Monday, April 22, 2013


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?


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...”


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.

76 Comments / Post A Comment

simone eastbro

(I just updated the YouTube playlist!)


What I love about this is that it wouldn't matter what the lyrics were, the minor key is so evocative that one is immediately compelled into a forest of bittersweet wonder. I have a small list of simple songs that fit this description. Just lovely.@m


I went to the Lilith Fair with cool older relatives as a deeply uncool 12-year-old and Natalie Merchant's "Kind and Generous" was the first song I heard that day that made me feel like I sort of maybe belonged t/here after all.

I haven't listened to any Natalie Merchant since Ophelia, so I can only speak for LittleAngstySarahP's pre-2000 Natalie Merchant love, but this was so accurate! Right down to how I loved/could relate to "Carnival" and "Jealousy" so much more than "Wonder" at the time BUT NOW sometimes I play "Wonder" to myself on my guitar and CRY.





(Or I have too many.)

raised amongst catalogs

@SarahP I have much love for you SarahP. I mean it.


@raised amongst catalogs You know I'm bound to thank you for it.

Anne Helen Petersen


simone eastbro

@Anne Helen Petersen nah nah NAH nah nah NAH


@Anne Helen Petersen Ha, good! Written out, it looks like something Clint Eastwood would say while squinting off into the sunset.

simone eastbro

@SarahP ok new project, turning lilith fair lyrics into eastwood film



simone eastbro

@SarahP i mean, i am going to have to listen to a lot of lilith songs. i will take notes.


@simone eastbro I may end up emailing you pictures of Clint Eastwood with Lisa Loeb lyrics across them.

simone eastbro


Better to Eat You With

Substitute Indiana for Idaho and this is me, too, and just about everyone I knew at the time:

"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."

And there were so many young women (I was in college in the mid 90s) who were actively hostile to the term "feminist" who could be seduced into considering some of feminism's core ideas by that commodification. I was pretty grateful for it, once I saw my very conservatively raised friends celebrating women's life and work.


@Better to Eat You With I came down here to copy/paste the exact same segment. It's easy to forget that pre-Internet you just weren't exposed to this stuff in conservative areas so much. I learned about Ani Difranco from a friend's older brother and felt like I was the only person in the universe who knew who she was (Imagine my amusement at later moving to Santa Cruz.) Ani and a used Lilith Fair CD were pretty much my intro to feminism as a 13-year-old.


@Better to Eat You With Sort of, BUT...if you *were* a riot grrl (albeit in rural Wisconsin) during that time it also felt like the Starbuckification of things you love. Which was a thing going on in the ninties--youth culture was very much for sale and everything was cleaned up and marketed to the mainstream public. So suddenly you're getting Girl Power via the Spice Girls and babydoll shirts and your Frappucino comes with a side of "you go, girl" but it's all so hollow because it's just marketing. None of these people are standing in front of Abortion clinics with you on Saturday morning helping protect patients, none of them are willing to go to bat when some frat asshole rapes a girl and everyone was like "it's her fault". It was just feel good marketing with a mellow soundtrack.



@parallel-lines That being said, I am likely too old to be of "generation Lillith" (the zenith of it was during my very early college years) and during that period I was very busy being very young and (annoyingly) punk rock to be bothered with anything like this, so most of it was probably lost on me. In good news, I took a shower, got a job and got over it.


@parallel-lines As a fellow stridentoldnintiesriotgrrrl (yay!) I'm totally with you on how Lilith seemed so watered down and sanitized that it just rubbed me the wrong way. However, after a particularly ugly breakup with a beau, I was all "NATALIEEEEEE!" whenever I needed to cry my little eyeballs out.



I was also too old and post-punk to get on board with Lillith Fair.
It felt too gentle and a little self-effacing/hetero nonthreatening(despite the abundance of unshaved armpits). I came to appreciate the later work of several of these women (Paula Cole is a nine-days-wonder onstage; her voice is even better now), but I still sometimes have that visceral "ugh, 'empowering' vagina music" reaction.


Is asking for Sarah McLachlan next too soon?

My copy of Ophelia is almost but not as torn up as the Indigo Girls double CD live album that also came in a paper holder and is now shredded to bits.

Anne Helen Petersen

@thisisunclear I hope we are talking about the same Indigo Girls double live CD (black on one disc; red on the other) that has amazing covers of "River" and "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee."


