When a Song Declines

For a writer who is exclusively interested in good lyrics, it is a minor tragedy when a song begins with fantastic poetry only to end on pedestrian, jay-walking prose. Sometimes, this is a result of the writer falling victim to their own success. When Morrissey writes

“I am the son and the heir

Of a silence that is criminally vulgar”

There’s no where to go from this Everestian peak but down. To be born out of silence is already a splendididea, especially when one considers how loud an affair birth is. Then, to imagine a vulgar silence as one’s parent is more gorgeous still, more nuanced and rich.

 

 Add that rare adverb “criminally” and you end with a phrase that’s quadruply special– you are born of a silence (unusual), that silence is vulgar (nearly unheard of, especially as vulgarity is associated with a poor choice of words)   and that vulgar silence is criminal, entirely unrecognizable. To all these you must add that “son and heir” are puns on Earth’s most life-giving forces — the sun and the air– and one ends in quite possibly the most gorgeous and convoluted sentence of that poet’s pen, an ever-lingering phrase that’s best taken in small doses at a desert retreat. But this isn’t a post on “How Soon is Now?,” that kuan-titled song. 

 

No, the song I have been thinking of , on and off for years, is Hazel O’Connor’s “Will You.”  It is a song that opens on a truly marvelous note, deceptively simple and explicitly coy, but profound and meaningful all the more: 

 

You drink your coffee and 

I sip my tea

And we’re sitting here, playing so cool

Thinking – what will be will be. 

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It is one of my favorite literary tricks, which song-writers rarely bother with — articulating differences through mannerisms. You know the singer is less confident and more cautious from the way she only “sips” her tea, her lover more muscular and at ease from his “drink[ing]” of the more intense and arousing drink. Differences are seldom so neatly captured in one’s choice of beverage and drinking method. Listening to this, I wish I had done more sipping and less drinking in my life, too. 

Neither of the next 2 lines is special by itself. On the contary, they are among the most common modes of expression, with thousands of songs using either one. But then, I defy you , as common as these 2 lines are apart, to find them elsewhere together! Why would this require defiance? Because the whole point of “playing it cool” is the playing, the facade under which one is quietly reeling from anxiety and anticipation. Yet, “thinking – what will be will be” is actually cool, it is a stoic banality that el Duderino himself would endorse. 

 

So which is it — are we playing cool or actually thinking cool, calm thoughts? The intensity of the song suggests the playing. But combining it with a cool thought is, well, cool — the ideal of playing it cool, perhaps the ideal of most forms of deception, is to actually be able to deceive yourself.  As George Constanza famously said – “it’s not a lie if you believe it.” Here, from one line to the next, we have the transformation from playing it cool to actually thinking it cool. The dancer has become the dance. 

 

Oh, and the “and”s — how I love Hazel’s “and”’s! You have to know you have something special going on as a lyricist when you see Google editing out part of your lyrics. In this case, 

 

“You drink your coffee AND

I sip my tea” 

 

Turned into 

“You drink your coffee 

I sip my tea.” 

 

Why the change? Likely, Google’s algorithm doesn’t like two “and’”s in a single sentence, so it decided to offer Hazel some proof-reading assistance.   Indeed, past the age of 5 people rarely employ multiple and’s in a sentence, precisely because of the association with a childish impulsive sentence structure that cannot bring itself to stop or coordinate its different points beyond a -never-ending string of “ands”.  

 

Maybe there is a willing association with children here — what do little girls like to do more stereotypically than have tea parties? If so, it is a very awkward association, as we are about to see this drinking exchange turn quite a bit more heated than the tea. But it does give another bit of nuance to the sense of insecurity and fear that the sipping detail gave us. She sips because she’s not sure she can handle drinking, just as she’s not sure she’s ready to move on to the next phase of the relationship when her sentence style is so laden with conjunctives. 

 

Skipping over the refrain for a moment, the next stanza is more generic, but to me still beautiful: 

 

I move a little closer to you

Not knowing — quite what to do

And i’m — feeling all fingers and thumbs

I spill my tea

Oh silly me!

The gender reversal of the girl moving closer to her lover, unsure of her own initiative, is beautiful. More beautiful still is how awkward the singing is — it is all fingers and thumbs, indeed! The elevation of the pitch placing the stresses in all the wrong places, pausing the line in the oddest of spots — this is a beautiful echoe of not knowing what to do. “Spill -tea”, too, is a gorgeously off  off-rhyme with “s[pi]lly,” rhyming two words with one and that one not ending the sentence. Unlike tea, it takes quite a bit of talent to spill rhymes.

 

We end the good part of the lyrics with the lines that repeat the most, arguably the best-sung lines of the lot: 

 

But it’s getting kind of late now

I wonder if you stay now, stay now, stay now!
Or will you just, politely, say goodnight?

Hazel here is taking a trope of feminine chastity and turning it on its head. Endless fictional women say “it’s getting kind of late now” because they don’t wish to pursue the romance further. Here, our singer says it because she does, because she’s urgently eager for the night not to end, and fears the running of the clock. 

 

The last two lines are , again, magical in context — as perfectly casual as they sound on a piece of paper, in Hazel’s voice they are the tension between civilized, polite social intercourse and passionate need for actual intercourse, the imperative “stay now” overtaking its primary, polite sentence of “I wonder if” and all-but-ignoring it with its ferocious repetition. 

 

I almost feel scared hearing this commandment couched in a polite question, “I wonder if you    STAY NOW!” The syntactic revolution alone of turning the dependent clause into an independent one is daunting to anyone invested in grammatical stability. But then, the last line is even richer in this rendition; “politely” is sung in this ominous but also diminutive tone, somewhere between “would you like to say goodnight” and “I defy you to be so polite!”  The “just” is barely audible, while its neighbor “goodnight” is all-but-demonic. So much done with so little. This really should have been where the song ended.

 

There is a well-known problem in narrative desire — we want tension resolved, but then we read for the tension. We want to figure out if a character will be with one partner or another, but the moment they choose, the book ends, somewhat deflated. We want to know who the killer is and how he will end, but as soon as we do we lose interest in the whole project. “Oh!” is the devastating result of too many narratives, at once a signal of surprise and relief. Once we are released of our desire by getting its object, we tend to discard both desire and object. This is what happens to me with this song.

 

“And then we touch — much too much”

Yes, indeed! The lyrics are so disappointing here, they inscribe their failure immediately — they are much too much. The singing, so poignant and rich to this point, turns whiney and nauseating. The layers dissipate into sheer painful lust. Urgent need, without the opposing politeness, turns into angry, petulant neediness: 

 

“Take up your eyes

Bear your soul

Gather me to you and make me whole

Tell me your secrets…”

After so many singing nuances, nothing here surpasses the monotone, there’s no distinction between one line and the other. The sentiment, too, holds no tension — just do everything I need, ok? No more questions and lateness and spilled rhymes and polite overtures — no, bear your soul, gather me to you and make me whole. It’s like a sickly unintentional parody of Jerry Maguire.   

 

There is an attempt at a redeeming uncertainty, at a “this moment I am so unsure” — but it is quickly subsumed by screeching anger:” is it something you’ve been waiting for — waiting for, too?!”  Hard to believe the same singer recorded both parts of the song. 

 

What happened here, why does the song decline so rapidly with its conquest? Giving Hazel credit, this might be the point – this might be why the touching is much too much. It turns curious, confused, coaxing lovers into possessive, whiney partners. It’s as if Hazel asked hereself: “How will they know that this is too much? “ and figured: “ Oh, I’ll make them hear it in my voice!” 

