Reading: Bonding over Billie Eilish: An Unexpected Pandemic Plus Side


Bonding over Billie Eilish: An Unexpected Pandemic Plus Side

The family soundtrack we cultivated during the pandemic gave us a fierce, forever kind of closeness

By Natalka Burian

The only member of our family who was truly happy at the beginning of the pandemic was our dog. My children, at that time one fourth grader and one first grader, were home from school indefinitely. My husband, the other co-owner of our small businesses, was also grounded at home. The four of us had never been confined together for so long in such limited space. At first it was comforting, but soon it became untenable. There was no way to feel truly alone. 

We did our best to make it feel like one big summer camp. S’mores in the microwave, movie marathons, and board games — so many board games — unearthed from the depths of our closets or sent by well-meaning and equally bored family members. We did journaling and art projects. We made the bread. But none of these fun things felt very fun. It was a scary time, when every trip to the grocery store was dangerous. Nobody knew anything, least of all us. We were all performing “fun,” and it was not working. We were doing a bad job. Nothing felt good, and inevitably, we started to get lazy.

We started to silo; the kids fell into their screens and my husband and I continuously and desperately scrolled on ours. I siloed so hard that I started writing a book so I could escape into a completely different world via my computer screen. It was a time when severe disconnection might have persevered over connection, until something very small saved us and turned into something very big. 

When Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters came out, it was unlike any music experience I have had before or since. It was like some profound sorcery. Fiona Apple handcuffed the ubiquitous early pandemic feelings of desperation, entrapment, and longing into a single album. Every song felt like a spell, like it should be uttered or chanted over a lit circle of candles. There was some mystical will behind every word and note, like if we listened long enough and loud enough we could escape from this strange new world. Everybody knew about it and wanted to talk about it. On all of my phone calls, Facetimes, and Zooms, my friends announced their opinions and experiences of the album.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters demanded to be played out loud, not on a tiny pair of earbuds. We blasted it, on repeat. At first my kids said nothing. They colored, tapped on screens, and read their graphic novels under the rattling force of Fiona Apple’s distinct swarm-of-bees voice. But then the weirdest thing happened. They started singing along. They started to request certain songs from the album and even talked about it with their very confused friends on remote playdates.  

We got into the habit of playing music out loud, and taking requests (particularly when the kids got really into Billie Eilish). I felt incredibly fortunate to be listening to Billie’s “I’m Not Your Friend” and not the Encanto soundtrack, like so many of my parent friends. My husband and I played the anthems of our youth: lots of Nirvana, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and the Clash. It turned out that music that resonated with us as young people resonated with our kids now. 

And I had one of the first non-parental thoughts I’d had in a long time; I think my kids might actually be really cool. As a parent you always love them. You’re always proud of their accomplishments and feel legitimate awe when they learn a new skill or get excited about something. But this was the first time I appraised them the way I might appraise a peer I want to befriend, and thought huh, wow, you’re really cool

We were having new conversations with a brand new vocabulary. It was like we had a shorthand to tap into explanations of complex emotions –- an essential feat with tweens in the house. It was comforting for them to believe that I could understand a feeling they were having because I could appreciate the song they put on about it. In a time of life when communication is difficult and a time when patience can be short, this clarity is a godsend. We would have whole conversations through playlists.

The best part about this big family love for communal playlists and song discoveries was that in a stagnant time, when nothing was changing, and so much flat, barren uncertainty stretched before us, we had a measure of control and agency. When nothing in the four walls of our apartment could change, the music could change. Something as simple as changing the music could transform the entire household mood. Like magic. Like a spell.

The Night Shift, the book I wrote during this period, is set in early 2000s New York City, a time with a very specific soundtrack. The first time I put on a song to pull myself into the world of the book, I used my headphones. The second time, I put it on out loud and it changed the way I wrote the story. Bringing the world of my story into the world of my family prompted questions and ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to me before. 

I never thought I’d be playing the Strokes’ “New York City Cops” and telling my kids about where I was the first time I heard it. I definitely never thought they would listen to me explain such a thing. Not in my wildest dreams. I played all of the songs I loved as a young person in NYC in the 2000s and they heard me. Maybe, more specifically, they saw me. Like I was constructing a hologram of who I was through my musical taste.

I’m glad to say that things are very different in my household now than they were back at the beginning of the pandemic. Many, many things have changed. My fourth grader is an extremely cool seventh grader and my first grader is the most badass almost-ten-year-old in the city. 

My kids have changed. They have changed heights, friend groups, pronouns, clothing styles, favorite foods. But one very important thing hasn’t changed. They still love to share music with us. Because of the pandemic, sharing music is part of our family culture. It’s the way we express our frustration, anger, and love. This part of our family culture has opened up so many joyful and unexpectedly meaningful experiences. When my oldest turned 12, she asked us to take her to a Pixies concert, and we all went as a family and I’ve never had more fun at a show.

Because I’m a very morbid person, I can’t help but think of the passing of time and the way our listening as a family will anchor my children’s memories. They will have a very real soundtrack to their lives individually and our lives as a family. I think, again I’m extremely morbid, about the songs they will play at my funeral, about the songs they will hear when we are no longer physically together, songs that will feel like my hand on their shoulder.

And while I’ve absolutely hated the pandemic, I can’t hate this. It’s a once in a lifetime gift. Truly knowing someone and feeling known oneself is one of the best parts of a mortal, human experience. The closeness I feel in my family of four is transcendent and fierce, and I hope, a forever kind of closeness. When I start thinking about the long lives my children will have I find myself hoping they will sustain this tradition of sharing music in their own families and that all of this listening will connect us forever and beyond.


Natalka Burian is the co-founder of The Freya Project, a nonprofit reading series that supports community-based activism and the work of women and nonbinary writers. She is the author of The Night Shift and Welcome to the Slipstream, and the co-owner of the bar Elsa in Brooklyn.


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