I was eating dinner by myself one night when I got an email from Rob:
I’m almost certain I have told you this. Just in case I am wrong, the song Jacqueline by Sarah Jarosz has been my favorite song for a couple years now. I don’t know why. I don’t like any of her other songs even a little.
I don’t think anyone I have said this to liked it much, because no one has ever told me, y’know, hey that was great, or whatever.
I opened Spotify on my iPad and listened to the song through its speaker. The song was quiet and in a style, Singer-Songwriter, that I usually dislike: a subdued whisper-unto-keen over guitar. I could understand the words she was singing without understanding the song’s message or narrative. She mentioned Jacqueline’s pillbox hat a few times, so I thought it was either about Jackie Kennedy or she was using Jackie Kennedy as a metaphor.
I limited myself to the basic information that Spotfiy shared about the song: the singer’s name, which meant nothing to me, her album cover, which was shot in profile and made Sarah Jarosz look a bit like actor and comedian Janeane Garofalo, and the year the song was released, 2016. The age of the recording fit Rob’s timeline even if the song seemed like she could have recorded it any time in the last 25 years. I decided not to look up its lyrics or check Youtube for a video or Wikipedia for information about the song or artist. Instead, I would sit with it and form impressions, then listen to it a few more times during the week before researching the song or asking Rob about it.
It occurred to me that Rob might be playing a joke on me or testing a theory. It was the kind of thing Rob used to do, not necessarily intentionally and never maliciously. Rob is one of the few people I know who can have an intellectual and emotional attachment to whatever is taking place while also standing apart and observing it objectively. He has been one of my favorite people since I met him at a camp for nerds the summer before we went into ninth grade. For the next couple of years we saw each other at camp every summer, and later attended the same college and lived together for a couple of years before graduation. After that, Rob moved away to attend an elite law school and eventually became a judge in Texas. We saw each other only once after graduation, at a college friend’s wedding. Otherwise, we kept in touch via email, sometimes many times per day, and other times we let years pass.
Rob is one of the few geniuses I know, and his brilliance and insight has shaped me. Conversations we had decades ago are still touchstones for me, and he remembers many of them as well. He was the first person to point out to me that if you look into almost anyone’s face for long enough, they will seem to grow more and more attractive. This works with songs, too. Most of the songs we like are ones we’ve listened to often enough that they have become associated with a positive feeling or thought or experience. As a teenager, he loved Metallica and Ozzy Osbourne and Olivia Newton-John and Billy Joel and Journey and classical music and plenty of other musicians that most of my other friends didn’t like at the time. It didn’t matter to him; these songs had positive associations for him and he was eager to share them with me and his other friends so we could enjoy them, too.
It seemed to be happening again, decades later. I opened a Google Doc and began recording my thoughts about Jaqueline in case I wanted to share them with him at some point. Then I went to bed.
The next morning, I listened to the song twice more on my walk from the CET Parking Lot on Central Parkway to my job at the Public Library on Vine Street. This time I listened to it through Airpod Pro earbuds, with noise cancellation turned on, along with Apple’s “Spacialized Stereo,” which swirls the music around you. The weather for the walk was perfect for a suit jacket and scarf, the sunlight more ambient than bright, the buildings dull and pretty.
The guitar felt more alive, and I realized it was electric, which I hadn’t paid attention to when I’d given the song my first and only previous listen the night before. I also registered for certain that she was unaccompanied. Had she chosen, she could have recorded the song as a single track in one take. Her playing seemed intentional and precise, and I liked it a lot more than I had the night before.
The lyrics were also easier to understand as a description or narrative. Jacqueline was wearing a pillbox hat and a pink dress. She covered herself in a white blanket. There was a reference to where the sidewalk ends, which could have been an allusion to Shel Silverstein’s poem and book of the same name. The narrator mentioned a few times that Jacqueline took herself to the water’s edge. The narrator seemed to know Jacqueline and have intense feelings about her. If she were singing about Jackie Kennedy, it seemed likely that she was using Jackie Kennedy’s name and elements of her persona in place of the person the song described and to whom it was addressed. There was a feeling of loss associated with Jacqueline, a Rosebud-like attempt to recreate something important from fragments and totems.
While I still found Sarah Jarosz’s vocal style off putting at times, especially her upper register, the song was beginning to sound sincere and relatable. It seemed unlikely that Rob was playing a joke on me, and I felt sure he was sharing something important to him that he hoped I would enjoy as well. I decided to listen to the song a few more times before sharing my thoughts with Rob and asking what the song meant to him.
The next morning, Jacqueline was the soundtrack for my shower. This is one of my favorite times to listen to music, a routine I protect so obsessively that I have developed possibly self-fulfilling superstitions about how a given band or song will affect my day. In the shower, I think less about the lyrics and more about how I feel. The steam from the shower clears my lungs and lets the dreams from the night before slip away.
Sarah Jarosz’s narrator is grieving the loss of a relationship. It seems like it must be a grandmother, a mother, a lover, or a friend. I think of my grandmother, now 20 years gone. I would call her every Sunday night and cannot imagine removing her entry from the Contacts app on my phone. Most weeks I still have the urge to call her and give her an update on how I’m doing. She was tall and vain and could control a room with her perfect comic timing and the ease with which she cut people out of her life if they disappointed her, including in-laws, siblings, her children, and grandchildren. There must be a part of me that shares this sensibility, because we cherished each other, and took on heroic dimensions in each other’s eyes.
“Who am I going to talk to now?” Jarosz’s narrator asks. I might be crying.
