Thursday, June 05, 2014

I am an agglomeration of all my embarrassing former selves, and other thoughts on Natalie Merchant

In my misguided yoof, I was, for a time, Natalie Merchant's #1 fangirl. The thing is, I realized around this time that I possessed an exquisite and probing sensitivity, a really poetic soul. However, no one but me seemed to be aware of this facet of my being, which was, as you might imagine, quite frustrating to me. In order to remedy this widespread ignorance, I entered on a very Lilith Fair-y phase, one which coincided with my tenure on the staff of my high school's poetry magazine, my acquisition of puffy peasant blouses, my burning of candles and incense in my room, and also - if you wish to date this precisely - the actual existence of Lilith Fair, which I never attended but sincerely wished to. I cultivated a persona of perpetual moodiness and angst to indicate the sensitivity within. The goal was perhaps something like the 1990s rendition of Slyvia Plath, whom I also read during this time, found deified online by the adolescent girl bloggers of America, and maybe mistook for myself.

In any case, for the purpose of becoming '90s Sylvia Plath, Natalie Merchant's then newly-released album Ophelia was an ideal muse. Of course, for the purposes of stoking and expressing one's own girl-angst by listening to other people's music, nothing could really top Alanis Morissette's epic Jagged Little Pill, but Ophelia appeals more to the points along the melancholic/longing end of the girl-angst spectrum than the angry/vengeful side, which Morissette so fully captured. Ophelia was all about the bleak hopelessness of my suburban middle schooler existence, the way it was just like living in a gutter, cold and friendless, with roaches nibbling at your toes. (Such were the lofty and not wholly congruous sentiments also conveyed by my very excellent and sensitive poetry.) Consider, for example, these for-real lyrics to one of the songs, "Break Your Heart":
People downcast, in despair
See the disillusion everywhere
Hoping that their luck will change
Gets a little harder every day

People struggle, people fight
For the simple pleasures in their lives
But trouble comes from everywhere
It's a little more than you can bear
It wasn't really more than I could bear, because the whole despairing teenage poet persona requires you to revel in despair, which promises to be your vehicle to acclaim. But it might've been more than Natalie Merchant could bear, because a lot of the songs sort of dissolved into sad oooohing by the end, and she didn't put out another album until I was almost in college. (I recall this specifically because I triumphantly obtained the album poster for my dorm room by asking the guy at the music store how much it cost when it was hanging on his wall, and he replied, "That album was so terrible; why don't you just take it for free?" The kindness of strangers!) That next album was equally full of sads, and after that, nothing more. (Although she did make a nice compilation of children's folk songs at some point in-between.) Until now! But more on that later.

Being Natalie Merchant's #1 fangirl consisted of the usual fandom activities - scrupulous collection of all her music and obsessive attention to her life, intensive participation in online fan message boards full of flat-out loons (and one other fangirl with whom I stayed internet-friends and whose life has since unfolded along an uncannily similar trajectory to my own), and, once, submission to an essay contest that she held from which I won something like $200 (but not first place) in what seemed to be Merchant's personal funds, at least judging by the form of the check I received.

However, problems with Natalie Merchant fangirldom began when, after a couple years of intensive playing-on-repeat, I began to wonder if her repertoire wasn't a little...tedious? In a single 10,000 Maniacs album, for example, the following Serious Political Issues are explored in song, one per issue: child abuse, depression, illiteracy, alcoholism and domestic violence (a two-fer!), the prospects for world peace, the predations of capitalism, and a metaphor for what seems like poverty and homelessness in Los Angeles. There were only 11 tracks on this album, so that leaves a paltry four songs devoted to something other than consciousness-raising. The good news is that those four songs are pretty good. But good luck finding them in this peripatetic constellation of political causes. Taken together, Natalie Merchant's group and solo albums will one day serve as a comprehensive historical index of every American liberal cause celebre, 1980-2001. The only significant item missing is the rage for saving the whales, a desire which I guess was just too hard to put into song.

What really defeated Natalie Merchant however was that, one day, I woke up and realized that I was constitutionally incapable of exquisite sensitivity, my poetry was profound only in the sense of being profoundly bad, and peasant blouses, like all tent-shaped apparel, did not flatter my figure. Another phase, this one featuring Rufus Wainwright fandom, devoted reading of David Sedaris, and the collection of Converse sneakers was then inaugurated, in an effort to cultivate a new and marginally more plausible persona of sardonic irony. Then the intellectual demands of college diverted all the energy I'd previously devoted to cultivating personas into trying not to fail Greek. (Given how directly Natalie Merchant spoke to my mostly-manufactured girl-angst though, I must admit to some curiosity about what she ever did for Ross Douthat and Ari.)

