Carly Rae Jepsen, Sharon Van Etten, Little Simz, Panda Bear and more on the songs that give them life
Standing at the train station, scrolling through Instagram, you’re likely to see posts extolling the importance of self-love. With politics, reality TV, and social media, we’re at a moment of crucial change, and honest, individual self-love has never been more urgent. We’re not talking about sipping detoxifying celery juice, or saging our bedroom windows, or any other consumerist appropriation of self-love, but actively caring for one’s self rather than disappearing into the folds of a collapsing sociopolitical nightmare. We need to turn inward and revel in all our damn guts and glory.
Cesar Aira, the Argentinian metafictional novelist, once described the intimacy of that fact: “Each of us is the ultimate expert on the gentleness and understanding we deserve.” Two of the biggest pop songs of the last few months back up Aira’s words. Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” avows gratitude to past partners, and then finds a new target of love: “But this one gon’ last / ’Cause her name is Ari.” Meanwhile, Carly Rae Jepsen takes herself for a spin on “Party for One”, embracing her own inner drive: “I’ll just dance for myself / Back on my beat.”
Last Valentine’s Day, we asked musicians to share the love songs that are now too painful for them to listen to; a year earlier, we asked them to contribute songs of independence. This year, we’re bringing together a panel of artists to show us their perspective on self-love.
Carly Rae Jepsen picks Big Thief, “Paul”
“So I swallowed all of it / As I realised there was no one who could kiss away my shit.”
Carly Rae Jepsen: “Paul” by Big Thief always gets me – in the good and bad ways. Relief from heartbreak always begins with accepting the bittersweetness of it all. Even if it was your turn to play the part of heartbreaker, everything’s more poetic with a tune to help make sense of things. “I’ll be a killer and a thriller and the cause of our death.” It’s rare to have a clean break up with no slip-ups. No “one-night reunions” or secret curiosities about what could have been. And the lyrics of this song explore that perfectly to me. “Oh the last time I saw Paul / I was horrible and almost let him in / But I stopped and caught the wall / And my mouth got dry so all I did was take him for a spin.” To top it off, the beautiful simplicity of this chorus has me hooked in a trance like way. It was my walking music all over Italy when I was going through one bad break up. Brilliant.
Colin Self picks Planningtorock, “Much to Touch”
“If I’m too much / Oh, much too much / Then baby that just means you’re not enough / But I’m enough for my too much / I’m enough for my too much.”
Colin Self: This song arrived in my life just after having been broken up with by someone who was much more normie than I, and I was feeling all kinds of inadequacy and confusion as to why he couldn’t articulate not being with me. I realised a lot this last year that I am, like many other queers, too much for many people. My way of being, my femme energy, my softness, my life, just is a lot for others to enter into, let alone be romantically with. Hearing this song for the first time brought me to tears, thinking about my muchness and for all the times I was too femme, too queeny, too over-the-top for a guy, and to the countless others who experience the same. I love Jam (Planningtorock) for building this celebratory anthem for muchness and creating language for this kind of experience. I’m learning to love my muchness.
Empress Of picks Tommy Genesis, “Play With It”
“Play with the pussy, wanna play with the pussy.”
Empress Of: I listen to Tommy Genesis’s “Play With It” whenever I need to get my act together. I love the ownership of the lyrics, saying “play with the pussy” over and over again. To me, this is a feminist bop about owning yourself and your sexuality.
HEALTH’s Jake Duszik Picks Black Sabbath, “Supernaut”
Jake Duszik: It may well be some sort of self-defense mechanism, but it’s fairly difficult for me to not get cynical about self-love. I get that the only way we have to interpret the world is through our own consciousness, but today we are so obsessed with our own individuality, the practice of ‘self-love’ sometimes smacks of an excuse for yet another narcissistic indulgence dressed up as progressivism.
That being said, if I need to get out of my head, I’ll go with “Supernaut” by Black Sabbath. No intellectualism, just physicality. The lyrics are pretty fuckin’ dumb though.
Kim Petras picks Aretha Franklin, “I Say a Little Prayer”
“The moment I wake up / Before I put on my make-up.”
Kim Petras: This performance is just amazing. There are some ad libs in there where she absolutely kills it. I love the song and it always puts me in a good mood.
Little Simz picks Nick Hakim, “Cuffed”
“She taught me to make love / With patience / Not just thinking about myself.”
Little Simz: I love Nick Hakim. I think he’s super talented. I love how he uses his voice as an instrument and experiments with sounds. This song, in particular, I love because of the percussion and lyrics.
