(3) Tori Amos, "Silent All These Years"
Analysis by Alison Stine
This was the year Perot ran but Clinton won and I got a C in Spanish, which was a gift, and my sister and I saw the redheaded woman on television. The video stood out from all the others because it was mostly white, a blank space, bright as fresh paint, and overexposed so the woman, pale, twirling through the video and walking and holding a dress up like evidence, seemed to have no pores, barely a face. Her hair stood out, flaming and unfixed.
Understand: It was 1992, and in Mansfield Ohio—voted, just years later, the worst city in America to raise children—my economics teacher used racial slurs in class; my male friend, sick with Lyme disease, had been expelled for wearing a skirt; my closest relative had died of a “blood disease.” Color Me Badd ruled the radio. Kids went to Deckers after school for Big League. Tori Amos was the most counterculture person I had ever seen.
She was a woman who didn’t look like other women. She was grown up and also a child. Shoeless, braless, wearing a chiffon blue top I would try to find in thrift shops for years, and gauzy shorts that might have been pajamas or a rag. What kind of woman did not brush her hair. One who has shit to do. And she sang, she opened her mouth, which other women didn’t do. Her voice was high like mine, but filtered through weed or magic. She stared. She didn’t seem to blink. She sang of a trash kingdom: garbage trucks, ugly dresses, paper cups, crazy relatives, biting dogs, blood—these were the materials of our lives. But she sang of them smiling.
How could she walk in those heels. Was that honey or was that glass. I called for my sister. The lady in the box is on. Like Kate Bush who came before her—but who would not come for years for me—Tori somersaulted in a packing box. Then broke out.
My sister and I watched MTV like prison guards for our own break. When it came on, rarely, maybe once or twice in the after school slot, we would scream for each other to come. Come. Come. Poppy tottered by. She would have her own song (I know your mother is a good one).
“Silent All These Years” is mostly about other people speaking, being drowned out by them. I can hear you, Tori sings slowly, drawing the words out, like I KNOW, I heard you the first 15 times. The last chorus is doubled. She’s her own backup, singing up an octave, maybe from the future. She finds her voice inside her voice, the grown woman waiting there in the girl, as she was in me, and I didn’t even know. Tori would say in interviews, years later, something along the lines of: “I can’t write 'Silent All These Years' again. Because I’m not silent.”
I wore the baggiest clothes I could find. I believed my body was an illness. More than anything I dreaded gym class. We were having an archery unit; left mostly unattended, a boy who had figured out about my hearing loss would stand so close to me I could feel his heat, and whisper terrible things. The arrow trembled. Tori had a strangeness that I craved, and a confidence that I could not understand, being a mermaid in boy’s jeans. I did not want boys. I wanted to be rid of them. I wanted to be safe. I wanted to be screaming. I wanted to be a mermaid. I wanted to be free. How did I forget that, but I did.
Years go by. I am the wife in the corner. I am the mother with no ring. I am the woman with the wild hair. I am coming to save me. I am the one who makes the bulls eye despite the boy hissing in my one good ear. At last the arrow sings. And I’ve been here, all these years.
Alison Stine is the author of 4 books, most recently Supervision (HarperVoyager UK, 2015).
(1) The Cure, “Pictures of You”
Analysis by Kathleen Rooney
This song invites the perverse move of taking a pejorative term and reclaiming it as praise. (See Dan Fox’s book-length essay Pretentiousness: Why It Matters for a compelling example of this technique.) The word that Robert Smith and company invite the reclamation of is “melodramatic.” Because “Pictures of You” is a melodramatic song, and its colossal powers of shimmery yearning and sadness arise because and not in spite of that fact.
Etymologize and define for a moment, and you’ll find that the word originates from the Greek melos, meaning song (as in “melody”), and the French drame, meaning drama, and that it’s typically used to indicate a work in which the plot—sensational and intended to appeal strongly to the emotions—takes precedence over detailed characterization, sometimes to the extent that the characters may appear as stereotypes. Certainly, to label something melodramatic is to suggest that the work lacks subtlety.
But sometimes a feeling calls for a sledgehammer and not a scalpel. The nostalgia and bereavement of the scenario in the song—looking at old photographs of a long-lost lover—are antonymic to subtle: they are forthright, blunt, and over the top.
Are any phrases in the English language more melodramatic than “There was nothing in the world that I ever wanted more?” Maybe some phrases are equal in their melodrama, but I’m willing to bet that none surpass it. For instance, equal—and in the same song—may be the exaggeratedly regretful sentence-starter: “If only I’d thought of the right words…”
The song is an unapologetic monument of Goth excess, not just in the iridescent production but in the lyrics as well. The disproportionateness of the assertion that, “You were bigger and brighter and wider than snow”—wider! Than snow!—is captivating. Ditto the chilly and synthetic pleasure of, “You were stone white so delicate lost in the cold.”
To be Goth, yes, is to engage, as the definition of melodrama asserts, in a kind of stereotype, but it’s a stereotype that offers a necessary and maybe even rescuing alternative to an oppressive norm. I was never Goth myself, but whenever I hear the Cure, I hear my college friend Harriet quoting her mom who always said—if, for example, Harriet lamented not being thin or tan or straight-haired or standard—that it was better to be “pale and interesting.” The Cure’s entire existence argues in favor of pale and interesting, and “Pictures of You” makes being “always so lost in the dark” sound irresistible.
Another reason to take back “melodramatic” would seem to be all the gendered freight that its negativity carries. Critics historically have used—and continue to use—the word to describe pathos-soaked works of romance intended to appeal to a feminine audience. Think the moving lushness of Douglas Sirk’s so-called “weepies,” or the sublime soap operatic raptures of Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (a film which itself makes commanding use of old photographs). “Pictures of You” is not afraid to explore its emotional crescendos from the soft—“remembering you standing quiet in the rain”—to the screaming—“we kissed as the sky fell in.” And that is what makes its sadness so exquisite.
Also, while we’re on the subject of Old Hollywood and the glamour of sadness: Robert Smith's makeup! His red lips! Glamorama. Rarely has melodramatic sadness looked and sounded so bittersweet, so pretty.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. With Eric Plattner, she is co-editor of Rene Magritte: Selected Writings, coming out this Fall. Her second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in 2017. @kathleenmrooney
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