I recently, unexpectedly, almost died. And then after that, I had to sit around in some of the worst pain I’ve known, thinking, as one does. A lot of what I was thinking about was the video for the Lizzo song “Truth Hurts,” which I’d been watching over and over prior to the almost-death incident.
It’s a great song in every way, but the video is also great and ought to be recognized for what it is: one of the most significant wedding scenes of our present historical time. (In the category of honorable mention is the dream-sequence wedding in Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None,” where the minister asks Ansari’s character if he promises to take his bride as “your partner in a possibly outdated institution in order to have a quote-unquote ‘normal life,’” and his bride if she is willing to make “a crazy eternal bond with this gentleman who you happen to be dating at this stage in your life when people normally get married.” But Lizzo’s wedding is obviously much better.)
Like all weddings that involve a bride or brides, Lizzo’s is all about the person wearing the white dress. The bride is(are) the protagonist(s) of the show. We see her preparing for her nuptials in bridal lingerie, looking somehow both demure and monarchical as well as highly likely to rip a few lines of coke off of the table in front of her or get on top of it and start twerking. No matter, her ladies-in-waiting are appropriately bored, boring-looking baddies in unflattering eye shadow. As she launches into the already-classic (though the song only recently blew up, it’s been out for two years) lyrics “you coulda had a bad bitch, non-commital,” she delivers them all tantrum-like, jumping up and down on her day bed like a three-year-old demanding her dessert before her dinner.
Cue the crowd: we’re taken to the garden wedding, seats full of guests for whom this wedding is, again like all weddings, triggering a gamut of personal reactions. They are variously crying, making out, angered, moved, afraid. At the end of the video, the partner Lizzo is awaiting at the altar is revealed to be the bride herself. Lizzo stands across from Lizzo, winking at us. She’s marrying herself, get it? Like Ariana in “thank u, next” telling us her new boo is “Ari.” (She taught me love / She taught me patience / How she handles pain / That shit’s amazing.) But something happens in the middle of Lizzo’s video that happens at real weddings too: the dance party. And this part of the video looks very much to me like it could be any real wedding dance party. It looks, more accurately, like the perfect hybrid crossing of all the weddings I’ve been to with the imagined weddings I’d really like to be at and, in this, it also allowed me to make a connection I’d been mulling over for awhile but hadn’t quite yet figured out.
In another Lizzo song, “Juice,” there’s this amazing break where she croons “I think he got lost in my DMs / you better come get your man / I think he wanna be way more than friends,” over a disco pop riff which, if you can hear it and not dance, wherever you are, even if only a little, something very precious has broken inside of you long ago and you must stop reading this immediately to discern exactly what and when. This moment seems inspired by a few dance music outfits, but sounds to me like none so much as Deee-lite, a group that has long held court in the pantheon of my fantasy life.
Now is a great time to revisit Deee-lite, by the way, not only because Lady Miss Kier has a thing or two to teach us all about how to rock a jumpsuit, but also because all of their songs are really about love. Not just idealistic love or romantic love or commodity love, but the kind of love you feel for the stranger on the dance floor, the immigrant at the gate, the lady next to you in the long bathroom line. If you watch the video for Deee-Lite’s best known hit, “Groove is in the Heart,” you see a vision that so delighted me as a kid I wanted to watch it over and over (alas we had not youtube): just a bunch of all different kinds of club kids dressed up and dancing, having fun. In short, it looks like a very cool wedding party and in fact “Groove is in the Heart” is often played at wedding parties despite the fact that the people at wedding parties typically bear very, very little resemblance to the extremely cool kids in the video. It’s aspirational.
Weddings are a form the “Truth Hurts” video expertly taps into. At the center of this form is the bride, on the happiest and most stressful day of her life, alternately delirious with joy, fear, and rage. It has to be perfect. She has to look beautiful: virginal but sexy, elated but solemn, emotional but fun. She is a yes-woman. She has said yes to the proposal. She has said yes to the dress. Now it only remains to say “I do.” For this, she must be the thinnest she has ever been. We must not blame her for being a “bridezilla,” for she is hungry (don’t forget to save her a plate of hors d’oeuvres for after pictures!) and this is the most important day of her life. Her bridesmaids adore and despise her. Her father is torn up with a combination of romantic passion and pride, success and loss. These clichés have been rehearsed in endless music videos, films, and novels. Almost every highly successful television series’ most-watched episode (Friends! General Hospital! The Office! The Kardashians! I could keep going here!) is THE WEDDING. What’s so wild about it all is the truth in these depictions; not because the form of the wedding reflects something about our essential natures, but because the wedding is something we all do. We do the wedding like we do the macarena or the electric slide or the funeral or the taxes. We do the wedding like we say the pledge of allegiance. But that doesn’t mean it has no meaning.
