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“Maps” (by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, off their 2003 album Fever to Tell) is the best song of the 2000s so far and it isn’t even close. Maps (in the interest of keeping this email from being a miserable experience for everybody, I am not going to put quotation marks around its name each time) is the thing that you maybe don’t understand if you weren’t old enough to fuck up your life in ’00s and it is the thing that came after, the immediately post-recession coming-of-age thing, when nothing you could do could fix anything, so you were free to do whatever the hell you wanted. Maps is the sense that a world that offered no hope was also an after-hours party with a closed door. Maps is the fact that I was worried that that sentence would make me sound old and then decided I didn’t care, almost. Maps is the moment between an inhale and an exhale that feels like fuck you and fuck everyone no one can ever tell me anything. It rarely lasts very long these days and that’s a good thing but also I almost never listen to Maps anymore, which doesn’t in any way diminish Maps at all. Maps is the fence in front of the empty lot near my old apartment where I used to make out with people on my way to taking them back to the apartment and Maps is the fact that that wall was part of why the apartment seemed like a good choice; this is what, to Maps, counts as planning ahead. Maps is that person you loved once whom you would cross the street to get away from now but sometimes, when you can’t sleep and the ceiling is blue with the imprints of lonely cars passing way down below, remembering the worst things they ever did to you feels like home.
Sometimes desire is like the low but incessant buzzing in the back of your ear in a room full of people where you’re sure that nobody else can hear it. Maps is that noise, and that kind of desire, sitting in a room at a nice event amongst nice people while hot fevered images burn a hole through the back of your mind so insistently that you feel certain everyone else in the room must be able to see what you are thinking. It is the way in which dwelling in your own interior emotional life and in the polite exterior world at once sometimes feels like nothing short of science fiction, like a book for kids where there are invisible wizards everywhere but everyone else is half-asleep and un-special and you are the only one who knows it, you are the only one who can see the wizards. Maps is the line in Closer about a heart being like “a fist wrapped in blood” and Maps is the shitty, horny, teenage self-impressed part of me that still loves that line, and that movie, and that whole kind of thing. I believe it is possible to argue that Maps is the best thing we have done in this whole twenty years, the best single souvenir floating up to the surface out of this sinking ship. By “best” I hope it’s clear I just mean “the thing I like most,” but not stopping to differentiate between those two things is Maps, too.
At the beginning of this century I was a child who had never done anything at all and “Last Nite” by The Strokes was the most important song in the world. It is truly truly impossible to explain, if you were not there, how much all of New York City in 2002 sounded like Last Nite by The Strokes. It was like the way that the subways smell like pee, so absolutely ground-in that you eventually don’t notice but the fact that you don’t notice is another way of saying that it’s all that you notice. Last Nite is a nihilistic little sex ballad that meant nothing and did nothing and felt nothing, but downtown some of the streets still hadn’t been cleaned up and good bars had cracked fake leather booths in them and looked like nothing from outside and bands sounded like the 70s again. It took me years to realize that I had moved to New York in order to try to live in a place that didn’t exist anymore, in order to try to squeeze and broad-shoulder my way inside the place from my parents’ stories, one that was long dead by the time I arrived in it. But in the fall of 2002 everything sounded like Last Nite and you rarely ever saw a cop in the subway, most coffee was terrible and there was still a Virgin Megastore in Union Square. New York was still a place that didn’t have its shit together, that slept until noon and cared about bands, and I felt welcome in it in a way I rarely have anywhere or to anything, and it sounded like Last Nite and pretty soon it also sounded like Maps.
Last Nite is a vastly inferior song to Maps, but listening to Last Nite in my high school english teacher’s office in the spring of 2002 and then moving to New York that fall was one of the very few times when an experience actually aligned with my fantasy of it, when the idea of the thing became the thing itself, when the painting fit the frame. Both of these songs are part of something that people I guess sometimes call the “rock revival” in New York. The thing about rock music is that when it works it is a long-jump grasp at the immediacy of the moment and for a minute music in this era achieved that; the time we were in was the was the time we imagined ourselves in. It’s our time to be hated, sang Karen O in another song from the same year. Sometimes I listened to that song so much that I couldn’t even hear it anymore. The destination was right here, where we were already standing.
Anyway, Maps. There’s a building near Washington Square Park where I used to have a lot of sex in the basement and that building is right next door to the church where I go on Sundays now with my kind husband and his genuine experience of Christian faith and my saint-like godparents whom I have finally allowed myself to love now that they are older than anyone I love has any right to be and the collision of these two facts, the way those nights map onto these mornings like dirt in a room right after you’ve cleaned it, that’s also Maps.
