Thursday, July 21, 2011

Frozen Charlotte

Frozen Charlotte (from the album Ophelia)

Blue like the winter snow in this full moon
black like the silhouettes of the trees
late blooming flowers lye frozen underneath the stars
I want you to remember me that way

Far away
I'll be gone
will you wait for me here?
how long?
I don't know
but wait for me here

Still as the river grows in December
silent and perfect blinding ice
spring keeps her promises
no cold can keep her back
I want you to remember me that way

Far away
I'll be gone
will you wait for me here?
how long?
I don't know
but wait for me here
follow
don't follow me to where I'll go

Far away
I'll be gone
will you wait for me here?
how long?
I don't know
but wait for me here
follow
don't follow me to where I've gone
someday you'll take my place
and I'll wait for you here



When I first started writing this blog, readers e-mailed me more than once asking me to write about Natalie's song Thick As Thieves. I could understand why. The lyrics to that song fascinate listeners. A lot of people have their pet theory about the meaning of the words and are curious to know what others think. Although I agree that Thick As Thieves is a very intriguing song, the song in Natalie's catalogue that most ignites my imagination is Frozen Charlotte.

Whenever possible, I like to include quotes from Natalie about whatever song I happen to be writing about. I have often found that learning about Natalie's inspiration for a song has deepened my appreciation for it, as in the case of My Skin. But in all my searching, I haven't been able to find any particularly revealing clues from Natalie about the inspiration and meaning of Frozen Charlotte. Although I would love to hear her insights about the song, I figure this is my chance to engage in a bit of theorizing - a favorite past time, indeed! So without further ado, let's dig in, shall we?

The first possibility for the meaning of Frozen Charlotte? Death. I know, way to start things out on a light note. But this theory is one that surely has some validity. 

"I want you to remember me that way."

That lyric is all it really takes to make the connection to death. The desire to be remembered is something that seems to be fundamental to our emotional makeup. No one wants to be forgotten. And more than merely remembered, we have a specific vision for how we want to be remembered - sometimes a not-entirely reasonable one. If I die, I would like the readers of this blog to remember me as "A passionate and sensitive writer, one who perfectly captured the spirit of Natalie Merchant's music with simple but profound expression" as opposed to the more realistic "She was kind of long-winded and thought we cared a lot more than we did about her opinions, but sometimes she was mildly humorous and we always enjoyed the video links." If you are about to perish from this earth, you can't help but romanticize yourself a little bit.

How does the protagonist (let's just call her Charlotte, for the sake of simplicity) of Frozen Charlotte want to be remembered?

"Blue like the winter snow in this full moon
black like the silhouettes of the trees
late blooming flowers lye frozen underneath the stars

Still as the river grows in December
silent and perfect blinding ice
spring keeps her promises
no cold can keep her back"
 
These words, all describing beautiful aspects of the natural world, make it clear that Charlotte wants to be remembered as a figure of beauty. But there could be additional layers of meaning here. All of these natural wonders are sheathed in ice. Does she want to be remembered as beautiful but distant, impossible to reach, to penetrate? Maybe. Still, she also likens herself to a promised spring, one that never fails to break through the winter. Perhaps distant, then, but not entirely unreachable.

I've heard more than one person hypothesize that this song can be interpreted as a parent singing to their child. The additional voice you hear singing with Natalie on this song is Karen Peris, a singer with a uniquely childlike timbre to her voice. When matched with Natalie's soothing and reassuring tone, the call-and-response portion of these lyrics can certainly read like a conversation between a mother and her child. Perhaps, it has been supposed, Charlotte is preparing her child to lose her mother. She doesn't have all the answers ("I don't know..."), but she is trying nonetheless to comfort her child ("...but wait for me here...") and keep her safe ("Don't follow me to where I'll go.") With this idea in mind, it makes the plaintive cry of her child singing, "How long?" piercingly painful.

But I have my own pet theory about this song, a twist on the idea presented above. Maybe all those enigmatic references to being black and silent and frozen accurately portray a person, a mother, who is distant and inscrutable. She might be beautiful in the mind of her adoring child, but she is off living her own life, making promises she may or may not have any intention of keeping. Her child keeps pining for her mother's attention and affection, but her mother keeps putting her off. "How long?I don't know, but wait for me here." I guess the lyric that brought this idea into my mind was the final one:

"Someday you'll take my place and I'll wait for you here."

