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Publicizing Confession: Julien Baker’s Album Little Oblivions

Julien Baker’s album Little Oblivions details the struggles of sobriety, relapse, heartache, and the myth that people are strictly either “good” or “bad.” Baker’s voice is fragile in instances of vulnerability but is backed up by a big-band, explosive sound.

Baker’s not a stranger to making heavy personal admissions in her music, but Little Oblivions goes deeper than she has gone before. Perhaps the relapse Baker experienced in 2019, around the time she did an interview with Steven Tyler and Jason Isbell about her 6-year-long sobriety, has made her message more nuanced. Baker says, in an interview with Spin, “as painful as it is, I need to talk about [my experience with relapsing] in interviews, because maybe it could benefit somebody or normalize it.”

Julien Baker has no intention of pretending these songs aren’t real in order to save face. She says to Spin, “what would that do except for create a false mystique around something that at the end of the day is really common and mundane?” The “common and mundane” themes in Little Oblivions, Baker states, are “alcoholism, heartbreak, reevaluating your ego…things people do every damn day and fight through their entire lives.”

The more that those of us who have struggled with substance abuse try to hide the ugly, arduous, lonely nature of recovery to avoid vulnerability — to protect our ego — the more we mystify the quite common experience of addictive behaviour. The notion that people are either “good” or “bad” –rather than the complex beings we actually are — means that relapsing is often humiliating. It doesn’t need to be. Not if we make confessing a public, rather than private, endeavour.

Baker is concerned about confirming the stereotype that artists have mental health issues and battles with addiction going on. In her interview with Spin, she discusses worrying about sensationalizing rather than normalizing such experiences by expressing too much information and it being perceived as “for shock value” rather than transparency. However, addiction and mental health battles are not specific to artists; the nature of creating art often involves revealing deeply personal, raw aspects of the human experience. We’re not more likely to suffer, we’re just more likely to be open about it.

Hardline

Julien Baker discusses the devil/angel dichotomy and how it impacts our perception of self in Hardline, especially when it comes to addiction and recovery. The song throws back to Baker’s religious upbringing, referring to the superstition of Bloody Mary: “When I cross it, it’s the third time / Say my own name in the mirror.” She is the “devil” who’s supposed to appear: “Oh it isn’t black and white / What if it’s all black, baby?”

Baker refers to the double-standards placed on girls and women: “Would you hit me this hard if I were a boy?” Is she just referring to the harsh parental discipline placed upon girls who act up? Baker’s substance abuse began when she was a teenager but we know the harsh treatment of women and girls doesn’t stop at eighteen.

Addiction (and complex behaviour) in men is naturalized but women are supposed to behave, to be the angel, not the devil. Men get to be flawed and “bad” at times — which all humans have the capacity for — and still get to be redeemable. The angel/devil dichotomy is applied more strictly to women. Imperfect women are often unforgivable.

Relative Fiction

Julien Baker notes to Apple Music, about the fourth song on Little Oblivions, Relative Fiction: “maybe what’s true about me is true about other people, but this song specifically is a ruthless evaluation of myself and what I thought made me principled. It’s kind of a fool’s errand.” The song is about trying so hard to be what people perceive as “good” but relinquishing the expectations and aiming to be “okay” instead, like most humans are: a mixture of “good” and “bad.”

Baker sings in the bridge, “‘cause if I didn’t have a mean bone in my body / I’d find some other way to cause you pain / I won’t bother telling you I’m sorry / for something that I’m gonna do again.” She references the frustration of trying to remain sober, when she “could spend the weekend out on a bender.” The pressure to cause nobody harm is an unrealistic burden. The song ends in an acknowledgement that humans are naturally flawed, even while sober: “I’m finished being good / Now I can finally be okay and not the way I / thought I should.”

Julien Baker says that most of these songs are “confession booth songs.” While addressing the song Hardline, she says something I’m sure many artists understand: “I feel like whenever I imagine myself in a pulpit, I don’t have a lot to say that’s honest or useful. And when I imagine myself in a position of disclosing, in order to bring me closer to a person, that’s when I have a lot to say.”

Perhaps giving a sermon on a pulpit is the sensationalist delivery Baker desperately avoids in her art and interviews. She destroys the angel/devil, good/bad, dichotomy and positions herself somewhere in the middle. There is no divide between the struggles of her audience and the struggles of her self. She is honest and transparent on purpose; she recognizes her story is not unique. She fights against privatizing confession, strictly to a priest, by reminding us that art is a public opportunity to share the grimy human experience with each other.

AJ Kelly

Contact AJ at [email protected] or view the rest of her work on aj-kelly.tumblr.com

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