t pretend that you don’t want me—
I wake one morning with nothing in me that wants to continue. Any tenderness I had for him has flickered, dimmed, like the faint purpling of twilight.
I need time, I tell him. We don’t speak for months.
He asks me, eventually, if there was anything he could’ve done to prevent all of this. I don’t know what to tell him, so I tell him the truth: that I loved him. That, regardless of his own feelings, he should’ve treated my requests—to stop flirting with me—with respect.
He doesn’t respond.
YouTube suggests “Wrecking Ball.” He hated the song, made fun of it, so part of me resists. In the end, though, it’s the lyrics that draw me in, that look on Miley’s face. Don’t you ever say I just walked away / I will always want you—
I recognize it as despair. I feel it too.
Songs I listened to in elementary school feel relevant now. Kelly screams about breathing, and I scream with her. I play “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child on repeat. I’m a survivor / I’m not gon’ give up / I’m not gon’ stop / I’m gon’ work harder / I’m a survivor / I’m gonna make it / I will survive / Keep on survivin’—
When a mutual friend of ours texts me, tells me he misses me, I don’t know what to say. “We all miss you. Why don’t you try to be friends with him again?” I conjure a vision, one of me on my computer at 3 a.m., Selena staring into space with wet, darkling eyes.
I can’t put myself through that again, I won’t, I text back, and hope Beyoncé is proud of me
We talk for the last time. We message back and forth over the course of a few days, and I listen to JoJo’s “Too Little, Too Late” on repeat: I was young and in love / I gave you everything / But it wasn’t enough / And now you wanna communicate—
“Do you ever think we’ll talk again?” he asks, and this time I know what to say. He still hasn’t responded to my last message. I tell him that. He claims he didn’t get it, only to say that he did. Another vision: 4 a.m., “Really Don’t Care,” the chorus again, again. But even if the stars and moon collide / I never want you back into my life / You can take your words and all your lies—
“Wouldn’t it be worth it? To be friends again?”
I think of glass, how it splinters, how the slightest touch of pressure leads to swelling redness. I think of Selena, eyeliner smudged, hair a mess: You make me feel crazy, you make me feel like it’s my fault—
I take to Spotify, build a playlist. Taylor and Marina, Selena, Adele and Hilary, Miley, Kelly, Destiny’s Child, JoJo and Demi. My pop queens, there through middle school, high school, college. There at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., videos playing on repeat. An endless loop. Haven’t you heard that I’m gonna be okay, Hilary sings in “So Yesterday”, and I sing with her, the words ingrained since I was eight years old. Haven’t you heard—
Little Mix releases “Grown” in 2015. I think about his messages for hours, reliving my therapist’s disapproval, my friends’ annoyance. And again, again, again: You didn’t want me, it took too long / You didn’t want me and now I’m gone … Don’t you know that I’m grown now, grown now / Don’t you know that I can hold my own—
So many things to say, but whenever I begin to type a response, Destiny’s Child: Wishing you the best / Pray that you are blessed / Bring much success, no stress, and lots of happiness—
When I was a child, metal rods were placed surgically in my back to keep my spine from curving. Sometimes, when I least expect it, a shudder wracks through me—a ghost of something that never was, anticipating a touch that never comes.
Missing him is like that. I turn, expect to see him, but there is nothing. I look up, catch a sliver of the lunar eclipse, and wonder if he’s seen it. If those spokes of light, ringed with black, fill him with wonder too.
As I write this, Demi: I can’t believe I ever stayed up writing songs about you / You don’t deserve to know the way I used to think about you—
We’ve gotta let go of all of our ghosts, Adele sings in “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” We both know we ain’t kids no more—
A vision: that girl of 18, 19, scrabbling to replace her taste in music with something less embarrassing. Only now the girl is 20, and Selena’s introducing her to the concept of emotional abuse. Miley cries, red lips parted, and it occurs to her for the first time that grief and anger can coexist, that cessation of love does not necessarily equal cessation of want. 21, and Little Mix is teaching her the language of renewal.
“Shout Out to My Ex” drops in 2016. I blink and the scene changes. That girl of 18, now 22, quietly confident. There is grief, yes, but even that is muted. Soft-mouthed. I will not miss him forever. Some days it seems impossible, but all I have to do is shuffle that playlist, listen to Kelly or JoJo or Demi.
The chorus of “Shout Out to My Ex”: Shout out to my ex, you’re really quite the man / You made my heart break and that made me who I am / Here’s to my ex, hey, look at me now / Well, I’m all the way up / I swear you’ll never bring me down—
My pop queens, their work a promise, signs of growth. I wish him the best, and keep on rising. •
Brianna Albers (she/her) is a storyteller, currently based in St. Paul, MN. In 2016, she founded Monstering, a magazine for disabled women and nonbinary people; she currently serves as editor-in-chief. She is half of ZRIE, a new media collective founded in 2017 alongside best friend and life partner, Zara Munro. She is also on staff at SMA News Today, and writes the column “The Wolf Finally Frees Itself.” A multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, her work can be found in DIALOGIST, Guernica, and Word Riot, among others. Find her online at briannahopealbers.com, and on social media @bhalbers.