An effective pop song should make you feel the same as developing a new crush. Annie Fell muses about the beauty and terror of having a crush, and the band that taught her how to embrace it.
An effective pop song should make you feel the same as developing a new crush: drums thudding in time with the beat of your heart, guitars shredding like the fluttering in your gut. Few have captured the feeling more acutely than the band That Dog, whose debut self-titled album celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. The specificity with which frontwoman Anna Waronker parses her crushes — over catchy and clever pop-rock melodies — is enough to convince you that they’re your crushes too. I listen to That Dog and feel a primal compulsion to find at least 10 new boyfriends, fall in love with each and every one of them, then dump them all a month later.
Waronker has noted that she specifically avoided writing about love for their first album because it had been “done too much.” But it wouldn’t be totally accurate to say that the album doesn’t explore love as a theme; one of my favorite That Dog songs, “Family Functions,” is a plea for a boy to accompany the narrator to family get-togethers in order to impress (or at least satisfy) her relatives. “‘He’s a nice Jewish boy,’ they will say/But the truth is that I knew it all along,” “it” being that he also happens to be a crushable boy like any other. It’s not punk to want to please people, especially not your own family, but is it not, in a way, totally dreamy to have your cake and eat it — to date a punk boy who also makes your parents happy?
By their second album, Waronker seemed to reverse her stance on love as a musical theme, thus the titularly self-explanatory Totally Crushed Out!. With a cover reminiscent of Sweet Valley High, TCO! plays like a concept album about being terminally prone to crushing hard. Dramatic classical strings, played by violinist Petra Haden, usher in Waronker’s shredding on the first track, “Ms. Wrong.” The song — which recounts not being into someone who, for all intents and purposes, is a great person (“If I didn’t feel so wrong, you’d be my Mr. Right”) — was co-written by former Girls showrunner Jenni Konner, with whom Waronker attended the Crossroads School in LA. Similar to Konner’s recent work, Waronker’s lyrics construct narratives that are relatable despite their hyper-specificity, and deal in crushed out minutiae like the woes of being a straight girl crushing on a gay man or the tragedy of Rachel Perry lip gloss going to waste on unkissed lips.
The tracklisting for the band’s final album, 1997’s Retreat from the Sun, reads like a rolodex of crushes from places like Minneapolis, Long Island, and Hawthorne, California — places that are objectively bland until you have a crush on someone from there, at which point they transform into exotic destinations in which you become a tourist of your crush’s personal life. In an interview from that same year, Waronker was asked: “Why are you so caught up with relationships in your songs?” To which she responded, “Well, isn’t everybody caught up in relationships in their lives?” I hate the idea that a crush is a frivolous thing. If you’re at all interested in humanity beyond yourself, I think it would be impossible to not be constantly feeling totally crushed out. Developing a new crush is so exciting because it’s a micro-scale reminder of everything you have yet to explore in the world — even if what is yet to be discovered is just if a certain person is good in bed, or has a bad relationship with their parents.
Maybe the actual best part of crushing, though, is the possibility that they might end up being an even better match for you than you already think they are. Projection is safe in moderation and can be so, so thrilling when executed with a healthy dose of self-awareness. After all, We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live, and sometimes those stories just have to be about how the very-hot-but-kind-of-boring person you’re crushing on would actually love all of the weird niche things you’re into, if only you had a chance to show them.
Waronker sings on “Long Island” that, “by definition, a crush must hurt.” I don’t know if I necessarily agree with the claim, but I also have no evidence to refute it. I think having a for-whatever-reason unattainable crush can become a form of self-harm if you lose perspective — Insta-stalking someone who’s in a monogamous relationship (or when you’re in one) can be, to rip off Esther Perel, suicide by a thousand cuts; projecting a potential for kindness onto someone who’s only mistreated you is likely to be far more depressing and delusional than it ever will be satisfying. I prefer to think of a crush — not the actual person being crushed on, but the nebulous idea — as an embodiment of fun yet to be had. But at least when the fun is over and it does hurt, I’ll have That Dog to commiserate with.