Over the last decade, I’ve thought a good bit about music and failure. In fact, when I wear my hat as a publisher, two of my favorite books from my small press deal with punk rock music (and archaeology) and the art of failing. Perhaps this is why Mike Miley’s essay, “It Hardly Hurt a Bit,” resonates with me. It’s honest and incisive and reflects the feeling that comes from getting what the world gives us and finding meaning in it. It’s a perfect read for the start of a new year and it comes from NDQ 87.3/4.
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It Hardly Hurt a Bit
By Mike Miley
Jon Brion is known to most as either a soundtrack composer (Punch-Drunk Love, I Heart Huckabees, Lady Bird) or a record producer for some of the most creative names in popular music (Kanye West, Fiona Apple, Katy Perry, Janelle Monae), and rightly so. But for me, Jon Brion is nothing less than the composer of the soundtrack to my creative life, a soundtrack with just one song on it. “Ruin My Day” has been the theme playing under every joyous, resentful, morose, and conflicted feeling that I have about the film industry, as well as my sad and ordinary failure to insinuate myself into its ranks.
Before I was even aware of him, Brion’s music had saturated my mind. His fingerprints were on every piece of art that made me want to create. First came the early films of Paul Thomas Anderson, Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia, all of which Brion scored. Their big-hearted, full-throated need to emote their way out of loneliness convinced me to move to LA to live a creative life. Magnolia led to Aimee Mann’s album Bachelor No. 2, which Brion performs on and co-produces, and it only intensified my already intense obsession with this wounded sense of creativity. All these paths converged when my wife and I walked five blocks down Fairfax Avenue from our first apartment in West Hollywood to see Jon Brion perform live at Largo, a trip I’d make many more times, sometimes every week.
Among Angelenos, Brion’s live shows at Largo are the stuff of legend, unrepeatable experiences that somehow happened every Friday. I’ve never been in a space that felt richer and more alive with creative lightning. You never knew what songs he would play or who would pop in to share the stage with him (Fiona Apple, Nickel Creek, Benmont Tench, Nels Cline, Michel Gondry), and you didn’t care because everyone—even the people performing with him—was there to see Brion, the consummate collaborator, work absolutely alone. His one-man-band method of building a song before your eyes—laying down drums, then bass, then keys before picking up a guitar and joining in with himself—expressed the joy and danger of creating. He was totally exposed at every turn, offering up all his musical skills, limitations, and imagination. He was performing virtuosity, that’s for sure, and even though I didn’t see it at the time, he was also performing loneliness. He made gorgeous sounds out of his solitude. And I wanted nothing more than to join him in it.
“Sounds Good To Me . . .”
Brion played “Ruin My Day” that first night and every other night I saw him. Like his live shows, the song perfectly captures the creative energy of being alone and aching to be seen. It’s a seemingly simple breakup waltz with piano, bass, and drums staggering forward, propelled along by some burden it cannot shrug off. Strings and a Chamberlin organ meander and glide in the background to give the song an emotional weight that tugs against the waltz time, urging it to lose its footing and topple over, perhaps even swoon. Meanwhile, Brion, in a voice half-venomous, half-pleading, delivers vocals such as “You don’t have the pull that you used to / but you can still ruin my day.” It strikes me as a perfect song lyrically and musically, sentimental and jaded, open and withdrawn. It’s the most sadly defiant torch song I know.
Maybe it’s the acid-laced irony of his delivery of lines such as “I don’t hope for kind words you might say” or “You can’t draw me in like you used to,” but “Ruin My Day” is a lyrical triumph over cliché, a wounded pop masterpiece. Each verse is constructed from the building blocks of a million love songs and other sticky Valentines, and Brion sharpens them in such a way that shaves any cloying sentimentality clean off until each line cuts anew. It’s a song where the lover simultaneously dares his ex to hurt him again and secretly hopes they will. It’s about nursing one’s wounds to the point of loving them, aestheticizing them, making a gorgeous spectacle out of the injured heart on one’s sleeve, knowing full well that doing so offers no protection from hurt.
As masterful of a breakup song as it is, I’ve always heard more behind its obvious craft and shaky defiance. The way that it daringly courts cliché only to transcend it allows the song to take on a meaning that goes beyond any one relationship with any one person. For me, this song is about a bigger breakup, a breakup with a field, a life plan, and with the person I used to be. All of which means that loving it is a way for me to immerse myself in my own disappointment and melancholy without coming off as a total lunatic.
