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a whole bunch of disorganized thoughts about an instagram post in which christina hendricks is crying about mitski
Beauty, like grief, is a big joke. Christina Hendricks, a woman so beautiful that her beauty has often served as an instant punchline, joined instagram on May 30th of this year. The comments on her first few posts are handfuls of people, some of them nobodies and garden variety reply guys (a reply guy can be a person of any gender, to be clear. If you are a reply guy, you already know it in your heart) and many of them other actually-famous people, including a relatively large sample of the cast of Mad Men (who all seem to act like people who went to summer camp together, which I guess they did) exclaiming over the fact that she is actually on the internet now.
Since then, her posts have been almost bizarrely normal, normal in the manner of a person neither famous nor earth-shatteringly beautiful. Her life looks really nice; it looks like the nice instagram of an acquaintance in their thirties or forties who is maybe a project manager at a robustly midsize company in a robustly midsize American city. She has two adorable dogs and a cute husband who shows up occasionally but not egregiously in her posts. There are lots of outfit selfies, including several dresses from Reformation, with the usual awkward captions people write when they’ve taken a particularly good selfie and want an excuse to post it. There are group selfies with friends and blurry photos of other people’s weddings. All of it is profoundly unremarkable.
Last week, Hendricks posted something else that was, in its own way, also unremarkable. The post is a pair of photos. The first is of Mitski’s 2018 album Be The Cowboy, in its vinyl sleeve and still in the plastic it came in, Mitski’s cooly mistrustful face being made up in old-movie glam on the cover, against a pink background so light as to be almost white, with white text in bubbly outlined letters spelling the album’s name. It sits on top of a charcoal drawing of one of Hendrick’s dogs. The second photo, when one swipes to reveal it, is an up-close selfie of Hendrick’s luminously symmetrical face, hair held back with one hand on top of her head out of frame, and mascara pooled beneath her eyes and pouring down her cheeks, presumably the result of crying while, and because of, listening to Mitski. The caption reads “Can’t stop. Won’t stop. #mitski #acne patches # mascara.”
It felt to me like the internet lost its collective mind over this, but that isn’t true. For about ten minutes, the post meant a great, maybe overwhelming, deal to me, and to maybe five or seven other people I know, all of whom instantly reposted it to their own stories. It probably says something about my ongoing relationship with the internet that when I see something that causes me to feel a whole lot of confusing emotions, the label I want to put on it is “the internet lost its collective mind.” I had the kind of strong reaction to Hendrick’s post whose strength was based in the fact that I didn’t quite know why I was having the reaction: Maybe if I yell about this, I will figure out why it makes me feel so much.
At least some of it was a stars they’re just like us type of thing, the startling and oddly satisfying experience of recognizing one’s self and one’s own behavior in that of a famous person. This newsletter’s “about” section used to just say “crying in public,” and so did my twitter bio, for a while. Crying is a meme now, a shorthand for indicating a general emotional reaction to something, or even just indicating that something is good; we are as rarely actually crying, when we say that we are, as we are actually laughing out loud. It’s important to remember that any meme is a joke, even the ones with which we seek to understand ourselves and identify ourselves into a larger group such as “people who cry to Mitski albums.” Crying to Mitski is a real experience, a valid response to the album, but crying to Mitski is also a meme. Everyone cries to Mitski; Mitski’s albums, her whole persona, invite large emotional responses. Crying to Mitski is such an obvious response that crying to Mitski has itself become a joke.
Making one’s own crying into a joke can be read as a sort of defiant gesture. If crying is something I do very publicly, something I do in part as a way to participate in the jokes on the internet — posting about crying to Mitski, posting a crying selfie on instagram — I have to some degree released myself from the power of my emotions. A joke is the opposite of a secret, or more accurately, any joke that works is a violated secret. Humor is based on the transgressive sense of saying what shouldn’t be said, popping the balloon, letting the air out, building up the tension and then cutting the string. Putting one’s crying-face in the brag of an instagram post is transgressive because we still expect crying to be kept a secret; making it public on purpose rather than by accident makes it a joke, and if it’s a joke, then it becomes survivable. When crying is a sort of comedic performance instead of a fiercely hoarded private act, its publicness renders it unimportant and therefore less powerful, just not that big a deal. The work of these artists, like Mitski, who write about crying and to whom their fans cry, is much the same kind of thing, the same defiant public joke, a refusal to let these emotions matter so much that they crush and silent us beneath them. We’re all crying, so who cares, we’re all messy, so who cares. Tomorrow we’ll cry about something else, and then we’ll get over it.
I’m still trying to figure out what it is about Hendricks in particular crying to Mitski that made the world so completely stop for me for a moment. One of the things is certainly Hendrick’s outrageous beauty, which makes me feel like the opening paragraph of a 1990s profile of a female celebrity by a male journalist if I look at her for more than a few seconds. Beauty like Hendricks’ is supposed to protect its bearer from being a joke; we strive toward beauty, most of us, because we recognize it as a safehouse. But the cruelty of that promise is that beauty in excess, a too-perfect performance, beauty that splits the arrow that hit the center of the target before it, such as Hendricks’, becomes itself a joke, vaulting right out of escape into greater vulnerability. Beauty like Hendricks’ shares something of the same feeling as a meme; so accurate that its exactness tips it over into absurdity. Combining this absurd beauty with the meme-absurdity of a crying selfie felt like a collision of two burning trucks on a narrow road, a punchline piled up on top of a punchline. Crying is a vulnerability, but making crying into a meme renders it less vulnerable by making it careless; Hendricks posting herself covered in bleeding mascara to show how much she loves a Mitski album takes the same careless hand with beauty, the two vulnerabilities undoing one another.