@Anne Helen Petersen

1200 Curfews
1200 Curfews


@stonefruit Ha, I was all, "OMG 10,000 CURFEWS" and then I realized I was getting my 90s music totally mixed up. That is such a fantastic album.

My favorite Natalie Merchant songs are "Life Is Sweet" (your mama she's a bitter bride/she'll never be satisfied you know) and "Verdi Cries" with the Maniacs. Although "My Skin" yes, is amazing.


@Mira Verdi Cries! Like The Weather! My How You've Grown!


@stonefruit Ugh, the way she sings "Aida" in that song! So good!


@Mira "with just three days more / I'd have just about learned the entire score / to Aida"


@stonefruit THE CELLO.


@Anne Helen Petersen That version of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is the BEST.


@Anne Helen Petersen Oh hell yes we are. Which is not to detract from the fact that Ophelia was one of the main soundtracks to my sophomore year of college.

Snood Mood

@Mira Yessss... I was in high school when The Wishing Chair came out and I played the album(!) over and over, after reading a review of it in Rolling Stone. The photo of Natalie in a 50's housecoat just spoke to ME, a solitary girl in the suburbs. I must admit I didn't listen to her solo stuff at all, since I'd moved on to the Boston ska scene by then. Still listen to those first three 10,000 Maniacs albums though, and they remain the (big label) band I've seen the most.


@Mira DARNIT MIRA I've had Verdi Cries stuck in my head since yesterday.


The double album of "kids'" songs is amazing. My sister gave it to me when our daughter was born, and I love, love, love it.


As a riot grrrl everything Lillith still makes me bristle to this day. I'll be over here with my lunchbox and shitty polyester dresses if y'all wanna get the revolution started again...


@parallel-lines I am probably terrible, but I need to confess: NM's voice makes me cringe and feel all sorts of annoyed. As do most things Lillith-related.


@Hellcat Ditto. The whole Lillith thing kind of drove me crazy, but at its height I was tearing into a new and demanding career in my mid-to-late 20s, and possibly not the prevailing demographic.

I liked NM as part of 10,000 Maniacs, but that stuff came out earlier while I was in college.

simone eastbro

I guess the argument we're trying to make is that whether or not one "likes" these things or felt their appeal directly, they are socially relevant/important for other reasons and can be useful for thinking through how we got to the world we have. That one's emotional reactions can tell us about something other than like/dislike. Otherwise it would really just be a bunch of YouTube links, rather than trying to talk about who the music appealed to and why, and who it excluded. and what its messages were and how they were constructed.


@simone eastbro Oh, absolutely, I think this series is great and really fascinating. It was certainly A Big Thing at the time, and worth examining however many years later, given its impact on large groups of people and the culture as a whole.


I remember a Natalie Merchant song came on the radio in the car one hot stick 100+ 95% humidity day in our Kansas City suburb. My dad clicked the radio off, rested his head on the steering wheel, and sighed. He was much more of a Lisa Loeb fan.


Natalie is still my go-to music choice for the evenings I decide to wallow in PMS hormones and drink two bottles of red wine and get weepy. My husband will catch me watching Ophelia on youtube and flee the room."Babe, babe, listen to this song with me. It's perfect."

Anne Helen Petersen

@ChaCha This comment is perfect.

raised amongst catalogs

@Anne Helen Petersen I suspect ChaCha is also perfect.

raised amongst catalogs

Still cannot listen to Natalie Merchant singing the last part of "What's the Matter Here" without tearing up.
All these cold and rude things that you do
I suppose you do because he belongs to you...


@raised amongst catalogs Let's pretend I didn't think it was "cold unruly things that you do," okay?

raised amongst catalogs

@stonefruit That is actually not bad! I think it still applies.


I'm still mad that my parents wouldn't let me go with my friends to see Lilith Fair OR the Family Values Tour.


@Amphora Whereas I am deeply uncool and went to Lilith Fair with my mom.


@Amphora better than going with your dad to Ozzfest

simone eastbro

@thisisunclear will she adopt me y/y

fondue with cheddar

I have nothing particular to add except that I love this series.

lucy snowe

I don't have time to say more than that "Blind Man's Zoo" was one of five cassettes I kept in my high school death trap as I drove around Wormtown-- listened to it so often the tape got thin.

She made me feel like I was at the center.


