A night out is supposed to promise escape. Alcohol loosening, an ensnaring beat, and the company of fellow femmes. So why did I
find myself by my
self away from
the noise floating
thru the night
denying myself permission to leave the party and just go home? Once I’ve paid cover and gone through the labor of self-fashioning, it can be hard to manage my expectations for the night.
Going out is culturally loaded in queer communities: much writing on queer nightlife frames club spaces romantically as utopian life-worlds, where outsiders are embraced for their differences. However, they can also be spaces of exclusion and loneliness; spaces of disconnect and wanting to be wanted. Needing contact—a skin hunger. “What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.” Olivia Liang’s reflection in The Lonely City resonates with my symptoms. The asymptotic logic of loneliness—that we should be this physically close, yet so far away—somehow feels improbable.
Then Robyn comes on. “I’m right over here, why can’t you see me, ohhh… I keep dancing on my own.” Like everyone else in the club, I can’t resist the chorus’s wailing call. Asking the question we’ve all been wondering. Turns out loneliness is a party. I soak in my surroundings: shirtless twinks clutch each other and drunkenly shout along to the anthem. Are they motivated by irony or identification—or perhaps both?
In an interview with Pitchfork, Robyn situates “Dancing On My Own” within a lineage of “inherently sad gay disco anthems” by divas like Sylvester and Donna Summer. She testifies to the dual nature of clubbing—its pleasures and isolating features—before resolutely embracing its empowerment. “People have so many expectations when they go out, so many wishes about what their night is going to be: if they’re going to meet that person, have a fun time with their friends, have a good high, hear good music. People get drunk and turn into themselves in a way, and they go to experience some kind of emotion. But it’s not always about fun. There’s a destructive side to it. But I’m more into the empowerment of going out, because it’s always been the place where I could be myself and get inspired. Even if I’m sad, dancing is a way to let stuff out.”
I’m interested in the complexity of how she lays out a night in layers of ambiguous reversals—the wish fantasies laid aside for company, turning toward self-destruction and then a lift. Emotions jostling side by side in a crowded internal dance floor.
But even more, I’m fascinated by the ways her anthem spatializes loneliness, casting Robyn “in the corner, watching you kiss her.” I wonder where, exactly, is Robyn’s corner, and why can’t we see her?
Bear with me as I map the scene out. Robyn clarifies she’s “right over here,” but where’s that? “Right over here” enacts a paradox because it is an example of our shiftiest grammatical class—deictics. These locator phrases, like “here” or “this,” are context-dependent, which makes them unstable insofar as they are at once our most hyper-specific and vaguest words. If you and I are standing in the same place and I point to someone nearby and say “That boy is cuuuuute,” you’ll understand exactly who I’m talking about (even if you beg to differ and protest my taste). But the further away you are from me—let’s say he’s out of your sightline, or you’re not standing with me, or maybe you’re just reading about my hypothetical scenario from another time and place—the specificity of my meaning fades away faster and faster as the various possibilities of who “that” could be become vaster and vaster.
Shouted across a loud and dark club, “I’m right over here” becomes curiously unmappable. Robyn simultaneously declares her presence and her lostness to the space, reminding us that loneliness can be both apart from but also a part of a space. Proximity is a socially inflected sensation. When the room’s circuits of desire flow contrary to our own, a few feet can feel a lifetime away. (Here, I think of the detonation of poet Ocean Vuong’s line, “Brooklyn’s too cold tonight / & all my friends are three years away.”) So although Robyn is in the same physical place as the person she’s calling out to, she may as well be invisible. She has drifted to an other-where, or rather, a no-where. Loneliness, then, feels like a queer step out of time and space into a long, wounded cry: ohhhh…
Ohhhh—the open mouth of nothingness. Perhaps we might imagine Sappho, the swindled ancient Greek lesbian poet, keeping company with Robyn in this lonely corner. After all, her most famous poem outlines a similar love triangle:
He seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking
and lovely laughing—oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills my ears… (tr. Anne Carson)
Sappho sees a man sitting by “you” (her lesbian love object) and then describes an enveloping sense of collapsing physically and emotionally. The first stanza doesn’t even place Sappho: her reportage description of him sitting with her initially leaves herself outside the picture; she is outside the coupled love story. In Robyn terminology, she knows she’s “not the girl you’re taking home.” She’s in the corner, watching you kiss him.
Here’s where Sappho expands Robyn’s plaintive “ohhhh.” Sappho pulls the narrative frame zooms towards her corner of the love triangle and lingers in the space of devastation, carefully anatomizes it. As the poem progresses, Sappho catalogues this physical and metaphysical emptying, disorienting one sensory organ at a time. Mouth collapses, left with “no speaking.” Skin turns to fire. Eyes drain of sight. Ears drone with noise.
Through negation and ekstasis—literally “standing outside oneself”—Sappho rends herself a/part, splitting between author and character. Yet even as Sappho’s slip into no-where is uncannily out of body, her first person examination feels intensified rather than detached. An excess of desire causes the boundary between her interiority and the world beyond herself to rupture: her desires so intense and massive that her selfhood collapses and erupts a world of feeling. Loneliness consumes her fully and implodes her being, so that corner becomes a punctured hole (o: depleted zero). When the self gives way, who is the understudy? Nobody.
I‘m nobody! Who are you?
Are you – nobody – too? (Emily Dickinson)
Who’s that at the door? Another nobody, come to join the existential party in the corner. Mitski provides herself (nobodied) company in her surreal new music video “Nobody.” Mitski pines, “Still nobody wants me.” Then, to the uptempo rhythm of dysphoric/euphoric disco, Mitski populates her chorus with a chorus of nobodies. By my count, the (no)body count is over thirty left behind in the track’s wake.
Nobody, nobody, nobody
Ooh, nobody, nobody, nobody…
Mitski’s extensive repetition, warbled across multiple modulations, tempos, and emotional registers, makes the word fall apart into sounds. Limbs disentangle and “Nobody” verges on an ontological crisis. Nobody? No—body?
Mitski’s “Nobody” becomes displaced, and now seems to refer just as much to herself as it does to her lack of lovers. Body, nobody stands (negatively) embodied: Mitski’s single weaves nobody into a discontinuous yet colorful assemblage of lonely, absented selves. “Nobody’s invited” to Mitski’s nobody party (with apologies to Ciara)—but no-bodies keep showing up anyway.
That disco beat propels our nobodies closer on the frenzied dance floor. At least we can “hear the sounds of people.” As empty as loneliness feels, Liang and each of these artists remind us, “Loneliness is collective; it is a city.” To find utopia within no-where: this is the potentiality of the corner, if we dive in to recognize its “hole” is in fact “whole.”