Happy Halloween, everyone! In honor of the holiday, allow me to present to you my new single, the cover art for which is a picture of me age elevenish, dressed in a DIY witch outfit. I still make that face to this day.
"Surrender Dorothy" is really the heart of this album. I wrote this song upon realizing something kind of bizarre about my childhood. See, I was a theater kid. Of course I was a theater kid, look at me. I did fairly well for myself role-wise, usually getting cast as whatever the antagonist character was in that particular play (this is the same girl who grew up to name her band "vs The Many", so there you go). In traditional musicals, female villains are frequently vamps/sexpots. However, the very qualities I had that made me perfect for these roles (low voice, big ass, affinity for wild gesticulation) also made me completely unattractive to teenage boys. The upshot of this is that I spent much of my teen years having middle aged theater teachers tell me to "be sexier" when I'd never kissed a dude. My first kiss was a stage kiss, as Petra in A Little Night Music at age seventeen, with the 22 year old college student playing Frid.
It's a bit of a mind fuck, honestly. I learned to be a caricature of sexiness without ever having a chance to learn about sexuality. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful that I was able to perform so frequently in my teens. I'm certainly not blaming anyone for these circumstances, and I'm not angry about it, but that juxtaposition was a really important part of making me the person I am today. Namely, a loud, brash, gutter-minded mezzo who can't flirt. Like at all. Like not even a little bit.
The song also expresses my feelings about the whole Madonna/Whore dichotomy that still exists in pop culture. The biggest issue I find with this trope is that it defines women solely by how they fit into men's lives, which happens in real life more often than I think we'd like to admit. I've been involved with a few too many men who seem to see me as a prop for their story arc (see the rest of my catalog). But I'm not a character in some bro's novella*. I'm not a manic pixie dream girl, or an ingenue, or a hooker with a heart of gold. I'm a fucking person, and I am a fucking person even when I'm not fucking someone else.
"Surrender Dorothy" repeatedly asks the question "where do the funny ones go?" If I ever figure that out I'll let you know.
"Hotel Empire" is meant to be the turning point of the album, arc wise. The songs that come before it are women trying unsuccessfully to be good, and the songs that follow are women trying unsuccessfully to be bad. I had originally intended there to be another song called "Final Girl" that would bridge these two mindsets, but it was going to compare losing one's virginity to the final showdown of a horror movie and to be perfectly honest my first time wasn't that interesting.
"Hotel Empire" is inspired by Hitchcock, specifically Vertigo. It's a retelling of the film's plot line from the heroine's point of view with a few very large artistic liberties. A significant amount of my own experience is woven into the lyrics; this song serves as the conclusion of a relationship that winds through all of my albums thus far. Wanna hear a tiny musical? It goes Muse/Poor Leander/True Believers/Lady Of The Court/Hideous Adorable/Better Off My Way and this one.
Roughly, the story of Vertigo concerns a man (Jimmy Stewart, in peak Jimmy Stewart mode) who falls in love with a woman who dies halfway through the film. He spends the second half trying to turn a different woman into the love he lost, only to discover that they were the same woman all along. She sincerely loves him, but their whole relationship was an elaborate set up. This...did not happen to me. However, it did resonate with me in that I was once a woman who allowed her life to be dictated by the feelings of men. The repeated refrain of "go on, go on, I said I'm fine" is the mantra of so many women who are told again and again that to feel is wrong, to stand up for yourself is aggressive, and to raise your voice even slightly is "crazy".
My friend Jenny, who is very wise, once told me that "girls are crazy, but it's not our fault". Now don't get me wrong, I've heard plenty of stories of women doing some really fucked up shit to their boyfriends. But I think it's important to note that a lot of women are driven "crazy" by the fact that we're told constantly that our feelings don't matter or aren't real. We squash our thoughts and opinions down for as long as we can, playing the Good Girl until eventually, inevitably, we snap.
I didn't snap quite as bad as the character in the song. In the movie Jimmy Stewart's character chases his girlfriend to the top of a bell tower where she falls to her death, in my version she drags him down with her. When I snapped, I drunkenly told a young man who I had loved for many years that I "didn't even recognize" him anymore. I had swallowed my feelings for and about him for years, foolishly believing that keeping him in my life was worth the pain he caused me. He blustered away in a rage, leaving me to weep on the street for hours over everything I thought I had lost. I didn't contact him again after that. I have run into him at a few parties, and each time he looks panicked at the sight of me, as if he fears I might harm him. I'm confident that he tells his friends I am crazy.
