Music: it calms us down, hypes us up, helps us focus, gets us moving. It sets a mood. It accents our days. You don’t have to understand music to enjoy it, and what music you do enjoy can be very personal — and surprising. Not that anyone cares what I think. I maintain that the Dick Tracy soundtrack is the best Madonna album, and that the downbeat is a social construct. Luckily, today’s advice question isn’t really about music at all.
Oh sure, on the surface it is. It’s about a band. Following our current trend of deceptively simple questions with disarmingly complex backstories, this week’s letter writer has a heartbreaking reason for asking us to, ahem, justify/redeem the band Greta Van Fleet. But there is a lot more going on here than any explainer on the current state of pop music could cover. This is a question about grief, and guilt, and making sense of the senseless. And no, that’s not a dig at Greta Van Fleet.
[Reminder: If you need help understanding the pop culture landscape AND/OR processing your emotions AND/OR I dunno, coming up with recipe ideas? We can help! Write to us at [email protected] and we’ll put our team of highly opinionated non-experts to work discussing your life in the vacuum of the internet. Sounds fun, right?]
Since the letter we received was A JOURNEY, I’m going to help us cut to the chase by summarizing the background (and changing a few names just to be safe) before letting the writer explain the heart of her conundrum in her own words. What you need to know is that our letter writer, whom I’m going to call Still Reeling, found out she was pregnant just before her wedding last fall. Then she went on her honeymoon and asked her sister “Jess” and her sister’s boyfriend “Matt” to house-sit for her while caring for her dogs.
And while she was gone, Matt accidentally overdosed on heroin in her home and passed away.
Her sister was the one who discovered him and called 9-1-1, thinking it was an asthma attack. Matt was well liked by her family, and no one — including her sister, who had been with him for years — had any idea he was abusing drugs. So now Still Reeling is trying to reconcile the person she thought she knew with this secret he was carrying. And from here, I’ll let her explain the rest:
Obviously, I am feeling a lot of things that are hard to express. I feel so protective of his memory, like I need to explain to people “no! he wasn’t like that!” I know that doesn’t matter, but I want them to believe that he was different, that this was shocking, and a death to be outraged about. I think of the tiny signs we missed, and I feel disgusted with myself, because everyone was so caught up with the wedding and maybe if they hadn’t been we would have noticed that something was slowly changing. And what if he wasn’t alone at our house? Did we give him an opportunity to do something he hadn’t done in a long time? If he were somewhere else would someone have found him in time to help him? I have never felt so helpless and so desperate to change something.
At the same time my grief feels inappropriate. I lost someone in my life, but I didn’t lose THE person in my life. I feel devastated, and that’s not even a fraction of what my sister, his best friend, or his parents feel. At his funeral his mom, who I only met a handful of times before, hugged me and my husband and thanked us to welcoming him into our lives and told us how much he loved us, and i just thought why doesn’t she want to slap me? My sister starts shaking as soon as she drives down my street. I don’t know how she gets up every day and goes to work. This situation is not about me, and the most important thing right now is that I am a support system for my sister.
Anyway, you are probably wondering how you can help me with this. I know you can’t. I need to go to therapy. I need to get through this pregnancy so I can determine what is grief and what is way too many hormones. But, you say we can ask Pajiba almost anything, and what I need help with is ridiculous but feels like it is consuming my thoughts. When I was looking through Matt’s instagram I found a post from the day he died. He was listening to the new Greta Van Fleet album and enjoying it. I thought “Who is Greta Van Fleet? A woman who encourages heroin use? Well, at least he was enjoying the album.” But then the next day I saw an article about how terrible the album is. How it’s for millennials who don’t know about good music! It’s a blatant rip off of Led Zeppelin! I put that out of my mind. But then I saw another similar headline. Then they were on SNL. Then someone in the Pajiba comments said they don’t like them and they feel bad for them because they are posers, and people agreed. Last week I heard them on satellite radio on the way to the gym, and I didn’t know it was them until I saw the name and I cried so hard I had to pull over.
