A Ghost Story
Music journalist Eve Barlow on what happened when her entire industry decided she was a baddie.
I chase the light in Los Angeles. It’s one of the city’s unconquered treasures that keeps me here. I make it my daily pact with myself to see either a sunrise or a sunset or both every day. I moved here and became obsessed with the sky, the biggest sky I have ever seen. A blanket of the brightest blue that mutates into oranges and yellows and—on the most special evenings—pinks before blackening out and showing off the stars. But it’s the arrival and the departure of the sun every day that lets me accept the passage of time and the promise of another opportunity.
I remember one summer night with two friends, we had broken off from the rest of the pack, pursuing a night that would last forever (until the next day), and at some downtown car shop-turned-club, we sat outside in the parking lot at 4 a.m., decided there were only a few hours until sunrise, jumped in an Uber across town, and broke into Griffith Park. We climbed a fence by the Observatory, and sat on the side of the cliff, and for one hour we anticipated where the sun would pop up and how, and we watched its arrival. We were absolutely wasted. And I remember thinking it might have been the greatest night of all time. One of those nights where you forget if you’re 13 or 75 because it doesn’t matter.
The other night I was chasing the sunset. I took an old friend on a hike with me—“Grace” by Jeff Buckley. It’s that season of my life again. Sometimes, at the end of a day, I need to get so far out and high up that I can almost see the faint line of a rim separating myself from the suffocating bubble of the city. The light is too pretty at sunset. Even prettier for the smog that often cuts across the L.A. skyline like the discoloring of an old shirt. Beneath the smog line is murky onyx and gray, lit up by the city’s amber lights; like fireflies in a pot of black ink. Above the stain line is purple haze and royal blue, wispy pink clouds and the blinding slice of a moon. Some nights I find it too much to take in alone. It’s one thing to want to manage life’s trials with someone else, but it’s something else to want to take on the world’s overwhelming beauty as a shared experience. It doesn’t seem fair for one person to have to work it out solo. It often reduces me to tears. I’ve hiked the same trails for years, and as I do I’m reminded of different trials of my life that have played out over these same dirt tracks. And often I see ghosts.
Last night I saw one.
As I passed through the park there was a woman. And I realized who it was. I realized she was a writer I used to know, a music journalist. Someone who I knew online, who I’d never met in real life, whose number I had and whose work I had supported, and who would consistently call me at any hour, but particularly the hour in which her imposter syndrome had taken over and she didn’t know how to write the piece again, and she’d abandoned self-belief, and she couldn’t find her lede, and she was lost in the rewrite of a 4,000-word feature, and the clock was ticking, and omg-I-am-not-a-writer-and-everyone’s-gonna-find-out!!!!!! There’d also be disaster calls about more personal matters, or side conversations about how to approach x editor at y title, or what do we think of z freelancer?, or sharing intel on word rates and the like.
I liked this person. We didn’t have all the same opinions about artists, and she was a Father John Misty apologist, which always rubbed me the wrong way, because I don’t believe you can be a feminist and listen to him with earnest respect. (With that said, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery” is a fantastically redolent song). But I was there for her. I was there for her because I grew up in a male-dominated industry, and for five years I barely encountered another woman who did my job, so when I did start to meet female peers online, I believed in forging community between us, and I never resented the time I spent doing so.
Not until I realized it was never reciprocated.
In the summer of 2020, George Floyd was killed by a white police officer, and Black Lives Matter protests erupted in cities all over the United States. I feel comfortable saying this now: I felt conflicted. I remember surrendering to the peer pressure to donate every single day, and to post receipts of those donations (like I was in trouble for something—oh yeah, being “white”). I remember my Instagram stories were just re-post after re-post of this, that and the other activist, of whom I had no background knowledge, but who I was told were the people to re-post. I’ve since unfollowed them all because all of them showed themselves to be antisemitic.
I was performing. I was absolutely performing. And I am not ashamed to admit it. I was so scared. I was still a hired freelance journalist, and I knew the impact of staying silent. Freelance writing isn’t a joke. You cannot pay rent if you offend people. So I kept a foot in the world of music writing, and with my paychecks, I splurged on bailing out protestors via GoFundMe pages, or whatnot. At least, I think I did. Who knows?
I remember that Lady Gaga’s album “Chromatica” came out within 48 hours of Floyd’s death, and there was an unspoken directive on Twitter that only BIPOC people were allowed to be joyous about this album release. It was for them and nobody else.
Any promotional event around the launch was effectively delayed by Gaga—a white Italian-American—and because I dared to tweet about my excitement for this release, I was told to redact my enthusiasm because my capacity to be distracted and to not be spending my days inhaling Audre Lorde, Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin and Janaya Future stemmed from my privilege.
Anyway, I kept fucking up in between posting my receipts, and re-posting the addresses and times of various protests I didn’t attend, and checking in on friends before being told not to check in on friends, because I kept saying other things, too, and I wasn’t allowed to say other things. I remember conversations that I was having with other journalists—white journalists, including this woman I saw on the trail last night. We were having conversations about how we’d never get work in this climate, because we wouldn’t be hired due to the color of our skin. And guess what? That definitely happened.
