tremble clef

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Bertine Zetlitz, "Ashamed" (2007)

Bertine's tremendous new song, "Ashamed" -- which you can hear at Herspace, and which may be on her forthcoming Best Of, and, God, I just blacked out for a second when I realized how amazing that collection will be -- seems to be about her ten-month old daughter Lill. The song's introduction, filled with chimes from a baby's mobile while a toddler giggles softly in the background, makes that clear.

Let's take a moment for that to sink in: Bertine is a new mother, has written a song about her new baby, and that song is called "Ashamed." This is why I have her perverse soul so much.

Here's how the lyric goes:

(Look at all these papercuts...)

Verse 1: How you gonna fall-fall-fall asleep at night/Knowing that you never taught her how to fight/Knowing she don't know how to clench her fists real tight/Knowing she'll be better off way out of sight

Verse 2: How you gonna make her feel her way around/Ninjas' how I'll do they hardly make a sound/How you're gonna teach her not to make a mess/Running can be hard in high heels and a dress

Chorus: And if I love you half as hard/I know that I will fall apart/Sometimes while I sleep/The company I keep/Makes me ashamed/And if I love you twice as much/You probably won't stay in touch/Sometimes when I dream/The images I see/Makes me ashamed

Verse 3: Telling her sometimes that tigers come at dawn/Teaching her to be the queen and not a pawn/Ripping off your heart to show her how it breaks/Swallowing your pride to show how bad it aches

Chorus

Bridge, twice: Look at all these papercuts/And all is in my heart/You know these papercuts/Mean we will never part/Among my favorite wounds are those that never heal/Among my favorite friends are those who never feel

Chorus

The lyric, which returns to the complexity of her pre-Italian Greyhound releases (the arresting might eight, with its feel/heal rhyme, is something of a callback to "Closer" from Beautiful So Far), concerns the difficulties of raising a child. (And, at several points, about the specific anxiety of raising a girl in our still-sexist world: "Running can be hard in high heels and a dress.") It speaks brilliantly -- though not without humor, if I'm hearing that "ninja" line right -- to the sense of inadequacy and helplessness parents often feel: how will we ever be able to protect her from what is essentially a cruel world? And protect her, not just from physical injury, but, even more impossibly, prepare her for emotional pain? How do we balance the need to equip her with survival tactics (sometimes you'll need to run, or stay "out of sight") with the need to not back down, to be a "queen and not a pawn"?

Strikingly, even though the song is about her baby, the verses appear to be addressed to Bertine's partner. While it may seem odd that Bertine is palming her worries off on, or passing her responsibilities onto, her partner ("what are you going to do about that mess, boyfriend?"), this isn't necessarily the case: if she's addressing her lover, it might just be her transparent way of managing her fears, pretending that it is his job rather than hers when the very fact that she's singing about it gives the game away. Indeed, perhaps she's not really addressing him at all with those second person pronouns, but simply herself. Her lips say "you," but her heart knows to hear "I."

The "you" of the chorus -- featuring Bertine's trademarked harmonies, breathtakingly double-tracked -- gets even more complicated. Here, it feels unlikely that Bertine is talking about or to herself with the "you"s. It's slightly more possible that she is talking (or continuing to talk) to her lover, although that serves to shift the song -- from being about her child, to being about her lover -- a bit too much, and too disconcertingly. Is the chorus then sung to her daughter? The first half proclaims a love that is almost painful and unbearable: I love you so much that it's emotionally impossible for me to love you less; if I did, I would "fall apart." But the second half of the chorus turns a bit darker: "And if I love you twice you as much/You probably won't stay in touch." We could simply see that as Bertine's warning to herself to not be an overbearing mother, but it's also considerably more. It makes the song deeply and wonderfully paranoid, and in its own way even rather anti-procreation: I love you, but I already know you will abandon me eventually. It takes a special mother to confess to her newborn daughter that she already fears losing her, although both that fear, and her ability to express it, speaks volumes about the depths of Bertine's feelings; in its perverse, twisted way, "Ashamed" is the ultimate declaration of maternal love.

In other news: it's been a bittersweet week. The Red Sox win, but Stylus (and its Singles Jukebox) close. I'm proud to have been a part of the last, and glad to have had the chance to contribute one final essay to it.

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