Greg Bruce: What’s with all these lockdown obsessions?

A year and a half ago, I thought a lockdown was an opportunity to learn guitar, experiment with new ways of living and spend more time going for long, painful walks with my family. What I know now is that a lockdown is also a fertile place for a specific malfunctioning of the mind.

It started two weeks after the current lockdown when I realised I really wanted to listen to the song Because The Night by Patti Smith. I don’t know why; I’ve never been particularly into the music of Patti Smith and I wouldn’t say the lyrics of that song particularly speak to me. I guess some part of me knew it needed that song at that time, but when I first listened to it I was left unmoved, so I looked up cover versions and found one by 10,000 Maniacs, from their 1993 MTV Unplugged concert. As the voice of Natalie Merchant swung in low and needy over the intrigue of the piano and menace of the strings, something in me came unhooked. I couldn’t believe how good it was. I had never before displayed any interest in the music of 10,000 Maniacs, nor the voice of Natalie Merchant, so why was I suddenly transfixed? This was the most remarkable voice I had ever heard. How had I never noticed it before? I called Zanna into the kitchen: “How have I never noticed this before?” I said. She shrugged and said, “I’ve never really liked her voice.”

Over the next few days I played that song dozens of times. Over the next few weeks, it was closer to hundreds. On Father’s Day, Zanna asked for my favourite song of all time and it was like my mind had eradicated all other music. When I told her, she rolled her eyes and said, “Of course.”

I marvelled at the song’s construction: the dark rising of the strings, the tactical use of the big floor tom to relieve tension, but, more than anything, I marvelled at that voice. I watched the video, stunned by Merchant’s charismatic stillness. I read many articles about her. In one of them, a recent interview, she talked about how her voice has changed now she’s old, and I felt sad about that.

I wondered how it could be that the music of someone I had so frequently heard and ignored in my teens was now all I cared about. I briefly considered becoming a 10,000 Maniacs fan but when I listened to their other songs I didn’t really like them.

Around the time my mind began to release its pathological hold on that song, I saw the TVNZ Breakfast team’s first dance TikTok. Now I think about it, maybe that was why my mind began to release its pathological hold on that song. I have been a dance aficionado ever since the sad and lonely night at home alone, age 31, in my suburban sleepout, when I stumbled across the first season of So You Think You Can Dance Australia. Four years later I married a dancer, from a dance family, and had a series of children who have inherited a love of dance, because my wife has forced them to. In recent years, I have often been moved and changed by dance – particularly my mother-in-law’s choreography for the Playhouse Theatre production of Sunset Boulevard, but also her choreography for the Harlequin Theatre production of Oliver – but neither of those have come as close to taking over my life as have the TVNZ Breakfast team’s dance TikToks.

The first time I watched them dance to the song “I Like To Move It”, I assumed newsreader Jenny Suo was a professional dancer. Her timing, control, extension, spatial awareness and sheer exuberance were far beyond the talents of any newsreader I know. I watched the dance 12-15 times, then called Zanna into the room. “Watch this!” I said and hit play. When it finished, I looked at her eagerly.
“Mmmm,” she said, “I’ve seen that already.”
“What do you think of Jenny Suo?” I asked.
“She’s okay,” she said.
“Okay?” I said.
“She’s good.”
Good? I’ve never been less in love with my wife. Every weekday morning since then, I have eagerly checked my phone for the latest TVNZ Breakfast dance TikTok. While doing things unrelated to dance or breakfast television, I’ll think of one of the dances, and all of a sudden it’s 15 minutes later and I’ve watched the entire collection several times over. Whenever a new one is posted, I show it to Zanna, because I want her to recognise the brilliance of Jenny Suo, to affirm that my obsession is the product of good judgement rather than a mind diseased, but it’s becoming increasingly clear from the expressions on her face that it’s not.

I’ve had other obsessions too: The 15-year-old television show Friday Night Lights, the refereeing in the two All Blacks v Springboks test matches, and doing nice things for my wife’s birthday. My relentless focus on each of these things has, at different times, been to the detriment of my overall mental wellbeing, but it has also allowed my mind to distract itself from the thing that has, for the past two months, threatened to overwhelm it: the number released each day at 1pm. Dealing with one obsession by developing another is probably not best psychological practice, but we do what we can.

This article is late. As I write, it’s already well past deadline. The reasons for this lateness are complex but prominent among them is that hundreds of times during the writing I have distracted myself by watching TVNZ Breakfast dance TikToks. If I really wanted to do the deep inner work, I might discover that I knew this would occur; that it was the reason I suggested this article in the first place.

If it’s not already obvious, I don’t want to do the deep inner work.

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