Thursday, September 1, 2011

Wonder

Wonder (from the album Tigerlily)

Doctors have come from distant cities
just to see me
stand over my bed
disbelieving what they're seeing

They say I must be one of the wonders
of god's own creation
and as far as they can see they can offer
no explanation

Newspapers ask intimate questions
want confessions
they reach into my head
to steal the glory of my story

They say I must be one of the wonders
of god's own creation
and as far as they can see they can offer
no explanation

O, I believe
fate smiled and destiny
laughed as she came to my cradle
know this child will be able
laughed as my body she lifted
know this child will be gifted
with love, with patience and with faith
she'll make her way

People see me
I'm a challenge to your balance
I'm over your heads
how I confound you and astound you
to know I must be one of the wonders
of god's own creation
and as far as you can see you can offer me
no explanation

O, I believe
fate smiled and destiny
laughed as she came to my cradle
know this child will be able
laughed as she came to my mother
know this child will not suffer
laughed as my body she lifted
know this child will be gifted
with love, with patience and with faith
she'll make her way



Last year, as I was hatching the idea to start this blog, I realized that I would be writing a fair bit about the subject of childhood. After all, Natalie had just released an album, Leave Your Sleep, based on poetry that she described as being by, for, or about children. But I still didn't anticipate just how often these little posts I write would end up centering on the subject of children and childhood. As I started writing my way through Natalie's catalogue, I would come upon the subject time and time again, not just with songs from Leave Your Sleep, but with songs from every epoch of Natalie's career, songs like How You've Grown, What's the Matter Here, Cotton Alley, and Stockton Gala Days, among others.

All of those songs I've just mentioned deal directly with children or childhood, but beyond those songs were songs that ostensibly had nothing to do with childhood but reminded me in some way or another of experiences from my own young life. Before I started this blog, if someone would have asked me what I thought the common theme that unites Natalie Merchant's writing was, I think I might have been inclined to say there wasn't one. But now I can answer unequivocally - I think childhood is the central theme of Natalie's writing.

Of course, I don't mean to imply that I believe it is the only thing that she has written about, but it's impossible to deny how strongly the current of childhood flows through her music. There's several possible reasons for this. Perhaps Natalie is just very in touch with her own inner child, something I find highly likely. Maybe she really likes children; in fact, that seems undeniable. Or maybe she writes the way most every other great artist writes and it's just that she's the only artist whose music I have examined this closely. After all, most of us are somewhat obsessed with our own childhood - the beautiful parts, the terrible parts, all the parts we're still trying to figure out. Maybe all this talk of romantic love being at the root of popular music is just a myth. Maybe all roads lead back to our childhood, in some way or another.

Well, today I am back with another post and once again, the song I am covering, Wonder (heard of it?), has childhood at its core. I've hesitated to write about this song for a long time, not because I don't love it, because I do love it so much, but because in all of Natalie's catalogue Wonder is the song that has inarguably touched the most people on the most intimately personal level. What can I possibly say that can add to that? The answer is nothing, so for once I'm going to (mostly) keep my ideas to myself and instead focus on things that Natalie has said about Wonder. First, the inspiration:

"It was a song that I wrote after seeing a documentary about a severely physically handicapped girl who had been institutionalized at birth and was adopted by this farmer couple in rural Texas. And she had this remarkable life and she credited her adopted parent's love and support for her overcoming."*

Certain critical nincompoops liked to point out that Wonder served as proof that Natalie was a raging narcissist. (Rant: Why is it that every female celebrity that is self-possessed and doesn't feel the need to constantly distort herself to appeal to the masses gets labeled as an egomaniac? Is it impossible for a female to fall somewhere in between self-loathing and self-obsessed? Bah!) Natalie addressed this criticism in no uncertain terms:

"That's their problem. They'd have to be pretty dense to think I sang it about me. I'm not that crafty to be the first person to sing [about someone else] in the first person."**

Ha! Take that, nincompoops! Now, about the musical inspiration for Wonder:

"Well, the music - I just liked the descending chord progression and I thought it sounded very hopeful, like a gospel song. And I just kept playing it over and over and I came up the melody. But it was gibberish. There were no words yet. I think after two months I came up with the words. I had decided to write the song about - because it seemed like a triumphant melody in a way - that I wanted to make it a testimonial about strength, inner strength."***

What about the effect this song has had on listeners?