But it’s also that it felt like being proud of your mom for being good at the internet. Many of the comments on this post say just some version of MOM or MOTHER. “MOM” a few years ago became a way to tell someone they were hot, which obviously Hendricks is, or more specifically hot and also an admirable, beloved person, which Hendricks seems to be. But also it’s that, in some logic-defying, bone-deep way, Christina Hendricks is my actual mom.
Hendricks is not old enough to be my mother, but she is older than me by enough that as I was just barely becoming an adult, she was on Mad Men playing an avatar of feminine beauty in all its brutal punchlines and trap doors. Most of us around this same age who are attracted to women grew up with a crush on Christina Hendricks, and most of us who are in any way seeking to present as feminine grew up wanting to be her. She feels like my mom on a larger cultural level, “mom” at the level of influence and just like a mom, here she is, late to the internet, trying to learn how to use her instagram while her kids cheer her on in the comments. Seeing this post brought up a feeling not unlike texting all your friends to say “oh my god my mom posted a meme,” like what I might feel if my mom discovered a dril tweet.
But it’s not a dril tweet; it’s Mitski, an artist so beloved as to carry some kind of hushed, religious feeling when she’s mentioned, one whose two syllable name is nearly the name of an emotion all its own. It’s like if your mom showed up to meet you somewhere wearing a Bury Me at Makeout Creek shirt. The best Mitski song is in fact “Your Best American Girl;” it’s one of those cases in which the obvious answer is also the right answer. “Your Best American Girl” is a perfect rock song in the same way Hendricks is beautiful; it hits the mark so exactly that its perfection slips over into absurdity. Hearing “Your Best American Girl" makes me want to laugh out loud even now when I’ve listened to it thousands of times; who let this happen, and how is it allowed? Nothing hyperbolic I could say about this song is actually hyperbole, which makes it uniquely difficult to talk about or to say anything about at all. “Your Best American Girl” is millennial “Thunder Road.” It’s the greatest rock song of a generation and the song that offers a new thesis not just for why this type of music exists, but why it should exist, a song about all the cliched and yet desperately appealing old themes, youth and rebellion from one’s parents’ expectations, love and the thwarting of love, the desire both to run away and to be bigger than oneself, running out of the bounds of one’s small life, bursting into the all-together-now enormity of three big chords and a singable hook.
Hendricks, in the comments on her post, cites her favorite Mitski song on this album as “Pink in the Night” (she accidentally uses a hashtag wrong here, just like a mom), a lushly romantic track whose instrumentals glitter behind a slow-dance orchestration of teenage-breathless love (“I know I’ve kissed you before but I didn’t do it right, can I try again, try again, try again”). She also mentions “First Love/Late Spring,” off of Makeout Creek. Both of these are delicate, slow-burn songs. “First Love/Late Spring” is sprawling and gorgeous; it sounds like the way Hendricks looks, and I can imagine her crying to it, a face covered in mascara still beautiful enough to take an up-close selfie.
But I am not delicate and my heart is a junkyard; the best track off of Makeout Creek is “Townie,” in which Mitski screams “I want a love that falls as fast as a body off a balcony / and I want a kiss like my heart is hitting the ground.” I once spent an entire week only listening to “Townie,” on repeat, not even letting a single other song get through. Every line is that good, that ferocious, that much of a big snapping-jawed joke about the size of emotions versus the experiences that contain them. It is the single most autobiographical thing I have ever encountered, including any of my own autobiographical writing. Right up until the last few months of my twenties, my whole life and especially every experience of love I had ever had felt like “Townie,” a house party in a house that is already on fire, the song a hungry, giddy scream. Obviously I loved Be The Cowboy (here’s a whole essay about it), but Makeout Creek is, for my money, still Mitski’s best album; it is raw around the edges and far less sophisticated than Be The Cowboy, but every single track is a banger, a howl at the sky, a refusal to let any part of life remain small or be unnoticed. The hilarious high-low mash-up (a meme!) of the title, between the Civil-War-documentary-solemnity of “bury me at” and the teenage throwback dirtbag-ness of “makeout creek,” is the tone of the whole album. It is deadly serious, and it knows it is a big joke, just like crying is a big joke.
I love “Townie,” because I’m a mess, perpetually clumsy and drawn to disasters; sometimes it’s hard to find the joke funny, sometimes I feel hopeless about it. But seeing that Christina Hendricks wanted to join me, and everybody else, in this same big joke, in the messiness of crying to Mitski and the garbage internet where we all live with our records and our crying and our outsize emotions and our hopes for a better world, made me feel like when your mom finally talks to you about her youth. This is a thing that has never really happened to me, and I think happens to few people, but I also know I’ve spent a lot of time waiting and hoping for it, the moment where your mom opens a bottle of wine and sits down with you and tells you about her ex boyfriends and giggles with you as though you are both teens together, after neither of you are teens any longer. Christina Hendricks is a stranger who only exists to me in the fictions of the internet and of television, but she is also my actual mother, beautiful and a big joke, crying online about Mitski with me and with everyone else, all together now, putting the song on repeat again.
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