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Remembering Lilith: Natalie Merchant

SE: Before we can fully account for Natalie Merchant’s role in our lives, we must go back, back to a time before Lilith Fair, back to the beginning of the Reagan years, when a plucky 17-year-old community college student joined Still Life as a vocalist. Within a year, the cover band had become 10,000 Maniacs and this suicidal high school dropout had become its primary lyricist. Thus was born our Crazy Mystical Aunt Diane Aunt Natalie of Lilith Fair.

Before there was Ophelia, there was the 10,000 Maniacs MTV UNPLUGGED SPECIAL!!!!!!!!

AHP: These were my first years of MTV, when my mom said I could only watch it if she WATCHED IT WITH ME. (Vivid memory: watching video for Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones” with flamenco dancer in the background; my mom: “You know that woman is objectified to represent sex, right?”) There was some promo video for MTV Unpluggeds, and Crazy Aunt Natalie was at the end of it singing “These Are Days.”

Remember when Unplugged CDs were a thing? They were always my filler pick for my BMG 10-for-1 scams. Which isn’t to say that Eric Clapton’s Unplugged isn’t perfect and a gem, because clearly it is, but I suppose these were popular because there was not yet a robust digital trade in the outtakes, covers, and acoustic sets that would commonly occur on tour. Instead: MTV commodification.

SE: I guess this is where I mention that I was not allowed to watch MTV (or, weirdly, Laverne and Shirley). My brother did run a scam on BMG where he ended up getting a ton of shit for free. On the other hand, he’s in prison now, so I guess it evens out, spiritually. 

Okay. I have always loved this song! It always makes me feel happy! I mean, it’s all major chords and whatever, so I should not be surprised by that? Also, come on, this is totally a High School Graduation Song, especially with that “when May is rushing over you” line. So maybe I should not like it as much as I do, is what I’m saying. But whatever.

AHP: Let it be known: Her outfit and hairstyle here might be — along with the outfits of the cast of My So-Called Life and Singles — the most early/mid-’90s thing I’ve ever seen.

SE: Sometimes I sort of forget that Natalie Merchant was not, like, a character on Party of Five. But also, Blossom. What about Blossom?

AHP: Simone, Blossom was a sitcom. My So-Called Life was, ahem, REAL LIFE.

SE: Okay, fine. I wasn’t allowed to watch those shows, either. But a question for our shared consideration: Is Natalie Merchant the Lilith Fair mainstage performer most likely to go shopping for healing crystals with you?

AHP: She has stiff competition — namely, Paula Cole.

SE: Oh man, do you remember that time at the Grammys when America saw Paula Cole’s hairy armpits?

AHP: Second most famous hairy armpits to Julia Roberts at some press event for Notting Hill. Anxiety over women’s inattention to dominant beauty ideals and grooming habits: WE HAVE IT.

SE: So braided armpit hair may be a relevant characteristic in the Healing Crystal framework. But still. Natalie or Paula? WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?

AHP: I think Natalie wins: an entire song about Ophelia? Plus that ethereal dance move that I most associate with the Eugene, Oregon, Farmer’s Market, an event whose defining characteristics are “hippy feather dancing,” “white people dream catchers,” and “Free Speech Zones.”

Merchant’s also got this quasi pin-up/dress-up thing going on, as evidenced by the back and front covers of Ophelia. And I know all about those covers because I scrapbooked them — and, obviously, clipped lines of the lyrics and pasted them next to sketches of the boys to whom they applied. (Nota bene: No boys were next to “Kind & Generous.”)

But this is the crux of Merchant’s image: a mix of mysticism, earnestness, and feminism, but generally cloaked in allegory, or at least discombobulating shifts in subject position. Which isn’t to say I’m not into them: Clearly I am. But please, let us talk about Tigerlily?

SE: The year? 1995. Me? Awkwardly beginning middle school at a brand new all-girls school. The cultural signifier one dropped to signal one’s sophistication? Knowing the words to “Carnival.”

This is an excellent example of the mishmash you describe, because while I like this song and I am pretty sure it makes sense to me when I’m singing along, I’m also not totally sure I understand it. Like obviously there’s a narrative here that posits N. Merchant as lady flâneur in a late-20th-century kind of way, but I’m also not sure what she has been blind to, because the song kind of makes it sound like she has seen everything.

But you know who was really into this song and this album? Aileen Wuornos. She listened to Tigerlily on death row and requested that “Carnival” be played at her funeral; the song was later used in the closing credits of a 2003 documentary about her life and death. I’m just going to leave this here.

