Looking Back at Phoebe Bridgers’ “Motion Sickness” and the Aftershocks of Love and Manipulation

Aarin Wright
photo by Bebe Labree

When I was invited to my first Phoebe Bridgers concert a few years back, I, to my chagrin, had never heard of her.

A friend eagerly messaged me about having an extra ticket to the sold out show at Seattle’s Crocodile. Still housed in its original location, the venue was a not-large but not-small space that could fit 500, with permanently beer-sticky floors. I was at the delicate age when I would choose death over revealing I was unfamiliar with a buzzy new artist someone in my inner circle felt affinity for. I believe I texted back something along the lines of, “love her – absolutely, let’s go.”

It’s odd to think back to that time now, as Phoebe’s face dots the pages of GQ, sharing a chuckle with Robert Pattinson and Andrew Garfield. This Halloween, I saw no less than ten individuals donning skeleton suits and icy blond wigs, plus one kanine. My own mother recently texted me while listening to KEXP: “Who is the woman singing “I Know The End”? She’s amazing.”

But when Stranger in the Alps made its debut in September of 2017, I and my infinite 23-year-old music taste, completely missed it. 

It wasn’t until the summer of 2018, shuttling home on the crowded Seattle D Line to attempt a cool-but-casual look for the show that evening, that I finally plugged in my headphones, typed out Phoebe’s name, and hit play on the first song I found. And then proceeded to pound repeat over and over and over.

“Motion Sickness” begins with a single fuzzy chord, drawn-out as the rhythm kicks in and a second guitar plucks out the muted, driving emotion that carries throughout the track. It’s only 11 seconds before Phoebe whisper-sings what has become perhaps the most relatable opening line in the past half-decade.

“I hate you for what you did, and I miss you like a little kid.” A poison arrow of contradiction for anyone who has left a relationship less-than-pleased. 

In under four minutes, Phoebe presents an inside view to the aftershocks of love colored by manipulation. She is straightforward and candid, finding sharp humor in both the patheticness of her ex, but also the queasy situation she finds herself in. She is honest, but not self-deprecating. Emerging from the kind of breakup that has caused so many to shrink into doubt and confusion, Phoebe rips open the curtains. 

We now have the hindsight to understand the full complexities of “Motion Sickness.” In the years since it was released, Phoebe has bravely stepped forward to recount the emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of the subject of the song. Yet even before New York Times reports and widespread support across social media, “Motion Sickness” provided necessary poetic language for a situation I and countless others have found ourselves in. 

To enter and exit a relationship with a stark power imbalance, or to be treated maliciously by the one you feel most tenderly toward, causes deep emotional nausea. A screaming cloud of humiliation and bewilderment is often all that’s left behind, as we question how we even allowed ourselves to fall into such a predicament to begin with.

However, catharsis is available with each repeated listen to “Motion Sickness.” It comes when surrounded by 500 bodies on a beer-sticky floor, howling back lyrics you memorized only hours earlier, and discovering your new favorite artist in the process.

As Phoebe’s star continues to rise, I look forward to each new listener discovering the embrace of “Motion Sickness,” a valuable tool in drowning out the lingering sting of heartbreak. We have each other, and we have the gentle timbre of soft vocals, poking fun at those who’ve hurt us the most.

I’ll see you all in your skeleton suits this Halloween.

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