I remember a particular conversation I had with this friend about how we had already been squeezed into a minority token quota as women music journalists, and won battles on that field, and now that quota wouldn’t be as available to us, because we were being demoted as “white.” We were no longer the relevant minority. We were now the height of privilege. We both agreed on this. We were both terrified. But I was the only one who said something.
The weekend of the initial BLM protests in L.A., synagogues were vandalized, and me being me I can never keep my mouth shut, even when I really wish I could, and I put my foot in it. I tweeted, “How dare you,” and all hell break loose.
It was decreed that I was a racist by my entire industry. And I remember talking to this woman, and talking to my former editor at GQ, who expressed empathy but said that I’d had a “mini yikes” moment. Meanwhile, everyone else was having a major yikes moment, in my opinion, becoming indoctrinated en masse. I listened to the Sam Harris podcast that week, which was either ill or brilliantly timed depending on the side of the woke fence you sat on, and was comforted by his courage in analyzing actual data about racism and police brutality to bring some sobriety back into the room. I didn’t tell anyone that I listened to that episode. I didn’t share it. You think I’m suicidal?
I walked around my local reservoir in Silverlake, which had been turned into a shrine to POC killed in police custody. Around the three-mile perimeter, names had been erected in ribbon of the deceased. The entirety of Silverlake had become a BLM hotbed, with BLM signs in windows and pickets in yards. A lot of it remains. I remember writing a note in my iPhone about how I felt like the walls were closing in. I don’t know how I pinned it, but I knew that BLM somehow wanted to villainize me, and my Jewish tribe, and I knew it would only be a matter of time before I was on the wrong side of the perimeter. It felt inevitable. It didn’t matter how much I complied with the behaviors I was expected to comply with. I knew it was a foregone conclusion.
Slowly but surely, the internet began celebrating their hatred of me. People I’d known for years, who had kissed my ass forever, turned on a knife’s edge against me—and with glee. The editor of Bandcamp wrote some heinous bile about me being a hysterical mad woman—ironic given their affinity with feminism. A few months went by, and I realized that I was no longer receiving the round robin record review emails from the editors at Pitchfork, and when I cross-referenced online, I noticed that all the staff writers and my editor had stopped following me. The entire staff at Vulture unfollowed me, if not on the same day, then definitely within days of each other. I wish I knew if it was the same day, and I wouldn’t doubt there wasn’t some directive about it. It was disgusting. Months prior, I was becoming one of Vulture/New York Magazine’s star interviewers. In fact, it was mooted that I would be inheriting “In Conversation With…”—David Marchese’s iconic long-form interview franchise. Marchese wasn’t going to be at the helm of one of the most prestigious features in American media, and my last pre-Covid commission was my trial run.
For it, I flew to Nashville days before the first nationwide lockdown to interview Hayley Williams, of the pop-punk band Paramore, who was going solo for the first time. This piece was one of the finest interviews I’ve ever conducted, with someone who had 20 years of interview experience. She told me what she’d never told anyone. She confessed sordid details of her marriage, infidelity, coercive dynamics, her mental health struggles, and crucial controversies within one of the most talked-about bands of its genre. When the piece was unleashed, it went viral. For about a week, it was crowned a masterclass in the art of conversation, and I was now the music journalist to contend with. And what do you know? One month later, I was toxic molten lava. Stripped of talent, conveniently dissociated from my own intelligence and popularity, and marked as a shameful member of the community—one who should never have gotten as far as I had. An outstanding record for 12-plus years no longer meant a thing. Everyone either hated me, or didn’t want people to know otherwise.
My editor at Vulture stopped answering emails. I had flashbacks of the time I covered Coachella for her the year prior, and I had filed my review of Ariana Grande’s headline slot from my iPhone standing in the center of the crowd within seconds of Grande’s set finishing, so we could beat the competition. When Beyoncé infamously headlined, I reviewed it for the Guardian, and got out my five-star report before anyone else, and the rest of the mainstream followed with full marks across the board. My Ariana review was so fast that the delayed stream of the set hadn’t even finished on Coachella’s YouTube channel. I remember the editor texting me: “Girl, how?! You’re magic.” Well, I was. But now that I was a “racist,” none of that was real.
Anyway, I saw this woman on the trail last night, while I was already way beneath the widescreen vista crying to Jeff Buckley, and I stared at her long and hard. I wanted her to notice me. I wanted her to look at me. I wanted to call her name actually. I don’t know why I didn’t. I stared with real intent, until she was out of my line of sight, and then I kept walking, one step in front of the other, as I did two years ago, never looking back at a community who flung me onto a burning trash heap the second they had the opportunity. I never looked back.
I want to remind you of something important. Whether it’s in work, in your relationships, in your family, whatever context, you may find yourself being punished for speaking out, and speaking freely. It’s because the truth scares people. And if you’re like me, you will go through every single period of your life, losing investments you made when you find out that friends or jobs or invitations dry up after you said what needed to be said. Know this: you’ll survive. It’s okay. Actually, it’s more than okay. The best relationships and the right opportunities handle the truth. The ones that can’t were never reciprocal. They were never real. They were never honest.
Be honest. You won’t ever regret it. And you’ll always get through another sunset and experience a new dawn.