The room is stuffy and uncomfortably hot. We’ve just finished the most strenuous portion of our yoga sequence and have settled into shavasana. I am by a considerable margin the clumsiest person in the room, but then again this is Florida, and this yoga studio shares a wall with a bar so the practice can’t be that serious here, I think to myself, steadied by judgment if not by breath. An anodyne New Age song hangs over our prone bodies, all but masking the sounds of a fight erupting next door. The instructor fumbles for her iPod and lands on something strange: “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips, a song whose soaring chorus I remember loving and singing along to with closed-eyed conviction as a small child. On hearing it again, some thirty years later in a swampy yoga studio, the song hit me differently.
Released in February 1990 as the lead single from their debut self-titled album, “Hold On” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (bumping Madonna’s “Vogue”) and despite having spent only a week there was later named Billboard’s Song of the Year. And for good reason: like all great pop songs, it’s a catchy alchemy of heart and harmony that transforms the mundanities of loving and losing into something grander. Hailed as an anthem of sisterhood and a “stomp-clap rally call for troubled women,” the song, co-written by famed producer Glen Ballard, tells a story of generalized struggle. Made up of Wendy and Carnie Wilson (daughters of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson) and Chynna Phillips (daughter of The Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips), Wilson Phillips are the poptimistic rejoinder to the sun-bleached rock of their parents. “Hold On” opens with four bars of shimmery synth before Phillips sings I know this pain, whose rounded notes linger like an open hand asking to be held. But sympathy has its limits, as the rest of the verse makes clear:
Why do you lock yourself up in these chains?
No one can change your life except for you
Don’t ever let anyone step all over you
Just open your heart and your mind
Is it really fair to feel this way inside?
What begins as a recognition of shared pain slides into a kind of inquisition whose maxims work to soften the confrontational force of its questions. The work of care here—in the concerned lyrics, in the smooth glide of the synth, in the now taut, barely hospitable “yous”—becomes an alibi for the song’s subtly cruel imperative. These lyrics take on added force when one recalls Phillips’s history with alcohol and drug addiction, or her half-sister’s decade-long incestuous relationship with her father, or both. And yet at another level these details don’t matter at all: this song works precisely because it offers us the barest sketch of pain. The song’s temporality is as jarring—the suffering is both felt and anticipated—as its music video, which sutures together shots of the group on snowy mountain peaks and white sand beaches. As with so many great pop songs, its resounding message is radically versatile: Don’t you know things can change/things’ll go your way/if you hold on for one more day. Whatever its particulars, “Hold On” renders in song what it means to live in an impasse. At stake here, then, is neither the indomitable will of a wounded woman nor the strength of sisterhood, as so many would have it, but the holding patterns that emerge and harden out of lived compromise: the strategies we develop in order to survive in and with relationships and situations that have become, for whatever reason, untenable. Through them we are able to at least temporarily convince ourselves of the white-knuckled idea that, this time, things can change/things’ll go your way—a chorus which affirms the listener precisely as it denies her the conditions necessary for change.
If nothing else, pop music is a long and baggy chronicle of complex attachments like these. I can think of at least 53 popular songs with the word “hold” in the title (surely there are many more), and 16 of them are called “Hold On.” John Lennon, Steve Winwood, En Vogue, Sarah McLaughlin, Hot Chip, Boyz II Men, Limp Bizkit, the Jonas Brothers, Tom Waits, Donny Osmond, Holy Ghost!, Korn, Kansas and 50 Cent have all recorded songs with this title. The phrase runs across the spectrum of pop music, indexing hopeful romance in some instances, a will to survive in others, and, in rarer cases, something closer to critique. Consider the Commodores’ 1975 recording which, driven by heavy horns and a high-stepping bassline, opens like this:
Look in the mirror; what you see?
Are you the one you want to be?
Are you tripping on cloud nine
Or has the world left you behind?
What do you have, what can you show?