 

But I don’t know that this is the case at all, and if i had to guess, I wouldn’t find it likely. I think in the  turn from tension to consummation, Hazel figured she would simply bring more volume and intensity to every word, and the result, like shooting all your fireworks out at once, was overwhelming.
 I think we can’t all hit single notes of the highest intensity without making our listeners reach for their nearest ear-plug, likely their fingers and thumbs. I wish Hazel understood that her power lay in subtlety rather than storms. I wish the song had stayed a little longer with its coffee and tea. But it’s getting kind of late now.

A Song for Dead Rats

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a song will surprise you. Then, if you’re truly blessed, it will astound you.  Of such a blessing is the Mountain Goats’ oddly named “Cotton.”

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Here’s the opening salvo:

This song is for the rats

Who hurled themselves into the ocean

When they saw that the explosives in the cargo hold

Were just about to blow. 

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Songs don’t often open on dedications- the risk of limiting your audience to the dedicated person is too great. Then, if there are dedications, they tend to be fairly non-commital, like so: 

 

“My gift is my song and – 

This one’s for you” 

 

Where “you” can be anyone, and “this one’s for you” is such a generic statement that you would be excused for taking it as a mere turn of phrase, rather than an actual dedication. 

 

But this song is not just a continuous dedication, but one for rats! You don’t even get songs for pets with any frequency — Sooby, I’ll never forget thee! — but for rats, literally never. More astounding still, these are soon-to-be dead, Titanic rats. Why you would dedicate a pop song is a good question. Why you would dedicate it to rats is a better one. Why you would dedicate it to moribund rats is the best question of all. 

 

As readers might expect by now, I have better questions than I do answers, and I religiously refuse comprehensive answers to the great mysteries of my pop universe. Still, we offer something or other – partial, unsatisfying, but something. I dedicate this analysis to my great late Sooby, the fattest of all cats to ever dawdle upon the earth. 

 

The thing about rats is – no one cares about them very much. They rank slightly above cockroaches for fear and loathing. They share a place in our minds with plagues, snitches, suage, medical experiments, and one impressive Mutant ninja turtle mentor, himself a racist comment on Japanese instruction techniques.   

 

To dedicate a song to rats, then,  is an approach towards those we run from, a beautiful statement of care for the neglected, affection for the hated. For Darnielle, the rare atheist indebted to the bible for its literary riches, the biblical ideal of the last becoming first has profound charms. Thus, this song takes “the meek shall inherit the earth”  and replies with: “not only the meek, but the disgusting, too!” 

 

Then again, this song is only in part about exalting lowly rats. In part the rats are exalted to underscore the apocalyptic nature of the song. In the first verse, the ship is about to explode, so we can’t sail the seas. What about coming ashore, then? Well…

This song is for the soil

It’s toxic, clear down to the bed rock

Where no thing of consequence can grow

Drop your seeds there, let them go. 

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Not much of an earth to inherit, then. Worse and more beautiful to me, this humble verse revises two popular religious tropes in one fell swoop. On the one hand, the bible’s “reaping what you sow,” here clearly upended by the reality of sowing in an apocalyptic universe. The bible’s message is reassuring because it imagines a certain fairness to things – you sow righteous seeds in good places, you’ll reap all manners of trees and bushes and other reap-worthy things (an agricultural thinker I am not!). But if you’ve only got toxic spiritual soil to work with, it doesn’t much matter where you drop your seeds. No thing of consequence can grow. No good will come of your best intentions and efforts. We might as well dedicate our lives to dying rats.  

 

So no reaping nor sowing – so much for the Judeo-Christian trope. But the Buddhist ideal of “letting go” is offered some unpleasant treatment as well. See, much though they loathe to admit it, Buddhist masters time and again imagine letting go as a fruitful endeavor. You let go of things to feel better, to get peace, love, friendship, and even — heaven forbid, my own monk participates in these spiritual shananigans — wealth! Thus letting go is often materially motivated, and therefore not very inspiring even to the practicioner — it’s a little awkward to let go of attachment in order to achieve more things you’re attached to. 

 

Here, that paradox is exposed for its limitations. Let go, not because you’ll gain something- you drop those seeds into a toxic soil, you ain’t never getting them back, nor will any good come of them. Instead, let go truly, into oblivion, knowing that you’ve at least genuinely given up the thing you’ve dropped. I don’t know that this is more inspiring, but it does sound more consistent than the Buddhist version. 

 

You could really end there, and be contented. But this song, which ought to have been titled “let it all go,” does not let the dedication go quite yet. On the contrary, it acccentuates and leathers and layers it:

 

This song is for the people 

Who tell their families that they’re sorry

For things they can’t and won’t feel sorry for. 

 

When you have such abrupt transitions, from toxic soil and dying rats to more pedastrian people and their faux apologies, one is tempted to read the disconnect as, well, disconnected. Maybe one could even be clever and say that the lyricist is showing us how he drops his lyrical seeds and lets them go, moving on to a completely different subject matter, only preserving the formal device of the bizarre dedication. 

 

But I am tempted to do the opposite, to link the dying rats and toxic soil to the people who tell their families that they’re sorry for things they can’t and won’t feel sorry for. There is something “toxic, clear down to the bedrock” when people have to lie to their families, the bedrock of their being. There is, also, a hurling into the ocean because you see the ship is about to blow in such apologies. It’s not that the rat is fond of jumping a sinking ship, it’s that the alternative is too explosive.

 

For Darnielle, a man who grew up in an abusive household, there is little doubt he has seen the human version of explosives in the cargo hold about to blow. If you’ve ever encountered the prospects of serious physical harm, you would know the first thing it draws from you is false apologies — often you cannot wait to apologize, cannot find enough things to apologize for, do not at all care that about the truthfulness of the apology. I remember apologizing for doing something seconds after I apologized for not doing it, and neither seeing nor caring for the contradiction. Might as well hurl yourself into an ocean of repentant tears. 

 

But let us not end on such a grim note. This song is titled – bizarrely, implausibly, uncomfortably — “Cotton.” In the American context, cotton is the fabric of slavery, and I doubt this association was lost on Darnielle. Slaves, after all, apologise falsely as much as abused children, if not as pitifully. They were brought over in explosive ships, and thought of as rats, and cared for as rats, too.  In a song about the neglected and disgusting to behold, the spectre of slavery looms lightly. But the lyrics are better than a thematically appropriate invocation. Here they are in their glory: 

 

And once there was a desk

And now it’s in a storage locker somewhere

And this song is for the stick pins and the cotton

I left in the top drawer

 

The cotton is such an afterthought it’s remarkable. It’s the second indirect object of the third clause of a line, triply abandoned in a drawer, in a random desk, in a storage locker, somewhere. It’s a brilliant rejection of the song’s chorus. “Let it all go”? I don’t want to let dying rats and false apologies and random cotton left in a storage locker go. Heck, I’ll even dedicate a song to all the things, creatures and people you have long let go of. Maybe “Cotton” isn’t such a bad title after all. 

STAMINA

Sometimes you enjoy a song for visceral, superficial reasons. Then, as with romantic pleasures, the mind is called upon to offer its own version of events, to elevate the bodily into the transcendent, the physical into the philosophical. The results are — in the right light– comical, as you find yourself thinking thoughts of this nature:

 

“Yes, we have nothing whatsoever to talk about, but there is something mysterious about her — she’s so much more than what she says.” 

 

“Yes, he’s a mean bastard, a tiny bit racist, but still — he means well, deep down inside. He’s just passionate, really. He just has so much darkness inside him. “ 

 

“Oh, she has never shown much interest in anyone whose name is not identical to her own, but it just shows how focused on self-improvement and self-realization she is.”  

 

This was my first instinct with loving Sia’s “Stamina.” Yes, there were such lines as these to contend with: 

 

“Don’t give up, won’t give up – no no no…. 

