Thursday, March 31, 2011

Break Your Heart

Break Your Heart (from the album Ophelia)

People downcast, in despair
see the disillusion everywhere
hoping their bad luck will change
gets a little harder every day

People struggle, people fight
for the simple pleasures in their lives
but trouble comes from everywhere
it's a little more than you can bear

I know that it will hurt
I know that it will break your heart
the way things are
and the way they've been
and the way they've always been

People shallow, self-absorbed
see the push and shove for their rewards
I, me, my is on their minds
you can read about it in their eyes

People ruthless, people cruel
see the damage that some people do
full of hatred, full of pride
it's enough to make you lose your mind

I know that it will hurt
I know that it will break your heart
the way things are
and the way they've been

I know that it will hurt
I know that it will break your heart
the way things are and the way they've been
Don't spread the discontent
don't spread the lies
don't make the same mistakes
with your own life
you never will let love survive

I know that it will hurt
I know that it will break your heart
the way things are
and the way they've been
Don't spread the discontent
don't spread the lies
don't make the same mistakes with your own life
don't disrespect yourself
don't lose your pride
and don't think that everybody's
gonna choose your side

I was recently traveling in a car with a group of friends, one of whom is of a particularly cheerful disposition. I have no idea what was said that elicited this response from her, but at some point I was jarred out of my backseat daydreaming when I heard her say something along the lines of, "It's not about where you are, it's about where you're going." She put this line forth with such perfect delivery that it was clear she had said it many times before. I must have done a typically poor job of disguising my incredulity because as soon as she saw my face, she felt compelled to spew out another very similar line about direction and purpose and joy or something. My incredulous expression remained. So she just kept going, reeling off one motivational quote after another. It was like she had inspirational Tourette's! I remained silent through it all, until she finally got to this doozy: "We are as happy as we choose to be."

Now she had just plain gone too far. I couldn't hold back a guffaw of disdain. She had made a grave error and her punishment would be a searing Annie rant that she would barely survive. I would like to say that I'm a kind enough soul to spare the readers of this blog the same long-winded dissertation. But I'm not.

So here it is: It's not that I'm against optimism and it's not that I don't enjoy being inspired. I write a Natalie Merchant blog, for Pete's sake! I love to be inspired! But I absolutely loathe, detest and despise (yes, I know those three words mean the same thing, they are used here purely for the sake of emphasis) the use of these supposedly motivational phrases that are uttered with a robot-like repetition by people with painted-on expressions of joy, expressions that scream, "I refuse to acknowledge misery, my own or anyone else's." These phrases are often so far out of the realm of plausibility, it's simply ridiculous.

I have a co-worker who has a business card holder on his desk which is engraved with these words: "If you can dream it, you can do it." Really? That's great news because I dream of riding on the back of the Lochness Monster as we swim our way down to greet King Neptune and establish Atlantis as the world's greatest political power. And to think, I thought that was an impossible fantasy! But now I know, if I can dream it, I can do it!

And what about my friend's quote about our happiness really all in our own control, totally up to our having the right frame of mind? Well, this gets tricky. The truth is, even though this kind of phrase really gets my goat, I can concede that there is a kernel of truth there. Our attitude about life does have a great effect on our happiness.'s just not as simple as that. Not too long ago someone said to me, "People can overcome anything." I replied, "Well, what about some little child in Haiti who has lost his parents in the earthquake, has nowhere to go and no one to take care of him and is forced to live on the streets and beg for food and water?" She replied, "But just think, if he can overcome that, nothing will seem impossible to him!"

But that's just it. How do you overcome that? It is an uncomfortable truth to accept, but the fact is there are many people who do not have as fair a chance as others at "making their own happiness." Yes, I know I'm being overly literal. And yes, I know I'm taking things too seriously. I know what people are trying to say when they say, "We are as happy as we choose to be," but I can't help but think of all the people for whom that little idiom might seem to feel like a slap in the face.

