Ruth B’s “Lost Boy” doesn’t seem like it belongs on commercial radio. It sounds like a show tune. Also, it is based on a children’s fantasy, whereas most pop songs today are juvenile sexual fantasies. To some people the minimalist approach—voice and piano—would make it more like “real music,” which is another way of saying it lacks the ornamentation of mainstream pop. But I like flashy distractions, so that argument is dumb to me. Honestly, I don’t know if I like it or not. I do appreciate, however, the way it foregrounds the fantasy that it embraces. For all its resonance, its evoking of isolation, loneliness, and the desire to belong to a world in which those feelings are sublimated into everlasting play, the song nonetheless recognizes that such transcendence is a fantasy. “Run, run, lost boy/ They say to me/ Away from all of/ Reality,” she sings. To long for a world in which we overcome the “no place we call home” of modern alienation, the burden that we romanticize by the name of individualism, is indeed to run away from reality. We may indulge in fantasies in which we don’t have to deal with all of the things that come with being grown-ass adults, but to do so, the song maintains, is to avoid the real. The wistfulness of the songs, its pretty sadness, is effective because its longing can never be fulfilled. There is no Neverland for any of us to find again and our childhoods are forever gone.
And that is a good thing to admit. For too long American popular culture has embraced the idea of an “endless summer,” in which men remain “lost boys” and women are girls that don’t make too many demands. Taking stock in the 1960s of American literature up to that period, Leslie A. Fiedler observed that while many canonical American novels could probe with incredible profundity themes like loneliness and terror, and they could embrace history and transform it into symbols capable of expressing deep yet esoteric truths about the human condition, what many of them could not do was understand the inner workings of love, sex, and desire between two human beings. And those books, some of the most read and most popular American novels, certainly could not understand a woman’s perspective. All that Natty Bumppo, Ishmael, Huck Finn, or Jack Kerouac, for fuck’s sake, could do was run away from women. Women represented sex, marriage, and responsibility. In other words, they meant leaving Neverland and entering into reality, or as the writers often put it, entering into “civilization.”
That feeling, seemingly engrafted into American culture, is never far away, though. The singer of Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out” sings about missing his childhood and describes entering into adulthood as a fall: “We used to play pretend/ Give each other different names/ We would build a rocket ship/ And the we’d fly it far away/ We used to dream of outer space/ Bu now their laughing at our face/ Saying: ‘Wake up, you need to make money.’” Adulthood is presented here as the violation of the possibilities of childhood. The intangible and immaterial things have to be sacrificed for the crass materialism of a grown up life. Yes, you have to make money when you are an adult. But that’s not all there is. Having a drink in the dark with the television playing quietly as my kids sleep in their room is a pleasure I never could have imagined as a child. Making dinner, picking children up from school, riding a bike to work, drinking a cup of coffee, reading books, driving far away to see someone, these are all pleasures of adulthood.
But the singer is this song rejects adulthood and wants to return to the warm embrace of his mother: “Wish we could turn back time/ To the good old days/ When our momma sang us to sleep.” Fiedler used a startling phrase to describe how women were often depicted in American fiction: they were either “monsters of virtue or bitchery.” Lost boys, always on the run, cannot settle down with the reality of women who make demands. If they can’t do that, then they’ll settle for a mother who will give and ask for nothing in return. Get lost, boys, get lost.