Featured Image: Mountain Man at NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert
I never really understood the Greek Siren myth until I heard Sewee Sewee by the band Mountain Man, comprising of a trio of Appalachian folk singers. As soon as I pressed play for the first time, even the fact that I don’t know how to swim couldn’t have stopped me from leaping off a boat and rushing to those sweet-as-ambrosia voices. Quite amazingly, I stumbled upon the song entirely by accident while reading through archives of essays by the Chinese American poet, Jenny Zhang, on Rookie. Her captivating and painfully relatable accounts of girlhood struck a chord in me, as did her carefully curated film and song recommendations.
On further perusal, I found out that Rookie was an online magazine created by and for teenagers that shut down in 2018, and naturally, given how amazing everything I read so far was, I was very curious as to why that happened. After spending a few minutes going through a very long goodbye message by the editor, I realized that I had actually heard of her before — it was none other than Tavi Gevinson, who’s starring in the soon-to-be-released revamped Gossip Girl.
Now like most teenagers in the 10’s, I grew up on a steady diet of Blair and Serena’s exploits, scandalized by almost everything they did but secretly rooting for my favorites anyway. As a young girl whose only memory of a childhood trip to NYC was that of the Ferris wheel in Toys “R” Us, the hipstery Brooklyn art galleries and champagne-fountain brunches of the Upper East Side were fascinating. And so when news broke out that we were once again going to be given a front-row seat to the money-fueled follies of New York’s elite, I was elated and disgusted in equal measure. On one hand, escapism seemed like a pretty sweet deal, especially for us touch-starved pandemic folk. But in today’s social and political climate, is another story about a bunch of billionaire kids blowing more money on clothes and getting other people to write their SATs than most of us are able to spend on college really necessary? Aren’t there other stories, other voices we need to be amplifying? Or am I overthinking this and there really is nothing wrong with some harmless fun?
Anyway, coming back to Mountain Man, a quick Google search tells me that the three members met each other while they were students at Bennington College. I have always been very fascinated with Bennington, especially after reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and finding out that she studied there, and that the fictional Hampden College from the book, where the pretentious and fascinating classics students (and Richard) studied, murdered, and slowly went crazy, was based on it. It also didn’t hurt that the author of Less Than Zero and American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis, studied there too. In fact, I was delighted when I found out that he and Tartt were actually friends!
Thinking about Tartt reminds me of The Goldfinch, her most recent novel, which was also turned into a movie that received so many negative reviews, I’ve lost all hope of my not-so-secret or personal desire of The Secret History being turned into a short series starring a younger Ben Barnes and Andrew Garfield. But that movie did introduce me to Perfume Genius’s beautiful song — Otherside. Perfume Genius is the stage name of American musician Michael Alden Hadreas, which supposedly came from the genius perfume maker of the movie Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
But for all its faults (ahem…Finn Wolfhard’s Russian accent…ahem), The Goldfinch is a very aesthetically pleasing movie, resplendent with gorgeous sweaters, antique wooden furniture, and stellar book recommendations. The dark academia mood boards were getting a bit tired with stills from Kill Your Darlings, and I guess it was nice to have another source for aspirational images.
Speaking of which, there is an excellent video on YouTube that cobbles together scenes from Kill Your Darlings, of Allen Ginsberg (played by Daniel Radcliffe) and Lucien Carr (played by Dane DeHaan) stumbling through 1940’s New York City and life, while Lorde’s Perfect Places plays in the background. Watching it makes you want to immediately grab a typewriter, don a wool trench coat, and pound away.
Of course, Lorde’s music makes any situation look good. You could probably play Ribs as you eat Doritos and watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and feel like you’re the protagonist of a series that Netflix would cancel after one season, even though their fans spend hours tweeting, commenting, and putting up billboards proclaiming that they like it more than The Kissing Booth (bring back Anne with an E already).
Well, if you’ve managed to keep up with me so far, I bet you’ve been asking the question — how did you come across Jenny Zhang’s essays in the first place? At least, I hope you are, because it’s a bit of an interesting story.
If any of you keep tabs on lit Twitter (lit as in literary, not internet slang), you might have heard of the controversy surrounding Rona Wang, a writer and student at MIT, who had been accused of plagiarism by some young writers she had mentored. Her debut short story collection, Cranesong, was pulled by her publisher Half Mystic Press after news broke out, but the Simon and Schuster book deal she landed still seems to be on.
I was intrigued by what could have led someone that talented to resort to something like that, and did a little internet stalking in search of answers, when I came across an interview in which she mentioned reading Jenny Zhang’s essays in Rookie. I have no conclusions to present about Rona, as my half-hearted attempts at playing detective were unfruitful, nor has she publicly commented on any of this, but I am glad she introduced me to Zhang’s work, because boy, is it brilliant! Even as I write this mini-tour into my consciousness, I am also ordering her story collection, Sour Hearts, that was published by Lena Dunham’s Lenny Books imprint on Random House. As if that isn’t cool enough, I’ve also heard that this book is going to be made into a movie directed by Cathy Yan, of Birds of Prey fame. Here’s hoping it turns out to be much better received than The Goldfinch. Of course, books are always better than the movies they inspire, but that doesn’t mean that the movies have to be worse than other, non-book-inspired movies that exist.
Another situation where books are far superior is once again, the erstwhile Gossip Girl. Cecily von Ziegesar’s book series for young adults gave its readers a more direct look into its character’s minds, of which easily the most entertaining is Blair Waldorf’s darkly humorous commentary on the ridiculousness of the situations she constantly finds herself in. It’s so refreshing to see girls like Blair and Vanessa, who in this iteration is a rebellious filmmaker with a shaved head, just be themselves without remorse or shame. They’re ambitious and they ruthlessly pursue their dreams, whether it’s getting into Yale (Blair) or not compromising on artistic integrity in search of commercial viability (Vanessa). While a lot of the characters from the series are for the most part morally reprehensible, and not good role models for young adults at all, they do exemplify the advantages of not taking life too seriously, and flitting from one artistic pursuit to another based on whatever catches your fancy, although it must be acknowledged that it’s much easier to be carefree when you’ve got a trust fund to fall back on.
And with that almost full circle-like spiel, I’ll end here before my brain comes up with yet another random pop culture reference for me to scour the internet for hours about, which while being a pleasurable activity, should probably be postponed to another time, and perhaps another article.