As usual, you are at this point probably wondering if I will ever get around to talking about this week's song. Well, I'm ready now and here's what I want to say: Break Your Heart is my kind of inspirational. Break Your Heart doesn't try to disguise the misery and suffering inherent in living in this world. Instead, it provides the thing that we all, deep down, really need and crave - acknowledgment. The song doesn't simply tell us to ignore our suffering and everyone else's. It's not Don't Worry, Be Happy. Break Your Heart acknowledges suffering and injustice. And because of that, the song's gentle coercion in the right direction feels like genuine comfort.

Today, when I was looking for quotes from Natalie to include in this week's post, I came across this:

"I have a theory about music, that it originally arose from an intensely spiritual place in human beings to express what was inexpressible in many other ways. So that's what I try to do with some of my music. I don't look at it as pure entertainment. I look at it as a place for people to find solace, a place for people to find a catharsis, definitely to celebrate all that's good in their lives, but also to acknowledge the things that are tragic."*

Natalie said these words before Break Your Heart was released, and to the best of my knowledge, before it was written. But this quote perfectly illustrates why Break Your Heart is such an effective song. It explains the manner of thinking that inspires a lot of her writing. If someone asked me why I like Natalie Merchant's music so much, it would be difficult to give a concise answer. There are a lot of reasons, of course. But the best answer I could give might be just to refer to the statement above. Her music allows for the agony and the ecstasy to exist together. She is not the first to write music this way, nor will she be the last. But it's her particular approach to expressing these emotions that, more effectively than any other music maker I can think of, speaks to my heart.

The version of Break Your Heart that appears on Ophelia features vocals by N'Dea Davenport. I can't recall ever hearing Natalie sing with someone I didn't think she sounded great with, but I think this might be my favorite vocal collaboration she's done. N'Dea Davenport has a lovely voice and her and Natalie compliment each other well. I'd love to hear them record another song together someday. There is a newer version of this song that Natalie released exclusively on Itunes last year that's performed acoustically (and with backing vocals by Natalie's extremely talented and almost offensively good-looking guitar player, Gabriel Gordon) and I absolutely adore this version. I think I like it even better than the Ophelia version. If you haven't heard it, I definitely recommend checking it out (see link below.)

I wanted to find a perfect quote to end today's blog post, something about music or life or happiness or about how these are all connected. Something to prove that I'm not against inspirational sayings as a general rule. So I opened up my Bartlett's Famous Quotes book. I found some that were thought-provoking. I found some that made me laugh. I found some that were simple and others that were more complex. But I couldn't find one that was perfect enough. Maybe this is my problem. I consistently set my expectations too high. Maybe I want too much out of words, out of shared emotions.

Maybe. Or maybe I just needed to go to my favorite poet in the first place.

"If you're the kind of person who says, 'I don't care for music,' or 'I don't listen to lyrics,' maybe the message doesn't matter. But there are people who do put a lot of expectations onto musicians. When a song touches them, they feel that there is a kindred spirit in the world, and that makes them feel less alone. That's the way I respond to music, and I think it's the way a lot of people respond to my music."**

Yep. There it is.

Thanks for reading, make sure to tune in next week for a celebration (sort of) of the beginning of Spring, on the Natalie Merchant Compendium Blog.

Click here to watch the music video for Break Your Heart. Isn't that old lady playing trumpet cool? And don't you hate when roving bands of swing dancers make you spill your fruit?

Download the acoustic version of Break Your Heart at Itunes - Break Your Heart - Itunes Session

*Baltimore Sun, October 1995
**San Diego Union Tribune, February 1999


  1. Annie-

    "If you do not control your rants, your rants will control you"

    Sorry, just kidding. I just watched "Mystery Men" and you should definately NOT watch "The Legend of Bagger Vance"

  2. Oh Bernie, you always make me laugh. I love Mystery Men! I've never seen Baggar Vance, is it full of terrible aphorisms? Now I almost want to watch it.