When I’m lying awake at night: Millennials, ‘Transatlanticism’ and Universal Intimacy

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By Jake Pitre

I truly felt as if I loved her more than anything, and that she was the one I was going to end up with for the rest of my life. It always seems silly in retrospect, as much of our teenage selves look to us later on, but at the time it was very real. The only thing. This was the kind of relationship, the kind all of us have had, where a day would go by without seeing her and I would miss her, intensely. It was that powerful, and anything more than a day felt like a legitimate crisis. Of course, that faded, but for a long time it was the most intoxicating thing you could imagine. I always wanted to be close to her, and when I wasn’t, the yearning was vehemently passionate. 

Usually when writers at magazines or websites discuss millennials, they have no idea what they are talking about and have consulted with only an intern or two in order to discover the secrets of this generation. We have struggled as a culture to properly define our ascending generation, resulting in endless explanations and contradictions. Typically concerning people born after 1980 up until the early 2000s, are the millennials “the me me me generation”, as Joel Stein argued in TIME? Are they the open-minded and all-inclusive generation, as several polls and studies have suggested? Are they rude and ignorant brats, or wise and ambitious young adults? 

I think I can define the millennial generation in six words: “I need you so much closer”.

Whether through evolving parenting methods, a greater cultural emphasis on gender equality and fluidity, or some other combination of factors, the millennial generation has been especially encouraged to feel their emotions more deeply and honestly (Generation Z, those born after the early 2000s, even more so). 

At the same time, this generation is the first to grow up with the Internet. We are still in the process of figuring out how this is affecting us in the long-term, but it seems clear that there is a new and distinct distancing between us taking place. Although we can connect with anyone around the world, the Internet also allows us to retreat from, for lack of a better phrase, real life. There appears to be a collective ennui that has developed, but it is a willful one as many millennials often isolate themselves in their technological realms of mild but sufficient stimulation.

From here, long-distance relationships form in ways they never have before. Oftentimes, these are between people that have never met in person, and many other times it is the continuation of a relationship after physically parting ways. This is the ultimate absence of intimacy, in a way that can even verge on masochistic. It is also the primary concept behind Death Cab for Cutie’s seminal and landmark 2003 album, Transatlanticism

“You know, I dated a girl named Sarah in college,” Ben Gibbard said in an interview with The Nerve in May 2003. “I sort of got really excited that there might be a chance that ‘Sarah Smile’ [by Hall & Oates, a favourite of his] could be our song.” 

“But then, of course,” he continued, “she dumped me.” This is, more or less, all you need to know about Ben Gibbard, Death Cab for Cutie’s frontman.

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If the millennial generation could be defined in one way, it would be their lack of, but yearning for, intimacy. With digital culture taking over our lives, the already tricky phenomenons of sexuality and love become even more complicated and nuanced. Navigating these things feels practically impossible, so it is easier to revert into technology and even find a different kind of intimacy there, something more manageable. The 2013 Spike Jonze film, Her, was a perfect encapsulation of technology both representing and generating our fear of intimacy. Distance is now meaningless, theoretically, but in practice this is not true, and sad teenagers know it. Transatlanticism speaks to these young people unlike anything else, instigating feelings of loneliness they can identify with while simultaneously making them feel less alone.  

It is their album, theirs alone. That’s how it feels, anyway. When you are young, everything is felt so strongly and you focus on that emotion, bad or good, until that is the only thing that matters. She or he isn’t here, therefore I can’t eat, sleep, or concentrate on anything else. Transatlanticism feels everything just as strongly, including all the selfishness one inevitably goes through, and the focused intimacy blindsides these young people with how true to life it is. The album came at an opportune time, juggling themes revolving around sexuality, love and long-distance relationships, when many clumsy millennials were first experiencing all of these things. They had their own relationships, held together by technology, their own awkward sexual encounters from a fear of real intimacy. This album helped them to define themselves. 

A lyrical maneuver commonly deployed masterfully by Ben Gibbard, to its best and most direct effect on this album, is to blame for this unparalleled universality. His lyrics are often specific and personal, pointing at vivid details. “I spent two weeks in Silverlake / The California sun cascading down my face / There was a girl with light brown streaks”, he sings on “Tiny Vessels”. This puts us in this environment, we feel the sun on our cheeks. Then the kicker: “And she was beautiful, but she didn’t mean a thing to me.” A highly relatable line, from either side of the equation, one that reaches so effectively to any listener. Gibbard sets up a detail, an initially specific moment, then spits out an inimitably perfect line that hits everyone in equal measure. He does this again and again, avoiding anything truly personal but writing detail-oriented lyrics that sound personal.