Brion’s song represented the LA I wanted to move to, the LA I saw in Magnolia, a land of glamorous losers where even disappointment and loneliness could become objects of beauty. Yes, I was drunk on a cocktail of creative energy and elegant pain, and I saw LA as the magical place where my romanticized attachment to sadness could sign a one-year lease with an option to renew. One would think that such downbeat songs about Los Angeles would convince me that my chances of success in Hollywood were as likely as a downpour in May. Instead, listening to Brion incessantly fueled my belief that I, like Brion, would rise above rejection and setback to establish myself as a singular creative figure whose brilliance a fickle and artless group of industry experts could only ignore for so long.
In Brion’s case, this proved to be the truth. My story turned out much differently.
“. . . But Unfortunately I Remember It”
As with any relationship that slowly sours, it was amazing at first. I was getting trained by Oscar nominees, people who worked on Eraserhead and The Last Picture Show, people with work in the National Film Registry. One of them even praised me for my “dark heart.” But a dark heart can only resist the sunshine for so long before it too succumbs to the allure of the charmed and popular milling about an infinity pool in the Hills, especially when it secretly aches to be seen and celebrated, to belong.
lly when it secretly aches to be seen and celebrated, to belong.
As much as an MFA program may promise to cultivate unique creative voices, it is no place for the wobbly-spined or the needy. But no one had told me that. It certainly wasn’t in the brochure. Like many of my peers, I submitted myself to the whims of the workshop, jettisoning all personal vision in favor of making inert films populated by characters whose carefully telegraphed and justified actions did not confuse or trouble anyone even for a moment. I still remember a first-year fellow coming up to my friend after our thesis showcase and telling him that she was ready to drop out after watching those films until his film convinced her to change her mind. My thesis film had played right before his. Her comment really stung at the time, but the truth was that she was absolutely right. If I had seen that saccharine, plodding movie I made two years earlier, I wouldn’t have even applied to film school.
But these are the things that happen when you let someone else steer your life—romantically, creatively, professionally, it doesn’t matter. You lose your way, you lose yourself. This doesn’t “prey on my mind like it used to / but [it] can still ruin my day.”
Turns out those were the good years.
Life after film school animated the people pleaser in me even more because now the institutional safety net was removed. I was just open, hungry, and needy. I needed other people to validate my creative urges, unable to realize that in doing so I was subsuming my own creativity into theirs. Now I scrounged for every contact I could make, no matter how tenuous—a junior agent’s assistant, a production company intern, a festival programmer—hounding them like a clingy boyfriend every two weeks to ask if they’d read my script or watched my short. No one saw a dark heart anymore. They only saw someone “persistent” and incapable of saying no. I would meet other people and immediately size them up for their utility in getting me closer to anything related to my “career.” They call it networking, but it seemed a lot more like self-abasement and manipulation disguised as ambition. (Think “Paperback Writer” but pathetic.) I would “wait by the phone” for calls from agents, managers, and producers, with “hope for kind words [they] might say,” all the while thinking that I was already one call, one email away from getting permission to be at the helm of a psychological thriller. Did I just miss that call? Let me look. Maybe that email came in while I was looking for my phone. I should check.
It must have been disgusting.
Just like in any bad relationship, I completely effaced myself and called it love. I took each nonsense note to “soften” my transgressive high school football script. I smothered my dark heart with each draft of a misguided romantic comedy treatment. I let manager trainees tell me that I didn’t write from my heart. I thought that I could somehow win their admiration by catering to their wants and whims, only to have my calls go unreturned, my emails unread, my breakfast appointments not kept. I wanted to make films so that I could collaborate, but I spent most of my days alone. And it didn’t look as artfully exhilarating as when Jon Brion assembled “Ruin My Day” onstage at Largo.
It’s not pretty, groveling for people you don’t even respect and having nothing to show for it except around-the-clock nausea or unannounced, uncontrollable crying jags while you and your wife are watching South Park. It took sitting at Fiddler’s Bistro on Third—alone again, stood up again—for me to accept that the pain came less from being stood up for breakfast than from the fact that no one was rejecting me: I had rejected myself first.