 

I’m free to be the greatest…” 

 

Lyrically agonizing, but , but — clearly it must have a deeper meaning, it must have hidden ironies, it must be layered, it must… 

 

Then the small part of me invested in antiquated notions of integrity exclaims: “or – she’s just as attractive as any super-star might be, and the music just might be the catchiest there is.” 

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But this isn’t a blog for such pornographic expressions of delight. We don’t revel in hotness here, we coolly anlayze shades and textures and flavors of meaning. We accept “I need another lover, be mine” as an expression of consumerism, not a seductive if idle invitation to have sex with the sexiest woman heteronormativity could conjure.  We rue “I’m free to be the greatest here tonight” as an homage to the narcissism of party songs, we don’t acknowledge the escapist pleasure of accepting such a premise. We don’t admit to ourselves, let alone our audience, that we’d like to share in the narcissism. 

 

No, we cut out the catchiness and thank our lucky stars that the song does have depths somewhere to justify our listening to it as often as it offers itself sexually to us. We conveniently ignore the  unfortunate fact that the song is called “The Greatest,” and pretend that it’s called what it should have always been, “Stamina.”  

 

I defy you to find another song whose theme is stamina. Heck, any song featuring stamina as a word would impress me. It’s strange, but in a culture that has taken up exercise as a cure-all long ago, physical fitness is not a common metaphor for psychological resilience. Enter Sia: 

Running out of breath, but I-  I got stamina, 

Running now, I close my eyes – I’ve got stamina. 

I see another mountain to climb – I’ve got stamina. 

 

Running through the waves of love – I’ve got stamina. 

 

It’s curious how fresh such a basic idea feels. Dealing with challenges and pain and love is not a question of will power, nor circumstance, nor reliance on others, or even on your self. Instead, it’s a question of fitness, of preparation, of all that you’ve done before the situation was a glimmer in the distance. I cannot think of a single instance in a movie where a character loses something, faces a non-athletic obstacle, reaches any kind of fork in the road, and responds: “well, I’ve prepared for this. I’ve got stamina.” We train the body to endure– and to some extent the mind. But we don’t see images of emotional preparation for much of anything, we don’t hear songs about mental training, we don’t think of how well a person responds to things in terms of how many times they’ve gone to the gym. We may have the mind-as-muscle metaphor for math tests and language learning. The mind receives little toning for death, breakup, firing, and what not. Just once, I’d like to hear a character say: yeah, I’ve practiced for this breakup for months.  I’ve got stamina.

 

So why don’t we have any cultural resonance for preparing to suffer tragedy? Why don’t we have Rocky-esque montages of Matt Damon building emotional stamina? In stories, because narratives benefit from lack of preparation. A character responding with sturdiness to life’s woes would be boring, if not inhuman. There is even a sense that such stamina would border on indifference. Even heavy weights would feel insulted if you lifted them  without a sweat. Emotional weights are far more sensitive creatures.

 

In songs, this is part of the story, too. The drama  in music comes from emotional intensity that is best when neither singer nor audience have any stamina to stem its tides. In this song, even the person with stamina gets to have a serious challenge, in running with closed eyes, and through waves (a perfect use of an inappropriate metaphor). Beautifully, she starts out seeming to have no stamina — “oh, oh – running out of breath.”

 

But songs are more metaphorical creatures than stories, and should have landed on the fitness metaphor more than just this once. Culture should have landed on it long ago — we have practices for building mental stamina in practically every cognitive realm, and no emotional one. 

 

I think it’s got a lot to do with how surprised we are by trauma. When a person is assaulted, or killed, or dumped, or fired – we are often as shocked as they are. I knew I would be dumped 3 of the last 4 times , well in advance of trash day , and still I found the experience mortifying in its suddennes. I remember telling a friend I will be broken up with within days of a break-up, and still my reaction was a stunned silence. The mind does not like to imagine inevitable pain like death. Pain that may not happen at all seems all too surreal. 

 

If sports were somehow banned, it would be hard to get people to practice for them. When students don’t have a test coming up, they rarely study as hard. If you could never run more than 10 meters straight, no one would try to build literal stamina. Culture has a hard enough time getting people to prepare for things they know are coming. The things we do our best to avoid we likely won’t build stamina for, no matter how many “Eye of the Tiger” songs Sia writes for us.    

The Crime-Disease

Suppose you had a strange form of fibromyalgia, perhaps the classical disease for chronic, cureless pain. The one strange thing about it? It has been criminalized by society, so you cannot tell anyone you have it. You’d be far worse judged than telling them about an STD.

 

If you are so fortunate as to suffer from such a magical crime-disease, the likely reactions you will receive when you are stupid enough to tell people about it are: “Are you sure anything’s wrong? You’ve had many times without any pain. Maybe you should just distract yourself until it goes away. Snap out of it. Just fake it till you make it — think about all the good stuff you have in life. Maybe you actually want to be in pain, maybe it’s giving you something? I actually think this disease is what makes you interesting and sensitive. You’re probably lucky to have it.” And my personal favorite,  a term of endearment insulting to both the queer and Liberal Arts communities: “don’t be such a drama queen!”

 

Regardless of the sensitivity of the reaction, the facial expression will tell you you’ve confessed to a crime, which I am certainly not about to do. If I ever had depression — Heaven forbid such sacrilege! — I would not be so idiotic as to tell everyone on the internet. No, though I am a fairly unpleasant individual, such a moron I am not. I do, however, have criminal friends. Some cheat on their taxes, some (from California) ignore stop signs, and some have magical fibromyalgia. As I have little interest in telling you about taxes, and am a traffic law anarchist myself, let’s turn to that third type. The criminally ill.

 

Suppose you would be such a criminal friend, what would your life be like? Well, a craving for suicide is most likely, a staple of the pantry, if you will. You probably long for death about as often and as passionately as people want their favorite snack. Partly it’s the pain of it all that makes life less thrilling a prospect. Partly it’s the shame of being a criminal of the unattractive type, lying to people on a daily basis, hiding as much as you can of yourself, fearing the certain incarceration that the clumsiest of investigators could draw out of you in 3 minutes’ questioning. Every “how’s it going” poses a moral dilemma.  

 

Consequently,  you come to fear and enjoy  many things. Bridges, Towers, Medicine Cabinets, sharp pencils, ketychains, ropes, highways, knives — all carry a special meaning for you. Every object is a tool in the hands of a dedicated craftsman. You love apples ever since you’ve discovered they contain cyanide.  That is, so my criminal friends tell me, on condition of anonymity, when no one else is listening. I promise them I won’t listen either.

 

As you might have imagined from the foregoing, you are not a pleasant person to be around. You often change your mind about the simplest of plans, you claim obscure and fishy illnesses on far too many an occasion, and you seem obsessed by your own criminal behavior, which you either conceal too well or not well enough to merit sympathy or affection. You’re a hint dropper, and few friends enjoy the janitorial lifestyle which picking up after you requires.

 

You envy, regularly, somewhat shamelessly. You envy people who are successful, you envy people who smile, you envy people who seem calm, you envy people who are stable, you envy people with friends, you envy people with boyfriends and girlfriends, you envy good-looking people, you envy mediocre-looking people, you envy ugly people who feel they are mediocre-looking. Often, your envy and resentment are hard to miss, on account of your oversharing nature compensating for a life of crime and concealment.

