Friday, January 25, 2008

I'm in the business of misery

I love “Misery Business”. I cannot remember another song that is just so gleeful, so damn gloating with every word. Maybe she never meant to brag, but she’s sure going to do it now, and I can’t blame her.

Although I’ve been rocking this song since the summer, it’s only been the last few months that it’s really done well, hitting radio where it’s on quick rotation. "Misery Business" is essentially the story of a girl finally getting the guy with whom she’s in love…and throwing this in his ex-girlfriend’s face. But the song is not about the boy at all. It’s about the girl—the girl who first stole her man, and how much she is disliked by the narrator for causing so much pain. It makes perfect sense that the song was written by a teenager—19 year-old Hayley Williams.

"Misery Business" is the perfect companion to Avril’s "Girlfriend", basically a continuation of that song. "Girlfriend" is bratty, childish, daring; "Misery Business" is defiant, confrontational, yet boils down the truth succinctly and eloquently. Both songs are rooted in a high school mindset and are loud, passionate, and candid, but it’s "Misery Business" that captures the frustration, the elation, the pure passion of the moment. I love the little details: "when I thought he was mine she caught him by the mouth", "she's got a body like an hourglass, it's ticking like a clock", how the narrator belts out “I told him I couldn't lie he was the only one for me”. It doesn’t matter that the other girl has it out for her—that line is delivered quickly, emphasis on how now she wears the biggest smile, a line that cannot be delivered without that gleeful, gloating smile.

Overthinking this song, one day I was struck by the chorus, how she was basically bragging that she had the boy wrapped around her finger now…the same thing that Avril said she could do, but “better”. This bothers me. It implies that the boy will be whipped, that she now would have the power over the boy that his previous girlfriend had. It cast the song in a darker, sinister light, and I was uncomfortable with it. She refused! She wasn’t going to be that girl! But I guess we all fall into that pattern once in awhile, becoming what we hate. Besides, she’s just trying to prove a point…and it’s against the woman who stole her man originally, so stealing him back is justice. Yes? Who also cannot help but wonder if they are among the millions of girls who have looked innocent but really weren’t? Maybe it wasn’t their modus operandi, but it could be still part of their psychology, a mode of behavior internalized knowing that if they act coy they can get what they want. That’s the kind of behavior I saw in high school all the time.

Although the video keeps the high school theme, it doesn’t use the story but the emotion of the girl who ruins lives. The mean girl in question just acts like a complete bitch throughout, doing hurtful things for no reason other than to assert her own power, something Hayley alludes to in her LiveJournal (June 27, 2007 entry) and in the second stanza: "Well there's a million other girls who do it just like you /Looking as innocent as possible to get to who /They want and what they like it's easy if you do it right/Well I refuse, I refuse, I refuse!"

It’s this part that especially feels very high school. The “I refuse, I refuse, I refuse!” is a knee-jerk, automatic reaction against this girl, whose every fiber antagonizes her, and so she essentially vows never to be a such a coldhearted person, without regard for others. But she does go after what she wants, and she gets it in the end, too--not caring about anyone else's feelings except her own. After all, she waited eight long months (which really isn’t that long) for the relationship to be over so she could pounce.

The video for "Girlfriend" also features Avril pouncing on her rival, this time her with a wig, intercut with performance shots and also partly set at a high school. Here the girls are reversed: the mean girl is the one who wins the guy in the end. She also gives a “yes!” at the end of it. It’s the innocent girl who loses, also in a comic fashion, of being dumped and knocked around, just like the bitch in "Misery Business" has her padding swiped from her chest and her makeup smeared. Paramore has been compared to Avril, because they sing in a similar pop-punk style, and because there are few girls doing that type of music that has hit the mainstream. Neither song, because they are speaking from the girl's point of view, explores how it is to be the new girlfriend of a guy who'd just been with someone else. They only focus on the winning.

Speaking of girls and songs, "White Houses" to me is another song all about girls and their relationships with each other. The first time I saw the video I was intrigued not only by the concept of one Vanessa Carlton dancing to another playing, but that they were both in some sort of standoff. BalletVanessa opens the video by giving PianoVanessa a smoldering look of dismissal and contempt, but she narrows her eyes and gets up and dances. PianoVanessa watches her, cautious and fearful. I wonder if they are actually watching each other, or if what they are looking at is a reaction to what they are thinking about, and the other is a manifestation of that. But watch PianoVanessa’s movements: She moves with the mood of the song. She is happy and fast when the character she sings about is in love and falling with the boys; she rushes through during the part when the narrator explains losing her virginity, but pauses on the last line about it being her first mistake. She’s thinking, and then she gets up to do more thinking, evidenced by her body movements and the way she walks away. She comes back as the piano starts again, and is filled with the memory of her friends, happy that she has, momentarily at least, found peace. Yet BalletVanessa continues moving, and in her last move she stumbles slightly. She stops and looks away from PianoVanessa.

