Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Song for a Crappy Tuesday: February Covers Edition

In Cintra Wilson's A Massive Swelling, she discusses the white-knuckled love a teen aged girl can have for her idols. It's a potent concoction, this love: equal parts adoration, ownership, jealousy, and self-hatred.

This section of the book is dedicated in part to letters she was given by a celebrity mail routing company. New Kids on the Block can't read everything, so companies are hired to sort, read, answer, and discard fan letters sent by the Great Hormonal Unwashed. In a couple of cases the fan mail comes from the pen of women in their forties (One is more sexual in nature, offering a good time, once all these teeny bopper girls have fallen away. The second writes that she is going to leave her desperate and unhappy marriage - kids in tow - to meet Jordan Knight of NKOTB, and the two of them will ride into the sunset of her broken longings. The first one, while a little creepy, is still considered healthy...the second one, well, isn't.), but for the most part the writings arrive in exactly the form you'd think: purple ink, drenched in Love's Baby Soft, little heart stickers all over the front and inside.

These notes are considered on the healthy end of the spectrum and Wilson describes the fantasy attached to such correspondence: A 14-year-old girl speaks of her unyielding love, and when Jordan or Donnie or Justin comes to town for the concert, he will see her dancing in the sea of plebeian riff-raff, lift her up from the maddening crowd and the two of them will fly off in his helicopter while her friends baste themselves in envy for all time. (This is a paraphrase here...your should check out the book for Wilson's acidic poetry.)

(I am no stranger to this fantasy.
Although, I was never a NKOTB fan. I dreamed that members of Bauhaus would descend from on high and whisk me off to their lair of the undead. Same difference. I dare say no woman who has survived puberty's humiliating fire can claim never to have had an all encompassing - and unrequited - idee fixe.)

One of the best, and most overlooked, tributes to this love is "Superstar" by the Carpenters, from their 1971 album Carpenters. Karen Carpenter's voice coats the whole affair in her wholesome alto and, while the song itself seems benign enough, the lyrics betray a yearning for the Big Love to glance her way. The darkness really creeps in with bass note on the piano punctuating the middle of each verse.

(Also, I have a soft spot for the Carpenters since I can do a mean Karen Carpenter imitation at karaoke. I discovered this when I was in my teens, making fun of the Carpenter holiday standard "Sleigh Ride" at the dinner table. It was a hit, and I have cultivated this impression, still searching for that spontaneous laughter I got all those Christmases ago. Christ.)

The second form of teen fan letter Wilson presents, is considered "unhealthy". Written in black ink on notebook paper, the letter reveals - with striking clarity - a girl in crisis. She sits on the floor, listening to NKOTB over and over, wishing for something more, something larger, and her parents don't understand why her grades have plummeted, and no one can see her true self except that poster of Donnie Wahlberg on her wall. She wishes for death to end this craving. She has no one to turn to, save this sheet of torn notebook paper and the hope the Donnie will respond.

But he won't and her torture will continue.

So little can stop the black hole suction of a teen love turned in on itself. For those who recognize this kind of feeling, that deep well of hopeless thirst, you know there is no turning back from it. A girl must simply walk straight through, and hope to come out on the other side in a different galaxy.

About 15 years ago, the album "If I Were a Carpenter" was released featuring Carpenter covers from the likes of Cracker and the Cranberries. The jewel in the crown of this compilation is Sonic Youth's otherworldly cover of "Superstar." All that pristine longing in the original is ratcheted up to a state of tooth-grinding anxiety. In one fell swoop, the object of love becomes an object of fetish.

This is what it sounds like inside the swirling bowl of "Unhealthy Fan Letter" girl.

(And a note, if you have cats, don't play it for them. While at my parents' a few years ago, I played it on their hi-fi. The cat, Baby, freaked out and rolled on the floor, the victim of some unseen tormentor. I stopped the CD and he was fine.)


joe g said...

Good choice. I loved the SY interpretation of this song. Very creepy.

rebar said...

>>drenched in Love's Baby Soft

The sense memory of just thinking about LBS struck me so hard I just fell off my chair.

vosilim |voh•‘sill•lem|
n. The jetsum and detris left behind on the floor of the stadium after a Jonas Brothers concert.

Jan Smelk said...

Can I make a request of Kate Bush's Rocket Man? I have tried and failed too many times trying to understand Sonic Youth.

mesynte: a simple goth typo

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