An Open Letter to Tame Impala, the Soundtrack to My Recovery
By Emma Willibey--This letter is addressed to Kevin Parker, whose project, Tame Impala, has helped me move toward self-acceptance and flexibility. But of course, it is dedicated to the readers of this blog—especially those who, like myself, are still plowing through mental recovery.
I guess I’ll start by introducing myself. My name is Emma, and I’m from Kansas City, Missouri, although I go to college in New York. I love music, and I’m obviously a huge fan of Tame Impala. Nevertheless, I don’t think that the term “fan” does justice to my relationship with your work. In the hopes of affirming the importance of what you do, as well as reminding others of the companionship that music can provide, I want to share the transformative experience to which Tame Impala was central.
The first time I saw Tame Impala live was October 11, 2013, when you opened for the National at Starlight Theatre. Honestly, I was more or less indifferent to your being there. I knew that you were critical darlings, having spotted Lonerism near the top of many year-end lists in 2012, but I was only familiar with “Elephant.” Still, I’m glad I came for the opening act; not only was your music mind-bending, but the way that you and your bandmates carried yourselves inspired me.
As I watched you lose yourself in each song while working the pedals with bare feet, I could only smile. There was freedom in your presence, as if a Zen force-field protected you from the minute concerns that plagued me then. I could tell that you were safe inside your head, and without knowing you, I longed for your state of mind. But I didn’t believe that I deserved that sense of ease, and so I continued my rigid lifestyle, filing away Tame Impala as a band to delve into if I ever found the time.
As it turned out, the time came last summer. A few days after graduating high school, I was admitted to a residential eating disorders program in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I had struggled with anorexia and OCD throughout high school, but when the former worsened during my senior year, it became clear that I needed higher-level care than outpatient treatment. As resistant as I was to surrender the rituals from which I drew my self-esteem, the hospital sounded like paradise. I could imagine nothing better than being bound to someone else’s regimen on eating, exercising, and socializing, one designed to nourish rather than punish.
After about a month, I had settled into life at this facility. I moved from the fourth floor of the hospital to the nearby house, which at some point transformed into home. With the reassurances of the staff and my fellow patients, I came to allow myself free time, during which I revived my passion for music. As a start, I created a playlist of artists that I had meant to explore in high school, featuring Tame Impala with the song “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.” The first time I heard the push-pull, push-pull of the opening notes flow into the high-pitched vocals, I was floored. As I sat on my bed, staying with your music as long as possible before having to turn in my phone for the night, I could sense that I was on the cusp of a rich relationship. To be sure, the song reminded me of how many moments of bliss and glimpses of self-knowledge I had lost to my disorder. But more importantly, the woozy splendor of “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” led me to envision a freer future, one filled with road trips and lunch dates and afternoons spent daydreaming on my bed. In essence, your song motivated me to live instead of merely existing.
Not long after, I bought Lonerism on iTunes, and I was hooked instantly. The album’s psychedelic soundscapes and insular lyrics provided the ideal backdrop for my necessary self-reflection. From the opening of “Music to Walk Home By” (“Can almost hear the fun that I should be having / Instead of dreaming”) to the conclusion of “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” (“But I don’t really care about it, anyway”), your narrator’s thoughts guided me toward self-assuredness. Not to mention, the messages within Lonerism were tailored to my situation. As I struggled to compromise a lengthy morning routine in treatment, one line in “Apocalypse Dreams” struck me: “Nothing ever changes, no matter how long you do your hair.”
An encouragement to let go of sources of false control, this mantra stayed with me when I went a day without makeup, switched from shaving every day to every other day, and finished large meals despite feeling unworthy of the food. After all, if you use whatever shampoo is in the shower, proclaim via your beloved t-shirt that your idea of exercise is running to the fridge, and yet earn my utmost admiration for your otherworldly music, then why should I feel obligated to be perfectly put-together? Essentially, you led me to absorb the advice that my treatment team had urged me to trust all along: if you work hard at what you love, you don’t need to worry so much about the rest.
I discharged from this treatment center on August 19, 2015. Earlier this year, I began my sophomore year of college, and I still have weekly therapy and nutrition sessions to ensure that I’m handling the stress well. And though the future is exciting, the past has stayed with me. Not a day goes by without thinking about Tulsa. For every memory I have of crying over dessert or hating myself at my new weight, I have two or three or more of laughing with friends, having an “a-ha” moment on my therapist’s couch, or listening to Lonerism in the Oklahoma sunshine. My life was truly opening up, and your music was at its center. On that note, I’ll state outright what I’ve been implying throughout this letter: thank you.
Image courtesy of Andrés Ibarra