Phoebe Bridgers playing an acoustic guitar live.
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The meaning behind “Motion Sickness” by Phoebe Bridgers

The meaning of “Motion Sickness” by Phoebe Bridgers is about the singer’s tumultuous relationship with her ex, Ryan Adams. It would later transpire that Adams had emotionally abused Phoebe. “Motion Sickness,” itself is a lyrical masterpiece and deserves a deeper look to uncover the full genius. 

I can read your mind, yes Phoebe Bridgers, yes she is an alt-rock artist. Her meteoric rise is a testament to her ability to merge genres with her emotionally charged songwriting. Let’s take a closer look…

The Facts Behind "Motion Sickness"

“Motion Sickness” was released on July 18, 2017, through the record label Dead Oceans, it serves as the second single from her debut studio albums recordings, “Stranger in the Alps.” The song was created alongside co-writer Marshall Vore, and they both contributed to its unique sound. The song’s production was handled by Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska.

This song was Phoebe’s first breath of success, obtaining gold certification in America and Silver in the UK. The song is in the key of D flat Major. The song was ranked highly in both NME and NPR’s best songs of 2017, truly a testament to her arrival. 

What Phoebe has said about the song

Phoebe Bridgers playing in Manchester at the apollo. (own-image)
Phoebe Bridgers playing in Manchester at the apollo.

The best way to delve into the meaning of a song I have found is through the actual words of the artist themselves. Let’s have a look at what Phoebe has said about the song. 

In an interview with The Guardian Bridgers talked about the experience behind the song saying, “I remember feeling sad and hurt and sick about all of it, but I didn’t really have the words to describe it until later”. It is clear that this message came out in the lyrics too. You can tell at every moment in the song she is insinuating that she is struggling to find the words to say. 

Furthermore in this interview, Phoebe continues to reinforce the lyrics in her song. Her initial feelings were she “was totally enamoured with him and was like, ‘Oh, shit, that’s like my adult life starting'”. Again this is brought out in her lyrics where she clearly outlines this feeling. 

It is clear from these two quotes that our previous statements about the song’s meaning are true. This experience was clearly something that she saw as scaring and difficult to tackle, and facing them upfront is a testament to her songwriting. 


Looking into the lyrics

To begin with, the lyrics of “Motion Sickness” are very introspective, offering a glimpse into the turbulent aftermath of her relationship with Adams. Phoebe’s songwriting prowess shines as she lays bare her vulnerabilities and pain. Lines like “I hate you for what you did, and I miss you like a little kid” are indicative of the emotional turmoil she experienced.

Referring to the quotes above, however, there are two lines we can pick up that showcase these statements. Initially, her loss for words is shown in “There are no words in the English language I can scream to drown you out”.

The line “You were in a band when I was born” showcases two things, it shows how she felt like an adult when she met him and learnt about him, but it also shows the true fact that Adams is 20 years older than her. This is probably hinting to the power dynamic in the relationship which may have caused some of the reluctance for Phoebe to remove herself from the situation in the first instance. 

I believe the main hook “I have emotional motion sickness” is one of the more straightforward lyrics in the song. This line resembles the fact that she still feels unstable from the relationship. However, she is positioning herself as a passenger who was just being taken along for the ride. I think the line indicates she is more torn that she put up with the experience. The lyric itself is captivating and allows people to associate with the song outlining a relatable common experience of travel sickness.

What Can Be Inferred from the Music Video

The music video is split into three scenes.

The music video opens in quite a poignant way. Phoebe is sitting on a bed in a motel, which could resemble the fact that she feels like is a runaway from the experience hiding out from her experience. The all-black suit definitely strikes a resemblance to funeral attire. This is to show the death of the relationship or a clever nod to another one of her songs from “Stranger in the Alps”.

The video then continues with Phoebe riding a scooter down the street, with a helmet with space stickers on. This simultaneously shows her coming of age that she outlined in the interview, as well as showing the dizzyness of her mentality. In the latter, the planets could be showing her head spinning, which would fit with the lyrics.

The last section shows Phoebe walking from the dressing room of a bar to the stage. The most important part of this however is the fact that she is completely ignored by everyone she passes and is even ignored when she starts singing. She then surrenders to the sound and it is only then someone takes notice. This could be the point that only when she wrote her feelings into song form did people begin to take notice of her emotional situation.

The Music of "Motion Sickness"

Phoebe Bridgers singing live. (credit: David Lee (cc))
Phoebe Bridgers singing live. (credit: David Lee)

Motion Sickness by Phoebe Bridgers is in the key of Db Major. We can tell this from the opening Db major chord, and the perfect cadences at the end of each verse from the Ab Major to the root chord of Db Major. The song doesn’t however end on the root and continues to the chord of Gb, which leaves the ending sort of ambiguous.

The song is composed with layers and layers of textures, to the point where sometimes it becomes complicated, most of the time however the layering makes the track feel distant and whistful. This is primarily in the use of effects on the guitars, but there are additional elements at play. There’s an FM Rhodes in the backing too. 

The beat gives a gentle walking feeling with the only prominent hits being kick-snare-kick-snare, with hi-hats tapping out 8 hits. While simple this gives the piece constant momentum throughout, it is only in the break that this gives way to a build instead. 

The guitars

The guitars play a massive part in the overall feel of this song, and they go a long way to conveying the meaning of “Motion Sickness”. The song opens with a fuzz-laden Db major chord that establishes the initial feel of the song from the offset. This chord is then expanded upon with some additional hammer-ons. 

When the verse hits the guitars begin to add some more atmosphere to the piece. In the background of the barre chords, there is also a lot of arpeggiation going on. These work in unison with additional chords which play a second melody behind, this melody is subtle and panned to the right ear. There is a melody in the left ear too but this is in the higher range of the guitar. 

There are also two other chord strikes I’d like to pay attention to. The first comes in the chorus, if you listen closely you can hear a guitar with a heavy tremolo effect. This parts into strong clean open chords in the break that follows on from it. When these chords return they return to the fuzz. This all creates a varying level of distance from the track and symbolises the introspective look of Phoebe at varying levels. 

Finally, there are a few moments where the guitars add atmospheric moments. This includes the use of a slide building out of the verses, as well as, some licks that double the atmosphere of the rhythm guitars. 

The cumulative sound of these guitars is a feeling of distance. It almost approaches the level of shoegaze with the amount of different effects going on. This perfectly reflects Phoebe’s feelings throughout the song as she distances herself from the relationship.

The power of "Motion Sickness"

Phoebe Bridgers playing live.

“Motion Sickness” by Phoebe Bridgers brilliantly exemplifies her mastery of conveying raw emotions through her music. This ability has solidified her status as an icon, with a dedicated and passionate following, myself included.

The song’s roots in her real-life experiences, coupled with its introspective lyrics and a composition that exudes a haunting and contemplative atmosphere, contribute to its status as a masterpiece that should be embraced as something that exemplifies alt-rock.

Within its catchy melodies, “Motion Sickness” addresses profound and sombre issues that Phoebe has faced, crafting a relatable narrative for her listeners. This song’s exceptional impact catapulted Phoebe Bridgers into the forefront of the music scene, a feat achieved by very few artists.

Love alt-rock, see what 00s albums I think are the best!

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