Karen O was 23 or 24 when she wrote this song. It was about her boyfriend at the time, who was in a band you’ve never heard of and don’t care about, who never wrote anything that can even aspire to touch the hem of Maps. They were both about to go on tour; in the video she’s crying because she’s waiting for him to show up and afraid he isn’t going to, it’s incredibly legible and pedestrian and obvious and the tears are real tears. Every line of the song is a promise, which is maybe what feels so unhinged about it, why it feels from end to end like a bad idea, like “bad idea” distilled down to its single molecule. I’ll stay the same. Don’t stray. My kind’s your kind. Wait. They don’t love you like I love you. Every promise attempts to extract another promise in return. Love should be something you can offer someone, a springboard and a running start, a tangible object lobbed with murderous certainty across distance, but it’s not. It’s horribly static, it elicits no promises, it makes nothing and compels nothing. All we can do is stand there in the middle of our consuming love like those religious drawings in which a saint is surrounded wholly in fire and yet their body does not disintegrate. A simpler way to put this is that love feels like a guarantee but it isn’t. I don’t know what happened next with Karen O’s boyfriend; I think they broke up fairly soon after Maps got big. I could look it up but it doesn’t matter, the point of Maps is the incredible sense of doom, the gallows-feeling of dread that accompanies every breath and syllable in it. It’s the end of the world; the world is the size of your heart, the world is the size of your phone. It’s holding up two hands to stop the floodwave breaking through the wall.
Textually and historically, this is a song about how to live with the knowledge that the thing you most fear is with absolute certainty going to come to pass. Knowing that something is not going to work out and is going to fuck you up sometimes has absolutely no bearing on wanting to keep doing a thing, throwing your whole body at making it work as though at a locked metal door two feet thick. Maps is about all of that and it sounds like that, too. Maybe you’ve never begged anyone to stay, I mean genuinely, maybe you never have, I don’t know your life. I have no idea how Maps sounds to you in that case, but to me this song is the sound it makes when the part of me that knows better gives up its claw-hold on the ledge and I am left with no guard rails within myself. It is begging someone to stay, and it is the fear that isn’t this — this abject grossness of begging someone to stay— just what all of it meant all along, all the better words and the careful conversation, the allowances and niceness and responsibility and silences, wasn’t all of it just this underneath, wait they don’t love you like I love you.
Maps is about longing and heartbreak and futility and Maps is about New York in the earliest part of the 2000s but what Maps its really about is making out in bars. Making out in a bar is a gross, inappropriate, impolite thing. Making out in a bar is not, in any sense of the word, ok. Maps is also not ok. Maps is the national anthem of not being ok. Sometimes everyone loves me is the exact same lie as nothing matters and sometimes their intersection is the choice to make out in a bar, and when Maps starts up it’s always slower and lower-key than I remember, slinking in on tiny feet, and I think oh maybe this isn’t even going to make me feel anything at all this time. There were times when I thought because something felt good, it couldn’t possibly hurt anyone, and believed that sharp-toothed joy must be in itself a moral highway sign. That’s what Maps sounds like once it settles in and starts to build. For a while I really believed that what felt good must also be right and that this was a system by which I could navigate the world. There are so many songs that are so much better, musically, than Maps. But of course that’s not the point; they don’t sound like when good intentions distill down to one dark corner in one single dark room.
Karen O said that she liked knowing that people did Maps at karaoke, and not insignificant to its achievement is the fact that it is a perfect karaoke song. Maps is a karaoke song that anyone can sing and a song that pins to the wall one of the three or five emotions that live in a karaoke room, when a shitty day is a broken heart and a broken heart is the end of the world but the end of the world is maybe, at least, a party. People rarely ever actually cry at karaoke but karaoke often feels a lot like crying; more things that aren’t crying often feel like crying than actual crying does. Sometimes what people seem to be doing at karaoke is engaging in the belief that if only they could once and for all get it outside of themselves, it would stay there, and they would be free of it. Maps is that and Maps is easy to sing because there isn’t really much singing; you just whisper, and then you yell, and maybe you think about somebody who isn’t there, someone you don’t speak to anymore.
The world is ending and it never felt like these two decades were actually decades, they were a throat clearing, they were a way of waiting for something to happen. We were standing on the curb waiting for the century to show up and open its doors and gesture us on board. We would be ready whenever it got here, the future which was absolutely going to look like the future and not like the present. And then it turned out that no, this was it, we’d been in it already the whole time, and twenty years had passed and whatever we’d done waiting for the thing to arrive was the thing itself. I listened to Maps a lot and walked too fast and achieved a lot of things that weren’t the thing I meant to achieve. I loved people and failed at loving people and more often than not those two were the same. I made out in bars. I even once begged someone to stay, at the coldest hour of the early morning, howling from a forge set up and blazing in the worst part of myself.
Another thing Maps is about is how much better it feels to think about these things after the fact, how with some time a fiction settles over certain memories. I think a lot about Karen O playing that song over and over for the rest of her career, as the lyrics transformed from a present hurt to a distant memory, the long slow triumph of it becoming monotonous and losing its sting, just a song, until the only person left who existed in the story was herself, standing onstage doing the same thing for the thousandth time.
The things that hurt me at the beginning of this century don’t hurt anymore, or at least they hurt in totally different ways. Perhaps the condition of the future is that it never feels like the future; perhaps in ten years nobody will listen to Maps, or make out in bars anymore, but I hope they do, and if there’s any positive utility to the obligated, eulogizing mood in the current moment as the calendar slams into the brick wall of the new year, it’s this, the stubborn determination to have held something that can be carried forward. The world is ending, but we made some beautiful things in the wreckage. We get to keep Maps, and Maps is perfect, and someday everything that hurt you might be a good story, a record you can play to prove that something happened here, once, that something endured. The world moves forward much too fast but you can still sing Maps at karaoke, and it will still tell you that your most painful, stupid longings are at once much bigger and much smaller than you think.
just a reminder that griefbacon is ending at the end of this year, for now anyway, but we’re going to have a lot of fun until then.