What people see is what they know
Time has its changes that we all go through
How the wheels of life will turn will all depend on you
The questions here are not altogether different from the ones posed by Wilson Phillips—both make transformation a matter of personal choice and responsibility—but whereas Wilson Phillips’ song holds out false hope for a better future, the Commodores reach a somewhat different conclusion:
Hold on to what you got
Tomorrow don't promise a whole lot
Hold on to what you got
Tomorrow don't promise a whole lot
If, with Wilson Phillips, we’re given blind aspiration in the face of a threadbare fantasy, with the Commodores that fantasy has all but unraveled. The latter has already given up on tomorrow’s distant promises—of prosperity, freedom, mobility, security—and has chosen instead to hoard the present. For the former, though, the promise of a better life remains. Writing of what she calls “cruel optimism,” Lauren Berlant puts the dilemma this way: “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. […] These kinds of optimistic relation are not inherently cruel. They become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.” Berlant’s framework helps us understand why holding on has become such an available trope for the pop music of the last forty years, but it also helped me see the sharper edges of a particular song I had been steeped in nearly three decades ago.
The year Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” came out, my mother, a single parent, took a sales job at a clothing catalog company with an outlet store in Tucson, Arizona. She worked 6 days a week to make ends meet, and so on Saturday mornings she’d drive me across the city to my grandparents’ house where I’d spend the day. The best thing about those routine desert drives in her famously unsafe powder-blue Pinto was the listening they enabled. Specifically, Casey Kasem’s weekly top 40 countdown, which for better or worse was the soundtrack to some of my earliest and most vivid memories: being enraptured by the glamour of “Material Girl,” wanting to expatriate to “Rhythm Nation,” learning about homelessness with Phil Collins and Arrested Development, learning about sexual desire with Prince and George Michael. What perhaps began as a way for my mom to fill space and time during those pre-shift arduous drives turned into something of a sacred ritual. We hardly spoke at all during those car rides, electing instead to be held together in sound. I did not at the time have words for what I felt, in the company of a loved one and all those songs. Now I might say that it was in those weekly drives, in that comically dangerous Pinto that, cradled by top 40, I felt secure.
Being held by pop, then, was a feeling that I learned early on to cherish, especially in the stretches of adolescence when the armatures of life could not always carry me. Which brings me back to Wilson Phillips. Or forward, rather, to the alt-country indie wonder Neko Case. In 2006, Case released her fourth studio album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, which leaves behind the plainspoken love songs and full-throated laments of earlier records (Oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’, how can you forget/All the love we had between us, now it’s like we never met) for something headier. Flood knows the earnest romance and heartbreak of the previous records but finds them largely unremarkable: Now that we’ve met/We can only laugh at these regrets/Common as a winter cold. In the album’s third track, we find a wearier, wiser Case reflecting on pop’s broken promises:
The most tender place in my heart is for strangers
I know it’s unkind but my own blood is much too dangerous
Hangin’ round the ceiling half the time
Hangin’ round the ceiling half the time.
Compared to some I’ve been around
But I really tried so hard
That echo chorus lied to me with its
“Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on”
In the end I was the mean girl
Or somebody’s in-between girl
Now it’s the devil I love
And that’s as funny as real love.
I like to think that Case is singing about Wilson Phillips here and that she, too, was duped by their message. Poised between bitterness and solace, the track converts the cruel optimisms of the past into something more detached: the “echo chorus,” in Case’s hands, is all reverb and repetition; its fantasy has been hollowed out. Choosing to leave a wedding with “a valium from the bride” in lieu of a lover, Case here finds comfort in being alone.
It wasn’t until I heard Wilson Phillips again in shavasana that I discerned all of this—the optimism, the cruelty, the hope and the lies—a brutal archive of messy attachment. There is something wholly melancholic about returning to a song with this kind of renewed clarity: unlike the mourner who successfully grieves her lost love object, the melancholic finds pleasure in casting that loss inward, so that holding on starts to feel like being held. This queasy understanding has lingered with me in the months since, not least because its lessons of loss came to me in corpse pose.