Anxiety and the Modern Pop Song: What does Lily Allen Fear?

Lily’s Allen’s ‘The Fear’ was released in 2009, winning two Ivor Novello song-writing awards in 2010. It remains, in the opinion of this contributor, one of the most significant pop songs of recent years, thanks to its portrayal of modern life. The key lyrics are in the chorus:

I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore

And I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore

And when do you think it will all become clear?

‘Cause I’m being taken over by the Fear

The question these lines invite us to ask is: what, exactly, is the Fear? Whatever it is, it appears to be peculiarly undirected. Lily Allen is not afraid of a particular object here (although The Sun and The Mirror come in for criticism), but seems to refer to a pervasive sense of unsettlement or rootlessness. To be taken over by the Fear is to lose a sense of what is ‘right’ and ‘real’; to be uncertain of your feelings; to lack clarity. It is, perhaps, to experience the modern (or postmodern) condition, modernity being understood as the period of ‘the transient, the fleeting, the contingent’ (Baudelaire) when ‘all that is solid melts into air’ (Marx).

Such an answer, though, does not get us much closer to saying what the Fear actually is. On this point, Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety [Begrebet Angest] (1844) can help. Kierkegaard draws a fundamental distinction between fear and anxiety: for him, anxiety is ‘altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite, whereas anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility’. What Lily Allen describes is not, in Kierkegaard’s terms, fear, since it does not relate to any specific object, but rather anxiety, which Kierkegaard defines as an experience of freedom manifesting itself as the ‘possibility of possibility’. The possibility of possibility is precisely the state which ‘The Fear’ describes, in which we do not know what is right or what is real. In such a state, there is no pre-determined sense of which way we should leap or which decision we should make. It is a form of freedom which uproots us from any sense of morality, teleology or pre-determination. This is, of course, unsettling. In Kierkegaard’s words: ‘Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down’. Anxiety is not something that comes from outside us, but neither is it purely internal. Rather, it is the precondition for the very existence of internal and external; that is, for human identity. For Kierkegaard: ‘That anxiety makes its appearance is the pivot upon which everything turns’. Anxiety is what constitutes us as subjects.

In this sense, there is no ‘before’ anxiety. In Kierkegaard’s genealogy, anxiety arises within Adam, the first man, even before he has eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Adam, he suggests, ‘must have had a knowledge of freedom, because the desire was to use it’. God’s prohibition against eating the fruit ‘induces in him anxiety, for the prohibition awakens in him freedom’s possibility’. Any rule implies the possibility of disobedience, of acting differently. This is the possibility of possibility, and it inheres even within such apparently fixed moral systems as God’s law. In this respect, Kierkegaard differs from Lily Allen, whose song implicitly assumes a time before the Fear descended. Though we may not know what’s right and what’s real anymore, the song maintains a belief in a time when we did know, a kind of prelapsarian or pre-modern state when truth and falsity were fixed and clear. What Kierkegaard suggests, by contrast, is that anxiety is not a state into which we enter fully formed and which we might therefore one day escape, but that it is fundamentally bound up with our existence as human subjects, as the only state in which we can experience genuine autonomy.

And yet, Lily Allen’s lyrics also work against the belief in fixed origins which they purport to establish. By failing to define what ‘the Fear’ is, leaving it as a diffuse and vague concept which grips us in the moment of our doubt, Allen makes it impossible to assign to it any origin or endpoint, even as the period of modernity. In refusing to explain itself, the song leaves open the possibility that what it calls the Fear is the condition of human freedom, which Kierkegaard sees as inseparable from anxiety, and which is ‘infinite and arises out of nothing’. To say that the Fear is anxiety, then, is an answer, but it is also the refusal of an answer, since it is to say that this is a condition whose limits cannot be established and to which we cannot assign a cause. What is most modern about the Fear is precisely this inability to answer, this formlessness and indeterminacy. It is a condition, nevertheless, with which we must learn to live.

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