Natalie Merchant was, like, my vocal HERO when I was nine. (Saying this has made so many people feel old.)
Also the MTV Unplugged album is still one of my all-time favorites, and my high school Gay Best Friend and I used to just hang out and watch her concert dvds and watch her do that helicopter whirl dance and just, like, sigh.

(Señor Don Gato was a cat...)

lucy snowe

@squishycat on a hiiiiighhh red rooooof Don Gato sat!


Anyone else spend inordinately large amounts of time angstily listening to "Seven Years" in high school?

Also, NM's cover of Because the Night is probably my favorite song ever. It combines my forever-crush on Bruce Springsteen with a kind of twist in the meaning of the lyrics because it's sung by a woman, and I just want to belt it out all the time.

Also also, I can't believe I missed the Tracy Chapman one! Going back...


It depends, but some armpits are good hairy.

simone eastbro

@whizz_dumb LIKE MINE

Gold Dust Woman

I'm delurking specifically to say "OMG Motherland!". I kinda loved Natalie Merchant's earlier work and then she did Motherland and I just swooned. Such great texture to that album and did NOT sound like her previous work. I still hold hope that she will do another album like that. Just listen to "This House is On Fire" and revel in the glory.

Anne Helen Petersen

@Gold Dust Woman so glad someone finally came out of the commenting woodwork to be weird with me and love that album.


@Gold Dust Woman I completely forgot about Motherland (and This House is On Fire, which I built a mix CD around) until this article. Thank you AHP and SE!!


As a young KeLynn I used to literally run around the forest in the dark with Ophelia on my Walkman singing and crying because I was so overwhelmed with FEELING FEELINGS and I had kind of forgotten about that and NM in general until now. I forget exactly when this was but based on that description I'm going to guess...12/13?

Mark Blankenship@twitter

Hi everyone -- I hope you don't mind a complete neophyte joining the fray, but since the Lilith Women were pretty much what my life was ABOUT in the 90s, I feel I must join this flawless conversation.

I realize we're mostly talking about Tigerlily and beyond, but I have to mention the 10,000 Maniacs album Our Time In Eden, which glued Natalie to my teenage heart when I was a gay Tennesseean trying VERY hard to fit in while ALSO wearing houndstooth pants to school. On that album, Aunt Natalie drops songs like "Jezebel" and "Stockton Gala Days," which tell these lyrically straightforward but musically vaulting tales of people living lies. A wife calls herself Jezebel not because she's having an affair, but because she's simply not in love with her husband anymore. Another woman recalls happy days with an old friend, then realizes her friend wouldn't recognize the self-doubting person she's become. For me, those songs still and forever represent my inability to make sense of my closeted life.

And in retrospect, I love them BECAUSE they're so lyrically straightforward. Just like My Skin and King of May (from Ophelia) and Beloved Wife (from Tigerlily) they tell blunt tales about grief. I've always felt like there was something subversive about that, because I'd argue grief is a "feminine" emotion that's as "unacceptable" as anger. Because grieving is worse than crying over a breakup. It means acknowledging that you are powerless to change something, and that's neither very "masculine" nor very "American." And Natalie Merchant is one of the few artists who will just sit with that, forcing us to look at it or look away.

However, I also need to share this Weird Aunt Natalie story: When I saw her in concert in Chattanooga on the Tigerlily tour, she held out the microphone at the end of Jealousy and let a young woman sing the final line, which was supposed to be "accidentally do you say my name." Except the woman sang "do you say HER name." And Natalie said, "No, dear. No." And everyone in the whole place got quiet for like 2 hours as we waited for that girl to die of shame.

Finally: On the cover of Tigerlily, Natalie Merchant looks like Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall.


@Mark Blankenship@twitter hi let's be friends because YES.


OMG, can we talk about "Leave Your Sleep"? I adore those weird cds. It fit NM in such a perfect way - she'd always had this clear as a bell, lower register voice, which sounded very out of place when everyone else on the radio was growling and wailing. But the richness of her timbre gave you all the emotion without the sound effects. And her albums always swung in tone from jaunty optimism to soulcrushing heartache, not unlike the moods of a child - or the weirdness of a Grimm fairytale. Her TED performance when she (and the band!) wears those creepy paper masks while she sings the too-silly-to-be-scary-but-still-unsettling "The Sleepy Giant" - I DIE.


