"Quiet on Set" & the Improbable Ecstasy of the End of the World
[REUPLOAD] originally posted October 8, 2022
Remi Wolf dropped “Quiet on Set” on August 18th, 2021 – two days after the Caldor Fire erupted into blaze in Grizzly Flats, 60 miles southwest of Tahoe; two days before Cal Fire issued mandatory evacuation orders and road closures across the El Dorado National Forest; and four days before everyone at Sierra Camp, including me and George, piled into their cars and made the last pilgrimage of the summer out of Fallen Leaf Road.
“Quiet on Set” is an incredible song – raucous and riotous and just plain goofy. But I love it most because of how inseparable it has become from my memories of that month. It has come to embody August’s terror and thrill and unruly energy, the improbable ecstasy of the end of the world.
Let’s start with the song itself. It’s the most fun I’ve ever heard any one artist have on any one track. It has at least five separate parts, including 1) an unhinged outro in which Wolf narrates – in baby voice! – a mall quasi-kidnapping from the perspective of a clueless kid, 2) a truly athletic bridge in which Wolf chants, “Don’t wanna be a Debbie Debbie Debbie Debbie Debbie Debbie Debbie Debbie Debbie” (that’s nine Debbies) “Downer,” in a single breath at the top of her range, and 3) a half-sung, half-rapped verse that ends with one of the funniest lines in Wolf’s whole discography: “Orgy at Five Guys with five guys / That's ten guys and Holy Christ / I've never seen more nuts in my liiiiiife.” Phenomenal. No notes.
“Quiet on Set” shifts and switches, moves and grooves, leading its listeners on a raving and rollicking, hooting and hollering romp through Remi Wolf’s mind. And it’s a fucking party in there! It is a little manic, and technically it’s a song about being overworked, but it’s just such a jumbled heap of a good time, throwing its own rules out the window every other verse, that listening to it feels mostly like getting blasted in the face with F U N.
It’s also plainly beautiful. The miracle of Wolf’s voice is that it has all the texture of real life, so that when she’s humming through those high notes, we can hear her throat in it, but it’s so melodic you would never say she’s straining. And underneath her crooning are these squirmy, synthy guitar riffs, plus sometimes a kazoo, plus a sprinkling of airy keys. There’s so many fun pitter-patter little rhythmic moments embellishing Wolf’s one liners, all these instruments bobbing in and out, that this crazy haven of a song comes across as almost orchestral.
I’ve been primed and pumped to be a Remi Wolf fan; it’s true. She’s for the girls, but especially the cow print bucket hat zillennial cusp girls, and especially the weirdos: the latently queer and mentally ill girls dressed up in deranged technicolor dreamcoat fits. But it’s possible that if I’d found this song at any other time in my life, I wouldn’t have taken to it with such abandon.
The week of August 18th, 2021 was as close to the apocalypse as I’ve ever felt. Sauron-type shit in the smoldering orange glow hanging low over the craggy mountains; flakes of ash as big as coins spindrifting from the sky, flashing white, silver, and charcoal; red sun gleaming in a perfect circle through the oily haze that descended over the lake, enclosing us in its grim bubble. It was a week of chaotic energy, a stew of fear and boredom.
Looking back, it’s easier to name the component axes: cabin fever, hypochondria, mania, awe. There was a sense, too, of climax, culmination. We’d spent the last few weeks caught in the crosshairs of other California fires: Dixie from the north, Tamarack from the south, River from the west, all in quick succession. When the Caldor Fire came for us, proved inescapable, it offered some perverse relief.
There’s an interview with Claire Vaye Watkins in the Guardian where she’s asked why she dislikes dystopian fiction. It’s too one-dimensional, she answers. Too bleak and only bleak. “How come nobody’s ever having sex in the apocalypse?” she asks. “Or telling jokes?”
And it’s true we laughed a lot that week, in spite of everything. Kira and I did Firebart and played “Burning Up” by the Jonas Brothers and “When the Fire Starts to Burn” by Disclosure and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel, which Micah loved so much we played it three times in a row. We had anarchy dinner and an ashy break of dawn ski and a very silly ride home from Mammoth on our last off day, toward a mandatory all-staph meeting we knew spelled evac, during which we said we’d get everyone to laugh with us at how crazy it all was, how novel and bizarre.
In retrospect, I’m not sure what we thought was funny, how we thought we’d spin evac into something good. When we got to Camp, everyone was crying, unwilling to leave after so many people had taken such leaps of faith and time and space to come back. But eventually the riotous energy of youth took over, the fuck-it-we-ball mentality college kids are remarkably resilient at rebounding into, and everyone was dancing, jumping, candy flipping, caffeinating, crowding Rick’s Cafe with bodies on bodies on bodies, piling on beds complimenting each other’s boobs. We ran around naked except for slathered Vaseline and fistfuls of glitter, Sharpied lines from the IFAC poem up and down our shiny arms, ski dock caps and flower crowns and Kevin’s monstrous golden ram’s horns. We didn’t bother being quiet because all the guests were gone. We dragged out the last of the whiskey and wine and passed the cups around, looking at each other wide-eyed, not crying, just marveling at the strangeness of our luck, the last burst of liberation we’d been gifted.
Maybe it’s not so improbable after all, the clarity that flows freely from an unsentimental end. I missed the version of this that happened on campus when COVID hit, winter 2020. Jess and I were quarantining, already starting to go crazy, already entering the e-girl bangs and garage haircut phase of losing it in lockdown. But we had our own night of reckless mourning in Florence, marching through the city streets swigging boxed wine and bottled Aperol. We couldn’t resist. In the slow peel of daily life we spend so much time tamping down our wild love and feral yearning. In the apocalypse, with no more time to waste, we simply have to let it rip.
Mildly relevant recommendations because all I want to be is Delia Cai dispatching Deez Links:
The Claire Vaye Watkins interview is about her climate apocalypse novel Gold Fame Citrus, widely considered to be her sophomore slump, womp womp. Whatever! Read her short story collection Battleborn and her postpartum escapist novel I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, pretty please.