Judy Berman

Jul 29 2012

The New Pornographers — “The Fake Headlines”

One of the few cliches that I wholeheartedly believe is that great art tell us, as Rilke put it, "You must change your life." I think this can be true in both figurative and literal ways, and in a whole range of magnitudes, although the extent to which a work of art materially changes our lives doesn’t necessarily correlate to the extent of its greatness. All of which is to say, there have been very few individual songs that have had as clear an impact on my life as “The Fake Headlines” by The New Pornographers.

Right after I graduated from college, in Baltimore, I moved to Astoria with my boyfriend and some friends. This was in 2005, before most new humanities graduates spent months or years unemployed, and I got a job in publishing fairly quickly. At first, I felt so grateful to have found something in the field that seemed to be my only hope at a real career. I had not done relevant internships; I just had a degree in creative writing and one good reference and clicked with my employer-to-be in the interview. Within six months I was editing manuscripts, but the work was still almost all administrative — sending emails to authors, scheduling meetings for my boss, keeping track of contracts and deadlines.

By the end of my first year, although there was not much I could fairly be upset about, I felt trapped and frantic. I had not been a particularly anxious person in the past, but now I was starting to have panic attacks thinking about the future. I did not know what I wanted, but I knew that a life of sending emails and having meetings and editing other people’s books — especially in a subject area I didn’t feel strongly connected to — was not it. There are wonderful, brilliant people in publishing who are doing hugely important work, and some of them were my colleagues. It was just not the career for me. Also, I was terrible at being an assistant. I sent well-written emails and was good at the actual editorial work, but every little request made me feel undervalued and subservient. I say this not to convince you that I was too good to be an assistant or that being an assistant is intrinsically degrading work; I mean it as an acknowledgment of my own control issues. (Weirdly, I tend to be gracious about taking editing/criticism despite having an unattractively adolescent aversion to “being told what to do” in general.)

Anyway, I eventually began to plan an escape strategy. Considering other jobs in publishing gave way to daydreaming about working for five years and saving enough money to quit and spend a year on a novel. I had studied creative writing in college but hadn’t finished a story since graduating. Then, on a whim, I pitched something to Bitch and got hooked on critical writing. I forget whether I began doing music news for Tiny Mix Tapes before or after I started considering journalism school.

What I do remember is the song that convinced me, in a way that no facts or calculations ever could, that I wanted to and could write for a living. The New Pornographers’ Mass Romantic was an album I revisited every few months, falling in love with a new song every time. I had been through the obvious ones already: the title track, “Letter from an Occupant” (which, incidentally, Greil Marcus remembers as “the only song that from 12 September 2001 through at least the next two weeks I could bear to listen to”), “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism.” But this time, it was “The Fake Headlines.”

The beautiful mystery of Carl Newman’s songwriting is that he so often manipulates lyrics that don’t add up to a narrative or descriptive whole so that they nonetheless create a distinct mood. New Pornographers songs have very specific emotional resonances, even when the words are as nonsensical as, “This boy’s life among the electrical lights.” The best way to describe these lyrics, I guess, is impressionistic.

"The Fake Headlines" is a bit more cohesive than most of Newman’s New Pornographers songs. "I wrote the news today / In a tent outside the midway rides," it begins. The narrator alludes to a dark past ("And when you see the bruises on my legs from kicking pills / Then you’ll see how recklessly the pages are filled") and conflates journalism with songwriting ("I filled the whole front page / With the catchiest words I could find"). There are vaguely absurd expressions of ambition ("I want to think out so loud / That the fashion police break me"). Maybe it is troubling that the song that inspired me to change my life was one about a seasoned hack writing beautiful bullshit on deadline, but it’s what spoke to me. (It may also elucidate why I have always been a better critic than reporter.) There was a wearily heroic romanticism there, and every time I wavered in my decision to go into lots of debt, I listened to the song again and hopeful restlessness took over.

I am not interested in discussing whether journalism school was a good or bad decision for me — just the power of art to send us down different paths in both our thinking and our behavior. Before this weekend, it had been a while since I had listened to “The Fake Headlines.” Hearing it again, even now that it bears more resemblance to my life than it once did (although, please, I do not fabricate), the song still gives me a jolt. It recharges my idealism and makes me want to be audacious rather than just adequate.

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