When I was in the third grade, we had a new student in our class whose family had recently immigrated to the States and when we rose to say the pledge, as we did every morning, he sat. When my teacher said, for the second time, “please rise for the pledge of allegiance,” this hero kept right there in his chair and said, “my allegiance is not to this country. My allegiance is to Japan.” I’m pretty sure every other kid in my class was thinking exactly what I was thinking at that moment, which was “what does he mean ‘allegiance’?” This thing we had been saying, this thing we had been doing, it meant something. And that scared us half to death.
Although I am legally married and married by habit—ok, let’s be honest, I am in every sense very married with a kid and a mortgage and a job I go to (almost) every weekday and everything—I never had a wedding. When people have asked me why we didn’t have a wedding like other people who seem to want a “normal life,” as Ansari puts it, I often say it would have felt ridiculous to me to do so. I’m not quite sure what I mean by that in a precise way, but I think it’s a matter of form.
To have a wedding wherein I featured as the bride seemed as absurd a notion as having a trial wherein I was the judge, or a séance wherein I was the spiritualist (actually that less so), or a superbowl party wherein I was the host avidly cheering on one of the sports teams who was playing in the big game. I realize, not knowing me, many of these examples may be lost on you, but suffice it to say I am wrong because this is not an apt comparison. That’s not exactly how form works. That’s how casting a play works. A lot of well-meaning people on team wedding would say to me “but you could make it yours,” to which I’d internally roll my eyes. But here’s the thing: they’re right.
This is how form works: most sonnets are about love, but that doesn’t mean that the sonnet is a bad form for something that’s not about love. In fact, some of the best sonnets are not about love. The same is true for gangsta rap songs that are about love, or pop songs that are about very old literature, or impressionistic paintings of conventionally unattractive people. And Lizzo knows this. It’s why she brings out her classical flute-playing at a popular music awards ceremony performance, why she requested ballet dancers choreograph routines to her songs. To feel oppressed by a form is to lack the creativity to think your way through it, or the courage to reinvent it. Lizzo has both of these things in ample quantity it seems; I may be in a different boat. But in my own defense, the wedding form is typically played pretty close to the book. Though I didn’t have a wedding, I, like most, have been to and in my fair share, and no matter how wildly inventive and unconventional I know the people involved to be, there’s always some degree of this absurd clichédness to the ceremony and the beginning of the party when they make all of the speeches, and dance like everyone’s watching (because they are), and throw bouquets and underthings. It’s about tradition, after all. But then—there’s the dance party.
At a good wedding party, you will dance with young and old, you will be precisely as drunk as you like to be (which may be not at all or very much so) and no one will care either way. You will look lovely in your dishabille. You will say something you regret to a stranger without really regretting it. The children will stay up too late and even the most abstemious will eat a big old piece of cake. Everything’s a little sexual and sweaty and even mildly inappropriate. And these, too, are clichés of the form. But these are the clichés I like and root for. I guess they are the part of the form that I claim.
Whereas weddings used to signal the beginning of one’s adult life – the eve of the first time the bride would have sex, would leave her parental home, would be considered a real grown-up – the psychotherapist Esther Perel, a present-day authority on infidelity, points out that now they signal the end of something, the closing of a world of multiple sexual partners down to one. A lot of the aspects of the wedding form that we still adopt are obvious vestiges from this earlier time. Not only the virginal white dress, but also the registry full of home goods the likely already-cohabitating-for-some-time couple does not really need. But register for goods they often do because the goods they register for are better than the odds and ends they have collected along the way. They register for the high-thread-count sheets, the matching candlesticks, the soup tureens. This is what’s happened to the essential function of the marriage, too. You’re not marrying the person with whom you’ll finally have sex, you’re marrying—if you’re lucky—the best of the people you’ve already had sex with. It’s aspirational rather than necessary. Honorific rather than essential.
