How Rilo Kiley’s “Pictures of Success” helped me face adulthood

Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.

I’ll be the first to admit that I was late to the party with Rilo Kiley and didn’t listen to any of the band’s music until 2007. That was when my then-college roommate had “Portions for Foxes” on a pretty heavy rotation, and she got me into them. I felt an immediate kinship with lyricist and singer Jenny Lewis, a woman whom I was certain had direct lines to both my heart and my brain, and I quickly dove into the rest of the Rilo Kiley discography. But it wasn’t until a couple years later that I developed an appreciation for what is now my very favorite Rilo Kiley song: “Pictures of Success,” from their 2001 release, Take Offs and Landings.

The song is nearly seven minutes long, but it unfolds perfectly, and the payoff to both its dramatic instrumental and lyrical buildup gets me every time. The lyrics center around a narrator emerging into adulthood: She is faced with realities like having to pay the bills, being broke, and feeling unsure of her choices. She voices all the optimism in the world for her future, for her career, but you can feel her uncertainty burning throughout.

“I’m a modern girl, but I fold in half so easily, when I put myself in the picture of success.”

“Pictures of Success” is also a song about facing your own mortality. Some may seen it as maudlin, but I believe her when she posits that “it must be nice to finish, when you’re dead.” I admit that this line spoke to me in a heavier sense in my early 20s, as I dealt with the loss of my mother — I remember thinking it might not be so bad to be with her, wherever she was, and whatever that meant. Today, of course, I am very much glad to be alive, and I know my mom would sure prefer me that way.

“I could learn world trade, or try to map the ocean.”

I remember this song coming to me during a turning point in my life. I had graduated from college and I was sitting in an office at a job I despised. It spoke to me in a way that forced me to listen. I was living in a city that suddenly felt too small, working at a desk I didn’t want to be behind, and something bigger was calling to me. I decided that spring to move to Chicago — a big jump, since at that point I’d never lived outside of Ohio.

But, anchored by this song, I felt like I could do anything.

“They say, California is a recipe for a black hole. And I say, I’ve got my best shoes on – I’m ready to go.”

Maybe I interpreted part of this song optimistically, but I would tell myself constantly that, with my best shoes on, I was ready to move on to Chicago. I listened to it again and again as I pictured myself making a new start, a new life, in a new city. It was like a bedtime story I told myself, and this song braced me whenever I began to doubt my plans.

I listened to it on loop in my car, as the Chicago skyline appeared in my view along I-90.

“These are times that can’t be weathered, and we have never been here since then.”

“Pictures of Success” made me brave. It soothed me when I felt unsure. It instilled in me a sense of hope, and a sense of purpose. It fed me for a long time, during some truly unsettling weeks and months of uncertainty. This song taught me self-reliance, and filled me with a sense of independence, which it brings back to me with each revisit.

Today, I still listen to it on airplanes, or when I come home from a long trip. In such a weird abstract way, this song has become home for me. I’m worried I’ll never be able to fully describe the love and protectiveness I feel for this piece of music.

A lot of songs remind me of past relationships, of men from my past. This song isn’t one of them. It’s a song that makes me think only of myself, in a completely, deliciously selfish way. It makes me think of how far I’ve come. It helps me see how much further I can still go.

And I say, I’m ready to go.

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(Image courtesy of Barsuk Records)