Julien Baker’s “Shadowboxing”

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Another of Julien Baker’s songs I’ve been meaning to talk about for awhile is “Shadowboxing” from her 2017 album, “Turn Off the Lights.”

In “Shadowboxing,” as in the album’s title song, Baker speaks openly about her mental health struggles. The name of this song is actually a term used to describe when boxers or martial artists throw punches at an imaginary opponent when warming up. 

In her song, Baker uses this term to describe how, to her peers, her struggles with mental illness probably only look as if she’s fighting herself:

“I know that you don’t understand,
‘Cause you don’t believe what you don’t see.
When you watch me throwing punches at the devil,
It just looks like I’m fighting with me.”

In an interview she had with Pitchfork last year, Baker offered her own insight into this song, saying, “When you see a shadow boxer training, their opponent is something that is only visible within their own mind.”

She said that’s what can be the frustrating part for others, since “you cannot put your hands on, or totally understand, what that person is grappling with.”

It’s easy for those around her to dismiss her struggles, since on the outside, it can appear as if she’s doing just fine. Other times, to try to support her, people may have offered useless advice, saying things like, “Just cheer up, everything’s going to be OK!” or “Just try to think on the bright side of things.”

However, to her, these clichés likely rang hollow:

“I know you were trying to help,
But you’re only making it worse.
Tell me that I shouldn’t blame myself.
But how can you even imagine how badly it hurts,
Just to think sometimes,
How I think almost all the time.”

At the end of the song, Baker expresses the desperation she feels when others tell her they love her and, in her depressed state of mind, she has trouble believing they really mean it.

These last few lines reveal how deeply she longs to feel the love and acceptance from those who genuinely believe and support her—and just how difficult it can be for her:

“When you tell me you love me,
Tell me you loved me,
I wanted so bad to believe it.
So tell me you love me,
Tell me you loved me.
I wanted so bad,
I wanted so bad to believe you.”

I encourage you all to take a listen to the song. Below, I posted a video of Baker playing it live.




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