Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tell Yourself

Tell Yourself (from the album Motherland)

I know what you tell yourself, you tell yourself

Look in the mirror, look in the mirror what does it show?
I hear you counting
I know you're adding, adding up the score.
I know, oh yes I know what you tell yourself,
tell yourself

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
tell yourself

Who taught you how to lie so well
and to believe in each and every word you say?
who told you that nothing about you is alright
it's just no use, it's just no good, you'll never be O.K.?

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

Tell yourself that you're not pretty
look at you, you're beautiful
tell yourself that no one sees
Plain Jane invisible me, just tell yourself

Tell yourself you'll never be
like the anorexic beauties in the magazines
just a bargain basement Barbie Doll
no belle du jour, no femme fatale
just tell yourself

Tell yourself there's nothing worse
than the pain inside and the way it hurts
but tell yourself it's nothing new
cause everybody feels it too
they feel it too

And there's just no getting 'round
the fact that you're thirteen right now

In November of 2001 I went to my first Natalie Merchant concert. I was not particularly excited. Most of the time when I went to concerts back then (and still now) it was to see artists whose music I was deeply invested in. I would never dream of going to a concert without first thoroughly acquainting myself with the performer's newest album. But I was only a casual fan of Natalie Merchant. I had one older album, which I liked a lot, but that was it. My friend asked if I wanted to go to the concert and I said sure. But I was on the fence. I didn't feel any sense of anticipation and figured it was quite possible I would be underwhelmed.

I wasn't.

I've spent the last nine years trying to figure out what exactly it was that happened that night to turn me from a casual into a...what's the opposite of casual? Formal? A formal fan? I guess I could ask, What happened that night that turned me from a casual fan into the kind of fan that would eventually start a blog dedicated to a song-by-song analysis of this person's music? I think I finally figured it out.

I had been to great concerts before and there was always one of two factors that made them great to me: 1) Connection between the performer and the audience or 2) Emotional depth of the music being performed. I'd been to concerts where the connection between audience and performer was strong and I'd been to concerts where the music performed moved me very deeply. But I'd never really had both of those things happen at once. The performer might be engaged with their audience but maybe the music was more heady and less emotionally moving. I'd also seen performer's play songs that moved me to tears, but they personally were so far removed from their audience they just as soon could've been playing to an empty room (I'm talking to you, Bjork.) I never faulted them for this, I never felt cheated. I just accepted it for what is was.

But seeing Natalie in concert that night was the first time I had ever had an artist satisfy me completely on both levels. She worked hard from the very beginning to connect to her audience on more than one level and she played songs that touched me deeply, none more than the song I've chosen to discuss on this week's post, Tell Yourself.

The words to Tell Yourself are some of the most deeply moving lyrics Natalie has ever written. In a way, they are a complete contrast to the lyrics from the song I covered two weeks ago, Thick As Thieves. Whereas that song features words that are rather abstract and open to interpretation, Tell Yourself is as clear and straightforward as they come. When I listened to it that first time, I thought it was a song directed towards women in general, until that very last line, "And there's just no getting 'round the fact that you're thirteen right now." The song was already moving to me, but that last lyric was a knife to the heart. I was hardly removed from my teen years at the time and could still identify with every thought expressed. I wish I had that song when I was thirteen. I'm glad I have it now, at nearly thirty. That night, Natalie's heart was never more on her sleeve than when she sang this song and it still stands out for me as the highlight of an already amazing performance. I hopped right off that fence for good.

The song's relevance has not faded and unfortunately, I don't think it will fade anytime soon. Not too long ago I heard a story on NPR about the various internet "Pro-Anorexia" websites. I thought I needed my ears checked, but sadly I had heard correctly. There are a growing number of sites that promote anorexia as a lifestyle choice and have message boards aglow with people of all ages sharing pictures and encouraging each other to starve themselves for the sake of "health" and beauty. Disturbing isn't a strong enough word.