AHP: It seems that I am constantly playing the role of fan who comes in late and re-experiences classics. I think I wrote off Tigerlily because it — or, at least, its single, “Wonder,” seemed very … Mom to me. (NO OFFENSE, MY MOM/MOMS IN GENERAL.) It lacked the “lay on the floor and weep” quality I sought at that time, which is what I did every time I listened to “Disarm” by Smashing Pumpkins on repeat.

SE: I hate myself for liking that song. But also, you have to give it to the Merchant for having an enormous emotional range. “Carnival” is kind of creepy and the entire (black and white!) video is an elaboration on voyeurism. On the other hand, you have “Wonder,” which is sort of the beginning of what I see as an adolescent self-empowerment thread running through the songbook?

AHP: YES, I SEE THIS SO CLEARLY NOW. But middle school AHP was having none of it! In today’s terms, I would’ve flatly rejected Kelly Clarkson’s anthems of empowerment. I wanted songs into which I could project my own overabundance of emotion.

SE: Okay, were you listening to Jagged Little Pill instead? (Especially the hidden track, obviously.) Because it came out THE WEEK BEFORE Tigerlily. Aren’t you glad that I am a historian?

AHP: LET US TALK FOREVERMORE ABOUT THE HIDDEN TRACK.

A cappella, HIDDEN, “Would you forgive me love/if I laid in your bed” — this is the emotive potency I was seeking. Also hidden tracks: unique to the CD era? A lost art?

SE: SIDEBAR ON THE ISSUE OF THE HIDDEN TRACK AS A LOST ART: This is a meaty question. Not unique to the CD era. But I sort of wonder if the MP3 has killed the magic, because you can see how long the song is and so there isn’t a surprise. (Confidential to Mama AHP: I just deleted a gratuitous swear word.)

Anyway. It sort of occurs to me now that maybe part of your Tigerlily aversion was that Natalie Merchant has a stronger, more classically pretty voice? Like what I mean is, Alanis really does some tortured goddamned wailing on that hidden track, and Natalie’s voice never seems weak or strained. Am I making sense here? Compare “Jealousy,” the other major Tigerlily single, to, I don’t know, the hidden Alanis track or even “You Oughta Know.” Natalie asks her ex-lover, “Is she bright/ so well read/ are there novels by her bed?” and Alanis snarls, “Would she go down on you in a theatre?” (Shout out to Canadian spellings.)

Which. In a larger way this touches on a question that I think haunts our conversations about Lilith Fair, namely: whither Riot Grrrl? Or, put another way, what happened to the expressions of anger that fueled Riot Grrrl? Are the Ladies of Lilith angry? Are the Ladies Who Love the Ladies of Lilith angry? Whatever Sarah McLachlan might claim about her feminist motivations, I wonder whether the whole Lilith Fair . . . genre, if you will, is one in which the only kinds of emotional expressions we see from women are the ones that are already socially sanctioned. Sadness and heartbreak, sure. Anger, no.

AHP: Like were they palatable, soft-core feminists in the way that, say, Gloria Steinham and her traditionally feminine appearance made people less anxious about “women’s lib” in the ‘60s and ‘70s?

Is Lilith Fair : Gloria Steinem as Riot Grrrl : Shulamith Firestone, with her divisive brand of Marxist, radical, awesomely ball-busting feminism? (Note: Susan Faludi’s profile of Firestone, her legacy, and her lonely, lonely death in last week’s New Yorker will give you all the feminist feelings.)

SE: By the time Lilith Fair rolled around in 1997, the Riot Grrrl movement had badly splintered and mostly disappeared from mainstream media. And while many made the argument that Lilith was some sort of outgrowth of Riot Grrrl, that the two were somehow related, I don’t buy it. If you’re into subcultural formation theory (Dick Hebdige, holler at yr girl), you might interpret Lilith Fair as, if anything, a reactionary effort to co-opt, neutralize, and capitalize on the anger of Riot Grrrl. The signifiers appear the same — independent ladies singing their songs and telling their stories — but the whole package is something quite different: relieved of anger, smoothed of its DIY edges, and made into something consumable.

AHP: PREACH, COMRADE. No, seriously: I think, in hindsight, Lilith Fair is a classic example of capitalism taking hold of the radical, the DIY, and the anti-capitalist and assimilating it, commodifying it into a (relatively expensive) experience, and, as you say, blunting its sharp, provocative edges. But here’s the thing: I was living in Idaho when Riot Grrrl went down. Olympia was a six hour drive away. Yet I had zero awareness of it, in part because the internet was still full of Geocities, but mostly because I lived in a rural, working class, frightfully conservative town. I had no access to zines or Bikini Kill, but I could access mainstream (and however watered down) feminism via Lilith artists. Which I guess is another way of saying that yes, Lilith Fair was commodified, yes, it lacked the aggression and vitality and politics of Riot Grrrl, but it was also all I had. I didn’t realize it then, but my obsession with these artists clearly telegraphed my future feminist identity.