Go on. I said I'm fine.
This song was inspired by documentaries, which makes sense as it's the most autobiographical track on the album. I wanted it to sound like it could be on the soundtrack for the Ken Burns miniseries The Civil War, which I watched with my parents as a kid. It's a song about America, and family, and grief, and the reference felt appropriate.
The lyrics are both a narration of a trip my younger sister and I took to the National Mall and a musing on my parents' divorce. My parents split up when I was 27, and it's strange when your family breaks apart after you're already grown. I didn't feel affected by it at first, or maybe it was that as an adult I didn't feel that I was allowed to be affected.
Each verse is about a different monument: first the Lincoln Memorial, then the Vietnam Wall, and then the White House. As my sister and I walked through the park, we realized that although our mother comes from a military family (her grandfather, father, and brother all fought overseas in various wars), we knew almost nothing about their service. I felt detached from my personal history, and adrift among the pieces of what used to be my nuclear family. I see that sense of detachment in the relationships I make now - I don't trust people to tell me the truth, and I never expect them to stay.
The title comes from a photographic/film technique that emphasizes the contrast between light and shadow. It's a reference both to the effect of the national mall after dark and the fact that try as I might, I can not divide my personal history into good and bad, black and white.
This one is my mother's favorite.
"The Auteur" is a Rom-Com. And not an especially good one, either. This isn't a Grant/Hepburn venture. It's not even a Hanks/Ryan venture. This is one of those trope-infested, endlessly predictable, cookie-cutter stories that were all too prevalent in the mid-2000s. I'd mostly stopped watching Rom-Coms by the end of the 90s, which might be why I launched myself headlong into a series of ill-advised life choices. If I'd watched more shitty movies, I would have been warned.
Our story begins with banter. The opening line is one of my favorite things that I've ever written - it combines a backhanded compliment with a challenge to a duel, which is as good a summation of this particular relationship as any. The leading man in question and I sniped at each other and traded barbs for years, while a procession of Totally Wrong For Him women stood off to the side, waiting for the war to end. In a true romantic comedy he eventually would have realized that I was the girl for him all along. Spoiler alert: I was not.
He would have been terrible for me too, of course. I stayed in this situation a lot longer than I should have, which is strange considering the story arch of the song it inspired. We never actually dated, but in "The Auteur" the pair couple off and instantly begin making each other miserable. The "right" girl becomes a carbon copy of the "wrong" girl, and the story begins again. The whole song revolves around the age old mantra "if they cheat with you, they'll cheat on you." I knew this story was going to end badly, so much so that I couldn't even imagine a happy ending for this song.
For more on the actual ending of this story, tune in for track nine.
This song started out about one person, and ended up being about someone completely different. Sometimes I'll have a lyric hanging around unused for years, and then I'll meet someone who just happens to fit the sentiment perfectly. In this case, it was "weary traveler ease your mind, I am not your siren/take heart - you survive this crash." When I first wrote that lyric it meant "I'm not going to hurt you." It eventually came to mean "you'll move on from this as if nothing happened."
The film pairing for this song is a period drama - think Merchant Ivory, or if you're a TV person, Downton Abbey. It's the story of a night out in Brooklyn with a man who was about to leave town forever, who (unbeknownst to me) had another woman waiting for him at home. I cringe when I think about how wrapped up I was in this one event. It seems so small and insignificant now, but at the time the romance of it felt urgent and enormous. The actual event was played out by drunk, insecure twenty-somethings, but this kind of story is timeless. I wanted to give it an update. And some neuroses.
When I think about these period romance dramas, I always imagine one of history's great cliches: one partner standing on the platform, the other waving sadly as the train pulls away, parting them forever. After staying out until dawn, annoying several bartenders, and slow dancing without music in a subway station, the subject of this song and I caught an F train back into Manhattan. He fell asleep, and I woke him just before his stop. He said goodbye, left the train, and walked away. The doors closed, and just as the train started to move he jumped back into the window, waving goodbye a second time.
I never saw him again.