 

Everything is transient to you. Not the philosophers’ abstract transience of decades or centuries. A much more immediate passing of relationships, professions, moods, and ultimately life itself. Your average romance outlasts your average friendship by a month, being 2 months long. You make people uncomfortable, wary, suspicious even — there’s something not quite right about you, and they can smell it on you, as you smell it on fellow criminals. Perhaps they fear slipping into a life of crime, perhaps they fear guilt by association or conspiracy charges.   Hard to tell, seeing as I am only speaking second-hand of reports by others, who would never be named.

 

Most relationships alter for ever and for worse when others realise your true nature. Like it or not, you’ve basically just revealed to them that you’ve been lying to them up to this point, and that you’re beyond the pale of acceptability. You are worse than hideous at this point – you are inappropriate. A faux pas made flesh. One could not backtrack fast enough.

 

You can make a collage of their reactions, of the soft, awkward moans of “ah’s” and “oh’s,” effortful glances to and effortless ones away from you. You could write an epic catalogue of the phrases betokening the shortened time, the occupations suddenly arising minutes away from such encounters with the ugly truth of your being.

You appreciate the ones that are more specific, the ones that toil for plausibility: “I have this philosophy class to teach tomorrow and I still haven’t graded a third of my students’ papers,” “I promised my mom I’d call her by 8 — she’s not doing so well these days.” The generic ones are far less satisfying, and often feel lazy in their falsehood: “well, it’s been great, but I have — work /something I need to get to.” Something!

Surely even the criminal deserves better lies.

 

So you put your conscience and integrity aside in the name of the  Appropriate and try to preserve your friendships with euphemisms and black humor. It doesn’t work in the long run, certainly doesn’t make anyone yearn to hang out with you, but it’s serviceable for a time, and if you can reduce yourself to digestible doses, some will tolerate you, however momentarily.

 

Naturally, your self-esteem is not very high. No one with magical Fibro has high self-esteem, that I’ve heard of. This layers your pain a bit  and makes it more confusing, as you can’t tell the primary disease from the secondary and tertiary self-loathing. Like a wedding cake of shit (or so I am told by those luckless criminals).

 

From time to time, people discover you’ve broken any number of social codes, and you get put in a highly sanitary prison-cell, checked up on every 15 minutes, for protection from over-snacking. These are some of the best times of your life, as everyone in the cell knows who you are and you don’t have to lie anymore. You’re among your kind, surrounded by fellow outlaws and officers with adjusted expectations.

 

Still, you lie – out of habit, out of a desire to be liked, because you want to believe that “fake it till you make it” lie. Still, you hate yourself. Still you’ve failed, you’ve been exposed, the outside world may find out, the outside is more dangerous inside. You will only be hired by astute Jack Nicholson fans, and even they will fear your shining.

 

All this self-loathing and chronic brutal suffering goes very well with self-pity. Sometimes there is some comfort in realising that any action at all with magical Fibro is an accomplishment. Sometimes you don’t hate yourself quite so much when you realise how pathetic a criminal you make. Most of the time, what little actions you’ve committed condemn you for the ones you haven’t. What little pain you’ve been spared implies all pain might be avoided. Even your crime might be a fraud, not just its persistent cover-up.

 

You go back to torturing yourself. A wise friend once suggested you respond to your magical moral ailment with a good Catholic remedy – and punch yourself in the nose. You’ve tried variants of this treatment, with mixed results. You find yourself yelling at yourself in the shower (why do my criminal friends tell me about their showers? I must revisit their intimacy issues) to just kill yourself already. You spend hours contemplating good plans for corpse auto-removal. You find yourself sublimely stupid in all of them. You loathe yourself for your pain, and for loathing your pain, and for loathing yourself. Then you loath some more — inertia is a bitch.

 

You want to write to your friends. You remember you live life outside of the law, and that your friends are more compassionately driven than passionately. You could not tell them much about your life that won’t risk infecting them. They certainly won’t enjoy your sulking – you don’t, do you?? Besides, they’re very busy , and we should definitely talk next week, or in a couple of weeks. Let’s see where we are in August, or September- I definitely have time in September or October. November is a really good month for me.

 

You write second person third person narratives in the first person. You’re a cowardly criminal , and deserve your lot in life.

Culture vs Solitude, Vol 3: Revolution from My Bed

Surely, whatever attitude you have towards being alone, it has something to do with how much you like your mind. Suppose you had a head that couldn’t stop thinking joyous thoughts, that reflected contentedly on the wonders of the universe, the beauty of your fellow humans, the limitless sensational pleasures afforded by nature, music, and some semblance of sex. Why, then, in such a case, solitude would be utterly delightful. Loneliness would be a bizarre and dissonant concept, like the idea of feeling lonely surrounded by your closest friends.

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Sadly, I don’t know a single reader to whom such a mind would apply. In fact, on the spectrum of positivity, minds tend to rank fairly low. There are numberless books on how to think positively, quiet your mind, get along with your thoughts, etc. If our inner being was less hostile a creature, none of these  would be written. There’s a reason there are no books on how to walk, or how to befriend kind people, or get along with easy ones. We only need how-to books for things we can’t do on our own.

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But where “how-to” books have the mandate to teach you new things, songs often have the mandate of telling you old ones. Thus, songs will often choose a particularly tortured mind, perhaps for the added drama, perhaps because that is the most represntative mind of all:

 

“In your head,

In your head – they are fighting

With their tanks and their bombs and their guns…”

 

“Your head  will collapse

But there’s nothing in it.

And you’ll ask yourself

Where is my mind? Where is my mind? “

 

“So I cry sometimes when I lie in bed

Just to get it all out, what’s in my head

And I’m – feeling a little peculiar. “

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Even sex isn’t particularly helpful to these dangerous minds:

 

“I got your body stuck right on my mind

But I drunk myself blind to the sound of old T-rex.  “

 

“There you go again – making me love you

I stopped using my head let it all go…

Now I’m feeling stupid, feeling stupid crawling back to you. “

 

“Oh – I love to love you baby …

Lay down your head right next to me,

Soothe my mind and set me free.. “

 

Are all these songs Culture’s way of reflecting our exhausting heads back to us, or creating that misery in us? We’re all too familiar with the benefits to Culture of our being unhappy – there are half a dozen industries which would die instantly if we dared do otherwise. Besides, I’m not a fan of the Realist – mirror idea of Culture in the first place. Mirrors are far too passive, and Culture far too aggressive, for the two to easily combine. You cannot tell me how things should be if you’re so busy showing me how they are. And Culture loves telling you how you should be.

 

Still, I like suspending my disbelief on this one. It does seem that the mind’s wicked games are more universal than cultural, that every religion and region has its own set of tools for combatting our thinking, its own set of distractions to keep us from being alone, its own set of consolation prizes and phrases for when we are lonely.      

 

But then, Culture and mirrors will always provide counter-examples if you look wide enough. In my limited emo-taste, you cannot do better for a positive view of the mind than Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” It’s a song that verges on the nonsensical from time to time, but it still has some of the best opening lines of any song ever written. After a piano riff that Looks Back without Anger to The Beatles’ “Imagine,” one might expect a song of limitless internal potential. The song does not disappoint:

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Slip inside the eye of your mind

Don’t you know you might find

A better place to stay?

 

So much to say here; the sense of alienation from our own selves is peaking in this call for self reunion. The delight of possibly finding a nice place to stay inside the “Eye” of the mind, the “I” of the mind, recalls the fantasy of Buddha nature we are sometimes promised, imagining a world where our own heads are more playgrounds than hell-yards. It is indeed something of a “revolution from my bed,” the most memorable phrase from this song – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

Doing violence to a bastion of culture, as we saw with Alanis’ song, is never a straightforward thing. Here, too, the “eye of your mind” strongly evokes “the eye of the storm,” an association I was nearly sure of, until I reached this line that made me absolutely certain:

Step outside – it’s summertime in bloom.