So I am asking you is there anything redeeming about Greta Van Fleet? If they are truly terrible can you make it seem like that they are really not that bad? Even if you don’t really believe they are a good band. Because I will believe you. I agree with Pajiba writers not about everything, but about a lot of things, so I will trust you on this without looking into it any further. And yes, I read Chuck Klosterman’s essay about guilty pleasures, and how you shouldn’t be ashamed of what you like, and I read High Fidelity and I get it, it’s not what you like, it’s what you’re like. But thinking of Matt spending his last hours listening to Nickelback seems a lot worse than him listening to The Beatles, and Greta Van Fleet seems to be rating closer to Nickelback. The amount of time I spend thinking about Greta Van Fleet is not normal, and I really can’t bring myself to say it out loud to anyone, because it is the wrong thing to be thinking about. There is so much about this situation that can’t be resolved easily, but I feel like this Greta Van Fleet issue can be. So can a band that everyone thinks sucks be not that bad of a thing to listen to before you die? Can you find something good about Greta Van Fleet?
Dear Still Reeling,
To start with, I’m very happy that you mentioned going to therapy, because otherwise, that would have been our first recommendation (as per usual). Regardless of the cause of Matt’s death, the fact that it happened in your home and during your honeymoon means that you have some very personal and inescapable associations with this tragedy. In addition to your grief, it sounds like you’re holding onto guilt and confusion and a counsellor may help you process your emotions.
But you asked us about Greta Van Fleet, and that’s something we can easily help you with — because you already hit the nail on the head. They’re a rip off of Led Zeppelin. But they are a very convincing one, which isn’t exactly an easy feat. Four of their songs have peaked at #1 on the Billboard charts, they won the 2019 Grammy for Best Rock Album, and they’re good enough for Elton John, who had them headline his annual AIDS Foundation Oscar Viewing Party in 2018 — and even joined them on stage to perform a couple of songs:
You wanna tell Elton John he’s wrong?
Basically, Greta Van Fleet is fine. But good or bad, it doesn’t matter — because some people, A LOT of people, enjoy them. And as you noted, nobody should be ashamed of what they like! Our tastes don’t define us. So even if everyone in the world hated Greta Van Fleet, it would have zero bearing on the fact that Matt listened to them the day he died. What’s more important is that you have proof, thanks to Instagram, that he spent his final hours doing something that brought him joy. Doesn’t matter if he was listening to their album, or Nickelback, or The Beatles, or washing his car or petting a basket full of puppies. He was enjoying himself! We should all be so lucky.
So yes — it is absolutely fine to listen to a shitty band before you die, as long as it’s a shitty band you like. But Greta Van Fleet is a red herring — a distraction from the larger issue. You’re looking for resolution on the matter of Matt’s musical tastes because it is tangible, when really it’s a substitute for all your larger unanswered questions about his life. You’re looking to redeem this band as a way of redeeming Matt by association, because as you said — you’re protective of his memory. But here’s the thing: Matt doesn’t need redemption. Matt didn’t do anything wrong. Matt was sick. Addiction is a disease, and it isn’t something that needs to be justified or explained away.
But his addiction also isn’t Matt’s only defining characteristic, the way cancer patients are more than their cancer. He’s still him. All the things you believed you knew about him are still true — it’s just that there was something about him you didn’t know. There is no perfect (or “bad”) type of person who abuses drugs, and what makes addiction so dangerous it that it thrives in secret. It’s easy to beat yourself up about the fact that you might have missed some telltale sign, but in reality, you probably would have needed to be very well versed in addiction to notice anything at all. Some of my best friends have overdosed, or called me up on the way to rehab, all because of drugs I had no idea they were using. I would have needed to know that I should be looking for signs of trouble in order to notice anything was amiss, and I didn’t. Because that’s how secrets work.
So I think what may help you more than anything is to educate yourself about the nature of addiction. Perhaps look up a Nar-Anon meeting in your area, and see how far-reaching this illness can be. How many people it affects, and how hidden it can be. Because if Matt had died in your house of natural causes — if he’d really had an asthma attack, for example — you’d still be processing your grief, but I doubt you’d feel as defensive of him as you do right now. I think your preconceived notions of addicts is what needs adjusting, more than your perception of Greta Van Fleet. In order to let go, accept this new aspect of him rather than trying to explain it away. His death will still be sad, and unnecessary, but at least you’d understand how it could have happened. Because the only way to dispel the secrecy and shame of addiction is to shed light on it, even if it’s only to yourself.
Neither Matt’s music choices nor his disease made him a bad person, and nothing that happened was your fault. So hold onto your memory of him, and do what you can to take care of yourself and your family as you process this event.
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