What is this? What is it? Is this it or is this something other than it? Since the days of radio, Americans have grappled with these critical questions through the medium of popular music. Both because it’s perfect and perfectly demonstrative, Dorothy Fields and Arthur Schwartz’s “This Is It”—the brief lyrics of which follow in full—provides an apt point of departure.
This is it, my great romance
I want to hang onto this one big chance
You’re mine, my loneliness dies
I feel fine, with stars in my eyes
Oh it fills me up, to such a height
to know this is so very real and right
and I, thought love passed me by
but I must admit, this is it
“This Is It” landed and landed firmly. In 1939, the year it was written, Ethel Merman sang it on Broadway, and five other acts—including Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw—each recorded a version. Twenty years later, so did Judy Garland.
What is this? This, of course, is love. And as imagined through the idioms of Hollywood romance, this is decisively it. Love is possession, intensity, and fulfillment. In the beloved, loneliness is vanquished and existence is made ecstatic. This, singer and listener equally understand, is, and has always been, a fantasy, but in love—“with stars in my eyes”—the fantasy is realized. Fantasy or not, the realness of this kind of love was never in doubt; the only question was whether one would be graced to partake. In love, experience becomes one with the fantasy. Is this all there is? As an ontological matter, who the hell knows? And as far as the lover is concerned, who cares? The world over, there is no greater fulfillment than the way I feel in love. This is it.
Across the subgenres of American pop, no theme is more prominent. Whether in the present, past, or subjunctive—which is to say, as love song or torch song—this it remains essentially the same: This is it, and I’m so happy, I wrote this song. This was it but now it’s over, and I’m so sad I wrote this song! This would be it, if only you felt the same way, and I wrote this song, in hope against hope, to implore you! In whichever tense, the this of love is it.
In 1979, with the Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald providing back-up vocals, Kenny Loggins twisted this tradition inward and outward. “This Is It” begins like a standard love song, but in the bridge the track’s unctuous façade cracks, and a surprising exhortation explodes from within.
Are you gonna wait for a sign, your miracle?
Stand up and fight
(This is it)
Make no mistake where you are
(This is it)
Your back’s to the corner
(This is it)
Don’t be a fool anymore
The song’s defining lurch reflects the story of its composition. One need not dig too deep into the internet to discover that what had begun as a love song changed direction when Loggins visited his ailing father in the hospital. Something clicked. “I’ve got it!” Loggins said to McDonald afterward. “It’s not a love song. It’s a life song.”
In Loggins’s reboot of the genre, which topped the charts, the salvific other on whom the love song desperately depends is supplanted by the self. This is the song’s doctrine. Whether via love or by some other means, to wait for the other to come and save you is a foolish and self-defeating faith. The time has come to set aside such childish things, and for the will to take the wheel. The bad news is that no one will save you, but the good news is that you’ve got this. Carpe diem! Let’s do it! This is it!
Chasms of theology and sentiment separate Schwartz and Fields’s sweet, secularized grace from Loggins’s Rocky individualism, but they share in a wildly affirmative mood. In each, this and it crash together in the now. The moment has arrived. An elusive ideal has been made manifest, and the proof is that burning you feel inside of you. Albeit in competing churches, each song is a hymn. This is, in fact, it; and the convergence of this and it—or, more precisely, the collapse of a heretofore distant it into an immanent this—signals nothing less than deliverance.
From the Depression until the Carter administration, this sort of confidence was emblematic. Americans are a famously stupid people, and it is, among other things, from the global dispersion of our popular music in the twentieth century that we come by this well-earned reputation. Loggins represented the end of an era. Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America was brief, at best. Mass culture is essentially additive, and in American pop, the power of love and the power of the individual to will victory soldiered on as recognizable themes, but the jouissance of this and the confidence that this is really it waned precipitously. (An exception that arguably proved the rule was the posthumous Michael Jackson track “This Is It.” Widely hyped as the “secret Michael Jackson single,” and released only months following the singer’s death, the track barely cracked the top twenty.)
In 1984, the truth of love that Merman and Garland had unequivocally affirmed became a plea in the conditional. Nostalgia act Huey Lewis and the News crooned “If this is it, please let me know; if this ain’t love you better let me go.” If the injury here is the obvious abjection in store for Lewis, the added insult was the bathetic nature of that abjection. Lost love had become a silly thing. Greater ridiculousness was on its way. Half a decade later another Bay Area band, one fronted by a singer seemingly with a far less circumspect attitude toward cocaine, elevated absurdity to a maxim. In “Epic,” Faith No More’s Mike Patton lays out the familiar problem: “You want it all, but you can’t have it. It’s in your face, but you can’t grab it.” In a closed-loop catechism, Patton repeatedly chants: “What is it? It’s it.”