 

So outside we have summer, and inside — definitely a storm. The funny thing about storms, and the strange association here, is that the last thing you would expect from them is a “better place to stay.” If you could stay inside a storm, there’d really not be any need for hurricane warnings or storm shelters.

Finally, this is a sexually violent image, the “slipping inside” the eye of your mind, something of a non-consensual casual penetration that reminds one of storms and discourteous lovers. Again, one wants to hedge such interpretations, but this is an album titled after a euphemism for an erection, whose songs include “Cum on Feel the Noise”  and “Bonehead’s Bank Holiday.” So a tiny-bit rapey and stormy, this view of getting in touch with our better “I” is.

 

But violence, as every Israeli boy is told growing up, can be a very good thing. So, here, the storm does unleash freedom, a new sense of the mind – not the buddhist ideal of a calm, luxuriating mind. But a rock-and-roll, silly, to-hell-with-it-all, going -down- with-a-bang mind. A revolution from our bed:

 

So i’ll start a revolution from my bed

Cause you said the brains I had went to my head.

 

Open Parenthesis — I cannot love more the fact that the revolution line is borrowed (also from the Beatles), a silent nod to the emptiness of this line as a musical revolution. Put differently, if you thought the bed’s revolution was the song itself — a good way to start something so radical from a space so humble — the homage reminds you of how few such revolutions there are.

 

But again, we don’t need nods —  the song’s lines will magically confirm our interpretation; thus, later in the song:

 

Please don’t put your life in the hands

Of a rock and roll band

Who’ll throw it all away..

 

And the nod becomes a direct warning not to follow such false musical revolutionaries, whose revolution does not even consist of writing their own lines. Parenthesis closed.

 

Back to the wild violent mind. It’s often been a solution i’ve slipped into with my own ridiculous auto-abusive brains -nonsense. A place not so much to stay but to play. A place where language becomes silly and supple — where you can take an idiom and turn it into a wonderfully self-destructive line: “the brains I had went to my head.”  You can wrestle with the meaning, or force it into a simplistic “your cleverness makes you full of yourself,” but I think there’s a bigger point to experience, if not to understand, out of this line. The point that a literal reading makes the line absolutely absurd, much like the mind as a storm to stay in, and that it’s fun to think of brains going into one’s head, as if they had anywhere else to go. In a song that insists on the mind as a better storm  to visit, or sexually assault, there is great value in showing the brains’ absurdity. That’s the true revolution from your bed. Not a revolution of peace or love or sense — a revolution of nonsense. Fun times in a jumbled city of many senses, few combining well.

 

That’s where Sally comes in. I’m proud to say, I didn’t need Wikipedia to tell me (though I appreciated the fact-check) that Sally is a meaningless name happened upon in a rhyming storm-of-consciousness flurry. Her existence in the song is so otherwise detached from anything that the song said previously that she cannot work as an actual person. No one would be so insulted as to throw into a song so randomly.

 

Gorgeously, the word introducing Sally is the one word English has designed to represent both causal relations and arbitrary transitions — “so.”

 

“So sally can wait

She knows it’s too late

As she’s walking on by

My soul slides away

So don’t look back in anger

I heard you say.”

 

Why “so?” Because Sally is linked to the song only by absurdity, her logical association being that she’s as illogical as staying storms and brains going into heads. Her lines are playfully silly, a revolution away from any attempt at coherence — she can wait because she knows it’s too late, pretty much the only context in which no one waits. She waits while “walking on by,” again, joyfully ignoring the fact that you can’t wallk and wait at the same time, let alone walk by something (you better be going back and forth if you want to wait moving at all. Even then you’re likely to freak people out).

 

As an actual person, Sally is a fairly poor imitation of divinity. As a symbol of the mind’s stormy nonsense, and ways of enjoying its irrationality, she is perfect. Like a normal mind, she is storming and staying, walking by while waiting, for no particularly good reason. Likely, the soul “slides away” because slip-sliding away is what the mind does in this song, and most of this life. But if we wanted a more logical “so,” maybe it’s the sadness that we can’t be with Sally more — can’t enjoy the absurdity of our brainy heads more. I definitely don’t look back in anger at this song’s nonsense.

Culture vs. Solitude, Volume 2: Not as We

If you search for religious truth, you could do worse than seeking a pastor, Rabbi, monk, Imam, etc… If you search for pop culture’s truth, as this blog does, well – you cannot do better than to seek out the High Priestess of breakup songs, Alanis Morissette. Indeed, when the last blog ended on the unanswerable question – “where should we find an embrace of solitude when our culture is opposed to it on all sides?” I knew it was Alanis I would have to go and see, just as certainly as Dorothy did the Wizard, and with just as much hope of magical success.

 

Indeed, from the start the Sorceress of Solitude gave me an easy answer to pop culture’s criminal treatment of the socially inept. Thus spake our Queen, in direct defiance of social and song conventions:

 

Thank you loneliness,

Thank you frailty,

Thank you disillusionment.

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But easy answers are always suspicious, no matter who your priest is. In this case, as in most cases where one attacks truisms head-on, we end up with more reinforcement of the narrative. Yes, Loneliness is good, or at least something to be thanked for, but only insofar as all terrible things are worthwhile in this song. Thus, the one hit expressing gratitude for being alone, virtually equates the condition with its worst associations: nothingness, frailty, disillusionment. If my way of enjoying being alone involves enjoying my nothingness – well, this leaves something to be desired.

 

No, Culture is not to be beaten this way. Like any empire at the peak of its powers, any hit to Culture and its grand narratives must be made in stealth, apologetically, whilst wearing its uniform and speaking its code. Enter “Not as We,” a song that never pretends to do much violence to the story that, to quote the king of Latin Pop: “Nobody wants to be lonely. Nobody wants to cry.” Instead, it approaches you gingerly, head bowed, paying all due deference to the story, all the while whispering, half-coughingly — “psst, over here. Wanna have a different version of being alone? Follow me.”

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Naturally, stealth warfare will not take place by storming Pop Culture’s citadel, The Chorus. There, the main narrative is paid one of its most generous tributes:

 

Day one, day one

Start o-ver again

Step one , Step one

With not much making sense

Just yet

For now I’m faking it

Still i’m pseudo-making it

From scratch

Begin again,

But this time I as I – and not as we.

 

The “just yet” leaves a tiny bit of hope, but the pain separating the moaning O from the word “over” is patent. You could read “not as we” defiantly, independently, if you don’t listen to the voice at all. Alanis doesn’t read it this way. If the elongation of O-ver made the agony of breaking up audible, the elongation of “we” creates a dual attack on the isolated — the joyous “weeeeeee” sound accompanying the mournful undertone of the singing, crushing the singer from both sides, folding her loss into her past glory. Such is the suffering of being alone – it even makes the wee joys you once had mournful.

 

The city of the Chorus is safe, at least as far as this song is concerned. But the side streets are filled with gunfire and smoke. The song opens on a note my friend, who hates pop music, once called “practically Shakespearean.” The poetry is sharp, heroic, and more than a little archaic, avoiding the Grand Narrative, it seems, by avoiding its grammar:

 

Reborn, and shivering

Spat out on new terrain.

Unsure, unconvincing.

This feint and shaky hour.

 

“Unsure, unconvincing, Terrain, faint, shaky,”  all are words you would be hard pressed to find in another pop song, let alone a hit. Even “hour” is used here in a meaning it has not worn outside of high literature since the 19th century.