We’re probably long overdue for a reality check. Reader, you are not missing anything because I didn’t make it in Hollywood. I am hardly some remarkable cinematic talent that has gone overlooked. My absence is not the reason that movies are bad. I would not have saved you from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The fact is, it’s not that complicated or maudlin. I had a dream to be a filmmaker; it didn’t work out. It’s not special. But part of me is still in love with that pain, with how reality could not live up to my outsized dreams. It’s taken me a long time to figure out why, but the answer was waiting for me from the beginning, in Brion’s song. The pain reminds me how I was once so open, free enough to be so creative to believe that I could make my dream come true just by loving it enough. It was foolish, but it was also lovely.
“I Guess You Could Say One Recovers”
I don’t really daydream about being the next Brian De Palma, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still sad it didn’t happen and angry about how long it took me to come to terms with a pretty obvious reality. I’d be a liar and a fool if I said that hearing about the success of a classmate from film school doesn’t make me feel like someone’s stepping on my chest. A weird sense of shame-tinged pride comes over me whenever I hear people talking about a film or television director and I feel compelled to blurt out “I went to film school with them.” I’m happy for them, “I don’t lose my place like I used to,” “and I seldom get carried away” by sadness when I hear their news, but it “can still ruin my day.”
I know there’s nothing unique about these feelings. Everyone has unrealized dreams that they long for. This melancholy is the stuff of cliché. But no one’s melancholy feels trite to them. Theirs is the realest emotion that anyone has ever felt in human history. “Ruin My Day” gets this by being thoroughly original and clichéd at the same time. Because that’s how we are: We subscribe to the utter unrepeatability of our feelings and experiences, pity ourselves when even our pain fails at being original, and love it all the same because it’s ours. This truth gives “Ruin My Day” its edge and its beauty.
Now, fifteen years after I made my last film, I think I finally understand why I love this sad music more than anything else. I’ve grown up with this song. What I hear now in Brion’s aestheticized disappointment isn’t romanticization, but maturity: “Ruin My Day” is what adulthood sounds like, where things don’t work out despite your best efforts and without anyone else’s malicious interference. When Brion erupts into a series of drawn-out “oh-ooo-oh-hoo”s before the song’s final chorus, he’s releasing a cry of pain, but it’s a celebratory cry, a cry that is glad to feel, a cry that actually keeps someone going day after ruined day. It’s that resilience, that plain old-fashioned maturity, that’s beautiful, especially when it hurts. That’s what Brion sings of, and it’s what I take with me now.
The speaker in “Ruin My Day” isn’t over the relationship, just as I’m not over the end of my filmmaking dreams. Moving on isn’t a realistic option, not after working so hard for something and not getting it. And I’m not sure I want to. Creativity thrives on the exact sadness and vulnerability that fuels Brion’s song. The reason creative people like me often confuse melancholic longing with romance is because being creative means living in a state of longing that perpetually teeters on the edge of disappointment, a longing to make something that matters and a disappointment when it falls short.
Being open and creative will always have the potential to ruin my day, but that’s part of the deal. With each line, each note, “Ruin My Day” teaches me how being creative is like jumping into a relationship: both are fueled by a love of being vulnerable. In the song’s bridge, Brion sheds the acidity and reveals an overwhelming tenderness, singing “Love / It was nothing / It hardly hurt a bit.” We offer ourselves exposed and unguarded to something that doesn’t necessarily need us, yet we give ourselves wholly to it anyway for the thrill of being seen, perhaps even loved, at our most defenseless. We may want to feign that we struck a mature détente with our faded dreams, but the way Brion’s song nakedly nurses that wounded melancholy demonstrates how we love the sadness more than we loved the dream itself.
In memory of Betsy Petersen, who couldn’t ruin my day if she tried.
Mike Miley teaches literature at Metairie Park Country Day School and film studies at Loyola University New Orleans. He is the author of Truth and Consequences: Game Shows in Fiction and Film (University Press of Mississippi, 2019), and the co-editor of the forthcoming Conversation with Steve Erickson (with Matthew Luter, 2021). His writing as appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Critique, Literature/Film Quarterly, Music and the Moving Image, Orbit, The Smart Set, and elsewhere.