In Defense of Pettiness
The little things that make us human
In 2015, Carly Rae Jepsen released an album called E-mo-tion, with the title specifically stylized that way: as in the dictionary definition of feelings, as in, encompassing all of them. On it, her sound stays pop pristine but the lyrical subjects range widely, glossing strained friendships and the sweet, sharp anxiety of crushes and the desire for someone’s warm body in bed next to hers. She pulls the wearing, uncertain cycle of anxiety into a shimmering couplet: there’s a little black hole in my golden cup so / you pour and I’ll say stop.
In 2016 she released a sequel, E-mo-tion Side B, eight songs that didn’t make the original cut. These, too, are pop gems, but mostly dumb ones: she sings about stealing an ex’s bike so he’ll have to keep seeing her, and dumping another boy with a classic deadbeat dad move, saying see you later, she’s just heading out to the store.
There’s something almost tender about the beauty of each song’s construction: like no matter how stupid and small any particular emotion seems, Jepsen wants to build it a house to live in, a place where it can ricochet around, taking up all the space it needs and demands. It’s easy to valorize writing about big feelings: love and grief, joy and sorrow. But the bullshit petty everyday stuff, the should-be-small things that actually consume the bulk of our conscious thought? We don’t do that nearly as often.
Work made by female artists inevitably has a troubled relationship to emotion: because it’s treated as both the only subject we know enough to write about, and an inane thing to let matter. So the tendency towards grandness makes sense: misery or desire, rendered abstract by their scale, are not just a girl’s feelings but a piece of The Human Condition. To particularize down to the grains of your own interior landscape feels like a selfish or even narcissistic project — but in fact, it ends up giving language to things we live with constantly, and all too rarely find ways to articulate and express.
Do you know who is actually incredible at this? I’m sorry, but it’s Taylor Swift. Her whole gig is writing extremely specific breakup songs, reminding us every thirty seconds that she’s doing it, and then making them so impossibly catchy and mainstream popular that we cannot help seeing that we have just as many shitty feelings (and are possessed of as many shitty exes and bad impulses) as she is. People get very het up about Taylor Swift for — well, for a number of reasons, but one of them is that she’s always been misread as a pop princess, when in fact if she’s the ruler of any land it’s the kingdom of our petty, spiteful, selfish ids, the national anthem one long howl of “and the saddest fear / comes creeping in / that you never loved me / or her / OR ANYONE / OR ANYTHING.”
Once you start looking for it, this particular kind of pettiness is actually everywhere. We watch it on television every week with the relationship minutiae of “The Bachelor” franchise, a series that has seduced a nation with two hours of (to be fair, very compellingly beautiful) people dealing with the mundane cycle of elation and confusion and jealousy of the early stages of dating. The same goes for our rapacious hunger for the details of celebrity romance as presented in tabloids and on gossip websites: Stars, They Get Dumped and Feel Awkward and Have to See Their Exes Because They Still Have Like, Mutual Friends and Work Obligations and Stuff, Just Like Us!
Cultural commentators love to moan over the baseness of reality television and social media: the idea that both produce cotton candy, empty calories suitable only to be swallowed by a slack-jawed, unblinking public. And to be sure, their slick surfaces often hide troubling messages: anything that we can consume without chewing over is bound to hide an idea or two worn unrecognizably smooth with overgeneralization. And even when they are not insidious, these things do not necessarily teach us big, important lessons.
They do, however, remind us effectively and immediately that everyone’s lives — even the rich, and famous, and so-fascinating-they-have-to-be-televised — are actually made up of a series of small and usually seemingly meaningless moments, mundane indignities. The Kardashians are vulgar in both senses of the word: so often discussing the grossness of their bodies, just like any other person might.
Melodrama is often considered a female mode, but we all live in its age now, a time when anything that happens to us can be dramatized and publicized, turned from personal happening into publicly available event: if not art then certainly spectacle. The freedom of information and conversation afforded by social media allows for big, serious social movements to coalesce — #blacklivesmatter and the national support for #noDAPL, for instance, or feminist-specific talk like #yesallwomen — but it also facilitates a series of smaller connections, the constant rediscovery that internationally famous swimsuit models get excited about changes to the McDonald’s menu and writers we admire like yelling about the same TV shows we love and that strangers we’ve never met before can write 160 characters about their days in other time zones, other countries, and we’ll be like, oh, hey, man, me too.
The thing about pettiness is that it’s not an important mode: that’s the point of it. It’s a small impulse by definition, and all too often a mean one. But it is also human, something that in a culture that accepted and allowed for nuance we might be able to tolerate, and even sometimes indulge. Because it is unavoidable, and there’s joy in getting to recognize what you thought was just your terrible, unspeakable secret self in Carly Rae’s stolen bikes, Taylor’s insistence that if you can’t love her you can’t love at all, and in the brittle bravado of a preening Bachelor contestant, and in every social media #humblebrag.
It is exhausting to try to be big all the time, to feel only the things that flatter our rationality, or our sense of who we want or ought to be. The world is full of people trying to pretend away their own smallness, which only makes it more pernicious: you cannot change or kill the things you won’t give a name to. Pettiness’ ugliness is not destroyed by denying or degrading it — though I don’t mean to suggest that it deserves grandeur, either.
This is just to say: every single one of us has had a bunch of shitty feelings. There should be no shame in engaging with life’s smallness or our own badness, especially when we’re the kind of people the culture wants to shame for doing it: women specifically, but women of color particularly — you’ll notice that Jepsen and Swift and the Bachelor contestants, women who do get away with this stuff in public, are pretty much all as white as they come. It may seem unimportant, given the scale of white nationalist fascism currently being enacted by this country’s government, but the truth is that even under these regimes life goes on. And especially under one that seeks to deny basic rights to most of its citizens, it is critically important to remind ourselves over and over again that we are human, and that our humanity, in all of its particulars, its quirks and its kinks, is not just acceptable, but allowable, and common and correct and fine.
Ultimately, the things we’re petty over are never truly so small. Taking the time to make sure I Iook good in a selfie is both a submission to vanity and an admission that my looks matter — they make a demonstrable difference in how I move through the world. Sending mean texts to friends about how my exes are looking these days is, in part, a confession that they still affect me, that I’m still looking at their faces for evidence that they didn’t walk away unscathed, either. All of our lifestyle-blog-obsessed hate reading? It’s a messed-up way of asking ourselves: am I doing it right? Am I? Am I? Am I sure?
“Feelings are the only facts,” Kanye West tweeted in 2012, and if I feel like it’s true that means it is, right? Certainly feelings shape us, and we, in turn shape ourselves and our worlds around them. The idea that we can know in any given moment what’s supposed or allowed to be important is just so fucking laughable. Being alive is a series of unrelated events we turn into stories — there’s no shame in engaging with the things that don’t fit neatly into the narrative we’re trying to create for ourselves just as ardently as with the ones that do.
Zan Romanoff’s first novel, A SONG TO TAKE THE WORLD APART, was published by Knopf in September. She lives and writes in LA.