Throughout the story popular culture—particularly music—is presented as a medium through which adolescents make sense of their inner emotional lives. As a fifteen-year-old girl who struggles to get along with her family and enjoys nothing more than spending time with her friends and flirting with boys at the plaza, Connie is highly attuned to music and the affect it has on her. Connie herself is described in musical terms: she wears “jingling” charms on her bracelets and her laugh is “highpitched.” In many ways, music suggests an escape from Connie’s humdrum suburban existence and a connection to an exciting world of romance and passion. Yet in fueling her sense of romantic fantasy, music also primes her to be taken advantage of by Arnold Friend. The world of adult sexuality is nothing like the gentle romance of movies and pop songs, and Friend twists Connie’s love of both—which, in essence, reflects her desire for fulfillment, connection, and escape—against her by using it to seduce her out of the house. The story thus points to the inauthenticity of the culture with which teens like Connie surround themselves.
At first, Oates directly links Connie’s love of music to moments of passionate emotions or pleasure, which, in turn, are distinctly separate from the stifling world of her parents’ home. While with friends, Connie’s walk becomes “languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head.” When she and her friends go to their usual restaurant, they listen “to the music that made everything so good: the music was always in the background, like music at a church service; it was something to depend upon.” That Connie “depends upon” something suggested to be little more than empty fantasy adds to the story’s tragedy.
As she and Eddie, a boy she meets and flirts with, make their way to his car, Connie is overcome “with the pure pleasure of being alive,” and reflects that “it might have been the music.” Later, when she is home alone listening to music, she again feels an intense kind of pleasure, “bathed in a glow of slow-pulsed joy that seemed to rise mysteriously out of the music itself and lay languidly about the airless little room, breathed in and breathed out with each gentle rise and fall of her chest.” Oates further suggests that, because music is tied to passion, its absence signals a return to calm and order—or, perhaps, a return to reality. For example, after Connie has spent time with Eddie and she and her friend are being driven home by her friend’s father, Oates writes that Connie “couldn’t hear the music at this distance.”
Given Connie’s love of and constant exposure to popular music, it’s no surprise that it has come to shape her expectations of romance and inform her encounters with young men. Music plays a role in even her most private and personal reflections; when Connie is reflecting on her previous sexual experiences, she refers directly to the way it is “in movies” and the promises made in songs, namely that it was “gentle and sweet.”
The appearance of Arnold Friend, however, reveals the artifice of the soundtrack to Connie’s passions. Nearly every time Connie takes pleasure in music, Friend appears. In this way, Oates draws connection between the enticing escape presented by pop culture’s depiction of romance and the danger of being seduced by such fantasy.
When Friend arrives, the radio in his car is playing the same station as the radio in Connie’s house—the same station with which she’d only just been singing along. Given Friend’s obvious attempts to adopt teen lingo and pass himself off as decades younger than he is, this is clearly his way of further signaling to Connie that they are one in the same; that Friend understands her longing for a more passionate world and can in fact give her what she desires—that is, what the songs she so loves have promised her.
Friend even uses song lyrics to connect with Connie, playing on her idea of romantic love. When he speaks to her, Oates writes, “Connie somehow recognized […] the echo of a song from last year, about a girl rushing into her boyfriend's arms and coming home again…” Oates also explicitly suggests the musicality of Friend’s voice, describing it in turns as “monotone”, “lilting,” and “chanting.”
Friend not only continually mimics the properties of music, he also draws on the promises it holds to take advantage of Connie. He tells Connie that her family “don't know one thing about you and never did and honey, you're better than them because not a one of them would have done this for you.” By suggesting that he is the only one to see her for who she really is and that he appreciates her in a way that no one does, Friend uses the romantic ideals inherent in the lyrics of popular music to make Connie feel desired and special.
Of course, none of this is true, and Friend is masking his horrific, violent intentions. In the climax of the story, when Connie does finally leave the house, Friend’s recitation of a Bob Dylan lyric cements his utter insincerity: “My sweet little blue-eyed girl’, he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes.” Friend continues to spout romantic platitudes that clearly have nothing to do with Connie herself, further highlighting the artifice and fantasy of the world popular culture represents—at least for those who, like Connie, are young, naïve, and all too eager to escape the comparative mundanity of their reality.
Music and Romantic Fantasy ThemeTracker
Music and Romantic Fantasy Quotes in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?
She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous, giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn't much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it.
Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home: her walk, which could be childlike and bobbing, or languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head; her mouth, which was pale and smirking most of the time, but bright and pink on these evenings out; her laugh, which was cynical and drawling at home—“Ha, ha, very funny”—but highpitched and nervous anywhere else, like the jingling of the charms on her bracelet.
She drew her shoulders up and sucked in her breath with the pure pleasure of being alive, and just at that moment she happened to glance at a face just a few feet from hers. It was a boy with shaggy black hair, in a convertible jalopy painted gold. He stared at her and then his lips widened into a grin. Connie slit her eyes at him and turned away, but she couldn't help glancing back and there he was, still watching her. He wagged a finger and laughed and said, “Gonna get you, baby,” and Connie turned away again without Eddie noticing anything.
Connie sat with her eyes closed in the sun, dreaming and dazed with the warmth about her as if this were a kind of love, the caresses of love, and her mind slipped over onto thoughts of the boy she had been with the night before and how nice he had been, how sweet it always was […] sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs […]
“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.