Among a certain set, Joan Didion stands as California’s purest homegrown literary voice. But Didion left the state long ago and her most seminal works are decades old. Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews says it’s time for a successor, and he thinks he’s found her in singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers. The 26-year-old Pasadena native has literary and personal styles that evoke Didion, but she speaks to a much different California than the one Didion wrote about. Mathews is eager to hear what she has to say:
Read Mathews’ column below:
By JOE MATHEWS
California’s next Joan Didion might be an improvement on the original.
For one thing, she can sing.
Phoebe Bridgers, a 26-year-old musician, isn’t just contending for four Grammy awards March 14. She’s challenging the status of Joan Didion, 86, as the most respected and quotable of California interpreters.
This challenge is long overdue. It’s been 40 years since New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani declared, “California belongs to Joan Didion.” While Didion’s writing still defines national perceptions of California, she moved to New York in 1988 and the most recent essay in her just-published anthology, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, is from the year 2000.
The rise of Bridgers, a Pasadena kid now living in L.A., comes clothed in homage, not criticism. Bridgers frequently quotes Didion in media interviews and references her in songs about contemporary California anxieties.
“Didion reminds me of when I’m really dark and the way I think about the world,” Bridgers told The Fader. “It’s so hopeless. She just shamelessly goes there.”
Of course, Bridgers’ declarations of Didion love are also self-promotion. Didion is the rare California figure who achieved both popular celebrity and membership in America’s intellectual elite. Bridgers, a rock star who wears a Paris Review hat to her New Yorker interview, clearly craves mainstream and elite credibility.
But the Didion-Bridgers connection is about more than marketing. Didion’s precise, powerful pose meets its match in Bridgers’s indelible lyrics in “I Know the End”:
Over the coast, everyone's convinced
It's a government drone or an alien spaceship
Either way, we're not alone.
I'll find a new place to be from
That last line—referencing Didion’s California memoir, Where I Was From—made me wonder if there was finally a successor to the Didion throne. So, I re-read Didion’s work, while listening to Bridgers’ entire discography, including two acclaimed albums. The similarities are uncanny.
Both women bring a literary sensibility to pop forms. The musician shares the writer’s painstaking pattern of sweating every single syllable to create unforgettable lines—from “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” (Didion) to “I’ve been playing dead my whole life” (Bridgers). Both believe in genre-bending—Didion in her unconventional novels Play It as It Lays, and Democracy., and Bridgers in songs that start as ballads and end with heavy metal. Both deftly use language to cut others. Didion called writing “an aggressive, hostile act” while Bridgers throws down lyrics like: “I’m gonna kill you/ If you don’t beat me to it.”
But perhaps what the women most share is California itself, and a sensibility that looks at the place through its dreams, ghosts, and anxieties. Didion’s observation that “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension” shows up when Bridgers sings, “Like a wave that crashed and melted on the shore/Not even the burnouts are out here anymore” or “I grew up here, ‘til it all went up in flames.”
Listening to Bridgers while re-reading Didion, I found myself wondering if the musician shouldn’t aim higher than the author.
Didion, a Berkeley grad who focuses on surfaces, rarely gets to the emotional depths that Bridgers, who barely graduated high school, plumbs. Didion’s lack of empathy for her subjects is off-putting—her 2021 collection has an essay about a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting in Gardena where Didion flees the room rather than listen to an addict’s story. Bridgers’s work is notably empathetic towards those who, like the musician herself, struggle with depression.
But it is in portraying California that Bridgers has the most room to improve on Didion. The author, relying on personal experience, offered a too-pessimistic view of a whiter, richer mid-century California. If the successful musician reaches beyond her own California reality, she’ll be able to find light in the Didionesque darkness, and locate the hard-won gains among all our Chekhovian loss.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.