I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
A serious question: would you like Zach Braff to be your dad? My favorite song in recent memory is a song that asks this important question: What if he was? Imagine what it would be like to be sitting in a baby carriage as Zach Braff stared into the camera, eyes watering slowly and soulfully? Would you turn out okay? Would you be soundtracked by the Shins? Would playing catch with daddy Zach Braff — who may be off elsewhere in his mind, concerned with his own coming-of-age from manchild to maybe man — be the source of all your therapy appointments in the future?
This philosophical inquiry concerning the Scrubs and Garden State actor comes from a charming waltz called “Small Talk” by a young Australian singer-songwriter named Julia Jacklin. I first came across Jacklin on YouTube, where she’s constantly in her own world, dancing on her own and indifferent to boys in the burned-out ’70s vintage of the small town Blue Mountains of Australia. All her videos reminded me of watching Lorde’s “Royals” for the first time; one led to another, and it was the start of an obsession with her smart and sharp debut album, Don’t Let the Kids Win.
“Small Talk” sticks out on the album, and it’s because the lyrics are so specific and goofy — it starts with “Zach Braff you look just like my dad / back when I thought I had the best one / oh what a life it could have been / me in the cradle you on the screen.” Then the chorus is “you’re too young to be a father to me.” For the next verse, she asks Catherine Deneuve to be her mom, although, fairly, the 74-year-old actress is “too old to be / a mother to me.” (A genetic combination of Catherine Deneuve and Zach Braff would explain Jacklin’s arresting looks and enviable cheekbones.)
I think about this song often for several reasons, the main one being that I, too, have participated in that fantasy. What if some favorite celebrity was my mom? In my own life, it was a small necessity after my mother’s death. I felt very alone in the world, like I had lost a source of unconditional love, and when I would see magazine covers and movie ads, I’d start fantasizing.
In the immediate realm of my grief, I was sure that I could ask Angelina Jolie to be my mom. She has lots of kids, and she’d understand the cruelty of ovarian cancer. She lives a bohemian life where you’d have to end up erudite and interesting, having a cast of siblings from all over the world. I’m from a family of five. I know what it’s like to be one of a gang, and I could fit into this family of six with ease. I’d be such a good older sister to the whole Jolie clan!
That fantasy lasted a week. But then other potential mothers started rearing their heads. I started seeing my mom in more obvious locations: Dame Judi Dench traveling to India, wearing comfortable linen pants and a very nice scarf. I mean, that pretty much was my mom, and I could at least take comfort in the occasional movie aimed at 60-year-olds, if only to see my mom on screen for a moment, right? Why wasn’t Amy Poehler my mom, giving me the advice on love and life and maybe possibly being the funniest person in the room? Couldn’t Gwyneth Paltrow add me to her brood? I, too, love all-natural products!
It was funny to me that Jacklin took this very natural urge — to see yourself in others, to make up a world where your parents are famous and your life is perfect (though there are loads of celebrity child memoirs to put the kibosh on that idea) — and made a catchy song about it. I never quite thought about Zach Braff as my dad, but he has an earnest puppy-dog appeal that could be dorky and endearing on a dad. Catherine Deneuve would be the type of mom who would leave me with mommy issues (look: I have seen French movies), impenetrable cool, or a very popular book about growing up in the shadow of a beautiful woman.
Maybe Jacklin’s song sticks with me because it gets to a little tiny truth in the world: we’re trained to see the faces we love everywhere. The dead may go away, but they come back, in some form or fashion. It could be the way that Dame Judi Dench wears a large scarf on screen, or when Gwyneth Paltrow talks really earnestly about meditation. (Both of which, now and forever, will remind me of my mom.) We idealize celebrities at about the same rate that we idealize the dead, and it’s very easy to conflate the two. Would I even miss my mom at the same rate if she was still alive? Or would I grumble about her regularly? (For instance, if Angelina Jolie was my mom, I’d probably be leaking stories about her being a bitch to the tabloids.) It feels like all that fantasy is just the effort to cast spells against death. It doesn’t hide the fact that my mom is gone. It just gives my brain a fun game to play.
If I had to write my own take on Jacklin’s song, it’d probably be about seeing my dad in the faces of old Irish-American politicians and actors: Joe Biden, the late Ted Kennedy (an uncanny resemblance), Brendan Gleeson. My mom, of course, would be Judi Dench. The song wouldn’t be quite as wry and smart as Jacklin’s take, and all these folks have entirely too many syllables in their names, but it could still sound pretty.