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A Breathless Season: The Song of the Summer Is the Feeling of General Malaise

Why Waxahatchee's song "Breathless" is a summer anthem for feeling tired of it all.

by Kyle Kramer
Sep 4 2015, 8:26pm


Photo by the author

Late summer sucks. It hangs over you like a nagging obligation you don't know how to shake, clings to you like a T-shirt that’s just a little too tight. The heat is a burden that you carry with you. You feel it reach up from the asphalt with its stinky tendrils and grab you around the ankles. The air just sits there, and you do too. You languish. You sweat.

It's worst without air conditioning: You try to convince yourself at night that it's cool enough to sleep, that whatever movement of air there is is bearable, that the thermostat says it's 83 degrees, which is really a pretty pleasant temperature if you're at the beach or lying in a hammock. And you're right, even when you get an air conditioner and realize that perhaps your efforts at self-persuasion on the AC front were a little misplaced and in fact this was a far superior way to live all along. It's not so bad for those first few months. But by late August you're tired of it. Summer is beautiful, until it is miserable. Then, as if in one sudden conflagration, you realize the heat has worn you down—physically to some extent but mostly emotionally. The French, being more worldly than we are, have figured this out, which is why they all head on vacation for the month of August. Here in America, we continue to sweat and wonder why we feel such deep despair.

To me as a kid, it was always a foregone conclusion to me that summer was the best season. The leisure was endless. And it still always begins this way, so expectantly, so certain it will be the best. The days get longer, and, with that extra light, they hold the promise that they're getting better, too. There is more to come, early summer promises: There is more, and there will always be more. These days will continue to get larger and more magical and stretch out forever, and we will become our best selves in the process. But then, inevitably, fall looms. The new season may offer its own hopes and suggestions of fresh beginnings, but those are down the line. First, there are the last days of summer to contend with, the reality of a chance at something as-yet-unrealized coming to an end. As a kid, the period is one of boredom; as an adult, it's one of malaise. Habits, especially the leisurely kind, are toasted to one last time and reoriented. Relationships, particularly of the improvisatory summer kind, find ways to sweat themselves out. The baseball season, once so interminably long, takes on a final urgency.

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I don't know exactly what the habits of this past summer were, which is probably why, for me, the song of the summer as it's traditionally understood—the one that you hear rallying you to have a good time from every street corner—never seemed to quite materialize. Poor Fetty Wap was out there cranking out hit after hit and having the time of his life, oblivious to the fact that he had no chance of penetrating this dense morass of a summer because nothing did. I and everyone I knew seemed to be hurtling toward a late summer crisis of faith, and no amount of beckoning us a certain way seemed likely to change that. Perhaps in “Again,” that final salvo of regret, Fetty managed to address that feeling, too. But mostly, as it does, the season stewed too much. I sweated, and instead I listened to Waxahatchee.

Her song “Breathless” begins with a rumble of guitar distortion and continues that way. The sound just hangs there, oppressive and unrelenting, building toward some relief that never comes. It offers the same brooding pressure of a late summer afternoon when a storm is taking forever to roll in, or of a wait in a subway station when sweat is beginning to bead on your lower back. There is a weight, but it is hard to define. Lyrically, “Breathless” offers a scenario that fits late summer particularly well, too: that of a relationship that’s not going anywhere, in which the various parties’ views of things don’t quite line up. “You see me / how I wish I was,” Katie Crutchfield sings, the avatar for all our conflicted, doubting summer fantasies, “But I’m not trying to be seen.”

Summer is supposed to be a time in which we’re all driving with the windows down and partying on rooftops and barbecuing with religious devotion. The songs we listen to are supposed to be celebratory because it’s supposed to be hard to be sad when you’re basking in the sun. But summer can easily become a time of retreat, one in which all the social pressure pushes you into not wanting to be seen, in which the fantasy of everything being a perfect celebration, of there being that one song that captures all the jubilation, becomes instead a justification for narrowing your goals. You might end up with a vague sense of just wanting to get through it. That’s something that Katie Crutchfield singing “You indulge me / I indulge you / but I'm not trying to have it all” captures for me, that idea of the present circumstances being a matter of convenience. There’s an inkling that things could be better; right now they’re bearable. Such is late summer: possible to endure but uneasy, full of ad hoc arrangements that are ready to burn themselves out with the new strokes of fall but that haven’t quite gotten there. “Breathless” plays itself out, with Katie Crutchfield singing a la-la-la-la-la chorus that, like the guitar tones, doesn't offer much resolution. The song is swampy and humid and grimly funny, its title revealing itself to be a pun about a feeling of claustrophobia rather than starry-eyed love. If that's not late summer, I'm not sure what is.

What are we to make of the late summer, the summer of malaise, the summer that doesn't fit so neatly into a package or a romantic narrative? How do we turn it over in our heads? How do we play our way into the next phase? A song of the summer can't quite answer those questions, since a song of the summer is supposed to cram the season into a single triumphant idea. But at the end of the summer, maybe a song can just sit there. We can indulge it for a minute; it can indulge us. We can sit around, breathless, hot, sweaty, expectant, and confused, waiting for a resolution.

Kyle Kramer is feeling great! Follow him on Twitter.

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