The song is a synopsis, with few details, of a period in the narrator’s life: It starts with her moving in to a new apartment with five girls. They become tight. Life is fun. She meets boys, and falls in love. All of a sudden she’s in a new world, one that she’s losing grip on. Everything’s moving too fast, and the friends are gone and the boy is gone. She is now older, and is mulling over what happened: “Maybe you were all faster than me/We gave each other up so easily/These silly little wounds will never mend/I feel so far from where I've been/So I go, and I will not be back here again."

Boys have key words in their songs—whenever a boy is talking about a girl he likes and she’s with someone else, he always references that he is a better lover. They use the same words: faster, stronger, better. (No, this has nothing to do with the Kanye West song, incidentally.) But while the girls sometimes do incorporate that in (see examples above), their attitude toward the other woman isn’t always flaming hatred: Taylor Swift genuinely seems to be nice to her, at least in her head: "She'd better hold him tight, give him all her love/Look in those beautiful eyes and know she's lucky cause/ He's the reason for the teardrops on my guitar." She’s too charitable. In that state, how can you think nice? Sadly, thanks to those pretty girls, both Taylor and Rachael Yamagata can’t sleep at night. Poor kids. Brandon Flowers was starting to drift off when the girl of his dreams had to ruin it by fooling around with someone else. *Shakes head.*

(I’ve been working on a mixed CD featuring songs that are all about the narrator being in love with someone who is in love with someone else. Most of the above songs are included, with a few more, including Rilo Kiley’s “Does He Love You?” and Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl". I’m also sad to say that the Pussycat Dolls’ “Dontcha” fits into the mold too. Feel free to add some--I barely have half a CD at this point!)


Emily said...

Reading this post, I thought of several comments. Let's see if I can remember them all.

1) When you mentioned that two songs mention the boy being wrapped around the girls finger, it reminded me of a Salon article I read titled "Women are the New Men on TV," I keep meaning to send you the link, but I kept forgetting. So here:

Basically, it talks about several shows, Lipstick Jungle and Cashmere Mafia included, where the men take the backseat to the women in their lives. In trying to show equality between men and women the shows went a little too far and instead the men are whipped, basicially.

2) "Misery Business" and "Girlfriend" just perpetuate the Mean Girl theme, and they are mean to each other for what? To get a boy. So again, instead of banning together to overcome all the negative ideas we use to hurt each other ("whore" being one, which Paramore uses: "Once a whore you're nothing more, I'm sorry, that'll never change"), the girls use them to get a boy they THINK is worth it. The truth is, they will break up eventually and that girl who is getting Hayley's new relationship thrown in her face will have to carry that hurt for a very long time, and probably have a hard time trusting other women as she gets older. Surprise, surprise.

3) The fact that songs like these where girls rip each other apart is getting more play and that they are presented in fun, pop-punk genres just seem to make it ok (and fun!) for girls to make other girls miserable.

Feminists, somewhere, are shaking their heads in disappointment.

John said...

Since I have little knowledge of any of the songs in this post, I was not originally going to comment. I do feel the need to point one thing out, though.

"They use the same words: faster, stronger, better. (No, this has nothing to do with the Kanye West song, incidentally.)" What you must have meant to say here is that it has nothing to do with the Daft Punk song that Kanye West murdered and wore the skin of (a process also known as sampling.)

Just thought I'd throw that in. Good entry, though!

John said...

Also, if you want more songs about a narrator who is in love with someone that is in love with someone else, I can name quite a few off the top of my head:

Tons of Reel Big Fish Songs (She Has a Girlfriend Now, Brand New Song, A Little Doubt Goes a Long Way, Please Don't Tell Her I Have a Girlfriend, I Want Your Girlfriend to Be My Girlfriend Too,
Just about any New Blood Revival song (5 Months, Prom Night, On Your Knees, He's No Good for You, and She's Gone just to name a few)
The Youth Ahead - New Boyfriend
The Youth Ahead - I Want Your Girlfriend
The World/Inferno Friendship Society - Only Anarchists Are Pretty
Lucky Boys Confusion - Dumb Pop Song
Dance Hall Crashers - He Wants Me Back
Dance Hall Crashers - Make Her Purr
The Gadjits - Beautiful Girl
The Slackers - Married Girl
Jet - Are You Gonna Be My Girl
Jonathan Coulton - Betty and Me
Pietasters - Listen to Her Heart
Fishbone - Lyin' Ass Bitch

... and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Enjoy!