Woman Free Article


Victoria Spence reflects on the value of alone time – with a little help from some musical friends.

I’m away to the Otago coast for a month by myself. The most company I will have is our old dog and the occasional seal on the beach. Back in the day, when our kids were small and clamorous, I would yearn to be alone for more than a stolen morning. Now that we are all grown up, I’m free to take off to a borrowed crib and attempt to bring forth a bit of writing.

Curious about how a month of solitude might feel, and being me, I’ve made a playlist to find some emotional cues. I can confirm that the bedrock of popular music is the pain of isolation. Legions of sad songs offer a portal to weepy catharsis and hyperbolic validation of every brand of misery and suffering. Allowing us, in the words of music writer Barney Hoskyns, “to wallow in pain, to glory in our own sorrow”. Oh dear. I could see myself adrift in a sea of empty chip packets and Vodka Cruiser cans, howling along to All By Myself like a budget Bridget Jones. (Because it’s you, I’ve chosen Eric Carmen’s seven-minute, Rachmaninov-inspired album version for the playlist.) Or perhaps I’d queue up the Big O’s Only the Lonely and weep in “pleasurable misery”, as Roy Orbison’s audiences were once described as doing. As part of this exploration of solitude, I’ve looked for interesting cover versions in the canon of sad tunes, hoping to hear old songs anew and divine something other than loneliness. A few notable exceptions – Elvis, Eric, Roy and Ricky – remain the gold standard and all subsequent versions be damned (looking at you, Céline Dion – get your talons off All By Myself ).

Roy Orbison’s audiences wept in “pleasurable misery” when he played what would become an iconic ode to loneliness for generations to come. IMAGE: GETTY

So, what happens when we make the choice to be alone? When does “alone” become “lonely”? Thank goodness there are plenty of interesting people vocally championing the joy – nay, the glamour! – of being alone. “Alonement”, a word invented by journalist Francesca Specter (and the title of her podcast), describes valuable, fulfilling time spent alone. Her interviewees share a common view that alone time works best when it has a purpose – this could be running, meditating, writing (oh, hello!). She lands a chat with the marvellous Alain de Botton, thinker of great things and a fan of time spent by oneself. He says we need to change the story around the “problem” of loneliness. De Botton’s solution is to reframe things such as dining out alone as not onerous, but glamorous.

“You’re not a marginal figure by having dinner alone, you’re doing something that Goethe, Freud, Virginia Woolf and Buddha would have recognised and seen as valuable,” says de Botton. “Glamour is badly distributed; we need to make introspection and self-knowledge glamorous, we need to make the state of being alone glamorous.” Even better, you don’t have to look constantly interested.

More indie-rock-type philosophers, however, will do anything to avoid being alone. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy details the futility of frantic domestic activity (Hate It Here) and Silver Jews (Honk If You’re Lonely) cheerfully curb-crawl in search of company. Meanwhile, indie-folk women Margo Timmins (of Cowboy Junkies, Blue Moon Revisited), Nadia Reid (High & Lonely), the late Nanci Griffith (Speed of the Sound of Loneliness), Alela Diane (of Headless Heroes, Blues Run the Game) have made being alone if not glamorous, at least kinda cool.

Perhaps it’s even becoming sexy. My son recently told me he is in the habit of “masturdating”. Before you congratulate me on the very modern relationship I have with my kids, read that word again. Masturdating involves a person taking oneself out on a date and spending some quality time in their own company. Perhaps, if the evening goes well and enthusiastic consent is given, they may end up dancing with themselves as role- modelled by Billy Idol’s Generation X and given a gypsy jazz zhuzh-up by Nouvelle Vague. In the words of Donna, from telly show Parks and Recreation, “Treat yo’self!”

In fact, being alone can be a striking decision. Esther Phillips embodies this sense of agency in her cover of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again, Naturally. There’s nothing maudlin about this. Her genre- bending voice reaches out from the speakers, defiantly soul, blues and jazz all at once. In 1973, Aretha Franklin handed over her Grammy for Best Female R&B Album to fellow nominee Phillips as she believed she was more deserving. Just hearing how resolutely she sings the word “naturally” should be enough to convince anyone.

Music gives shape to feelings, giving words and texture to something that lurks just out of the realm of language but within the range of feeling – this forms the tone, or timbre of a song. A sad song’s timbre reaches out with its sticky minor key tendrils to cue our emotional responses. When a song makes us cry, that is what Malcolm Gladwell calls “melancholy colliding with specificity” – the timbre, plus our own memory of a particular experience, equals waterworks. Masters of mood, the Bee Gees can trigger emotion with laser accuracy and Alone may be the downbeat apotheosis of a famously upbeat career. As much as I love melancholy maximalism, paring a “big song” back to bare bones can reveal other dimensions. Notice Ben Watt (the bloke-half of Everything But The Girl) lend a soft bossa nova mood to Bob Dylan’s You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. Meanwhile, Yo La Tengo give Hank Williams’ classic I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry a restrained and arch read, letting the guitar carry the emotion.

So, even if popular music still makes its living out of the “problem” of loneliness, pop psychologists and thinkers such as Alain de Botton are here to help reframe it into something with volition and agency. Over the coming weeks I’ll be checking in with myself – and maybe dancing – as I make sure to stay on the “alonement” side of loneliness. Wish me luck!

Scan this code in the Spotify app to listen to the Woman July 2022 playlist, Dancing With Myself.

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