As anyone who knows me might have realized, it’s been a weird few months for me.
I recently graduated law school, after three years of intermittently cripplingly difficult work and mostly relative comfort. For about three years I hovered between severe intellectual stimulation and almost bacchanalic simplicity. I was living on student loans, going to the record shops and bookstores, drinking with my fellow future-lawyers, and sipping tea while surrounded by complex thinkers and obsessive analyzers like myself. It was a life of ease, of both intellectual and mercurial pleasures.
But that’s a little different than the world I came from, as last year’s number one song would remind me. I came from a place called Ohio.Ohio is a place for pragmatists. The fabric of the culture of Ohio is made of people with jobs and mortgages, people trying first and foremost to build stable, serviceable lives. That’s not to say that the people are boring or the life is less intellectual, but the values skew away from the philosophizing and evolving and towards the concrete, the stable.
Growing up here, in Ohio, meant experiencing first love and first loss among a patchwork of slightly-crumbling industry, concrete, and cornfields. I learned what disappointment and what fulfillment meant in a city that, to varying degrees, appeared on the verge of crumbling brick and cracked pavement, even when it was actually quite vibrant at times.
It isn’t dire, and I don’t mean to make it sound that way. Ohio’s actually-quite-pleasurable pleasures include hanging out in parking lots and bowling alleys, or wandering creek-beds and suburban roads, trying to remember the warmth of friends through the cold of the winter air. It’s a kind of pleasure, but it’s really unlike the kind of pleasures offered by grad student life in Chicago.
So coming back here is kind of a difficult endeavor to unpack. “Home” is a strange thing. Even after making a home somewhere else, Ohio maintains its foothold, and returning to Ohio after a few years away is a complicated prospect. But I’m lucky that it’s one that The National seem to really understand. Their song, and the number one song of last year, “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” hit me at exactly the right time to become my vehicle for organizing these thoughts and feelings.
It’s a song that isn’t directly about desperation, but it does seem to be flirting with the edges of desperation. “I still owe money to the money, to the money I owe,” lead singer Matt Berninger half sings and half grumbles, seemingly directly describing the student loans of myself and my friends (and also deftly describing the reason why I moved back to Ohio in the first place). “The floors are falling out,” he eloquently and accurately continues, “from everybody I know.”
To me, there is no more perfect image for my return to Ohio than that of a tumultuous yet droning swarm of bees, no more perfect description of the feeling of home in such a place than being on a “blood buzz.”
The song, like a lot of The National’s best material, starts simple and feels like it’s barreling down towards you by the end. It grows in complexity and immediacy just as it’s becoming more and more chaotic. It’s a structure that deftly echos the similarly deepening and swirling path in the sentiments of the lyrical content.
The song describes a very specific feeling about a very specific place, but it is so deadly accurate in this description that it feels dangerously personal for every listener. Being home, here, in Ohio, is a weird mix of pleasure and ache, motion and hovering, that carried-on-a-swarm-of-bees feeling. It’s the kind of feeling we’ve all felt before, expressed in ways that seem obvious in retrospect.
I know these feelings. This blood buzz, this feeling that, despite my inexplicable ties to it, Ohio doesn’t remember me. I know that tension between nervous energy and inertia, devotion and discord. It’s a tension that runs pretty deep. Maybe it’s not “California Girls” or “Empire State of Mind,” but it’s real, and it’s mine.