Why Was Pop Music So Obsessed With Mercury in Retrograde This Year?
From Maggie Rogers to Jenny Lewis, Mercury was the most talked-about planet in music this yearPhoto by Noam Galai/Getty Music Features Maggie Rogers
Astrology is—scientifically speaking—a whole bunch of bologna. That aspects of our personalities and livelihoods could be affected by the course of celestial bodies’ indifferent orbits is complete fantasy. Yet, we puny humans are easily entertained and constantly searching for meaning—a dangerous combination—and what better place to derive some existential significance than the vast heavens above?
What was maybe a few decades ago considered a kooky fad is now a full-blown millennial lifestyle. Whether you take the stars seriously (like one Phoebe Bridgers) or you’re just curious (like me), you probably flirt with a horoscope every now and then. The internet makes it virtually impossible not to—just about every lifestyle brand on Instagram cashes in on astrology memes (not to mention the accounts that are solely dedicated to the cause), while Twitter is positively aflutter with sign jokes. Do I really believe that Venus sextiling with Neptune will yield me creative clarity and financial freedom in the month of December? Of course not. But will I click through this entire Refinery 29 gallery until I hit the Aquarius slide, just to have a little peak for funsies? Absolutely. It is in fact possible to take unadulterated delight in astrology even if you’re a non-believer, ok?! The Atlantic even says so.
Since millennials are so obsessed with their birth signs and coinciding forecasts, it makes perfect sense that artists of our generation frequently take inspiration from the planets. Few have pulled it off as well as Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison, who wrote the astrology song of the decade in last year’s heart-wrenching “Scorpio Rising.” “I’m just a victim of changing planets, my Scorpio rising and my parents,” she sings, reminding us that even if we’re not beholden to a solar system’s schedule, there’s still so much out of our control.
However, in 2019, pop and rock artists went a little wild with referencing a different astrological phenomenon. Enter Mercury, our Solar System’s smallest and most unassuming player. She may be small, but, according to astrologists, Mercury is capable of causing a whole lot of trouble in your personal life at certain times during the calendar. When Mercury is in retrograde, or “retrograding,” it appears to move backwards across the sky, though the boomerang effect is actually just an illusion visible only to us here on earth. Mercury’s retrograde has been associated with bad luck and hard times dating back to farmers almanacs published in the mid-18th century, per a recent Mental Floss examination, and astrology-minded folks still dread it like tax season. Car break down? Dating life in a mess? Spill your coffee on the train? Between Oct. 31-Nov. 20, 2019, you could’ve blamed all this and more on Mercury.
Kentucky country singer Sturgill Simpson casts Mercury as responsible for a whole host of unlucky occurrences, most of which relate to touring life, on his bluntly-titled song “Mercury In Retrograde,” a dazzling cut from his recently released album SOUND & FURY. It’s a sharp look at problems musicians face on tour and otherwise, like the artist/fan dynamic, loneliness on the road and music industry bullshit, all things that are becoming increasingly relevant in Simpson’s life as he plays bigger and bigger arenas. He has no time for fake relationships: “Mercury must be in retrograde again,” Simpson sings in the chorus, “but at least it’s not just hangin’ around, pretendin’ to be my friend.” Damn. Now there’s some astrology discourse with heat.
Maggie Rogers, pop music’s patron saint of girl power, free spirits and all things witchy, also has a little mercury in her system. In “Retrograde,” a song from her debut LP Heard It In A Past Life—an album about trials and growth, among other things—Rogers herself becomes the planet as her soul undergoes transformation. “Feeling all I’ve ever known / fall away and letting go,” she sings, adding, “I’m in retrograde.” It’s never really clear if these changes are positive ones, and maybe that’s the point. Mercury’s path back out of retrograde is never a straight one.
Jenny Lewis dropped one of our favorite songs of the year in “Wasted Youth,” a spiffy rock number about staying chipper when you’re down-on-your-luck. Lewis sings to an imaginary sister, or maybe a friend, telling her to get a grip. “Why you lyin’?” she sings, slyly. “The bourbon’s gone. Mercury hasn’t been in retrograde for that long, oh no.” It sounds like Jenny’s way of bending the planets to her will. It’s not so bad right now, she seems to say, and chances are things will get a whole lot worse, so you might as well quit your whinin’. Thankfully, “Wasted Youth” comes across more like a stroke-of-the-cheek than a slap across the face. If there was ever one to marry the optimism of pop music with the millennial angst regarding the universal traumas that will unavoidably plague us all, it’s Jenny Lewis. She manages a wisecrack here and there, too.
Mercury was also the star of yet another juicy rock song from this year, Tacocat’s “Retrograde,” in which the Seattle pop-punk band dread the “3, 4 times a year” in which Mercury makes that stress-inducing journey. They one-upped everyone else who sang about the phenom this year by actually releasing the song on Halloween, the day Mercury went into retrograde. And what’s spookier than your kid neighbor dressed in a slasher costume? Loneliness and bad fortune, that’s what. “Beware the time again,” frontwoman Emily Nokes warns. “You won’t make any friends.”
Astrology in music is not necessarily anything new, but why did Simpson, Rogers, Tacocat and Lewis all reference Mercury’s retrograde specifically in their songs this year? Do they know something we don’t? Is Mercury’s backwards slide actually indicative of a larger impending disaster? Is there life on Mercury, and is that lifeform Baby Yoda (unlikely)?! Or did this Godforsaken year just feel like one long, never-ending Mercury-in-retrograde (very likely)??! Your guess is as good as mine. But if there’s an option to blame my problems on a planet as opposed to a person, as there will be again when Mercury slips back into retrograde on Feb. 17, I’ll probably take it. Or you could just be like Bridgers’ fellow boygenius member Lucy Dacus, who isn’t concerned in the least about some tiny gray planet. As she sings on “Fool’s Gold,” she’s content to just blame unfortunate happenings on “the full moon.” To each their own!