written by Jackie Soro
I’ve been having trouble deciding what makes a song “matter.” Does a song that matters have to matter publicly? Does it have to reach a wide audience, or make thousands of people reconsider supposedly self-evident truths? In many cases, yes. Maybe. I’ve been trying to find a song that met these criteria that also mattered to me personally—and I couldn’t do it. I realized that so many of the songs that I hold dear will never be heard by the millions of ears whose collective listening have canonized the songs that we (“the world”) recognize and appreciate. I could try and write about my personal relationship to “Billie Jean” or “Imagine” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Rapper’s Delight,” but it wouldn’t feel completely honest. I also tried to justify my love for a couple of songs using an overtly political, heavy-handed framework. The words I chose to explore my love for these songs felt clunky, and I realized that the chunky language I was using covered up two simple facts: One—that these songs are important to me on a deep level; and two—I have no idea why I love them so much. I could wax poetic about their sociopolitical importance for pages but I wouldn’t really get to the heart of why they resonate so deeply within me.
All of this is to say that I’ve decided to do my best to leave behind the fancy language and stop interrogating my love for certain music. I’ve also abandoned the project of building up a romantic narrative around my love for the song I chose: it’s just a song that grabbed me in the first seconds I heard it. It’s not a song I would play at a party, nor one I’m completely comfortable choosing as a Song That Matters, but it’s a song that I turn up to a high (maybe sonically unhealthy) volume in my tiny headphones, over and over again. When it comes on, I stop what I’m doing and listen. It’s called “Juice,” and it’s by the young Brooklyn-based band Slothrust. (These are silly names, I know. What is slothrust? I have no idea, and I don’t think they do either. The lead singer likes sloths. That’s the whole story. They ran with it.)
That’s part of what I love about this band—they’re simultaneously loud and raw and playful and vulnerable. Vocalist & guitarist Leah Wellbaum goes from intimate fingerpicking verses to exuberant, many-voiced choruses to deafening math-rocky outros in a matter of seconds in any given song. Her lyrics are plainly worded and powerful. And in “Juice,” the simplicity is what spoke to me on my first listen: it was a little over a year ago, and I was up late, mildly depressed and profoundly bored. I had been dumped the week before and I was marooned at my parents’ home in arctic Chicago for the gray, post-New Year’s slump. I felt kind of like those curbside slush piles you find on heavily trafficked city streets—cold, gray, gross, weepy, and sort of salty. I was absently listening to someone’s home-recorded demo on SoundCloud; it ended without my noticing and the opening chords of “Juice” hit me in the face. Suddenly I was wide awake. Leah’s guitar intro is sulky, sort of sardonic—every third note lazily slides its way up to the next as if it could really care less if it gets there. It locks with the drums, and then it has purpose, a syncopated drive. And then she sings, completely deadpan:
My name is Leah and I drink juice
Every morning when I wake up but it’s no use,
Her voice is a low and unapologetic tenor, buried under a few layers of guitars and reverb that make it sound like she’s swimming toward you from a distance. The volume and intensity build, punctuated by short, sharp tremolos from the lead guitar. Then comes the prechorus, sung in a quietly reflective and self-loathing rush that seemed to perfectly describe my psychic state at that moment:
I miss you when you’re gone but resent you when you’re near
I crawl outside of myself and whisper into my own ear
Full speed ahead into the chorus:
And I’m a hamster in a plastic ball
And I’m running towards your fireplace
Chemicals are melted in my fur
The whiskers left upon my face
The lyrics are funny, ridiculous, even—suddenly she’s a hamster? Dying slowly and painfully in a fire?! No time to analyze, the guitar solo has already started. It melts into the last verse:
You pick me up and then you put me back down
I want a piggyback ride all over the town
Do your knees hurt
DO YOUR KNEES HURT?
The attitude of the music and lyrics are a direct translation of my mental state during that first listen: everything is terrible, I’m vulnerable, I’m rolling toward my doom in a plastic ball. I’m a hamster, I’m out of control, and I’m demanding a piggyback ride from someone who doesn’t want to carry me, or can’t. Then one more chorus, and just like that it’s over, resolving into a meek (sort of hopeful?) major chord. I go back to the beginning and listen again.
Although my mood has changed since that first listen, my love for the song and everything it evokes to me—loneliness, power, excitement, anger, pride—have not dissipated. I haven’t stopped listening. To some extent I still identify with that hamster in a plastic ball. Perhaps the reason that each of us have songs that matter to us so intensely is because they contain the combination of sounds that can make it through all the filters that separate us from every other individual (our taste filters, shaped by nationality, gender, race, age, religion, musical historiography, and whatever else) and resonate deeply in our individual hearts.
Jackie is an artist and children’s music teacher living in Philadelphia. She enjoys dancing and plants.