Breakups, Breakthroughs, and Bad Art

I got a text from my ex the other day. “This” – our nasty breakup – “was meant to happen to us,” he said, before telling me in great detail how, after months of soul-searching, he’d written a few rap songs he wanted me to hear. “I know you’ll be able to identify with them because almost all of them are about us in one way or another. All the feelings and emotions from my side.” In a bizarrely formal gesture, he signed the text with the artist name I thought of for him.

It had been a few months since we’d spoken and the first conversation we had that didn’t end with “fuck you.” He wrote that his songwriting process “was a beautiful journey through the past and everything I needed to start anew.” He wished me the best and asked if I was still making music. I resisted the urge to thank him for having deleted all the songs we had worked on together. He wouldn’t get my sarcasm over text. Yeah I am, I said. He asked if he could hear my stuff soon. “Not soon,” I texted back, “but maybe.”

It bothers me that he deleted all my songs but still uses the name and ideas I thought of. It bothers me that that’s how he chose to address me, the person who arguably knows him the best. It really bothers me that he used our breakup – a time when he literally erased everything we had created together – to frame his emotional and artistic breakthrough.

There’s a Tumblr post by thisishangingrockscomics, that asks, “Can anyone think of a context vulnerability could be radical for a woman when transparency is violently demanded from us?” Vulnerability is forced upon women in a million ways, the most obvious being physical vulnerability, and the most insidious being the ways we are forced in our relationships to be more caring.

When I was with my ex, I was always navigating the emotional territory. I was always explaining – how I felt, how he had upset me, the basic fact that his actions and words had an impact on me. “You’re always the one that gets upset!” he would scream during fights, “But then you do something bad and I’m quiet.” Neither of us realized at the time that this disparity was a result of how we’d unequally divided up the emotional labor in the relationship. It was even less apparent to us that performing emotional labor was a gendered practice; one performed by women because doing so is thought of as a natural attribute of femininity. Nearly every fight was related to this imbalance, and those fights were nastiest in the music studio.

“Man thinks, woman sings.” This formula popped up in one of my readings for class a few weeks back and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s been gnawing at me because it so deeply relates to my ex’s and my inability to make music together when we were dating. I don’t know any music theory. My training is the voice – that deeply physical, sometimes mystical instrument that is so frequently associated with a woman. My ex, meanwhile, produced. His craft was mathematical and tough to work out without training. I frequently felt lost when he was working, and he rarely took the time to explain what he was doing. But to hear me sing, all he had to do was listen.

From the start, our workspace was imbalanced. I thought he was quick to criticize – all the work of singing takes place internally, in the body. This is doubly true of songwriting, which I do in my head and record quietly into my phone. When you can’t see how hard someone’s working, it becomes really easy to treat them callously and accidentally dismiss their effort. I would spend hours on a song only to get a “nice” from him and sit for a long time as he fiddled with his laptop, unspeaking and impenetrable with his studio headphones on.

We never finished a single song. I know now, having worked with more experienced producers, that some of our fights were surely a product of my ex’s (okay, and my) lack of knowledge. He was insecure about his skills, and I felt vulnerable sharing songs that no one had ever heard before. Still, if my ex had been a woman, socialized from the start to always monitor the emotions of others and to put everyone at ease, would everything have been different?

Near the end of the relationship, my ex starred in my final project for a film class. We spent four days driving around the city with an astronaut helmet and tripod in tow, stopping whenever I found a good spot for a shot. We’d park, I’d set up, and he’d put on his costume – often moving blindly through a shot because I’d painted silver over the helmet’s clear visor. He had no stake in the end product, and no control during the production, but we both had a great time. Later, I wondered why this project went so well. Was it because my ex had had such little investment in it? Was it my natural talent as a director? Or was it something embedded in the ways I knew, as a woman, how to stroke his ego and make the process seem collaborative, even when it obviously wasn’t?

All I knew at the time of our breakup was how I felt crushed, held down by somebody who was supposed to be on my team. All I knew when I read those texts the other day was that my ex got something I never did out of our breakup – transcendence. When we broke up, he was forced to take up the emotional labor I’d been handling throughout the entire relationship. Because he had never really processed his feelings before, the experience was transformative. Through it, he discovered a radical, transformative vulnerability – the quintessential mark of the male artist.

Like the mechanics of singing, and the majority of the work performed by women, emotional labor is often invisible. But when a man takes it up, he receives acknowledgement, praise, and transcendence. In his capable hands, the work women do becomes art.