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Pedro the Lion's youthful nostalgia is quietly transformational

On <em>Santa Cruz</em>, the third in Pedro the Lion's planned five-part album series, David Bazan continues to understand himself and the world that made him.
Ryan Russell
Courtesy of the artist
On Santa Cruz, the third in Pedro the Lion's planned five-part album series, David Bazan continues to understand himself and the world that made him.

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It’s common — you could even say foundational — for artists of all kinds to build their creative work on the sites of past trauma. Some, however, go further than simply mining those dark crevasses to confront how the pain and alienation at their bottom can distort the timeline of a life. Traumatic experiences create loops and blank spaces, blurring and disordering memories and fragmenting the present-day self.

David Bazan has made it his mission to explore such breaking points in his past throughout his career as an indie rock sage recording under his own name and, leading various combinations of collaborators, as Pedro the Lion. His past few releases under that band name have fulfilled this process deliberately, forming a multi-part memoir of his childhood and youth, the son of a minister whose church assignments regularly uprooted his family as they moved throughout the American West. These albums remind me of the early books in the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ongoing life-writing project, My Struggle, which also dwells on images and stories that veer from poignancy to humor to cringe-worthiness. The albums Phoenix and Havasu saw Bazan figuring out how to best negotiate this subject matter. The first is a tight rock album balancing numinous, Sufjan Stevens-style recollections of childhood (“Yellow Bike,” for example) with almost belligerent confessions of past wrongs; the second, Havasu, which tracks his early teen years, is more delicate and diaristic, grounded in the synth experiments that led Bazan into a quieter space.

Now comes Santa Cruz, which takes Bazan into adolescence and young adulthood. It’s the boldest of these efforts — in fact, I feel like Bazan could end the inquiry right here if he wanted to, it’s so strong. Here, Bazan finds the balance in his sound as pronounced synth parts interact with Erik Walters’ expressionistic guitar parts, all supporting Bazan’s voice, which has never been more relaxed and evocative. Santa Cruz hit me hard, the way other songwriters’ excavations of youthful challenges have hit me; I’m thinking of the Mountain Goats’ classic The Sunset Tree, Sufjan Stevens’ heart-wrenching Carrie & Lowell and Kendrick Lamar’s groundbreaking good kid, m.A.A.d city. As on those albums, here vivid scenes are conjured but also strongly considered by a present-day narrator bent on integrating them into his understanding of himself and the world that made him.

“This won’t have to stay hidden forever, but it has to stay hidden for now,” Bazan sings on the slowcore opener “It’ll All Work Out.” Subsequent songs don’t merely examine memories Bazan hid from himself for many years, from shame- and desire-generating encounters with girls to his elation at discovering The Beatles and his ongoing fight to repair the inner unrest caused by his family’s many moves. They build a subtle dialogue between the 48-year-old man who wants to tell these stories now and the adolescent who grew up inside them. “Spend time with the energy,” he sings in “Spend Time,” switching that last word to “enemy” in the final chorus. He’s talking about his youthful fear of fully committing himself to music, but also about his need now to confront the forms of repression that made him feel so intimidated and to recognize how that conflict still resonates within. In “Remembering,” Bazan recalls a happy time in these scattered, lonely years and how a phone call from a friend from a town where he’d once lived upset his equilibrium; the friend asks if he will soon “just disappear” from that stable scene, and he realizes that disappearing is the main thing his youth has taught him to do.

Santa Cruz is an attempt to make something solid of a time in which he never felt that way, but it works because Bazan honors all the dissolves, too. The album ends with “Only Yesterday,” a rolling ballad that finds majesty in forward motion; its key lines risk hope, but carry the burden of all the broken connections Bazan carried with him, and still does. “So many places where you don’t belong,” he croons. “Can’t fight the feeling that you’re almost home.” Almost is the key word.

In the film <em>I Saw the TV Glow</em>, the character Owen appears at different ages, sometimes offering a voiceover that opens a portal to the past, sometimes dwelling in a hallucinatory present.
Spencer Pazer / A24
In the film I Saw the TV Glow, the character Owen appears at different ages, sometimes offering a voiceover that opens a portal to the past, sometimes dwelling in a hallucinatory present.