You know what happens to the parent who ignores their child, who pushes them away and tells them, in one way or the other, that they are on their own? The child figures it out. They learn not to need that parent anymore. And as that parent grows into their old age, a funny thing starts to happen. The roles reverse. The selfish life they once pursued is no longer available to them and now they begin to experience the loneliness they inflicted upon their now adult child, who no longer has any need for them. Maybe all along there was part of the selfish parent that knew this would happen. 

"Someday you'll take my place and I'll wait for you here."

Well, that, or I've just given you all a look waaaaaay too deep into my psyche.

When I wrote about Thick As Thieves, my final hypothesis was that the song wasn't really about anything in particular, it was just clever words. Natalie herself claimed not to know what the song was about. Maybe that's the case with Frozen Charlotte too. Maybe we're supposed to layer on our own meaning. It's kind of fun, isn't it?

So what are your thoughts on Frozen Charlotte? Any theory here you are particularly fond of? Have your own idea? Feel free to share with me by leaving a comment below or by e-mailing me at nmcompendium@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading, see you soon!

Download Frozen Charlotte from Itunes - Frozen Charlotte - Ophelia

9 comments:

  1. I have just found your blog, and it is amazing! I am a big fan of Miss Merchant, and finding a place to discuss her great art is excellent.

    This is a lovely song, and a while back I visited songmeanings.com, and someone wrote that this song reminds him/her about the mythical story of Persephone and her mother, Demeter. Since that day on, that is how I envisioned this song. Don't really know why. :)

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  2. Vertigo -

    Ooh ooh ooh! I don't know that story and now I'm filled with curiosity. Care to elaborate?

    Thank you for your kind comments about the blog. I'm glad you are enjoying it.

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  3. Well, here is what this person wrote:

    "It's Persephone singing to her mother, Demeter, as she is taken away each year to the underworld. The depth of mourning which they feel, mother and daughter, as the harsh reality of their world forces them apart, as the daughter of spring grows up and meets her fate. It's almost as if the daughter has been so disillusioned that she's become older than the mother, and is trying to protect her from what she has to endure - "Follow... don't follow me, to where I have gone."

    I've wondered before why those early cultures felt the desire to create such elaborate mythologies to follow the great mysteries of nature, but here, perhaps I can understand that desire." http://www.songmeanings.net/songs/view/14583/

    If you know a little bit of the story between Persephone and Demeter, and the role nature (specially the seasons) have, this theory makes sense. From Wiki: Demeter controlled seasonal growth and regeneration. When her virgin daughter Persephone was abducted to underworld by Hades, Demeter searched for her ceaselessly, preoccupied with her loss and her grief. The seasons halted; living things ceased their growth, then began to die.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demeter

    Again, this is just a theory, but I have grown to like it. :)

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    1. Intriguing. Are you familiar with the song, "Persephone", by Wishbone Ash? A face. However romantic this is, I also like Annie's theory ♡

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  4. Vertigo -

    Very interesting. Thanks for the info!

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  5. there is an old poem called frozen charlotte I wonder if that inspired her. see link below.

    http://www.wtv-zone.com/phyrst/audio/nfld/12/charlotte.htm

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  6. Hi Anonymous -

    That is definitely a theory going around. Someone sent me an interesting comment about that poem that I published several weeks back. Their thoughts are at the bottom of the post. http://nataliemerchantcompendium.blogspot.com/2011/09/diver-boy-crazy-man-michael.html
    Thanks for writing!

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  7. I like the other theories I've read on this and other sites. However, there are some missing pieces. In the poem Young Charlotte, she isn't saying "don't follow me", or "wait for me here" in any way. In Persephone and Demeter, Persephone does know where she's going and for how long.

    The theory that I had is more mundane, and has a flaw as well, but I'll throw it out there. We don't hear about cryogenics much these days, but a couple of decades ago there were people who voluntarily agreed to be frozen because they were dying of something for which no cure existed at the time. The hope was that at some time in the future, a cure would exist for that disease, and that they would figure out how to thaw someone without them dying from the thawing process, which hasn't been achieved yet.

    Thus, the song is someone who will be frozen, saying good-bye. She doesn't know where she'll "be" while frozen, nor whether nor when she'll be coming back. This fits the lyrics pretty well, except that she says, "someday you'll take my place and I'll wait for you here".

    -Bryan

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    1. Whoa, Bryan, you just took it to full science fiction mode! Maybe it's a song about Walt Disney? No, I kid. I guess I ultimately don't think the lyrics refer to anything super specific. I think we like to think Natalie has a complicated mythology for all her songs, but I think a lot of it is less complex than that. Some of the songs on Ophelia feel like tone poems to me. Hope I'm not over-simplifying it.

      Thanks for writing,
      Annie

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