Andrea DiCenzo/The New York Times

September 13, 2023

Travelog: In Search of Deeper Meaning (or Olivia Rodrigo in Dublin) 

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Dublin is filled with 21+ clubs. 

I say this not just to pettily express my annoyance at deliberately studying in a country with an 18+ drinking age only to discover that clubs enforce a higher standard. In fact, I’m as interested as I am miffed: Why are they doing this? Culture shock for me has come in the form of that question and its relative unanswerability. After all, I don’t know why the drinking age in the U.S. is 21 exactly, nor do I know why we drive on the right side of the street, don’t need to hail buses, play a different brand of football than either Gaelic Football or Rugby or refuse to install air conditioning in brand new boiling brick buildings. Many of those would take a Google search or more, but the little differences pile on faster than I can or care to research… Hence, culture shock. 

Wanting to integrate into my host country’s culture means trying to attain a sense of what culture means. Is it the sum of those physical artifacts (the same ones mentioned above) laid out in a specific combination and order so as to give a place singularity? Or is it instead the context which informs those physical artifacts, the reasons and religions and politics that produce drinking ages and sporting regulations? Of what value is the note that Europeans seem to drink more than Americans without the (hopefully non-apocryphal) explanation that historically the water was dirtier, making beer the drink of choice? Ever the auteurist, I tend to enjoy films better when I know the facts of the director’s life, the quirks that make them singular and the production circumstances that facilitated or hindered the funneling of their life experiences into whatever film I happen to watch. That is to say, I believe context matters, and it has started to strain my experience of trying to take in Ireland, even as I might succeed at engaging with those physical artifacts of culture. 

Being in a place produces only the experience of observing unknown signifiers, reading a language devoid of meaning (literally in the case of Irish), and wandering without really sensing where one is. At the same time, a fully contextualized experience of travel ends up looking a lot like classical tourism: The busload of people listening to an local guide, going to churches and reading little signs with historic anecdotes and going into Temple Bar because its the only pub in town with any sort of widespread international reputation. Context matters, but contextualization is perpetually undesirable. 

Olivia Rodrigo released a new album last week, and in my semi-monthly ritual of reminding myself that I do like contemporary pop music, I listened to it. My girlfriend recounted some of the contextualizing “tea” of Rodrigo’s exes (a half remembered reminder of who each song was about and so forth) and I nodded along, cause it was nice to know. I didn’t need to know it though. I actually really didn’t need to know it. 

GUTS functions without and exists intrinsically linked to both context and subtext. With long stretches of music functioning entirely as a stream of consciousness, often spoken rather than sung against fairly simplistic instrumentation, the album makes early Taylor Swift sound entirely abstract. The lyricism is literal storytelling to a degree seldom seen outside musical theater; unpoetic phrases populate the songs operating only to contextualize the poetic lyricism, itself just a slightly more artistic retreading of actual events. 

None of that is to say the album is bad: It rocks, I’ve listened to it five times (I too have been depressed, I get it). Rodrigo should presumably be given credit for a boldness in a willingness to risk generica: When Cooper Raif made Sh*thouse, the film that every college student wants to make but is told not to, he was similarly praised for making a passion project, even if his passion project happened to be everyone else’s as well. On some level, the distinction between generic and personal is irrelevant and it can be hard to know when an observation becomes a novel restatement of universal experience and when it’s simply essentialist truism, valuable only as a cheap thrill. The album’s best track, “Vampire”, straddles that line almost comically, repackaging and redirecting its titular creature to become a metaphor for what it already signifies. The vampire as a metaphor for a predator being repackaged back as a metaphor for a predator and somehow working.

Rodrigo might be making tourist art, a tour through her subconscious that comes equipped with a ten language audio guide and instructive signs, or perhaps she’s going a step further. In GUTS, there’s not even a need for such a guide: There are no castle walls that are meaningless for the split second you spend looking for the instructive blurb. Rather, the album postulates an artform where context becomes entirely meaningless. Her songs, after all, speak so universally perhaps that they might as well be authorless: Not to denigrate her auteurism, but to supplant it. The both ostensibly dadaist and anti-dadaist uncontextualizability offer an alternative to the necessity of experiencing culture as deeper than that sum of physical artifacts. Instead of seeking deeper meaning in Dublin, I might do just as well to take the signifiers of culture at face value, speculating occasionally on randomness and transatlantic transmission, but leaving the roadmap behind. 

The 21+ age in Dublin clubs presumably emerges from that 21+ clip in the United States, making its way across the pond for whatever reason; the meaning of the age is stripped, because the reason for such a drinking age in the United States is tied to the fact that the government doesn’t want us to drink. It doesn’t particularly care about us going to clubs, and there are in fact 18+ clubs across the country. My speculative meaning is meaningless. The signifier means more as a curio than it does as an artifact of something greater: “Vampire” is a great song because the point is the point. 

There are more than a few signifiers in using a fake ID to get into a 21+ gay night club in a country where the drinking age is 18+ with my girlfriend. And there does exist some Russian nesting doll of cultural explanations for that precise combination of events that might make it make more sense. But as with GUTS, sometimes the most interesting context can just be text, explanations can be unsatisfying, and metaphors can take a person in circles, into phony doors, and away from that undeniably personal, universal and lived-in experience that is unilluminated reality. 

Max Fattal is a junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected]