Autumn prep: a hint of nostalgia, courtesy of Dar Williams
Spotify recently updated its home screen to feature a strange hodgepodge of recommendations tailored to the account holder. As someone traumatized by Pandora when she still had access to that marvel of music sites a few years back (No, my love for Dixie Chicks does NOT mean I want to listen to Carrie Underwood, thanks), I am (perhaps) more reluctant than most to take them seriously. And, indeed, many of the connections Spotify makes are undeniably strange. “You have listened to Judy Garland. Now try Harry Belafonte!” “If you like Bette Midler, you will love John Denver! And, a favorite: “It’s been a while since you last listened to ‘Fuck You’ by Lily Allen. Play now?” Not that I have anything against Harry Belafonte, far from it, but they’re not exactly the same style. So I don’t have a lot of faith in these things.
A couple of weeks ago, however, I decided to click one of these suggestions (“Love Indigo Girls and Girlyman? Try Dar Williams”) anyway. Perhaps because I didn’t know her name and felt like I should, perhaps because yes, I do love Indigo Girls and Girlyman, thank you, Spotify. The reason doesn’t matter as much as the fact that I started listening to her albums and immediately fell in love.
My musical preference is already lightly skewed towards lady singers, so my love-at-first-sight might – at least initially – be explained by that predilection, but in reality it’s her lyrics. They push all my interests-in-art buttons: kindness, connection, nostalgia. These are themes I love the most in the books and media I choose to surround myself with and were also important themes in my MA thesis, in which I took a look at the desire for a reconnection with these themes in books in post-9/11 America. In the end, in my heart, I guess, I believe that when given the opportunity, people will naturally want to do good, connect with their communities and the world around them, and treat each other kindly. Of course such a world view seems to fly directly in the face of our daily news cycle, with its reports of chemical warfare in Syria, people molested and abused the world over, children of color being killed in American streets because the color of their skin, austerity measures, and so on, and so forth. But world views, in my opinion, should always hang in a precarious balance lest they ossify and remain stagnant and reactionary, so I’ll continue facing the world as a contradiction in terms.
But back to Dar Williams and her lyrics. One of the first songs that grabbed me was “February.” (If you don’t like lengthy song analyses and personal thoughts about lyrics, please just listen to the songs and fall in love along with me while skipping over the rest?)
(I’m including YouTube so folks without Spotify can listen along if they’re so inclined. All her albums are on Spotify, though, for those of you who have accounts.) Now please note that all the following analyses and interpretations are (naturally) my own, and you mileage may vary, but this song caught my attention because to me, it speaks to that unspeakable, impossible-seeming moment when you suddenly, without noticing, forget why you loved someone (or something, for that matter) and, as a result, stop loving them. The song opens with “I threw your keys in the water / I looked back and they’d frozen halfway down in the ice” and has a wonderful circularity, ending with “The leaves were turning as we drove to the hardware store / my new lover made me keys to the house.” In between the two keys, however, we find a reminiscence (the “looking back”) of how it all went wrong. But of course there’s never a clear image of where, when and why exactly you forgot to love this person or thing; it sneaks and it happens and it doesn’t make sense. So “first we forgot where we planted those bulbs last year / And then we forgot that we planted at all / Then we forgot was plants are altogether / and I blamed you for my freezing and forgetting.” Later in the song, as February (which “has lasted into March”) finally seems to lose its grip, “you stopped and pointed and you said, that’s a crocus / and I said, what’s a crocus / and you said, it’s a flower / I tried to remember but I said, what’s a flower / and you said, I still love you. ” The damage has been done, inexplicably yet undeniably so, and the new lover is next. But the song is not about that. The new lover doesn’t really matter – except perhaps as a potential simulacrum, with a similar potential fate, of the old one. The key here is the wistful glance at a past which undeniably took a turn you might wish it hadn’t taken. But that’s life, and that’s February. It’s a godawful month.
Then there’s “The Babysitter’s Here.”
This ode to her babysitter in the 70’s (“peace, man, cool, yeah”) has a such a beautiful narrative progression that I really don’t want to quote too much; it feels like spoilers. Ridiculous, I know, but I never said my song feelings made sense. (So why are you reading this, you might ask yourself? Look, I don’t know either. You felt like it, I guess.) If you listen to it, however, you are immediately permeated by the feeling of this little girl absolutely hero-worshiping the cool teenager who takes care of her: the babysitter has long hair, watches strange movies, is a dancer, and has a beautiful boyfriend. Obviously everything she is must be everything a little girl wants to be. But from early on in the song, the adults among us understand that all might not be perfect as our little speaker wonders about Tom (the boyfriend) and the babysitter, “will they get married with kids of their own / he says, not if she’s going to college we won’t.” At the end of the song, the babysitter is crying and says “do me a favor, don’t go with a guy who would make you choose / and I don’t understand and she tries to explain / and all that mascara runs down in her pain cause she’s leaving me, oh.” To this little girl, who loves and is loved, the only understandable pain in this situation is the pain of separation. But of course we know that the babysitter’s decision to go to college must mean Tom ditched her (and good riddance to him, I say!). As a result, we end with a bittersweet scenario of a little girl taking caring for her babysitter (“And I’ll make you a picture for college next year / So hush now, peace man /”) and that awkward knowledge that may have come to us as adults, that childhood, even for all it’s love, lightness and glitter, was so much heavier than we perceive it to be now (especially looking at those who are currently children).
Finally (because I cannot keep going on about these songs, no matter how much I want to), there’s “Teenagers, Kick Our Butts,” which sadly is not on YouTube but which is my anthem for this academic year. Teenagers are, as we all know, much maligned. They’re disaffected, rude, unambitious, have no attention span, don’t know how to communicate, and so on, and so forth. In this song, Dar Williams says that maybe it’s us, not them, that’s the problem. There are many parts of this song which resonate with me. As a now 30-something, “we drink and smoke to numb our pain / we read junk novels on the plane / we use authority for show so we can be a little smarter” is an obvious winner, but so is “we still can grow, and many do / it’s when we stop we can’t reach you / we feel the loss, you feel the blame / we’re scared to lose, don’t be the same.” This song, in its entirety, speaks to the ridiculousness of dismissing teenagers out of hand, just because they’re teenagers. Because, when it comes down to it, what’s the alternative? We all hoard our knowledge and our wealth (haha, fellow Millennials! Haha, wealth) and our influence and keep kicking younger generations down, Boomer-style? That’s no way to live, nor is it a way to make the world better. Might as well have teenagers kick our butts, because it’s not like we’re doing such an awesome job at running the world anyway. Besides, as Williams sings to the teenagers “I’m sure you know there’s lots to learn / but that’s not your fault, it’s just your turn,” so “find the future that redeems / give us hell, give us dreams / and grow and grow and grow.”
Hopefully my students will heed this call as well.
I am aware I went on about this singer-songwriter for an awfully long time, but believe me, it could have been much worse. If my verbosity hasn’t soured any interest you might have had in Dar Williams as you started reading, look up some of my other favorites: “What Do You Hear In These Sounds,” “The End of Summer,” “My Friends,” “Christians and Pagans,” “Iowa,” “When I Was A Boy,” “Are You Out There” and the intro to “Yoko Ono” on the “Out There Live” album. In fact, just listen to that entire album. Do it. For love, joy, and music that’s perfect for September.