“I Don’t Care” is at the top of the billboard charts this week and it’s no wonder. A song about escaping a place you don’t want to be without leaving it ought to be the expected ear worm of August 2019. So many of us long for the power to disappear. Can we just not have to deal with any of these demands? It’s about agency. It’s about loneliness. It’s about apathy. It’s about loss.
Most of my friends who keep up with pop music don’t examine the lyrics too much. They say “I just like the beat,” or “It’s just so catchy”, or, maybe, “I don’t know, I just feel it.” But pop music is regularly very deep. Number one songs regularly channel what everyone is feeling. The lyrics probably matter a lot more than we usually realize. Our ears long for something that resonates. It’s like a body with a vitamin deficiency — something in our animal brain knows what we might not be able to say and we are drawn to Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber (again) saying what we don’t know we want to hear.
“Don’t think I fit in at this party
Everyone’s got so much to say (Yeah)
I always feel like I’m nobody, mmm
Who wants to fit in anyway?”
WE ALL DO, Ed and Justin! WE ALL WANT TO FIT IN! And of course, they know this. That’s why the song works. We are all suffering from this unquenchable longing yet we are all surrounded by other people who we know are just like us. We are all led around by the same thirst. And no one is pouring any water! Everyone is hoarding it in some sort of mass prophetic performance of the future wars we will wage for H20! The scope of togetherness is narrowed to one person, a sexual partner, who is the only one — a classic love song trope.
“I don’t like nobody, but it’s like you’re the only one here
I don’t like nobody but you, baby, I don’t care
I don’t like nobody but you, I hate everyone here
I don’t like nobody but you, baby, yeah”
But the 2019 twist is the emphatic apathy. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. The not caring is what shines in the song, not really the connection. I think that’s because the connection is week. As much as we long for water, we mostly want the wanting. It’s maddening. I feel it too. Our eyes, hearts and ears are thoroughly leashed to the search for satisfaction. We can’t connect even with those we are connected because everyone is intermittently available, vaguely present, or drowned out by all the noise.
In an interview by Krista Tippet with Esther Perel on the OnBeing podcast, the guest described this inability to connect as a cultural phenomenon. Borrowing from Paula Boss, she describes the disassociated norms of 2019 as a form of “ambiguous loss”
To explain: ambiguous loss, for example, when a person is still physically present but psychologically gone, as if when they have Alzheimer’s, for example. Or if you have someone who disappeared, they are physically gone but psychologically present. In both cases, you cannot resolve the question of mourning and loss, because you don’t know, are they here, or are they not here?
When people describe to me being put on pause in a conversation or lying next to someone in bed who is scrolling through their Instagram feeds and is physically present but psychologically gone or is having literally another life with their phones, what they’re describing is not the physical isolation of loneliness. They’re describing a loss of trust and social capital that they are experiencing next to the very person with whom they should not be feeling alone. That’s ambiguous loss.
I think Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber found the vein of golden ambiguous loss in the bedrock of the American mind. While they cash in on our loneliness we raise a glass to the anthem of our peculiarly 2019 loneliness.
This is why I’m a Christian. I need more than a good diagnosis of the cultural phenomenon of ambiguous loss (though there is incredible power in properly naming the problem). I need a solution. Jesus is a reason to connect with the people I am with. Jesus is a reason to pour some water. Jesus is a reason to love the people at the party. Jesus is a reason to put down the phone. And I need a really good reason to do any of that. The tide is so strong. The animal instinct is so overwhelming at times. I need a rescuer, and a reason to do something different.
I have found that loving others is more fulfilling than satisfying my needs. I am more able to receive love when I love. And my ability to love is easily stunted by refusal to love. It’s like it’s all or nothing — like the tap is on or off. So being at a party feeling like Ed and Justin, would cancel my ability to love anyone, even the ONE who is better than all these around me at the party. I could only take from anyone if I refuse to ever give — if I only embrace my desire — if I chronically control my engagement in any given space. I could only satisfy. I could only drink. And I will consume it all!
Jesus fills me up and sends me out as an overflowing cup instead of an insatiable hole. He is an infinite well, and no one else is. He is a reason to care, in a world that persistently pulls me, and you, and Justin and Ed, towards “I don’t care.”