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  • Songs Are Like Tattoos:A Response
  • Eric Lott (bio)

“Songs are like tattoos,” sings Joni Mitchell in “Blue” (1971), opening with a figure she’ll work much harder before the song is through. She’s written a song for Blue, and this is it. “There is a song for you / Ink on a pin / Underneath the skin / An empty space to fill in.” More than other songs-about-this-song of its moment (Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” say, or Elton John’s “Your Song,” or Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”), Mitchell’s conjures the mortal stakes of songs and what they do for us and to us. Her voice vaults and swoops; elemental piano hammers it in. Where the alternatives (as ever, as now) are “acid, booze, and ass / needles, guns, and grass,” Joni proffers her song as “a shell for you.” It protects you (until it doesn’t); anyway it’s always with you. As the great pop critic Ann Powers once remarked, and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t recall where (and neither does she, I checked), hardly anybody recites great literature in the shower or reenacts classic movie scenes at weddings—it’s the song that remains, a talisman and a habit, sheltering you or driving you crazy, defining your life. Under your skin, where they begin, where they go to work, and where they stay.

This is certainly the force of that high farce High Fidelity (2000). Based on the novel by Nick Hornby (who also wrote a nice little study called Songbook [2002]), directed by Stephen Frears, and above all a vehicle for actors John Cusack and Jack Black, it asks repeatedly (like a good pop song) just what constitutes the perfect mixtape—that series of songs in cunning sequence that will both materialize your feelings and slay, as in seduce, your auditor. Cusack was by then no stranger to such notions, having rather bathetically held aloft that boombox at the peak point of Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything … (1989): standing Romeo-style outside his paternally interdicted girlfriend’s house, he uses Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” to throw his character’s yearning for connection and completion all the way up into Ione Skye’s room where she lies tossing and turning, an unsilent vigil-cum-siege that perfectly mimics the thrust of the song (which eventually works). “Reaching out from the inside,” as the song goes, Cusack’s eyes make a wordless work of expressive commentary [End Page 823] that has in turn made Gabriel’s little emo pin stick longer than it otherwise would have. And Cusack does it again in his performance as the older Brian Wilson in the recent Beach Boys biopic Love & Mercy (2014; Paul Dano takes the younger Wilson, and both are terrific). But here there’s no reaching out, only the chief Beach Boy’s swan dive into his sickbed, the singer slain. L.A.’s endless summer, as Theodor W. Adorno discerned from living there, was “damaged life” (Minima Moralia), and Brian Wilson seems to have known it too: in accord with Adorno’s aesthetic theory, in fact, the almost unbearable beauty of a song like “In My Room” very precisely registers the pain of the world that produced it, not least in the stacked harmonies and falsetto reaches that seem to struggle for dear life to hold on. The room has become his “world,” the song goes, the world shrunk to room-size because he’s terrified to leave it, and alone in this sanctuary with his “secrets,” the singer locks out “my worries and my fears,” crying and sighing and laughing at yesterday but not afraid, even in the lonely dark. This song is a world, too, each stanza a room in which to hide, and Cusack’s fearless performance of Wilson’s paralyzing fear lets you see such a song as protective armor, and see as well its cracks that let the light in.

While all of the essays in this “Song” issue of New Literary History are rousing and edifying, learned and rangy, I notice two chief tendencies of interest or emphasis. One of these works...


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pp. 823-830
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