By Tatum Jenkins, Music Coordinator
Sometimes songs put to words feelings before we even recognize them in ourselves. In this personal essay, music coordinator Tatum Jenkins writes about how Phoebe Bridgers’ song “I See You” helped her find her identity during a formative time. Her essay truly shows the power of music and is a perfect celebration of love and self-expression as Pride Month comes to an end.
When Phoebe Bridgers came out with Punisher, it was the summer I was in love with a girl I had met my freshman year. I would go for night drives around my town occasionally and soundtrack my feelings about this person, my town, and the sudden apocalyptic feeling that came over me at the start of the pandemic.
My favorite song is track nine: “ICU.” I love how it starts as a low rumble, before a guitar rips through the echo, giving way to Phoebe’s soft, clear voice. I had no words for everything that had happened, for the dawn of the realization that the love I was experiencing was a manipulated reality, orchestrated by the person I invested my heart in. And that my sexuality – which I thought was confined to an attraction to women – might be more complicated than I thought.
But “ICU” had the words. That song doesn’t waste a moment on meaningless lyrics. You can tell Phoebe means every word she sings, and I sang through her to my own meaning. And for me, the fact that she uses “you,” not “him” or “her,” felt important. I don’t have to decide on the pronouns to define my attraction, and nor does Phoebe.
I didn’t decide until after that summer. After the girl I loved wouldn’t call me back, after I started to find other people intriguing, after I knew more about myself, I opened myself up. I clung to a label when I first arrived at college, and maybe I didn’t have to.
Then I met someone I loved. When I first met my boyfriend, Marc, we made each other playlists.
“Will you make me a playlist?” he asked me as we sat at my living room table with our friends. To have such a special request bestowed upon me felt wrong, but, still, I was eager to please this new boy I had met.
“Yes!” I said enthusiastically. “Will you make me one?”
I don’t want to exaggerate and say that was the start of our relationship, but it truly was. We traded our favorite songs for a week straight, haphazardly and digitally tossing suggestions back and forth. And his playlist for me was good enough that I decided I wanted to make him an important part of my life. In fact, he once called his playlist “his audition for WERS,” so I guess, in some strange way, his audition worked.
I included “I See You” in the playlist. The “You” part of the song had begun to change. The memories of the girl I loved faded to the edges of the echoes of the song, and it became “I feel something when I see you.” And “you” was no longer a woman. It was my boyfriend. The moment when the drums stop to make room for the chorus. The listener holds their breath, waits, waits for Phoebe to confess through their speakers, “I feel something when I see you now.” While the actual “you” part of that lyric remains, it is Marc’s face and all of our memories that appear when I hear it.
And because I started to feel something when I saw him, it meant my identity changed. And that felt comfortable for me. I made that change because I understood that love came in a form I wasn’t expecting.
Phoebe renamed the song – “ICU” to “I See You” – because the “you” is important. The “you” is the boy you weren’t expecting when you were expecting to fall in love with women. And “you” is the comfortable comprehension that your heart has space for more than one gender. “You” for me is the person whose heartbeat I find in the drums of the song, whose breath I find in Phoebe’s, whose existence winds itself around the notes in a way that feels tangible.
When I celebrate Pride every June, when I celebrate love, I only hope that everyone finds their “you” – no matter their gender. And Phoebe’s song, “I See You,” begins with “I.” This understanding of sexuality, of gender, and of who we are, begins with ourselves. And sometimes, it can begin with a song.