I’m living in ‘The New Abnormal’

A student describes how her year has been reflected through The Strokes’ new album.

Listen to the author read their essay.

I despise the phrase “new normal.”

As COVID-19 spread uncontrollably throughout the United States in the spring and health officials began encouraging people to wear masks and social distance to slow the spread, it quickly became obvious that we would have to adapt to the pandemic for the foreseeable future. 

Underneath the facade of an alliterative expression, “new normal” has convinced many to feel like this will be our “new normal” forever. But for me, I see it reflected in my year through one of my favorite band’s new albums.

On April 10, The Strokes, an indie rock band who have always been ahead of their time, released an eerily clairvoyant album, “The New Abnormal.”

Everything about this album, from its convoluted cover, which is “Bird on Money,” a 1981 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, to its lonesome and dismal mood, to singer Julian Casablancas’ stoic voice, portrays my life in 2020. 

The nine songs parallel my past nine months, starting with the first track, “The Adults are Talking.” 

“And then you did something wrong and you said it was great,” Casablancas sings. “And now you don’t know how you could ever complain.” These lyrics comprise the chorus of the lead-off-track. 

In the first week of March, I deliberately traveled to Los Angeles for spring break, despite California’s state of emergency at the time. Because I bought tickets in December, I didn’t want to lose a couple hundred dollars, nor did I want to forfeit my first opportunity to travel west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the furthest I’d been from home.

Denial and indifference were the only ways I could cope through the chaos unfolding around me.

One week after I returned to Philadelphia, I lost all the privileges I took for granted, like going out to restaurants and movie theaters, due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

Rather than being “Selfless,” the title of the second song on “The New Abnormal,” I was selfish. 

“I’m not scared, just don’t care. I’m not listening, you hear?” are the final lyrics of the second track.  

Already burnt out after one month of lockdown, I had this same apathetic attitude toward the pandemic in April. I couldn’t bear to look at the morbid predictions on the news, so I covered my ears and shouted “La, la, la” like a petulant child. I didn’t want to wear a mask in the humidity or cancel my spring trips to London and Denver. However, I eventually relented to both. 

Denial and indifference were the only ways I could cope through the chaos unfolding around me.  

Throughout the month of May, my days followed a repetitive cycle, like a chorus. Wake up, eat, watch TV, eat again, watch more TV, sleep, repeat. Cue “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus,” the album’s third song.

I anticipated my 21st year would be spent partaking in bar crawls on the weekends with my friends, not drinking alone. Although I celebrated my birthday properly in January, none of my friends turned of age until after the lockdown had begun. As the song goes, “When they said ‘This is the beginning of the best years,’ even though, false.” 

Not only did this year have so much wasted potential, but my early twenties were being squandered indoors. I had come to believe this was the beginning of my worst years, not the best.

The U.S. made some “Bad Decisions” in June by opening up prematurely. As the temperature increased, so did my prospects.

“I hang on everything you say,” the song goes on the album’s fourth track. “I wanna write down every word.”

I held on to any shred of hope that my indefinitely postponed concerts would be rescheduled by the end of the year, which was blindly optimistic. 

I usually skip “Eternal Summer,” the album’s fifth track, because it’s my least favorite song on “The New Abnormal.” Like the title, the five-month-long quarantine following the initial shutdown in March felt like one perpetual vacation, except instead of studying abroad in Costa Rica, resting on the lawn at BB&T Pavilion or cheering in the stands of Citizens Bank Park, I spent it sitting on my boyfriend’s couch collecting unemployment. 

Aside from moving into my new apartment, I don’t remember anything particularly noteworthy about July. As far as I’m concerned, I skipped over the rest of the summer too. 

As if things couldn’t be more depressing, my boyfriend ended our relationship for about three hours in September. The album’s sixth song, “At The Door,” sums this up, even though it occurred in the seventh month of the pandemic. While I was standing hesitantly at the door, bags packed and not so ready to leave, he “begged me not to go, sinking like a stone. Use me like an oar. And get yourself to shore,” as the lyrics go. Through tears of sadness and joy, I closed the door and stayed, but I questioned if I was really the oar or the anchor. 

As abruptly as this song transitions into the next, the conversation ceased and was never brought up again. 

Although this nearly catastrophic event happened on a Thursday, I distinctly remember, and my days had become a blur, I asked myself the same question posed by the album’s seventh track, “Why Are Sundays So Depressing?” Despite the fact that weekdays and weekends were only a formality at this point, the last day of the weekend was still as melancholy as before. 

While working full-time at my office job the previous summer was mundane and methodical, it gave me a sense of purpose and a steady income. After my lab was forced to work remotely and our hours were significantly reduced this year, I had too much free time, something I never thought I’d write. I had, as the song’s lyrics go, “come to believin’ that, that too much time is evil.” As Casabalancas sings, “I kinda miss the nine to five.”  

By October, I had accepted and even embraced the monotony. Though my pre-pandemic routine was almost back in swing, I was “Not the Same Anymore,” the album’s eighth song. I was a shell of the person I used to be, no longer going stir crazy or suffering from fear of missing out, but also no longer craving the thrill of going to a concert, eating out or thrifting. 

Without a pesky social life to get in the way, I could dedicate my time to my three jobs and five classes. “Stay on top of this, or else,” I reminded myself. The uncertainty of the pandemic and presidential election, on top of the stress of my entirely online senior year, numbed me to the pain, death and disaster brought on by COVID-19.

“The New Abnormal”’s poignant finale, “Ode to the Mets,” leaves me feeling a mutual sense of celebration and despair, two emotions I will carry with me into 2021. Though I am ecstatic this year is finally coming to a close, I will still need to be cautious and careful. “Gone now are the old times. Forgotten, time to hold on the railing.” 

What attracted me to The Strokes long before this album was the theme of existential dread prevalent in their music. The longer society is forced to function virtually, the more I forget my old life and ask myself “Is This It?,” one of their oldest and most acclaimed songs from 2001.

This year and album have persuaded me to be honest and self-reflective. Everything is transient — relationships, friendships, jobs and even the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps my life will never revert back to the normalcy I had been accustomed to, but I want to progress, not regress. 

As the closing riff diminuendos and is replaced by a scratchy static, I gently lift the needle off of the record, put it in its case and tuck it between my vinyls of “Melophobia” by Cage the Elephant and “Humbug” by the Arctic Monkeys.

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