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During summer 2021, a friend I grew up with released a mean-spirited song about me. We were at separate colleges, only sparingly in touch, but until the song’s release, I’d thought of this person fondly. We’d commuted to and from school and participated in community theater together. A few times he led me to doubt myself and made me self-conscious, but other than that, I thought we were good friends.
After the song’s release, I was manipulated into having a conversation with him where he reinforced the message of the song: that I am an unkind person who is careless about my impact on people. The song is focused on our high school days, but he said its message still applies. I tried to express the ways this hurt me and thought I’d gotten through to him. Then he blocked me on social media. The whole ordeal was crushing and gave way to weeks of anxiety and self-loathing.
I’ve learned that another song is being released, about the ways in which I hurt him in the conversation he forced us to have. Despite my better judgment, I know I’ll end up listening to it. I want to say something or advocate for myself, but I haven’t been in touch with him since that conversation.
I also worry that doing so will damage my reputation in the eyes of our mutual friends. I’m a senior in college, and I wish I could stop dredging up these old feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. Do I reach out to him? Try to move on with my life? Thanks in advance for your guidance.
Dear Unwilling Muse,
Of course it’s humiliating and painful whenever someone publicly says — or sings — mean things about you. But you can’t change other people, or stop them from publishing stupid things (or songs) online. So to help you get past this, we’ve cobbled together advice from three sage sources: pop culture, Jewish tradition and Shalom Bayit, an organization that promotes healthy relationship choices as a way to prevent domestic violence.
First, pop culture. Being featured in a “kiss-off anthem” puts you in some pretty famous company. Carly Simon wrote “You’re So Vain” about actor Warren Beatty back in 1971. Gwen Stefani wrote “Hollaback Girl” about a tiff with Courtney Love. And Jake Gyllenhaal was vilified online last year by Taylor Swift’s fans after she re-released a song from 2012 about him called “All Too Well.”
But Gyllenhaal told Esquire magazine that he didn’t listen to the song and wasn’t upset by it. “It is her expression,” he said. “Artists tap into personal experiences for inspiration, and I don’t begrudge anyone that.”
Count yourself lucky that your nemesis is not famous enough to unleash the wrath of the internet the way Taylor did, and take Jake’s advice: Turn the sound off.
You wondered about reaching out to the songwriter for another conversation. Before you do that, Zephira Derblich-Milea, senior educator at Shalom Bayit, asks: “What would be the purpose of reaching out?” Based on his past behavior, it seems you could end up right back where you started — soon you’ll have a full Spotify playlist of hate songs. You’re not going to convince him that you’ve done nothing wrong, and you can’t control how he feels or what he says.
So how do you deal with the anxiety swirling in your head? Derblich-Milea suggests writing an email to the songwriter without sending it. Just lay out all your agita as a way to let go. Then focus on what Derblich-Milea calls “self-soothing, self-love and self-care.”
You’re being “triggered by this situation and it’s bringing up feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt,” but you can counteract those insecure feelings by “getting some reassurance” from friends, Derblich-Milea said. Ask them: “Are these things in the song true about me? Or is this really just a statement about the other person?”
But you have to be prepared for what they might say. What if one of these friends says that the songwriter’s criticism isn’t baseless?
In your account of what transpired, you’re all defense and zero empathy. You never consider that the songwriter’s perspective might be based in something real.
Yet you’re consumed by “self-loathing.” So something here has hit a nerve.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking the songwriter’s side. This guy sounds like an immature jerk, and what he did is specifically outlawed in the Torah. Leviticus 19:16 says: “Do not spread slander among your people.” The ancient rabbis went so far as to say that defamatory gossip — also known as lashon hara, Hebrew for evil tongue — is a sin worse than murder or idolatry. Perhaps you’ll find some comfort in knowing that what the songwriter did was morally wrong.
And yet: We Jews also have a tradition of teshuva, Hebrew for return, or repentance. Each year before Yom Kippur, we apologize to those close to us for things we might have said or done, even inadvertently, that hurt their feelings.
Could you find it in yourself to acknowledge the songwriter’s pain and the possibility that you played a role — even if you didn’t mean to — in causing it? What if you wrote a simple note sincerely asking for forgiveness, and had a mutual friend deliver it?
This may sound like it contradicts with Derblich-Milea’s guidance about the unlikelihood of another conversation with the songwriter leading to a different result, but hear me out. The great Jewish sage Maimonides described the process of teshuva as a personal transformation. By asking for forgiveness, you can liberate yourself — even if the other person still holds a grudge, even if he won’t accept your apology, even if he writes another song about you.
I’m struck by how much of the language in your letter to Bintel is passive. You’re an “unwilling muse.” You were “manipulated” into a conversation. Perhaps writing these letters — one about your feelings, which you won’t share with the songwriter, and another recognizing his feelings and asking forgiveness — could give you some agency, and maybe even some peace. You can’t control what the other guy does. But you can control what you do.
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