SE: That matters. And I do want to be clear that I think the Lilith artists were still playing an important role, that there is also something to be said for the mainstream commercial success of complex songs about grief and loss and sadness and even hope. I mean, just looking at the Billboard Hot 100 from 1991 (so, pre-Riot Grrrl and pre-Lilith Fair), the female artists were singing songs explicitly and nearly exclusively about heterosexual romantic relationships, though I suppose a harbinger of Things to Come was the DNA remix (note, the remix, not the original, though it is pretty catchy) of “Tom’s Diner” charting at all. I do see a broader range from the Ladies of Lilith, including the woman who has brought us here today. Who, by the way, funded Tigerlily herself in order to maintain creative control.

I guess (I mean, according to Wikipedia, in an [attribution needed] interpretation) 1998’s Ophelia was an album that attempted to work with female archetypes. The Pitchfork analysis of this conceit was scathing: “If the CD packaging (which presents her as seven women in different walks of life) and the title track are any indication, Natalie Merchant thinks her of new release, Ophelia, as the album of everywoman. And if Merchant’s view of the life of everywoman is correct, we’re all in trouble.” BUUUUUUUUUUUUURN. But the reviewer also seemed to think that Natalie’s music was not “celebratory,” that she only worked with “the underside of life.”

I don’t buy it. I think the irritatingly catchy and kinda vapid “Kind and Generous” is an exemplar of her self-esteem songbook. But Ophelia also has some dope jams about grief and loss and heartbreak. Like “My Skin.” Can we talk about “My Skin”? I know that we will also need to talk about the LOTR video here, but maybe listen with your eyes closed once before you watch this masterpiece.

AHP: We are going to talk about “My Skin” like it is the only song in the world, but first I have to say that this Pitchfork dude reviewing this album is a douche, and while I read Pitchfork and often agree with their reviews, its early iteration has been roundly criticized — and with ample reason — for a laughably masculinist critical stance.

Because seriously: “My Skin.” There’s the beginning, when it’s just her ethereal voice, and then “Take a look at my body/take a look at my hands/there’s so much here that I don’t understand/your facesaving promises, whispered like prayers…”

AND THEN THE MOTHERLOVING CHORUS!

SE: Realness: I listened to this song a lot (A LOT) when I was getting divorced. (And “Trouble Me,” too, actually.) This song is one in which her weird allegory-and-metaphor-driven mysticism actually works, especially with the rich depth of her voice. This song is dark and rich and very concrete in its imagery (“Contempt loves the silence/ It thrives in the dark”) — and also curiously flat in its affect in a way that I think actually works really well. There’s something really lovely here (oh God the strings just came in) in the way this song tells the story of the bottomless devastation of certain kinds of heartbreak, of what comes after the shattering: “I’ve been treated so wrong/ I’ve been treated so long/ As if I’m becoming untouchable.”

AHP: She is essentially declaring herself abject — “unfuckable,” as Jane Campion labels the middle-aged, patriarchy-defeated colony of women in Top of the Lake — but then reasserting that these women still need romance, need the bend and sway and breathlessness of passion. I love that this song is simultaneously an acknowledgment of how overpowering love can be, how selfless and frustratingly all-encompassing it can be, and a rejection of that feeling if the other doesn’t give him/herself over to it as well.

SE: She is really the queen of the emotive and swelling crescendo, isn’t she?

AHP: In “Thick as Thieves,” beginning right around 4:15 — that shit is real.

AHP: True Confessions: I had the sheet music to all of Ophelia, which I could actually play — unlike the Fiona Apple sheet music, which was all in like 17/10 time and other made-up time signatures. When I was home alone I would turn off the lights and play these songs by candlelight. I did that! No wonder I had zero boyfriends! But maybe I was doing that because I had zero boyfriends?

SE: This seems like a chicken-and-egg problem. But, full disclosure. When I was forced to take piano lessons for seven years — during which time, as an act of passive resistance, I refused to learn to read music (which is, I think, a real accomplishment) — my mom used to try to induce me to practice by telling me that when I “grew up,” I would be able to “play the piano for people at parties.” That seems like a ’40s screwball comedy kind of thing. In retrospect, I wish I had learned to play the piano so that I could play the music of Natalie Merchant at home, by candlelight, alone.

The truth is, I think “My Skin” might be the most recent song from a Natalie Merchant album that I can name. I was way more into her collaboration with Billy Bragg on the rediscovered Woody Guthrie songbook, around the same time Ophelia was released. She sang on a few of the songs released on the three (THERE’S A THIRD!!!!) Mermaid Avenue albums.