"Over the years I've met so many people who have said that the song was really inspirational to them because they had children born with congenital illness or children who became sick with cancer or children who were blind."*

In the same interview the above quote comes from, Natalie spoke about some specific comments she received from fans about Wonder.

"(A fan told her) 'I remember sitting in the dark at three o'clock in the morning nursing my baby who I was I told was blind and would never excel, never be able to achieve the things a sighted child could. And I listened to (Wonder) over and over and over and I told myself that they're wrong.'

"It's been a song that has changed my life because of the contact that I have with people who have been touched by it. I've come to know that this is an anthem for children with special needs."
*

Now, if I had ever entertained the hope that I might one day have the pleasure of meeting Natalie in person, this interview surely quelled that desire. I can just imagine it now - I'm standing in a long row of people; the person directly in front of me tearfully tells Natalie that just a few years ago they were standing on an overpass, about to jump to their own death, when a car passed by blaring Wonder. It gave them the strength to go on living...and now they are, like...an astronaut or something. They hold each other and weep. Then it's my turn. She looks at me expectantly and I say, "You... It's... I... I...like...your...hair?!" I will blurt out finally. She will raise a disapproving eyebrow, shake my hand weakly and with great effort muster forth a polite "Thank you" before moving on to the next sobbing paralytic who has the lyrics to Wonder tattooed to their face so they will be the first words they read when they look at themselves in the mirror in the morning.

Sigh. It just wasn't meant to be.

Listen, the truth is, I love this stuff. The fact is that although I have been so deeply moved by Natalie Merchant's music that I have committed myself to writing about pretty much every song she has ever written...it's fully conceivable that I could be the fan least affected by her work. I just love that.

I'm sure that many of you reading this post will have your own story about Wonder and I invite you to share your thoughts via the comment section or via email (the preferred method for most of my very thoughtful readers.)

Tune in next time when I will undoubtedly be talking more about Natalie's music and its connection to childhood - yours, mine, and everyone else's. Thanks for reading!

Click here to watch the music video for Wonder

Bonus video! Click here to see Natalie's performance and explanation of Wonder on VH1's Storytellers

Download Wonder on Itunes - Wonder - Tigerlily

*BBC World Service - August 2010
**Cleveland Plain Dealer - September, 1995
***The Performing Songwriter - May/June 1996

6 comments:

  1. Its funny because I never connected 'wonder' as being an anthem for children with special needs, until I saw a YouTube performance at the Perkins School for the Blind (not far away from my house). Then, it made sense.

    However, all this time I saw it as a very uplifting song that anyone could relate to.

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  2. Vertigo -

    That's one of the great things about the song - you don't really have to know the background to appreciate it and connect to it. Knowing the inspiration behind it, though, makes me appreciate it even more.

    Thanks for writing!

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  3. You had me laughing at loud at your vision of meeting Natalie. It sounds exactly like what I imagine saying when/if I meet her, and how I actually was when meeting some of my other idols (Roland & Curt from Tears For Fears, Roger & John Taylor from Duran Duran, Ed Kowalcyk from Live). I had imagined engaging in a highly intellectual conversation with them and then when I met them I became a star struck stuttering idiot! ~:{ -Veronica Taylor

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  4. Make that "laughing OUT loud". Why didn't I just do the lazy thing and type "LOL"?? ;) -Veronica Taylor

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  5. Hi Veronica -

    I despise LOL. I thank you for your commitment to real words, even if they are mistyped. : )

    I think meeting people you admire is really overrated. Unless I knew I'd be able to have some time to have a real conversation with someone, I'd just as soon admire them from afar.

    Thanks for writing!

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    1. I hope that someone can help me. I remember a song, I thought by Natalie Merchant, about St. Patrick's Battalion. They were Irish soldiers who deserted the American army when they recognized the same imperialism that they sought to escape. I may be wrong about the artist. I know many songs were done about St Patricks Battalion. I grew up in a strong Irish community. this one was recorded in the 90s.
      Thanks, Roger

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