When I started writing this post, I realized that the only song I ever had written about me definitely was not about me.
I was writing this blurb about a boy who I went on a date with in high school who played the guitar. He once sang me a song that he said he wrote for me called ‘The Girl with the Flower.” I was so touched because even though it didn’t have my name in it, it was about me and how sweet is that and….wait a minute, my adult mind said. When did he ever see you with a flower?
Then I got into the following argument with 15 year old Claire:
15 year old Claire: It was romantic! Like the girl with the harp! Or the girl with the…
Adult Claire: Please don’t start. We’re like two minutes away from you reciting a sonnet and I can’t right now. Didn’t that guy sing you that song the day he met you? Did any part of it have any mention related to you? Or was it a classic suave high school guy pick up line song?…did he rhyme girl with twirl?
15 year old Claire: Well…shit.
Adult Claire: …sorry. Gotta go pay for all those student loans you take out in two years! Oh-and-don’t-go-to-that-Dave-Matthews-Band-show-he’ll-forget-the-words-to-Crash-okaybyeee!
So here are some girl’s names songs by girls, not by girls, about real girls, about famous girls, about imaginary girls. No suave musical pick up lines or flowers allowed.
“Emmylou,” by First Aid Kit
I wish I knew more about the technical side of music, that I could say very fancy things about chord progressions and break down the neat musical tricks that make me replay a song hundreds of times. I’ve picked up some music jargon here and there from writing with Joshua and reading books, but this song gave me solid proof of my ignorance. Why? Because 30 listens in my whole reaction to it could still be summed up as “OMG SO PRETTY.” Yes. Wise.
But really…so pretty. The honeyed voices and the big eyed ethereal wood nymphs who are singing. The twinkling, layered sound. Even the video, resplendent and complete with hazy gypsy hipsters in gauzy garb, wandering a lush desert. So pretty, and tucked in all that pretty is the chorus: “I’ll be your Emmylou, I’ll be your June/You’ll be my Graham and my Johnny too/No I’m not asking much of you/Just sing little darling sing with me.” It’s a haunting little music nerd fantasy: Lets be in love, but more importantly, let’s be a legendary music love story and sing songs together! It’s the fantasy that follow Rob Gordon’s dream of popping up in prose and pictures in his imaginary musician girlfriend’s liner notes. If I had one iota of musical talent, I would use this logic constantly. I would coerce all sorts of people in my life into being in a band with me (“Let’s be musical best friends, like Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III! Let’s be a family band, a la Carters and Partridges! Let’s be musical neighbors like Mr. Rogers and King Friday!”)
“Bertha,” by The Grateful Dead
Sometimes, a song is so upbeat and catchy that I’ll sing along for years without noticing that the message irks me. That’s the magic of music–I’ve never gotten a sentence stuck in my head. I don’t find myself accidentally repeating really sexist or obscene lines of prose because “Sorry guys, the wordplay is just so charming! Look how he slipped that slant rhyme in!”
In “Bertha,” the singer had to jump out of Bertha’s window, outrun her in all kinds of situations…had to move, really had to move, one might say. The chorus is a peppy plea that she leave him alone. Whenever I read the lyrics, they rub me the wrong way. Just tell her what’s wrong! Why are you jumping out the window? What is your DEAL, Jerry Garcia?
The problem here is that “Crazy woman let me be!” narratives gross me out. I’m sure, just like men, there are lots of crazy women, and they should in fact let you be. But the “crazy woman” storyline is trotted out so often that I immediately wonder what Bertha’s side of the whole thing was. Like maybe she woke up heartbroken that instead of saying goodbye you jumped out her window. Female musicians of the world: This song is begging for a response song. Lets make it happen.
“Layla,” by Derek and the Dominos
I grew up loving that soft, slowed down Clapton Unplugged version that played all the way through the early 90s, then was picked up by soft rock stations and is, I’m sure, playing right this second if you turn your radio to Lite 101. By early high school, I’d been listening to Clapton for years, and most of it was in school nurses’ offices–the mecca of Lite Radio listeners– or at youth group dances (“You Look Wonderful Tonight” is a favorite of the young and Jewish).
Then, I heard this version, and was floored. Who was this howling, rage filled guitar maniac? Where was old Eric “Slow Jams” Clapton? And then come to find out that this whole song is notes on a scandal–an ode to Pattie Boyd, the wife of his good friend George Harrison. This is a great love song in the so-wrong-love-song genre—-raw, visceral, pleading. Was it weird when he played it Unplugged after he finally married, and consequently divorced, Pattie Boyd? Add that to the “Questions for Clapton” list (Others include “Was it weird to do a duet of ‘My Favorite Mistake’ with Sheryl Crow, when the song could have more aptly been titled ‘Why Eric Clapton is the Worst’?” and “Can you reunite Cream again? Pretty please?”)
“Anna Ng,” by They Might Be Giants
Anna Ng is, apparently, about all sort of things—the 64 World fair, a prevalence of Ngs in the Manhattan phone book, a Pogo comic book about shooting through a globe rather than digging a hole to China. More than 20 years later, it’s a fun, bizarre joy to listen to, full of all sort of They Might Be Giants goodies. There’s the frenetic, jolting pace of the music, the odd telephone snippets that pop music artists retired in the 90s and recently revived, the bizarre tapestry of words and references. When we started this blog six months ago, I was listening to this song constantly. It was a segue into a bout of heavy They Might Be Giants listening, something I recommend if they’ve been off your musical menu for a while. After you listen to this song, go listen to Flood. No this song isn’t on it. But every other song you’ll want to hear immediately after hearing this song is on it, and then you can spend the next few weeks wading through wonderful, They Be Giants madness. Enjoy.
“Michelle,” by The Beatles
A classic girl’s name song–lovely, romantic, sounds a bit like it was thrown together on the spot (I feel certain that a Michelle stood off to the side as this song was penned, swooning), but most importantly, the first time you hear it you sort of wish your name was Michelle, or that someone had thought to put a song together featuring your name and your loveliness. I heard this for the first time in high school, when boys were beginning to try their hand at guitar playing and song writing. Every guy I knew had a song with a girl’s name for the title, and they all sounded like a mashup of Howie Day and Dave Matthews with a splash of pop punk thrown in. These were not magical musical times.
When I heard “Michelle”, I thought “Wow, how lucky would you be if your name was Michelle, and a boy liked you, and he played you this, and you didn’t have to hear him stumble through “Collide” again…” Very lofty thinking, but thinking that made sense for a girl whose name is most prominently featured in the song “Planet Claire” by the B52s (if a boy had figured out a way to play a romantic version of that on the guitar for me in high school, I probably would’ve had to marry him. I think that’s the law.)
**Every time I mentioned this week’s blog theme, someone would inevitably say “OH, like the Family Guy bit?” I felt like this clip needed to be in here somewhere. Here it is.