Can I just...I don't even have anything to add except to say thank you for this post. I've never been able to really verbalize why I was so intensely drawn to Natalie Merchant as a 7th grader (or Alanis, for that matter). I'd never had a boyfriend, I'd never had a kiss, I'd never been wronged or mistreated by pretty much anybody (except in the hallway before lunch one time when someone asked me out as a joke? which hurt, but I didn't cry about it)...but I felt a CONNECTION with these angry women.

But there I would be. 12 years old, with the lights turned off in my room, blaring my Tigerlily album and watching my lava lamp...FOR HOURS. And then I would re-braid Kirsten's hair (AG for LIFE), just for good measure. Ah, adolescence.

Anyway, thank you for putting words to my feelings!


About the Riot Grrl thing: I once saw an MTV news segment with Sarah McLachlan where the interviewer asked her about not including say, more female hip hop artists, and female punk artists, etc. and she claimed they were asked but didn't want to participate. Which I can see happening- Sarah & co. seemed to be open to diversity, where I can see Bikini Kill or Li'l Kim not wanting to lose their fan-base cred with a Lilith appearance. Really interesting topic that I hope you re-visit in your upcoming posts.


Oh gosh. I listened to Ophelia on repeat for the three straight days I was sequestered in my basement reading "The Mists of Avalon" for the first time, the summer I was 11. I can't hear any of those songs now without thinking about Morgaine... and sometimes it seems like a strangely appropriate association.


@BeanStalksAgain I never finished The Mists of Avalon...do you think I should? I'd probably need to start from the beginning again.


It has always made me somewhat uncomfortable that many of NM's songs are in the first person. Is she vain? Is she inhabiting her characters? Is she only able to express something someone else might feel as herself or does she feel it all? I still wonder whenever I hear one of her songs.


I just feel like I should add that Lillith fair was one of my first and best sleepovers! I was 6 years old when mother took me and my two little sisters to the 1997 Lillith fair. I have some vague memories of listening to music (recognizable to me from the Natalie Merchant CDs that played in our mini-van) and then curling up with my sisters in the sleeping bags my mom had brought, and falling asleep.

Until 5th grade, I kind of thought that everyone knew all the words to Dar Williams and Tracy Chapman songs. And it's true, our mini-van, suburban, hebrew school lives didn't account for Riot Grrrl feminism (which I only learned about upon entering undergrad) but Lilith was a digestible, acoustic, 'kind&generous' feminism that we could latch onto in the face of Spice World fandom and even more seriously capital-crazy entertainment.


I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about Natalie Merchant, in addition to the responses individuals have posted. I’ve been fan of Merchant’s since I first heard CARNIVAL in 1995 and have since followed her career closely. Natalie’s a songwriter’s songwriter. She’s self-taught, and skilled at her craft. I’ve read many interviews over the years about how she writes and composes, and thought it may deepen the dialogue here by sharing a few ideas, along with lesser known facts about some of the songs mentioned in the conversation, and also in a few of the posts.

1. I don’t agree that Natalie is a “mystical” artist in the same way as some like Stevie Nicks, Tori Amos, or maybe even Sarah McLachlan. I actually think she’s very down-to-earth. As someone who also grew up in upstate New York playing often in the woods, I dunno, find her pretty authentic to who she is. I do truly wonder why you refer to her as a mystical artist several times.

2. Ophelia isn’t a concept album. In the title track Natalie explores different facets of her identity: the performer, the activist, the young woman that grew up with colorful Italian family members, the gymnast, the contemplative Christian, etc.

3. Wonder is written in first-person from the perspective of an individual Natalie knew that was born with significant physical and/or developmental disabilities. (Most of the songs she’s written in first-person are her attempts at writing from the persepctive of a “character” or person she has met.) Natalie received a lot of flack for that song when it was released as it was interpreted by critics that she was singing about how miraculous found herself to be. However, in fact, the song has nothing to do with her.

4. My Skin was written for a screenplay that a friend of hers wrote. The piece is about a woman dying of skin cancer that longs to make love to her husband. However, the husband is only able to see his wife as a women with an illness. The protagonist just wants to loved, to be touched again.

5. Saint Judas is a topical song about lynching in the south. It was inspired by a Facing History and Ourselves exhibit that she saw at the New York Historical Society.

6. Tell Yourself was written for Natalie’s niece who, at the time, was a teenager dealing with low self-esteem.

7. King of May was written as a tribute to Allen Ginsberg when he passed away. They were friends. The title comes from the nickname Ginsberg was given by students in the Czech Republic, Kraj Majales, during the Prague Spring.

That be it… :O)


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