Elsewhere, he’s even more clever. On “Title and Registration”, he sings about how the glove compartment is inaccurately named, and at first this seems like a rather silly line. Don’t underestimate Gibbard, though, because soon he packs another gut punch. “Cause behind its door there’s nothing to keep my fingers warm / And all I find are souvenirs from better times”, he sings, and suddenly you recall past loves and the souvenirs you surely still have. So much is built into this one line, and your emotional reaction and recollection because of it is involuntary. Then, back to the pseudo-specific: “Before the gleam of your taillights fading east / To find yourself a better life”. She’s gone, not turning back. I feel you, Gibbard, I feel you.

“I need you so much closer” is always one of the most sung-along portions of any Death Cab concert, which speaks for itself in terms of its inherent and simple power. Few albums dare to be this universal. It is a delicate line to balance, because it opens yourself up to so much criticism. But Death Cab braved it, and the result is an album so formative for so many young people. Transatlanticism is a formative experience, most significantly in the emotional sense, but also musically. You see yourself in what Gibbard sings, something that was absolutely deliberate in the writing process, and in a sense, it gives you a tangible excuse to feel what you’ve been feeling. It’s a validating experience, and validation is sought after just as much as intimacy at this point in your life. They are two sides of the same coin. As a storyteller, Gibbard has always been strong at imagery and atmosphere, but it was on Transatlanticism that he found a way to make it ubiquitous. With the album’s tenth anniversary in 2013 came an outpouring from (mostly millennial) writers, both professional and otherwise, of stories about how Transatlanticism was formative for them. Where they were in 2003, or when they discovered it in the years since, and how this album was a remarkably important part of their growth as both a person and a listener of music. All the stories were specific to their experience, full of personal and emotional details, and yet they all said the same thing. Transatlanticism validated each and every one.

Photo credit: Greg Saulmon.

Photo credit: Greg Saulmon.

The influence of Transatlanticism is unfathomable and impossible to fully document, at least in any numerical sense. It is easier to track in musical and cultural terms, as it became a huge commercial success and propelled Death Cab for Cutie into indie superstars. It was positively received by listeners, industry executives and critics alike. Their popularity was at an all-time high, aided slightly by Gibbard’s popular electronic side-project, The Postal Service, whose to-date one album had come out earlier that year. Their songs were on The O.C. and Grey’s Anatomy and elsewhere, confidently commercializing their mass appeal. Emo moved further away from its punk roots into more sensitive, heartfelt and emotional material, at least partly (and I would argue significantly) because of Transatlanticism. As Andy Greenwald wrote in his review of the album, Gibbard had suddenly become “the poet laureate of the young and hopeful”. The dorks were cool, and millennials found themselves a way to be on the inside while still being on the outside. 

It’s easy to oversell, though, how many millennials actually listened to this album and how many it had an impact on. This is actually less important. What is of concern is how Transatlanticism is the quintessential millennial album, exhibiting their characteristics and defining them. It captures them and their sensibility perhaps better than any other album before or since, and feels like a snapshot of their lives. It creates a strange case where it defines millennials even if many of them haven’t heard it, and it would be far too presumptuous to say that they would surely connect with it if they did hear it. I will suggest, though, that it’d be likely. I say this because when an album so intricately embodies and speaks for a generation at that time, it carries weight in a way Hannah Horvath of Girls could only dream of. 

With this generic universal appeal, every sad teenager feels (or could feel) as if these songs are about them – again, either as the narrator or the one being narrated on. Part of Gibbard’s writing muscle comes in this ability to sing about a selfish character (and Gibbard is undoubtedly playing a character) and yet still affect listeners on both sides of what he’s singing about. At a time when these young people are figuring out love, sexuality, intimacy, relationships, apathy, angst, technology and so many other emotions, phenomena and situations, this album comes to them, in one way or another, and becomes so easily and naturally attachable. This is the only person for me, this is the only thing that matters, this is the only love I can give. This is the only album.

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