The hot water from the shower beats on my shoulders and I feel for clicking and tightness and pain as I determine whether, in the course of lifting weights at the community center gym the day before, I have done more harm than good. I inspect my heels, rubbed raw by the new shoes I am breaking in, which I purchased to replace shoes whose worn heels were causing me to stand at my desk in a way that made my lumbar spine ache. I check my knees, one cut, the other bruised, from falls I have taken while running. The things I do to make myself feel good and healthy may be breaking me.
I turned off the water to shave. The strongly minty and faintly Barbicidal smell of my shaving cream, and the daily shock of my reflection in the shaving mirror, helped me focus. I reoriented my thoughts away from the past and my body.
The narrator in Jacqueline was singing, “After a while I’ll feel alright.” She repeated it a few times, sounding more convinced and less convincing each time. “After a while I’ll feel.”
I found myself feeling less distracted and more sympathetic for Jarosz as she sang her higher notes, ashamed of myself for tone policing. Her singing seemed analogous to uptalk and vocal fry, the signature speaking styles that women are taught not to use if they wish to be taken seriously. I no longer had any difficulty taking Jaqueline seriously.
Rob’s email arrived when I had been thinking about him for a couple of days. This was often how it felt when I heard from Rob, as if I could conjure him by starting a mental draft of an email or text. I had been listening to a podcast, Hi-Phi Nation, which broadcast a series memorializing philosopher David Kellogg Lewis on the twentieth anniversary of his death. I thought Rob would like the series. That was one reason I wanted to share it with him. The other reason is that many of the interviews featured in the podcast are with people who love David Lewis for reasons that resemble the reasons I love Rob.
Like Rob, David Lewis conformed to societal expectations in unconventional ways. Both could be endearingly literal, verbose at times that seemed to call for brevity, and disquietingly succinct in situations that most people fill with words. Both concerned themselves with the biggest questions they could imagine — the meaning of existence, the structure of the universe, the purpose of language — and were willing to accept unsatisfactory answers to those questions if they made more sense than more satisfying answers.
Because for David and Rob preoccupation with big questions was constant, and therefore inseparable from even the most quotidian tasks, their discussions often used everyday objects and activities as examples. Lewis, in his most cited paper, Scorekeeping in a Language Game, used baseball as a way to explain the conventions of conversation. Rob, in his most robust social experiment, or at least the one I know best, created a fantasy football league, which he ran for several years. The idea was to create an ethical framework that encouraged participants to interact in prosocial ways, and to remove as much of the artifice from fantasy sports as possible so the team owners had to think on their own about what made players good at football rather than relying on advice from one of the dozens of websites that offer advice on drafting and running a traditional fantasy football team. The rule book for the league that Rob developed in Google Docs eventually spanned well over a hundred pages, and its ancillary commentary could rival it in length, including a more than 10,000-word polemic on ad hominem, professional American Football player Terrell Owens, and fans of the Philadelphia Eagles football franchise.
David Lewis famously issued a rebuttal to one of his own papers. Because that was such an odd thing to do, he published the rebuttal under a pseudonym, conferring credit to one of his beloved pets, Bruce Le Catt. Rob’s equivalent was serving as his fantasy league’s commissioner and one of its most successful players, two distinct identities that shared a body. They, too, were prone to rebutting one another’s proposals and often their individual goals were at odds.
To begin to understand how Jacqueline had become Rob’s favorite song, I thought it made sense to think about how he might have encountered it. My guess, in order of most to least likely, was through:
- A television show or movie soundtrack;
- An automated suggestion on Spotify or Pandora or another streaming music service;
- A memorial or funeral, likely during COVID;
- A friend or celebrity he followed on social media.
The morning after listening to Jacqueline in the shower, I made it the soundtrack for my drive to work. For the first time, I tried singing along with it, and the words and melody felt good in my head and chest, reminiscent of Buddy Holly or Patsy Cline, their phrasing so suffused into popular music that their recordings felt familiar the first time I heard them.
Jacqueline begins and ends with variations on the phrases “I see you” and “keep me company,” something I hadn’t realized when I was listening to it on repeat and wasn’t sure where the song ended. The need to live among other people, to look into their faces and have them look into ours, to believe we understand them and they understand us, to be comfortable in their presence and know our presence comforts them, seems to be so hardwired into our psyches that we suffer and calcify in its absence. We can approximate these experiences via Zoom and Teams and FaceTime, as we have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. Art and music and telecommunication and philosophy and prose can keep our emotions from atrophying, which is better than the alternative, even if they will never keep our minds and emotions supple. They are shadows of intimacy, and we will always seek its tangible form. When it is gone, we will do as the narrator in Jacqueline does: we will sing, we will mourn, and we will recreate material experiences, such as moving to the water’s edge, sticking our feet in the water and letting it cool us down — the same feeling we had when we were in the physical presence of someone dear to us, only not the same.
The next day I wrote Rob a message:
Thanks for recommending Jacqueline to me. I’ve listened to it every day since I got your message, and I like it more each time. How did it come to be your favorite song?
Just happened to see her doing it on Austin City Limits a couple years ago, which is a regular PBS show down here. It’s very hard for me to believe that I don’t like any of her other songs, given how I love that one. She is like real country, or folk country I guess. Not really into that kind of music mostly. She’s from Austin.
It’s about Jacqueline Kennedy, I think, or maybe her ghost. I dunno what it really means.
I just got a 16% raise, which I was not expecting at all from the Texas government (it’s more than both the other two raises I had gotten in five years, combined), so we have a lot more options for buying a house all of a sudden. I’m glad we have failed to get one until now. Now we can look for something really good.
I basically live like an agoraphobe, Covid or otherwise, and I work at home, so it would be nice to have a really good house to do that in. I think it’s gonna happen.
I copied and pasted his email message into my Google Document. Then I sent him a link to what I had written.