lykke li i follow rivers

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.

When I was five years old, I had my first crush. I couldn’t stop thinking about him and was quite often wondering if he was thinking about me too, and how would I know that he was thinking about me at that exact same moment?! On a Wednesday morning, my dreams were crushed on the playground slide when my frenemy told me she was already his girlfriend and I was number two.

The concept of romantic love always seemed strange to me. My father never showed his true face and used his chameleonic abilities to manipulate his character and morph into a version of himself that he thought others wanted to see; he always got what he thought he wanted. I saw firsthand that one could always be stuck in abstract concepts, unable to break the molds you’ve created in fear of another’s opinion, one which might change after seeing what’s beneath your carefully constructed grand armor.

My mother never verbally expressed her love but rather showed it to me. Therefore, I believed that you had to show love in order to make it real. From watching Disney films in my youth such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, or Cinderella, to reading books in my teens like Benoîte Groult’s Les vaisseaux du coeur, Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna, or Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. The thought nestled in the back of my mind: You have to prove yourself worthy in order to receive the love that you secretly yearn for.

In reality, love is difficult to identify but it’s in its essence a combination of chemical and social processes. Yet, in literature, film and music it’s usually shown as the highest power. It is love, that irrational and irrepressible feeling that confronts the world, and in the end love always wins against darkness. I think love is a matter of desire, and that desire is ultimately exactly what motivates us day in and day out. Or, at least that’s what I thought.

It was in 2010 that I first heard of the Swedish singer Lykke Li. I was planning my semester abroad in Sweden, and I tried to consume as much of the music, media, and literature I could get my hands on. While I enjoyed the energetic rap of Adam Tensta, it was Li and the enigmatic “I’m Good, I’m Gone” of her debut album Youth Novels — where she sings: “You can’t keep me back once I had some / No wasting time to get it right / And you will see what I’m about” — she lured me in, and I never looked back.

“I Follow Rivers” is the second song on Li’s sophomore album Wounded Rhymes. For me, the song represents obsessive love; Li sings “Oh I beg you, can I follow / Oh I ask you why not always” She doesn’t give up: “I-I follow, I follow you / Deep sea baby, I follow you.”

It must have been a Thursday morning around a quarter past ten in 2011, when I saw him for the first time. He sat under the bright, fluorescent lights of the faculty among the hundreds of fellow students, and I knew it was him right away. It was the kindness that simmered through his veins, his broad shoulders, and that soft, vulnerable mouth.I felt his gaze upon me, and besides several awkward interactions, we danced our wordless dance for two months, the feeling swirling us around and around. I didn’t know how to react, so I retreated and comforted myself with the safe scenarios I could fantasize for us.

I’m not sure what about the song first hit home. It could have been the electric beat, the honest lyrics, or maybe it was the mesmerizing video where she frantically runs after the Swedish actor Fares Fares in a snow-filled desolate landscape. All I know is that I connected with the song in that exact moment and that I’d ran for such a long time and I was fed up.

I saw love as a dangerous illusion that led people to life-threatening mistakes. The idea to be rejected for your being broke my heart. Isn’t it funny that I wanted my heart to be whole? We use the heart as a metaphor for our rich inner life, and maybe that’s actually not so farfetched. The heart is an important organ; after all, when the organ fails, we die. If you connect your heart with your love life, it then certainly becomes a matter of life and death.

The lyrics of “I Follow Rivers” are short, clean, filled with yearning and the idle hope of love:

“Be the ocean, where I unravel / Be my only / Be the water where I’m wading.”

Despite the ironclad armor I’d build for myself, I still searched for a way out. In the late seventies, the psychologist Dorothy Tennov coined the term limerence, which comes down to obsessive thoughts about the other, emotional longing and dependency. Oh, how one small word could capture the overwhelming nature of my feelings.

Looking back, I was merely afraid to be vulnerable. I’d always believed that you have to be strong in the face of adversity; you have to be strong to deal with life’s inevitable shadowy side, which is filled with disappointment, loss, and regret. But being vulnerable? That’s a quality that many of us have lost, or it’s hidden under layers and layers of bravado, morphed by society’s standards.

That armor slowly melted into a silver puddle beneath my feet. Having a crush was my safety net; I felt like it was an inhumane sacrifice to give up my independence. The crush acted as my barrier, and it was a safe way to release my romantic feelings without ever opening up. The safety net didn’t protect me; it only created a hard exterior.

“You’re my river running high / Run deep. Run wild.”

It’s unfair to project your longing on another person without ever giving them the chance to reciprocate. I now refuse to knowingly run in the dense landscape of my feelings and chase the object of my affections further and further away, only to find out that it all was merely a dream.

The pangs of regret of my impenetrable crush aren’t etched on my heart. He was merely the illuminating catalyst of my awakening. At that moment, I wasn’t ready to venture out, truly connect with him, to start that intricate dance of vulnerability.

Sometimes you just need a reality check, and the minimalistic alchemy of Lykke Li woke me up.

Image courtesy of EMI.