 

As for the grammar, it, like an epic poetic line, delays its subject to the very end of the stanza. In Homeric verse, it makes sense to delay the entrance of an heroic subject, as a type of preparatory work, as a symbol of the grandeur of the people and actions they create. In pop songs, you rarely delay the subject to the end of a line, let alone 4 of them. You cannot afford confusing your audience, and your subject matter is rarely meant to be so elevated as to merit delay. Put simply, whatever you sing about is just not royal enough for a Daenerys-like intro (the most diversely titled woman in television history).  

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But for Alanis, there is here something epic and heroic about being alone. It is a brilliant way of glorifying the despised state of solitude– not by claiming it has hidden pleasures and benefits. Rather, by admiring the epic nature of its struggles, the potential for greatness in enduring such misery. Being alone is terrible, to be sure – you’re “spat out on new terrain,” much like Milton’s Satan. But it is a chance to become a hero, battling the world’s worst evil, turning into a fully-fledged “I” from a fully-contented “we.” It is a chance to grow mythical, to rise from ashes and start cooking yourself “from scratch”.

 

So the grammar and the vocabulary are epic and archaic — and the values are, too. But they’re also deeply tragic, reminding us that the bards had few soft landings for their heroes. “Unsure, unconvincing” shows how little there is to rely on in the chaotic realm of the Alone. ‘Faint,’ as fabulous a word as it is here, still carries its more pedestrian meaning of that classically female trope – the fainting woman, a staple of many a literary pantry. Shaky and shivering, too, suggest a feminine fragility that only an imagination like Morissette’s would deem heroic. To build a heroine out of the ashes of a burnt ego is no easy feat.

 

Still, it leads to some of the best poetry Alanis has ever written. Thus, the next stanza ties the stereotypically female reaction to breakups with a stereotypically masculine reaction to battle:

 

Gun shy and quivering

Timid without a hand

Feign brave with steel intent

Little and hardly here

 

It takes a special kind of genius to bind the seemingly false, “feign brave, ” with the utterly heroic “steel intent.” It is as if we are witnessing the process of heroic rebirth from phrase to phrase, the “feign brave” turning into steely intent as quickly as “faking it” will turn into “pseudo-making it” in that docile chorus.

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Because there are so many homonyms and sound-plays in this song, I feel comfortable reading “little and hardly here” as “little and hardy here,” especially as it is following up on steel intent and the ‘d” sound is easily swallowed by the singing. With that echo, you get again this combination of weakness and power, loss and defiance, fragility and heroism. Little – and hardy.

 

But “hardly here” has its duality all on its own. Yes, Alanis is hardly here because she’s lost, because she’s every form of shaking and fainting and uncertainty. But she is also hardly here because she’s travelled beyond the constraints of social convention, she’s got a new terrain, her own river of fire, in which to forge her steel intent. She may be “timid without a hand” in the sense of losing control over her quivering body. But she may also, in this military context, be without a military “hand,” without a second, out on the battle field by her very lonesome, not even a tiny Tyrion by her side. That kind of condition, you need a bit more than feigned bravery to endure.

 

Yes, this quaking heroine is not the sexiest image a poet could imagine for those recently departed from.   But it is one of the strongest, the most heroic, and steely version you are likely to find by yourself. Next time I am dumped – and I am most confident in the probability of that event — I can only hope to face it with as much faux-bravery as Alanis does here.

Culture Vs. Solitude, Volume 1

Our culture does not like us to be alone. In movies, the saddest sequences are often solitary ones, whilst the happiest montages usually involve heavy smooching with the sexy likes of Johnny Depp or Scarlet Johansson. As far as stereotypes go, solitude enjoys a host of horribly unflattering ones, from the cat (or pigeon!) lady, through the old maiden, to the freak, the lone wolf (a terrorist, as of late!), and so on, and so forth. My favorite example is from Home Alone 2, a movie Franchise devoted to the dangers of even accidental loneliness:

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In pop music, there is a veritable cornocupia of songs about the misery of being alone. Particularly pathetic versions of this trend include:

 

“Lonely, I’m Mr. Lonely

I have nobody – to call on the phone!”

 

“All alone am I

Ever since your goodbye

All alone with just a bit of my heart.

 

People all around

But I don’t hear a sound

Just the lonely beating of my heart”  

 

“All by myself —

Don’t wanna be —

All by myself

Anymore”

 

“Such a lonely boy, couldn’t find a joy within.

Such a lonely girl, such a lonely world we’re living in.

I watch it all go by

Can’t find a tear to cry. “

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Then you have the top subgenre of breakup songs, the “How Do I Live without You” songs. A genre I named after the wonderfully curious chorus:

 

How do I live without you?

I want to know.

How do I live without you?

If you ever go.

How do I ever-  ever survive?

 

Amazing that such agonized questions occur without an actual breakup.  The specter of solitude looms so large, its mere anticipation nearly suffocates our singer.  Sadly, solitude is often imagined as a particularly cruel prison sentence:

 

“Spending my time,

Watching the days go by

Feeling so small

I stare at the wall

Hoping that you – think of me too. “

 

“Hey you

Out there on your own, feeling lonely, getting old

Can you touch me?…

Hey you, with your ear against the wall

Waiting for someone to call

Would you touch me?”

 

When a song  does seem to break through these walls of morbid loneliness, it still finds itself with staring down multiple anti-solitude barrels. Thus, when a cult of independence song like ”  I will Survivor” boasts that it can handle life on its own, the relationship-defying stance doesn’t last long:

 

Oh no , not I – I will survive

For as long as I know how  to love I know I’ll stay alive.

 

It’s almost tragic that a song realizes how much strength it takes to survive a breakup in this world (“it took all the strength I had not to fall apart… to mend the pieces of my broken heart”), yet concludes from this experience that “love” is all it needs. Lesson not quite learned.

 

The lesson of living alone is not learned by the song – and I doubt it is learned by us. I don’t know many people — and by many I mean any– who are happy alone. And why should we be? We are hardly ever allowed to entertain the notion, let alone encouraged.

 

Some religions will tout solitary practices — monastic Christianity and Buddhism come to mind — but then even those require communal life for their salvation. Monks are actually required to live and interact with their community regularly, and a society of believers (Sangha) is a tenet of every religious denomination I’ve ever encountered. I half-suspect Christianity has developed its notion of the trinity because it feared God’s divine loneliness.  

 

As for us Jews, we have Genesis 2:18 to contend with, we have prayer rules that require at least 10 participants, and others that involve women taking semi-public baths after having sex. Some would say this last rule is about suppressing female sexuality or regulating it — I think it’s about spreading the wealth, getting as many people as possible to participate in this mortal battle against loneliness.      

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As far as ideas go, religion generally has one main alternative — capitalism. Sadly for us lonely folk — commiserations to the few single people sharing this pain — we spend a lot less money if loneliness isn’t awful. There are industries we’re not even socially allowed to enjoy on our own:  movies, restaurants, sports events — all lose money when you don’t have someone to go with.

 

Then there are industries that depend on you needing to be with someone for their profit — the clothing industry, to me, is the biggest beneficiary. I own about 50 pieces of clothing more than I need, and I don’t even like clothes! But the idea of being seen by prospective buyers of my meek body in the same apparel is horrifying to me.

 

I can’t imagine what the case is for women, practically the only market for the Beauty Industry, and therefore the people most inundated with the message that they must not be alone. If a man is happy alone it’s quite costly. If a woman is happy alone, I fear it’s financially catastrophic.

 

So religion doesn’t like us being alone, and capitalism doesn’t like us being alone, and Pop Culture does its parents’ bidding. What hope is there for a remedy? That is a subject for another post.   