I carried the beautiful dislocations of Santa Cruz with me the other night when I went to see Jane Schoenbrun’s new film, I Saw the TV Glow. Like Bazan’s songs, it offers an unflinching view of adolescent isolation and confusion, couching it within a teen-horror universe directly inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other ‘90s shows. The story revolves around two kids, Owen and Maddy, who bond over an obsession with a show very much like Buffy. Eventually the lines between the show and reality get muddled, but not because of their screen addiction or generalized, alienating teen angst. Instead, the unacknowledged and (for them) indescribable gender identities of these two characters tilt the “real” world where they must live with their families and schoolmates in such a way that it’s exposed as a fake one, or at least one in which they only can exist as fakes. A soundtrack featuring mostly queer artists recreating the emo and goth sounds of the 1980s and 1990s to foreground those subcultures' grounding in queer existence supports the film’s tragic story of youthful imagination waylaid, if not destroyed, by the norms of a society that presents conventional adulthood as an escape from teenage confusion instead of the trap that for some, it can become.

Because this is a trans story first and foremost, I Saw the TV Glow carries a different weight than Santa Cruz. Bazan, a cis-het boy on his way to becoming a man, can imagine a fully integrated adult self, even if he has to fight for it. Shoenbrun’s hero Owen doesn’t have the language or other basic tools to comprehend, much less express, a full identity. Jumping backward and forward in time and between real and imagined realms — dwelling within that ruptured continuum to evoke the inner disconnections of a trans person who hasn’t “cracked the egg,” to use a common term referring to the realization that you are trans — I Saw the TV Glow makes connections between horror’s journey’s into the swamps of the subconscious and the ways in which unacknowledged social norms terrorize young trans people, shattering their experiences in ways that can feel unhinged and mortally dangerous.

What Schoenbrun, who transitioned while making the film, is trying to do is capture what they have called the trans experience of always becoming, which has almost never been represented in cinema’s accounts of trans life, mostly created by cis-het people. More common narratives often suggest that transitioning is simply a matter of donning a different set of clothes or changing a name. While those external signs matter, Schoenbrun’s film profoundly resonates because it refuses this linear transformation narrative.

Instead, it continually unsettles its own storyline. Owen appears at different ages, sometimes offering a voiceover that opens a portal to the past, sometimes dwelling in a hallucinatory present. It’s hard to distinguish between one reality and another: between screen memories or ones grounded in the material world; hallucinations or clarifying visions; bodily characteristics that are real or those perceived through the lens of dysmorphia. Its climax, calling back to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and (maybe coincidentally) the queer anthem by the punk band Magazine, “The Light Pours Out of Me,” might be tragic or triumphant. Because it doesn’t offer any resolutions about the mysteries its characters encounter or set into motion, I Saw the TV Glow may strike some viewers as murky or incomplete. But that lack of resolution is the point. There’s never a feeling of being “almost home” in this film. Characters only rest in graves or canceled television seasons. Survival is an ongoing battle, resolvable only through blowing apart one world so that another one — one no one has yet imagined — can come into being.

Both Santa Cruz and I Saw the TV Glow fight against the pull of nostalgia, for different reasons. For Bazan, to dwell in fond memories is to risk a complacency that defeats his goal of being honest and accountable. Schoenbrun asks bigger questions about nostalgia and about the value of portraying adolescence as a time of meaningful, even victorious, transformation. Owen's inability to imagine existing in the world — whether in childhood, adolescence or adulthood — renders the pull of nostalgia powerless.

The terms of nostalgia are always defined by the present day; they reflect ideals that may seem out of reach except by going backward, but which still uphold convention. Nostalgia in 2024 for 1990s television or goth/emo music, for example, fetishizes the ways in which those pop-cultural realms fetishized weirdness and rebellion; yet it doesn’t suggest ways in which weirdness or rebellion might actually transform the world. The Hellmouth in Buffy remains at least partially closed; the black mascara of the goth is removable. I Saw the TV Glow presents these manufactured signs of difference as hints of something deeper that will require much more than a horror-movie storyline or a wailed pop chorus to fully enact. While looking fondly to these signifiers, it asks for more. That’s why, for all of its fun strangeness, this film is ultimately more serious — more political — than it might seem at first.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.