It’s hard to explain why Anna Kendrick’s “When I’m Gone (Cups)” has been on the radio for such a long time. It must have something to do with nostalgia. It sounds like a song that you might have learned at camp, where you sang it with friends while also learning the “cup game” that came along with it. The repetitiveness of the lyrics and their elemental quality suggest a song easily learned and earnestly sung. This is a song that some adolescent girls will sing together even if they don’t really like it and some adolescent boys will love with all their hearts even if they pretend to hate it. As an adult, it reminds you obliquely of how you viewed adulthood from the perspective of a teenager.
But the structure of the song also hints at some version of the American past that feels both colorful and safe. “I’ve got my ticket for the long war round/Two bottle whiskey for the way,” she sings. And that seems right: just enough whiskey to stay pleasantly buzzed on a long train ride but not enough to get crazy, enough whiskey to pretend that you are like the hobo from the “Big Rock Candy Mountains” and the little streams of alcohol of hobo dreaming are right there in your bottle. A pretended past, a bright past, a past without the fear of homelessness, of deprivation, of hunger, and the need to escape that reality with drunken delirium. That is, this song constitutes a simulacrum of the past as it is represented in a fantasy like O Brother Were Art Thou?, a movie that features the song “Big Rock Candy Mountains” and could have featured “When I’m Gone.” A simulacrum that in our society of images becomes confused with reality so that many people experience a film like O Brother Were Art Thou? as if it were the real representation of a past more organic and comforting than the present. Indeed, that past seems more that way in that movie but not because that is nature of the past but because it is represented as such.
Perhaps the deepest type of nostalgia in “When I’m Gone” is felt in its view of nature. In the second verse Kendrick sings that her ride has “the prettiest of views/It’s got mountains; it’s got rivers/ It’s got sights to give you shivers.” The description places you inside the railroad car with her. You view a landscape distanced from you by the glass on the picture window. The choice of common nouns (mountains, rivers) renders those features in ideal terms, so that in picturing her words you provide perfectly idealized mental visions of them. This is not nature but the pastoral, a composed and picturesque rendering of the natural world. This prettiest of views reveals both our desire for communion with nature and the fundamental break, figured in this song as a glass partition, between the human world and the natural world in the Western imagination. Lukács says that the more Western people see the natural world as their true and necessary home, the more alienated they feel from the social world they have constructed. This is not to say that we are actually separate from the natural world from which we emerged and on which we depend. We are indeed earth animals and despite the vivid imaginations of popular culture that portray us as living on other planets this is the only planet anyone reading this will ever live on. Nonetheless, it appears to me that the distinction between a humanity that stands elevated over a natural world that serves it primarily as matter is one of the oldest structures of our worldview. We may appreciate its beauty, understand that it alone can satisfy all of our material necessities, nostalgically long to feel it as our only true home, but just the same it will remain separated from us by the very thinking that recognizes it as something essentially different from who we are.