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Music Culture cheat sheet: “evermore” and an Aubrey Plaza double feature

Dec. 14, 2020
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Listen: evermore by Taylor Swift

There is definitely a lot going on at the moment. Taylor Swift just released the sister record to her universally revered alternative album folklore, which was surprise-dropped a mere five months ago. “To put it plainly, we just couldn’t stop writing songs. To try and put it more poetically, it feels like we were standing on the edge of the folklorian woods and had a choice: to turn and go back or to travel further into the forest of this music,” the artist said upon her announcement of evermore. “We chose to wander deeper in.” 

Perhaps comparisons must not be made between Swift’s latest albums—she did call them sister records—but evermore is richer precisely because it was preceded by folklore. Thematic elements from the first bleed into the second, and of course sonically they are practically cut from the same cloth, but evermore feels more textured. Whereas folklore thrived in emotional vignettes, with songs seeming like worlds of their own, evermore is more inseparable from its narrative. It’s fascinating to see a songwriter most known for writing about her own life delve into fiction—there’s even a song inspired by true crime featuring HAIM that fans, of course, have already superimposed on Amy Dunne’s Cool Girl monologue. 

Swift reunites with the same collaborators from folklore: Aaron Dessner of The National, who now has a feature, Jack Antonoff, and the songwriter William Bowery, who has been revealed to be her longtime boyfriend Joe Alwyn. Like Dessner, whose music is known to emit "big divorce energy" despite actually being happily married (to someone who helps him craft these melancholic anthems, no less), Swift penned the record’s most heartbreaking tracks with Alwyn. Of course listeners are still having the time of their life questioning who the songs are about, but I think the artist’s newfound mastery in world-building is what makes her latest genre shift such a revelation.

Listen to evermore by Taylor Swift on Spotify here.

Watch: Black Bear (2020, dir. Lawrence Michael Levine)

After an initial viewing, Black Bear is hard to define. It’s labeled as a thriller but feels too straightforward; it’s called a comedy but feels too exhausting. Mull it over for a few moments more and what it says becomes crystal clear, and you get hit by a pang of disappointment. It’s simply not as clever as its artifice makes it out to be, a critique that falls trap to the very thing it is critiquing. That said, it’s still among the best movie-watching experiences I’ve had in a while—its artifice is very promising, after all—and because I believe this is thanks to me going into it blind, I’ll try not to give too much away.

Aubrey Plaza stars as an actress-turned-filmmaker who retreats to a cabin to work on her latest screenplay, where she is welcomed by a man (Christopher Abbott) who believes the erosion of traditional gender roles caused the downfall of society and his pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon). Plaza is amazing, and while this film is an excellent exhibition of her range, this film needed her more than she needed it. The plot twist (if it even is one) doesn’t make you snap with realization, which could have made it more compelling. Nevertheless, the second half is really where the film picks up, when the claustrophobia of the cabin becomes the (literal) soundstage of desire and creativity. Final verdict: it made me want to punch Abbott for a multitude of reasons.

Black Bear is available on digital.

Watch: Happiest Season (2020, dir. Clea DuVall)

I might be biased since Clea DuVall in the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted is the reason why I’m into movies in the first place, but it’s so disappointing to see her movie, which set out to be a wholesome holiday affair, be clouded by discourse. You might have not seen Happiest Season, a lesbian Christmas romcom starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis, but you have definitely seen Aubrey Plaza’s Riley, which took social media by storm. 

Plaza’s role as a concerned ex-girlfriend who wears hot, all-black suits is fantasy fuel, especially when contrasted with Mackenzie’s closeted, anxious Harper. Of course the central relationship prevails (it is a romcom), but many think otherwise, to which DuVall, who also co-wrote the screenplay, said, “Do they want Abby [who is played by Kristen Stewart] to be with Riley, or do they want to be with Riley? I mean, it also can be both.” Stewart, who plays the protagonist Abby and was first to be cast, recently told Variety, “We did go through [the screenplay] really carefully and with a lot of consideration of the relationship being so solid that it could actually withstand something this traumatic.” 

To be fair, the film is quick to start, and we are thrown into this conflict without sufficiently knowing Abby or Harper. It’s understandable that Harper, as the high-strung mayor’s daughter, could have been more nuanced—a lot of people perceived her as villainized, although I don’t think that’s accurate—but, as Duvall told Elle, “I don’t blame anyone for wanting to see more of [Riley], but I think the debate is less about the film and more about your philosophy on forgiveness and growth.” I like this take from Thrillist, which asserts that the film blossoms more in its actual ending than it had if Abby ended up with Riley: “I kept expecting Riley and Abby to share a kiss, a moment that would have turned Riley into a stereotypical temptress villain and shifted some blame onto Abby. Instead, DuVall is attempting to make a movie that's more complicated than just a standard love triangle.”

All that said, Happiest Season was a delight to watch, and definitely wholesome enough to play on the living room TV come Christmas. Stewart gives what I believe is one of the best performances of the year, and DuVall is undeniably one of the most thoughtful filmmakers working today.

Happiest Season is streaming on Hulu.