Nonetheless, I never actually stopped listening to Natalie Merchant, though I did stop repeat-playing her and carrying on a shadow social life on fangirl message boards. I still have nearly all her albums in my rotation, even the really terrible ones recorded before she figured out how to enunciate words, at a time when the synthesizer was still classed among legitimate musical instruments. Even though recollection of my #1 fangirldom can now reliably induce full-body cringing and the songs are about - sigh - nuclear war, I still dig them. I can't defend what is good about Natalie Merchant or any angsty girl folk music anymore, but I also can't discard it from my music-listening life. This is true of pretty much all the music, tv shows, books that I ever loved in the past, no matter how complete my rational conviction of their badness now is. I'm fairly certain that I'm not being pulled in by the nostalgic association of this stuff with the good feels they initially produced. Maybe the thing is just that I never, upon reconsideration, discovered any of this stuff to be evil, only banal. So then Hannah Arendt was wrong after all.

So anyway, Natalie Merchant has a new album out now, and I listened to the excerpts, and it's just good enough in the way Tigerlily and Ophelia were good-but-actually-bad to maybe buy for old banal time's sake.


abrahamandsarah said...

I remember being quite fond of the 10,000 Maniacs album 'In My Tribe', but I preferred the Cranberries, who might've been outside the Lilith Fair fold.

Miss Self-Important said...

In My Tribe would be the one whose tracks are the list of causes above. The Cranberries had the right sound, but I think lacked the issue-grinding perseverance of the Lilith set, plus I don't recall that Lilith had bands, but maybe I misremember.

abrahamandsarah said...

Wasn't 'Zombie' about a cause? Northern Ireland maybe?

Other than the song about abusing children, it never occurred to me that the 10,000 Maniacs were actually singing about anything. I guess I didn't pay attention to the lyrics.

My favorite Lilith Fairish song is Sarah McLachlan's 'Sweet Surrender'. I have no idea what it's about, but it sounds vaguely religious.

Miss Self-Important said...

Not paying attention to the lyrics is a concept I do not understand. I mean, they're talking to you. When you want to sing along, you have to sing the lyrics. But however you managed this feat, you overlooked a whole lot of issue-grinding.

Sarah McLachlan also good, songs all about sad feels. Tori Amos even more so, but I never liked her. Probably for the best, since the poetry magazine girls who did like her at the time are still wearing peasant blouses and writing crap poetry.

Ari N. Schulman said...

I'm always late to your comment threads. Alas.

I came here hoping for your usual genius deconstruction or (occasional) explanation of things -- in this case, why Natalie Merchant is so great -- but, alas again, you seem to like her not just independent of but opposed to reason. Although I've also never seen writing that comes even close to capturing the experience of music. I have a longstanding detestation of music reviews for how well they succeed in doing just the opposite, pretending to encapsulate it in some hollowed out form. They seem to think the experience of music is about precisely describing what other music it sounds like. Blech.

Anyway, I don't have much of an account of Natalie Merchant, either. I wasn't a fanboy in the way you were, and I've found her albums besides Ophelia mostly to be just boring. But Ophelia I've always found achingly gorgeous, I guess for similar reasons to you. It captures a feeling of melancholy, of yearning for something not even quite known, of the hope and loss that surrounds that. It feels like winter, in ways good and bad, and for various reasons I always find myself listening to it a lot around Christmastime, especially the time after Christmas, before work/school/real life starts up again.

Someone close to me once said of a certain song (not by NM) that she wanted life to feel like that song did. That's the closest I've ever heard anyone come to articulating that feeling of music at its best, and there's much music about which I feel that way -- not all of it melancholy, mind you, but Ophelia among it. That may not speak well of me, since, as you indicate, its sense of brooding and angst might best be rejected as self-indulgent, or self-creating. This would seem backed by the fact that I too did more than my share of brooding/angst in high school, and probably still now. Regardless, the album speaks to me as much as it ever did, and I wish she'd make more like it.

Miss Self-Important said...

No, I have no account of why it's good. Music is alogon to me, so I focus mainly on lyrics where questions of quality arise. And it's hard to say that Mercant's lyrics, even after her 10,000 Maniacs concern-trolling period, are really much more than maudlin. It is weird to think that (some) teenage boys across America were also curled up in their rooms, marinating in puddles of their own melancholic angst in high school.

Ari N. Schulman said...

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

Miss Self-Important said...

Pshh! That wasn't even sad! It was downright peppy compared to Merchant.

Ari N. Schulman said...

True, though I still don't think NM is straightforwardly melancholic, at least not most of her songs. For that, there's Trespassers William, Mazzy Star, Elliott Smith, Bon Iver, Beck's Sea Change, etc.