 

Femme Fatale, Part 2: She, You, Me

Pronouns are magically flexible creatures. Often, when we say “you” we really mean “I,” when we say “they” we mean “she,” and when we say “he” we might come full circle and mean “you.” Even in the  sentence above, the “we” may have been substituted with either an “I” or a “you” without much harm. Often, the result of this is confusion, and adorably repetitive sentences : “I don’t mean “you” you,”  “I wasn’t talking about “we” we” — “Yeah, them – but not “them” them.”

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Confusion, any English teacher might tell you, is quite productive. Pronouns, then, are usefully confusing. When you don’t know exactly where to position yourself, it’s fun to talk in general about a “you” that is really me, and a “she” that’s really a “you.” A great deal of beauty of Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman” is in these pronoun games.  

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The beginning of the song is a classical instance of the Femme Fatale. If you can locate a single song speaking of men killing with their smile, you are a better woman than I. Here she is, our sexy murderess:

 

She can kill with a smile

She can wound with her eyes

She can ruin your faith with her casual lies

But she only reveals what she wants you to see

 

So much to say here. The progression is intriguing to me, as this is a song of non-sequiturs, of lines that don’t quite follow logically the lines they follow chronologically. Usually, you kill with your eyes (“one look– could kill”) and a smile just serves to seduce a man into the deadly gaze. Here, it’s the reverse, as if saying — the mark of happiness and approval , the smile, is deadlier than the direct intimacy of eye-contact. All such archetypes are dangerous because they’re attractive — this woman is more dangerous  because she’s actually fond of her victims.

 

“Ruin your faith with her casual lies” is fantastic, particularly  in the contrast between how minor the man is to the Femme Fatale and how monumental she is to him. Not even serious, but merely “casual,” everyday lies will destroy the poor man’s entire belief system. Not his faith in her – his faith, period.

 

“She only reveals what she wants you to see” mixes the Goddess chary of her revelations with the coquette using the mysteries of her sex. At this point, this “she” is intriguing, but also frightening and, in all likelihood, evil.

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Enter the “me” and the entire tenor of the song shifts radically;

 

She hides like a child

But she’s always a woman to me.

 

Suddenly, the divine mysteries are a sign of vunerability, she “reveals what she wants you to see” not because you’re unworthy of her secrets, but because she’s scared of exposing herself, hiding like a child.

 

Yet more suddenly, there’s a “me”! For a while, we (that is, I) were under the impression that the “you” was a general you including the singer, if not solely him. Now, 6 lines in, it appears the “you” was a genuine second person , and the singer is a person opposed to the person we assumed he himself was? Too many pronouns here, but let’s think about this “me” for a moment.

 

The “me” only has one line: “she’s always a woman to me.” Seemingly, there is a declaration of true love here, of actually seeing the person through her facades and her cruelty and lies. She may hide like a child to you, the person who dies from her smiles and is destroyed by her lies — but to me, she is a woman – a fully-fledged person, not at all hidden.

 

This works with the first stanza, but gets derailed in the next few, where the posture of “always a woman” becomes more and more far-fetched:

 

“Yeah she steals like a thief

But she’s always a woman to me”

 

“The worst she will do is throw shadows at you

But she’s always a woman to me”

 

“But she brings out the best and the worst you will be

Blame it all on yourself cause she’s always a woman to me”

 

You could say, if you wanted to, that to the true lover stealing like a thief is of no consequences, since he sees nothing but a pure femininity (whatever that is). But what of those other lines? They seem to be less and less in keeping with the rest of the song. The worst she will do is decisively worse than throwing shadows – she ruins his faith with her casual lies, or at least she might. Nor can it be entirelty the “your” fault as the “blame” line suggests, since she may well wound, kill, lie to, steal from, and ruin our poor “you”, all in the space of a very short song.  Oh, and I forgot this tiny line: “she’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleeding.” Other than that, though – just shadows, really.

 

In the context of our deadly woman, it seems to me the eponymous line is at best naive, at worse delusional. I have no doubt people hear this song as a straightforward love song, that they casually glance over the seeming discrepancies in the name of this unconditional ‘always a woman to me’ sentiment, with its associations of charm and beauty and all other things forever feminine.  It’s easy to forget the violence in a sentimental haze.

 

I hear it as unintentionally self-critical. The “you” was left hanging as an “I” for just long enough to make us  realize there isn’t all that much difference between the two men. There is a beautiful reading of this song – beautiful because kind — as exposing the falsehood in the Femme Fatale myth, showing that men are destroyed through no fault of their own, that a real man sees the Woman rather than the deadly Goddess in his lover. It’s a beautiful take, but it doesn’t sit with me. Becuase the contradictions between what Medusa does to her one lover and how she seems to Billy’s Joel’s character are too irreconcilable to be believed. The chorus, too, doesn’t help us see the Woman through the Gorgon:

 

Oh, she takes care of herself….

And she nevers gives outs,

And she never gives in,

She just changes her mind.

 

This sounds like a woman who is more “suddenly cruel” than she is “frequently kind,” self-absorbed and indifferrent to other people’s fate. To say “she’s always a woman” isn’t showing that underneath The Femme Fatale is but a wounded child. No, it shows that she will always have more victims, more men who will imagine she’s actually “always a woman” despite all her violence and indifference.

 

This song is a horrible before and after picture, of the “me” before it becomes a “you,” bleeding, embezzled, discarded, faithless. Let’s try not to associate such a relationship with being a woman, Billy. 

Femme Fatale, Chapter One: Poison

When I was growing up, my favorite video-game had one female arch-nemesis,  a massively-breasted demon breathing poison on you, as if from inside her cleavage death would must come. That game had many evil women besides, all of whom were barely clothed and of a size to please many a magazine editor. It took me a good couple of decades and a PhD to realise this might, somehow, demonize female sexuality.

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Today’s post will be dedicated to the archetype of women deadly in their sexiness, the Femme Fatale, whose danger one might deduce from their French name , as the Anglophone world loves villainizing the French.

 

 

Like most ideas concerning female sexuality, this one is a very uncomfortable one these days, and was pretty comfortable, nearly ubiquitous, in 90’s Israeli culture and American Rom-Coms. The high-school romantic comedy often featured a cool, sexy love interest who was plainly evil  and whose particular brand of manipulation and harm was well-suited to taking her clothes off. Sarah Michelle Gellar, whom history in its irony made famous for being a vampire slayer, was much closer to being a soul-sucking vampiress in Cruel Intentions and Harvard Man. She’s All That, Drive me Crazy, Never Been Kissed — all had  overtly sexual female antagonists attempt to destroy our mildly erotic protagonists.  When a rom-com like the immortal 10 Things I Hate about You seemingly reverses course, it ends up affirming the type more than divorcing from it: Julia Styles starts out with a reputation for being  a sexually promiscuous and hateful woman, but as the film progresses, we learn she’s neither of those things, her sexuality ‘purifying’ as her inner character is revealed and softened. If the Femme Fatale’s link between terrible and sex-absorbed women has weakened, her obverse, the Good Girl, virginal and beyond reproach, will reign for another 1000 years, it seems.

 

The idea behind the Femme Fatale is morally dubious, if not outright oppressive. But the songs devoted to the type — Homer’s Odyssey included — are often beautiful all the same.  Consider Alice Cooper’s best song, Poison:

 

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Your cruel – device

Your blood – like ice

One look – could kill

My pain – your thrill

Feels almost like an Emily Dickinson poem, this start. Common punctuation would use commas for dashes, but  they would miss the choppiness of the singing, the dash-ing pauses between half-sentence fragments. More writers should try to write more like this from time to time — to forego full sentences and seeming articulate for the sake of delivering a punch. Cooper’s style here makes you feel like he’s lost his intellectual faculties altogether in the lust for our Femme Fatale, the shredded grammar showing you the damage the poisonous woman even before the lyrics do.  What is “your cruel device”? What is it doing? What it’s already done, preventing us from constructing a single full thought.