Instead of “let’s do this thing,” the kind of wild, heedless adventure you get the sense of people embarking on in nineteenth-century novels when they propose after having had three brief, inexplicably life-altering conversations on the subject of a new horse or the rain, most marrying couples today are ostensibly saying, “okay, let’s keep doing this thing we’ve been doing in a more official and potentially better way.” And that’s why the form is kind of everything. Because you’re taking something you already have and applying the form to it. The fact that people outside of extremist religious communities are still having weddings is, in one way, kind of sweet and cute. Like when the very elderly get married at the old-age home or when school-age children perform a ceremony on a playground. At its best, it feels like playing at wedding for the fun of it, an elaborate dress up party to celebrate your friends. But it’s more than that. The form puts a pressure on the relationship to fit it, which may be bad or good.
“Does it feel different, now that you’re married?” the single friend asks the bride six months after the honeymoon.
“Actually, it kind of does!” she grins, so surprised, the last to suspect.
The form has a power. They all do. You can’t get rid of forms. They can be uncomfortable, exhausting, and embarrassing. But without them, we have no meaning. The place where the form chafes against our skins, that’s the reminder that we’re alive.
Here is how I almost died: I’d been sick for a few days and found myself unable to breathe in the early hours of the morning, the consequences of an undiagnosed infection in my throat. Bizarrely, as I research and teach nineteenth-century literature for a living, it’s a life-threatening condition that was far more common two hundred years ago than it is now. Then, my loved ones would have had to stand around my bedside, helpless in the face of my excruciating pain, and watch me die. No one would have known exactly what had killed me, and even if they had, they would have been unable to intervene. Though it’s 2019, the doctors I saw failed to recognize the severity of the pain I’d been experiencing, failed to give me the strong course of antibiotics that would have kept the infection from progressing.
So, something my body had been doing for nigh on a week suddenly became very serious at about 5am one morning. It was immediately clear that something important was happening. I came into the kitchen and gripped the counter. I clutched my chest. I called my dad, who is a doctor. “I can’t breathe,” I choked out; I was crying now. “I can’t breathe;” I said again. My husband woke up and stumbled into the kitchen. “What’s going on?” he said, taking the phone. And then my father and my husband spoke to one another and determined that I should be taken to the emergency room, where a surgeon performed an operation that cleared my airway and hooked me up to oxygen and IV antibiotics. I had already been living for quite some time, but coming out of surgery I felt like there had been some ceremony. The continuation of my life had been marked in a more official way, because things had been decided and operated upon in order to make it so. I was just living before. Now I was declared alive.
Another popular form we see all over fiction is the life-flashes-before-your-eyes montage. Usually this is presented as a chronological sequence of life’s most important occasions. Like the pictures on the family mantel, it includes births, graduations, and, of course, weddings. I maybe almost died another time in my life, or thought I might, when an intruder came into the apartment I was living in alone in the middle of the night and stood over my bed. At that time, I didn’t have one of those. But this time (maybe the oxygen deprivation?) I did.
I love my family. I love my career, my house, my “normal” life. But I didn’t think of my son’s birth or receiving my PhD or even of meeting my husband, though I remember these things well and fondly. I thought of swimming across a pond with a dog; I thought of running (this is funny because I actually kind of hate running—but something about pushing my body until it nearly breaks, the blood rising to the surface of my skin); I thought of kissing in the doorway of a hotel room; melted cheese; snow; sitting in front of a really cracking fire at a lodge; the sticky hands of a child on the front of my neck as he hangs off my back; biking home in the summer when everyone in the neighborhood has just lit the barbeque.
It was not my life that flashed before my eyes, but being alive. Not how I would narrate it or how I would describe what was important about it, or memorialize or officialize it, but living it. And then, later, I thought that the next time it rains, I will run out. I thought that even though we have dance parties at my house quite a bit, we must have more. I thought these things while I sat at home in a lot of physical pain. And the physical pain, too, became a part of this mediation on the very basic bliss of being alive. I lay in my bed and meditated on the pain the way they teach you to do in yoga, the way I did when I was in labor. I am very grateful that I will likely not, as many do, have to live with pain always. But it seemed crucial to remember that this pain was a part of having this body, too, and in that way, it was something precious.