I found a few quotes from Natalie about this song, but the statement that touched me most was from the liner notes to Retrospective:

"I wrote this song to comfort all the awkward teenage girls I have ever met, will ever meet, and will never meet. The years 13 through 16 were the worst of my life and I wish that there had been someone who was perceptive enough to notice how much misery I was in. I would have had to turn myself inside out to become a pretty, outgoing, and popular girl. No one was there to tell me that it wasn't worth it."

This last sentence broke my heart. I wish I had an H.G. Wells-style time machine so that I could go back to the 1970s, find Natalie and tell her that she didn't need to turn herself inside out, that she would do just fine being herself and that someday there would be more people than she could imagine that would think she was beautiful in more ways than one. Then she would say, "Who are you and why are you talking to me and why aren't you wearing bell bottoms?" And I'd be like, "Oh...well, it's complicated. Don't worry about it." Then she'd press me and I'd admit I was from the future and then after I left in my time machine, she would become obsessed with time travel and become a physicist or something. She would never make music, thus I wouldn't have purchased an album with the liner notes quoted above, thus I never would have gone back in time in the first place, and boom - you've got a paradox. The space-time continuum would be torn asunder and it would all be my fault.

So...I guess I can't go back and help teenage Natalie. And I can't write beautiful songs like she can or sing with a beautiful voice like hers. But I can take the work her pain and empathy produced and share it with the teenage girls in my life and hope it helps them cope with their most unpleasant years. And maybe in the process I can introduce them to music worth getting off the fence for. No time machine required.

So here is your homework for this week, kids: Tell me (in the comment section or via email) about the first time you saw Natalie in concert. Was there a particular song or moment that reeled you in? And did I come close to quantifying the experience?

Download Tell Yourself from Itunes - Tell Yourself - Motherland

See you next week!


  1. OK, Annie ... first and foremost: You're a helluva writer. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post of yours, and I regret not reading every single post since you found me on Twitter and I henceforth found this blog. I will, however, be going back and visiting your archives very soon.

    Now, onto the answer to your question: The first time I saw Natalie in concert was 1997 or '98. I was a freshman in college, working at the Tower Records store across the street from the Michigan State campus in East Lansing, MI. I had always been a big fan, but up to that point in time, hadn't seen her live.

    One day, I got to work and found out I was in charge of the Ticketmaster sales for the day, and I saw that tickets for her show that night at the Pine Knob Music Amphitheater (now DTE Energy Theatre) in Clarkston, MI were still available. I said to myself, "I wonder what would happen if I searched for a single ticket..." because really, none of my college friends were THAT into her, but I wanted to see her so much I didn't care if I didn't have anybody to come with me. And so I did, and so a third row orchestra pit seat came up. And so I had to buy it. And that night, I drove my butt an hour and a half to go see her by myself. And it was TOTALLY worth it.

    Was there a particular song or moment that reeled me in? Not really, except for the fact that I went by myself because I knew that at 18, I was such a huge fan I wasn't going to let NOT having local friends who were (or weren't) fans stop me from seeing the show. The entire thing was incredible, and I made friends at the show, who are still friends to this day.

    And that's what I think is the power of the love of music ... it doesn't matter who you are, or where you come from, or what your history is ... somehow, the love of music is something that has always (in my experience, anyway) and will always, bring people together and create bonds that are everlasting. :)

    Thanks for having this blog, btw. I think I said that to you on Twitter, but I'm saying it again. Stuff like this is needed, and appreciated. :)

    ~ @damnredhead

  2. thatdamnredhead -

    Thanks so much for this comment. I loved hearing your concert story and I couldn't possibly agree more with your second-to-last paragraph. Perfectly said. And thanks for your kind words about this blog. I sure am pleased that you found it.

    - Annie

  3. This song contains one of my favorite feminists quotes: 'ever since Adam cracked his ribs and let us go'

    I love the image of that phrase! It could be a painting.

  4. Vertigo -

    My favorite line is about the "bargain basement barbie doll." I love the way she sings it.