This cover of “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” is one of my favorite songs, full stop. But it’s where my engagement with the rest of her catalog ends.

AHP: I adore that song, I adore her cover of “Birds and Ships,” I adore the thought of her and Woody Guthrie palling around and twirl dancing. But I do think people get stuck in Merchant’s early catalog, or just think that she stopped making music when Lilith Fair stopped touring. I can’t tell you how false this is. In fact, Motherland, released in 2001, might have ultimately been more important to me than Ophelia — and it’s much, much weirder.

To wit:

Shout, shout your praises to the man who kissed the Lord

To the backstabbing brother that betrayed all of this world

Your Judas!

I love it. I love it so much. I love the part at the end when she’s just randomly naming states, and ends with Carolina [pause] [pause] Carolina!

There’s something sultry and dangerous about this album — I kinda feel like the weird Blood priestess lady on Game of Thrones, you know, the one with the new religion and flaming red and smoke babies, may have participated in the making. This was not an album with a single that would become the theme song to a charming new show in the WB. But then she toured with Chris Issak, which just emphasizes how she was still marketed as her “Carnival” / “Kind and Generous” Top-Forty friendly Merchant … not the mystical incantation Merchant who sings “The Ballad of Henry Darger.”

SE: (AUTOMATIC HENRY DARGER REBLOG.) Ugh, okay, you know what? I did hear a song off Motherland, “Tell Yourself,” which is delightfully and weirdly set to images from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona in this video:

But this song makes me nuts. I remember hearing it when I was 18 or 19 and more or less silently sobbing through my first year of college. Initially I was seduced by lines like “Ever since Eden we’re built for pleasing everyone knows/ And ever since Adam cracked his ribs and let us go/ I know, oh yes I know what you tell yourself.” And I was really feeling it. “Well I know, I know that wrong’s been done to you/ ‘It’s such a tough world,’ that’s what you say/ Well I know, I know it’s easier said than done/ But that’s enough girl, give it away/ Give it, give it all away.” GIVE IT ALL AWAY! I can do that!!!! EXCEPT then it transitions into a weird adolescent cheering session with some shit about anorexia and Barbie dolls and then and the fucking volta of the last lines is OFFENSIVE TO ME: “There’s just no getting ’round/ The fact that you’re 13 right now.” I remember hearing that and just being so pissed and insulted that I felt like she was really feeling me except what I was feeling was apparently pre-pubescent.

Wow, it felt good to get that out there. I do think it encapsulates the problem with her catalog, though — or maybe with the larger lyrical Lilith Fair world. That song felt infantilizing, rather than a serious engagement with what she lays out, lyrically, as a profound issue facing women early in the song. As much as she engages with some thorny, dark stuff, there’s also a weirdly casual sense that ladies just be needing a cheering section. So who is this music for? Grown-ass women with complex lives? Or girls? I’ve felt the same way about other Lilith artists, too: “I’m a little bit of everything/ All rolled into one!” LADIES! LADIES! AMIRITE, LADIES? LADIES, AMIRITE?????

AHP: But after Motherland, Merchant left her record label, released her own compilation of folk songs via her own label, let some time pass, took us all healing crystal shopping, and wrote a massive double album of songs with the central conceit of “childhood.” Old nursery songs, adapted poetry about children, conversations with her daughter “about the first six years of her life” — this is the concept album, hippie motherhood style. It’s spare and stunning, totally absent of the saccharine taste that alienated us both. The first song is named “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Merchant of the late ‘90s was very much in line with the commercialized, soft-edged Lilith Fair feminism, but in the years since, she’s become weirder, less ruly, and far less amenable to adult alternative tastes. Put differently, she’s not playing at the outdoor zoo concert in the city near you. She’s taken the role-playing and experimental art theory that was clearly if sporadically manifested in her early work and turned it into her defining characteristic. She’s become, it seems, even more wholly herself.

Or at least that’s how I read it. I’ve become more wholly myself too, which means I don’t need her music as much — and I’m guessing she doesn’t need me, or us, as much either. She’s got royalty checks from all the easy listening stations that still play “Carnival” once a week, and a place to twirl, a daughter to love, intricate stories to tell, and a perfect, ageless voice that does what she tells it to do. Crazy Aunt Natalie, living the post-Lilith sweet life.

Previously: Tracy Chapman

With five academic degrees between them, Anne Helen Petersen and Simone Eastman can no longer simply “enjoy” anything. They’ve lately begun composing fan fiction about hanging out with Tracy Chapman, written in the style of women’s magazine features. For details, inquire within.

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