Which is what precisely? In notable contrast to Meat Loaf’s cryptic allusion to that, nobody I knew ever thought to wonder as to the antecedent of this circular it. It, it seems, is everything and nothing, although not in any sort of deep way. It could be a lover, or a commodity, or an experience, but that doesn’t seem to matter. What matters is less its identity than its positionality. Where is it? It is elsewhere, out of reach. The it now this that had engulfed the lovers of yesteryear has been rendered transcendent. Once sublime and overwhelming, this has been husked into an empty it. Robbed of its intimacy, the experience (or even the fantasy) of deliverance has been foreclosed.
If only by accident, Faith No More’s “Epic” marked the ending of one era and the beginning of another. Between the song’s recording and its release as a single the Berlin Wall fell. The United States was the sole global superpower left standing, and neoliberalism was the last and only conceivable economic order. History was over.
The animating problem at the end of history was the problem of pleasure. This, it would seem, was the dilemma for a bunch of very pretty, very rich boys from the Upper East Side, who, a decade later, were on the cusp of being the next big thing. For all their privilege, the universe depicted in The Strokes’ Is This It? is rather claustrophobic. Not only do ecstasy and deliverance remain unthinkable; the album’s title track barely has any room left for pleasure. The greatest height it can dream is “your apartment,” but nothing that happens up there will matter all that much. Lyrically, The Strokes’ “Is This It?” could be a torch song if only Julian Casablancas cared enough to make it one. But he is too world-weary to care. Here is a man who has fucked models and done party drugs of the purest quality—probably even on the night in question. But by night’s end, enervated and depleted, these pleasures have been shown to be the meager ephemera they truly are. Ennui sets in. Can this really be it?
The Strokes’ Is This It? drudges up for me anguish of a different sort. Via a bootlegged copy, the album circulated among my circle of friends the summer of 2001 before it was officially released. Its most gimmicky and disposable track was “New York City Cops,” whose glib but largely uncontentious kicker was “They ain’t too smart.” In the claustrophobic air following September 11, a mini-scandal gathered around the song. But in the halcyon days of dial-up, a half-way disavowal via the band’s publicist and the removal of the song from the American release were sufficient to stamp out the fire.
The experience of dislocation that is the experience of moving through history latches onto odd little crevices. As the years go by, I routinely find myself thinking counterfactually about the alternate world where the presence of “New York City Cops” on The Strokes’ Is This It? never had occasion to become a thing.
Stated affirmatively, “This is it” is a declaration. It is a hymn and vow. It is testimony.
Stated interrogatively, “Is this it?” is either a question for science or a question about experience. As a scientific inquiry, “Is this It?” compares the particular to the general, the observable to the unobservable, or the known to the unknown. The driving spirits of such inquiries tend to be those of discovery, of possibility, of wonder. This “Is this It?” is the silent prompt to which “Eureka” is apt reply.
To date, twenty-first-century popular discourse has had preciously little room for this grand and glorious sense of the question. At least from where I’ve been standing, ours is an era that worries primarily about experience. In this sense, “Is this It?” is, more often than not, a lamentation. It in this formation represents not the realization of an ideal but the experience of having bumped up against a limit. For Casablancas, the limit was personal. But once the end of history ended, the driving question was collectivized. Have we reached the limit? Will the contemporary configuration of things endure indefinitely or is something different to follow after?
For what feels like forever—and what for our students has, in fact, been forever—we’ve been collectively subjected to the neoliberal order in its final, punitive stage. Earlier consolidation of wealth, enclosure of the commons, and erosion of systems of collective care have been buttressed by weaponized austerity, on the one hand, and the expansion of the state’s violent and repressive tendencies on the other. Increased surveillance, mass incarceration, war without end.
As I needn’t tell you, this vessel is cracking. Party elites have lost control, and the masses are gathering power. The seas are raging. The neoliberal order of the past half century is dying, to be replaced in short order by something quite different. What has felt like a limit has shown itself to be a threshold. What comes next? Will it be socialism or will it be barbarism? This we do not know. What is only too clear, however, is that this isn’t it.