Mahalia picks India.Arie, “Video”
“But I learned to love myself unconditionally / Because I am a queen.”
Mahalia: This song is the total embodiment of what self-love means to me. India.Arie was the queen of real talk when I was growing up. With songs like “I Am Not My Hair” and “Brown Skin”, I always loved her. But “Video”! The most amazing, beautiful, truthful song, all about loving every inch of yourself.
Manthe Ribane picks Shaun Escoffery, “Days Like This” (Spinna & Ticklah Club Mix)
“Sitting in the breeze, knowing everything’s alright with me, with me / And I’m smiling from the inside ’cause we’ve got nothing to hide / I love days like this.”
Manthe Ribane: I love “Days Like This”. This song changes my mood, no matter how bad my day was or is. It is a true appreciation of life, the fact that you have woken up, healthy and alive. That’s worth celebrating.
Nakhane Touré picks Betty Davis, “They Say I’m Different”
“They say I’m different ’cause I’m a piece of sugar cane / Sweet to the core, that’s why I got rhythm.”
Nakhane Touré: Before we even speak about the music, can we please look at that album cover? Why in the hell is she holding a bow and arrow? Is she a huntress? Is she in war? If she is, then with whom? It’s combative and it’s stylish. It’s garish, but also tasteful and elegant. Kate Bush is shaking! Kate Bush wishes!
Okay, the music. The first line is a lesson in sleight-of-hand braggadocio: “They say I’m different ’cause I’m a piece of sugar cane / Sweet to the core, that’s why I got rhythm.” She just has to quickly get this one thing out of the way: she’s sweet, okay. That’s why she’s different. Her logic for her subsequent sweetness (which is the source of her rhythm) is questionable. But who cares, with that lead guitar, that rhythm section, and those vocal cord-lacerating vocals?
As soon as she’s done with herself (if you didn’t know that she was sweet, now you do, bish), she plunges into a hagiographic description of her grandma’s taste. Not the foxtrot. Nope. She boogies. (Even though the foxtrot originates from African Americans.) The song is a history lesson in black musicians. It’s a glorification of blackness in general. The things that may have been seen as too black, too funky, things not to like – she elevates them. She elevates us! And so when I’m not feeling myself, that blues lead guitar line reminds me that “I woke up like this”.
Addendum: Miles Davis ain’t shit without Betty Davis. Motherfucker was getting stale until he was introduced to funk and ‘newer’ music by Betty Davis. She’s that bitch!
Panda Bear picks Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Panda Bear: If I’m feeling kind of broken, I don’t want to listen to something that sounds really sad. I’d rather go the opposite way. What comes to mind is the first Wu Tang record, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). There’s a toughness to a lot of those tracks that pumps me up, a thick skin kind of thing. It feels like a shield, a protective energy. It kind of makes me feel bulletproof in a way. It’s a bit of a catch-22: if you are willing to express a new idea or a feeling, you run the risk of getting hurt or rejected, and any attack on that idea feels personal. But if you’re not willing to be vulnerable, you might not learn that the feeling didn’t even have any power to it. I’d wager that it’s a risk worth taking. In addition to Wu-Tang, there’s a Sade track called “By Your Side” that feels very nurturing, almost like a parent talking to you in a way that I find really attractive.
Sharon Van Etten picks Wilco, “Radio Cure”
“Distance has no way of making love more understandable.”
Sharon Van Etten: I first heard this song when I lived in Tennessee, far away from where I grew up. I had a deeper understanding of what unconditional love was once I knew what it felt like to be far away and alone and on my own – and touring and doing what I love and leaving loved ones behind adds a whole other emotional layer to its meaning.
Taylor Skye picks k.d. Lang, “Summerfling”
“And you my friend, my new fun thing, my summer fling.”
Taylor Skye: I think in order to practice self-love, you need to be happy – and this song lifts me up like an ice cold Bloody Mary on a scorching day in Venice. There’s a moment towards the end of the song where k.d.’s backing vocals are whining in both ears, and it’s the ultimate blend of hope and pain.
Uffie picks Sia, “The Girl You Lost to Cocaine”
“No I just don’t wanna, so I’m walking away.”
Uffie: Putting your own needs above those of someone you love is incredibly hard for a people-pleaser like myself. You should never be in any kind of relationship that brings you down or makes you smaller. This song is a great reminder that sometimes you have to let go to grow (and is best blasted while getting ready in the bathroom).
Listen to these selections as a Spotify playlist