 

But it’s not just the Femme Fatale’s debilitating sex that makes these sentences break down. It’s also their intensity. “Your blood is like ice” would be too well-argued, too common a sentiment to justify a hit song, to me. “Your blood – like ice” sounds like the last gasp of a man soon to be Meduza-ed out of existence, freezing in the moment he touches his fatal attraction. It has all the viscerality of a groan, none of the intellect of a simile.

 

The same goes for the equation – “my pain” = your thrill. Not having the energy to connect those two points grammatically  (with an “is”) makes the sadistic situation all the more intense. What’s more, it gives you a palpable sense of the storm a bewitched man experiences in encountering the Femme Fatale, his thoughts switching between his experience and hers without  skipping a beat, his mind all-but taken over by hers.

 

The next few verses are a masterpiece of tying sexuality to evil:

 

Your mouth – so hot

Your web – I’m caught

Your skin – so wet

Black lace – on sweat.

 

These simple broken statements are both sexy and horrible; her mouth is “so hot” because she’s attractive, and because her “lips are venomous poison,” and she herself is “burning through [his] veins.” Her skin is wet because she’s aroused, but also because her Ice-blood is her cruel device. The black lace is, well, black lace — but it also has connotations of death and black widows. Are they sweating because they’re making love, or because she’s torturing him? What’s the difference?

 

There isn’t much difference , and this creates the contradiction at the heart of the Femme Fatale Archetype. The adjective — fatale, fatal — is a perpetual effort to resist the lust for the noun —  Femme, Woman, arguably western culture’s epitome of desire.

 

In this song, the contradiction creates the most basic form of contradiction grammar allows, “Yes, But”–  as if the song is reluctant to opt for complex sentences even when the emotion is complex:

 

I wanna love you but I better not touch

 

I wanna hold you but my senses tell me to stop

I wanna kiss you but I want it too much

I wanna taste you but your lips are venomous poison.

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Desire – but danger. This is the conundrum for male desire which the type creates. The song ends with squeals of “poison” alongside willing surrender: “I don’t wanna break these chains.” If female sexuality is inherently bad, as culture often tells us, then male sexuality becomes inherently conflicted. We’re rarely “sluts” or “bitches” and never fatal in our sexiness (such as it is), but we do want to have sex with the very women we are told are evil for wanting sex. Oppress female sexuality for long enough, well enough, and male (hetero)sexuality becomes a thing of confusion. We ultimately don’t want to break these chains.    

Losers, Part 2: So Fucking Special

 

Losers love differently. There’s a shyness and pent up hostility to liking someone while disliking yourself. They’re more idyllic through the contrast, but also more exasperating and unavailable. The lover is always “so fucking special,” the “fucking” perfectly capturing the envy and anger the Insecure feel towards the Beautiful. It’s part of what makes Radiohead’s “Creep” the greatest loser song of all time. It doesn’t hide the pain or sadness a Weirdo feels in love. It embraces it.

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The lyrics are more fucking special than they might at first appear. Consider the simple opening lines:

 

When you were here before

Couldn’t look you in the eye

You’re just like an angel

Your skin makes me cry.

 

You could not find a more common expression for love and admiration than calling your loved one “an angel.” But you also could not find a more unusual treatment of that worn-out metaphor. She’s like an angel not because she’s so beautiful and perfect, here, it’s because he’s terrified of her divinity, and can’t “look her in the eye” as he couldn’t a deity. Weirder, the ethereal metaphor instantly gives way to a lustful sadness, a special combination specially preserved for losers: angels don’t have skins, and metaphorical angels’ skins shouldn’t make you cry. But to desire anyone who is so far above you is ever an agonizing affair. Sadder still,  by definition all those the loser can love will share this angelical superiority over him — he’s a loser, after all.

 

The pain continues apace:

 

You float like a feather

In a beautiful world

I wish I was special

You’re so fucking special.

 

And the ‘fucking’ fucking alliterates with the “floating feather”, tying the loser’s knot between affection and rage. It’s interesting, I only remembered the ‘special’ line in the reverse order it appears later, where it sounds like he wants to be special because she’s special and he wants to be with her. But in this order, you hear the envy more clearly, the fact that he wants to be special regardless of wanting to be with The Special. It’s not that he can’t be with her because he can’t be as special. It’s that he can’t be special because he can’t be her.

 

This is another dubious privilege of loving as a loser. Most people would want to be with their loved ones – the Loser wants to become their loved one. It’s the clearest path to self-realisation when your own failed self isn’t worth much realising.

 

If this sounds a bit violent, it’s because it is. The chorus feels particularly apt in articulating the pain of this loving feeling:

 

But I’m a creep

I’m a weirdo

What the hell am I doing here?

I don’t belong here.

 

It’s almost drunk, this sense of disorientation, of “what the hell am I doing here?” that the experience creates. ‘Here’ near an angel? Here in love? Here in life? The true loser is confused by all these possibilities, and belongs in none of them. I love that the music  almost drowns out the singer in this chorus, as if the voice of the loser does not even belong in his own song. Thom Yorke does his best to sing unnoticeably, even in the chorus.

 

My favorite line of this song has walked on by me like a Dionne Worwick hit.  It is, like the loser who sings it, misleadingly unworthy of being a favorite:

 

I want you to notice when I’m not around

 

Think about this for a moment. We all like being noticed, when we are around. What good does it do you to be noticed in absentia? In a romantic context, this borders on the absurd. Missing someone surely has to follow on liking them to begin with, but here there is no sense that we even talked to our lover, and we’re already expecting to be noticed when we’re gone?  Yorke might have wanted to make eye contact first.

 

There are a couple of things this amazing line shows me. One, the unrealistic nature of love in Loserdom. If you don’t belong anywhere, or with anyone, it becomes hard to imagine being with anyone. This, in turn, leads to a paradox – since you can’t realistically expect someone to love you, you can unrealistically expect much more ; all romantic reciprocity as a loser is already a fantasy bordering on the magical, so you might as well picture a world where a girl who doesn’t know you exist misses you when you’re gone.

 

But there is a subtle, more pathetic meaning to this line which I like better — because I love pathetic readings as I love pathetic beings, and being pathetic. He wants her to notice him when he’s not around — because noticing him when he is around would not be in his favor! You may want to be noticed as a person, but for the loser the ideal meeting between him and his lover’s attention is when he’s not there. This is partly why you avert your eyes as a loser — making direct contact would be counter-productive. Best you can hope for is being noticed when you’re not there to spoil the noticing.

 

It’s a sad state of being, and a scary one, in this song, as well. Just when the singing seems to invite pity and a comaraderie of the failing, you have a bridge that momentarily turns this song into a psychotic thriller soundtrack. After so much mildness, it is genuinely creepy to hear Yorke scream, on a new key clearly beyond his voice’s range:

 

She’s running out (again)

She’s  running

Run- run- run – run.

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It turns “notice when I’m not around” into something almost stalkery, this wicked bridge. I hate it, because it shifts the song’s whole mood from sour to threatening, from frustrated and angry to murderous. It also makes “floating like a feather” a particularly slow metaphor for the soon-to-be-hunted, like our lover’s beauty is being used against her. There is easily a reading of the song where this is a chase-scene, and the last few lines are spoken to the lover in captivity:

 

Whatever makes you happy

Whatever you want.

 

These are disturbing after we’ve forced a feathery being to run, run, run. I love the loser’s potential for idealisation and his sense of inevitable unworthiness — a sense we all have from time to time, especially in love. I don’t love how easy it is for idealising someone to turn into rage towards them. Losers do Love best when their loathing is turned inwards.