As a woman who has dated men, I of course adored Lizzo’s opening lyrics, “why are men great til they gotta be great,” and I, too, cast knowing glances and texts at my sisters on the topic of their wisdom. (Men! Amiright?) Now I see the question is its own answer. Nothing is great if its gotta be great. (NB this is why, even when I am the author of the syllabus, I never quite enjoy the assigned reading.) The main reasons why weddings are terrible when they are, if they are, is the pressure put upon them. The. Best. Day. Of. Your. Life. It’s too much. Who wants to live inside of that? And it’s so often the way we set things up or validate them or anticipate them or laud them that ruins them. What if men didn’t have to be great? What if nothing did?
When Lizzo sings about never wanting to be a “side chick,” about not needing a ring on her finger, it is celebratory, but there is a pain there too. As she says, that’s the human in her. We all want to be picked. We all want to be the best person someone else has ever been with. But maybe we were great because we didn’t have to be great. Maybe that is greater.
I realize now that the importance of every wedding is the dance party: the chaos at the center of something otherwise so scripted and planned. The awkwardness of it, the wildness of it, the imperfection of the band or the playlist, the discarding of the jackets and the heels, the tumbling down of the updos. The reason for every wedding is the dance party. The meaning of marriage itself is, or should be, the dance party. Awhile back I saw that, in some ways, it was selfish not to have a wedding. The wedding should be for the families, the friends, more so than for the couple. A wedding done right should say, “we are happy, you make us happy, let’s be happy together.” For those people, I’m sorry we didn’t have a wedding. But it’s a sorry/not sorry because it still seems like simultaneously too important of a thing to “do” in such a prescribed way and too everyday and essential a thing to make into an event. Truth hurts, needed something more exciting.
When Lizzo has a tantrum, when she and her friend/double smear cake across their faces, when she winks at the audience in the absence of a partner who is other and pulls at her lingerie as though it is strangling her and/or she is seducing us, she is telling us that she wants to be neither the bad bitch noncommittal nor the good bitch committal; she just wants to be in her body and feel alive around people who love her. And this is what we all deserve and should aspire to give to each other, not just for special occasions, but as much as we possibly can—to be the guests at Lizzo’s wedding, loving each other as she loves herself. Making the person in front of you feel, even if only for a moment, they’re the one.
Lizzo’s wedding is full of clichés just as all weddings are full of clichés but therein lies their power. We do these forms over and over for a reason. When we collectively inhabit a familiar pattern, we can feel our togetherness, our simultaneous being in this world more naturally and effortlessly, like bodies moving to a single song. We all know the wedding. We know, even if we’ve not had, the near-death experience. Even death itself can be a cliché, such power these forms and stories have over us. But telling it a little slant, messing up the form just enough to make us wonder what allegiance means or marvel anew at love or melted cheese helps us to feel it fresh and with wonder.
I noticed that many of the sensations and images that flashed in my mind when I was losing my ability to breathe are themselves associated with an interruption of breathing. We rarely notice our breath, the constant rhythm by which we all live and which, in fact, defines the fact that we are alive. Its disruption is an experience of exquisite joy and/or terror – the break in the pattern of the form of life itself.
When I came home from the hospital to the victorian fixer-upper where we live, that I was convinced we’d never be able to fix-up enough, it was the very sameness of everything in all of its imperfection that thrilled me. The way the afternoon sun came through the windows, casting rainbows from the crystals I’d hung from the transoms with my son, shining in the glass face of the thermostat my husband and I struggled to install on the uneven wall.
Why is the minister at Lizzo’s wedding topless and really, really cut? And what is the deal with his hat? There are likely no answers to these questions but that’s a part of the magic: it’s not what you’d expect. But you would expect a minister and bridesmaids and groomsmen at the altar, which Lizzo has. Such attentiveness to following and messing up form in the right proportions can be brought to more everyday experiences and interactions as well. No one should ever, ever, ever have to be a side chick, and they should certainly never be made to feel like one. Don’t text me, tell it straight to my face. We can do better than “how’s it going” and “have a good one” and ghosting. We can make it ours— even if just for right then. We can try being a little more deee-lightful and deee-lovely when we have the strength to can (especially the men!)
Most things are not ideal right now for anyone, and certainly great exhaustion comes with that. But those little breaks in form have real power: they can make energy, create excitement. They are the fire alarm going off at the meeting, the bird flying into the house, the comment out of turn, the unexpected kind gesture—they are the dance party amidst the formality of the wedding. And that, to me, is being alive.
Arielle Zibrak: past wedding credits include flower girl, bridesmaid, best man, maid of honor, giver-away of the bride.