Last night, the new documentary about one of my favorite bands, The Magnetic Fields, debuted at San Francisco’s Noise Pop festival at Mezzanine. This was the first screening of the movie and I was lucky enough to score a couple of tickets to the sold-out show. And much to my surprise and delight, Stephin Merritt, the mind and “heart” behind The Magnetic Fields was actually there!
But before I get ahead of myself, a bit about The Magnetic Fields and Stephin Merritt. Stephin is an amazingly prolific songwriter and revered among indie music fans. His songs have been covered by everyone from Peter Gabriel to Arcade Fire. He’s also a renowned curmudgeon, often described as “prickly” and “irascible”. You can Google him and read all the superlatives but I’ll take this moment to attempt to articulate my reasons for reverence and bewilderment. What makes Stephin writes beautiful songs and stories in a way that recasts concepts of love, loss, relationships, and story in ways you’ve never heard them previously articulated. Cliches that we cynical post-modern assholes simply dismiss and scoff at, Stephin transforms into songs and stories slathered in sarcasm. He’s as cynical as they come. He looks at life and rolls his eyes. But this process makes everything sound new and revolutionary. Anyone who knows me knows my love of “Book of Love”, a track from TMF’s sprawling three-CD concept album, “69 Love Songs”. The album is, in fact, comprised of 69 love songs.
I love “Book of Love”. Any boy who gave me that song would be my husband (or, at a minimum, my baby daddy) in a heartbeat. I love what it says about love.
The book of love is long and boring
No one can lift the damn thing
It’s full of charts and facts and figures
And instructions for dancing but
I love it when you read to me and
You can read me anything
The book of love has music in it
In fact that’s where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb but
I love it when you sing to me and
You can sing me anything
The book of love is long and boring
And written very long ago
It’s full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes
And things we’re all too young to know but
I love it when you give me things and
You ought to give me wedding rings
It is a beautiful song, particularly when sung by Stephin’s disaffected baritone voice. But the genius of the song is that Stephin is being completely sarcastic. He has said that he wrote Book of Love as a joke. It mocks what people are like when they’re in love. He was recently told that the song was played at a fan’s wedding and he scoffed. Obviously, this makes me love the song that much more.
So yes, the guy writes beautiful songs. But what makes Stephin different for me is that he believes that you shouldn’t write songs or be creative when you’re in the emotion or feeling you are trying to evoke. That is, if you’re in love, the last thing you should be doing is writing a love song. Similarly, if you’re writing a story song, you shouldn’t be writing about something you’ve experienced or are experiencing. I have never heard him elaborate on this point. I was hoping that the documentary would get into his creative process but it didn’t touch on this particular issue.
I can only assume the following: The idea must be that if you write while you are in that empassioned state, you cannot possibly capture the full range of emotion or possibility in the song. You’re hamstringed to what you’re feeling. Because of that, how can you possibily articulate something new or express something that is not cliche? You can’t. So why bother? You’re too tied to the “truth” of how you feel or what you’re experiencing.
This is mindblowing to me. Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying to break out of my “I can only write what I know!” mentality and force myself to write from a more objective place (thus the lack of posting here). It’s really hard. I am not hardwired this way. I feel compelled to write what I see and what I feel at the moment. The problem with this, and why I am entertaining these notions of more detached writing, is that in order for the reader or listener to connect with what I write, they have to care about *my* point of view. Why the fuck should a complete and total stranger care what Courtney is experiencing? In a way, you have to care about me in order to care about what I have to say.
That’s not an inherently problematic thing. The strongest emotional connections I have with pieces of writing or songs almost always stem from my “relationship” with the author, writer, or singer. If I know where the writer is coming from, their backstory, it creates this emotional connection that doesn’t exist otherwise. Here’s an embarrassing and tremendously lazy example: I hear “Simple Kind of Life” by No Doubt and I can cry fairly easily because I know, based on interviews and reading, what was going on with Gwen Stefani when she wrote that song. “Knowing” her in this way allows me to create what feels like a very real emotional connection with her and thus, the song, despite the fact that it’s not a particularly amazing piece of work. Compare that to, say, reading The Great Gatsby. A beautifully written piece of art that, while I can intellectually recognize its genius, carries no emotional resonance whatsoever.
Like I said, that was an idiotically simple and lazy comparison. Music is a more inherently moving form of art for me personally, so sorry, Scotty F.
Which brings me back to Stephin. Here’s a guy who writes songs that move me on a frighteningly regular basis. “Papa Was A Rodeo” is just a fantastic song with glints of country melancholy. Yet he’s a complete mystery. No one knows much about it. In fact, one of the only things we do know is that the songs aren’t autobiographical. They are not glimpses into his soul. He doesn’t emote when he sings. In fact, he looks completely bored. Is it his mystique that draws me in, searching for little hints as to what he’s feeling in that song? I’ve thought about that and the answer is affirmatively, no. I’m not so arrogant as to think that I can find something that Stephin inadvertently let slip through the cracks. I have too much respect for him for that.
But this conundrum was the driving force for wanting to see “Strange Powers”. I was hoping for some insight into his creative process and his personality. While the movie touched on both, it left me wanting more. I WANT TO KNOW MORE, STEPHIN! Which of course is exactly how he wants it.
That said, “Strange Powers” does exactly what any Magnetic Fields fan would want (loved the filmmakers’ acknowledgment that San Francisco is the heart of the Magnetic Fields’ fanbase): It will convert non-fans into fans and make fans into superfans. It is a documentary, 10 years in the making, that tells the story of the band, showing live footage, and really putting the music and the band front and center. And that’s not to say there is no insight into the band. The filmmakers’ focus on the relationship between Stephin and his best friend/collaborator/bandmate Claudia Gonson is really beautiful. If you’ve ever been a fag-hag or friends with a prickly creative (ahem), there’s so much you can identify with.
Leaving Mezzanine I felt jazzed and inspired. I’m sure Stephin would roll his eyes and tell me to calm the fuck down.
More TMF goodness:
“All The Little Words”
“I Don’t Believe In The Sun”
I want to be a Playboy’s bunny
I’d do whatever they asked me to
I’d meet people with lots of money
And they would love me like I loved you
I want to be a topless waitress
I want my mother to shed one tear
I’d throw away this old, sedate dress
Slip into something a tad more sheer
I want to be an artist’s model
An odalisque au naturel
I should be good at spin the bottle
While I’ve still got something left to sell
I want to be a cobra dancer
With little Willie between my thighs
I may not find a cure for cancer
But I’ll meet plenty of single guys
I want to be a brothel worker
I’ve always been treated like one
If I could be a back-street lurker
I’d make more money and have more fun
I want to be a dominatrix
Which isn’t like me, but I can dream
Learn S&M and all those gay tricks
And men will pay me to make them scream
I want to be a porno starlet
For that I’ll wait ’til Mama’s dead
I’ll see my name in lights of scarlet
And get to spend every day in bed.
I want to be a tattooed lady
Dedicated as I am to art
Characters bold, complex and shady
Will write my memoirs across my heart.
“Book of Love” sung to…a puppet.