tori amos — little earthquakes
“why do girls have to tear each other down?” - sharon cherski, my so-called life episode 5: “the zit”
“i need a big loan from the girl zone.” — tori amos, caught a lite sneeze (off boys for pele)
at dinner last night someone used the phrase “twelve-year-old girls” disparagingly and i almost lost my mind. i have developed a fierce sisterly protection towards those prickly, lovely, angry, lonely, loving, sacred, scared, unclassifiable creatures, at twelve and in the half-decade or so that follows; placing them as objects of scorn to score a laugh or make a point fills me with immediate white-hot rage. i will nurse a smoldering grudge at anyone i hear doing this; i will hate the entirety of an article or essay that does it, regardless of its other merits. you fuck with t(w)een girls, you fuck with me.
i’ve been trying to interrogate, then, why it is that when i think about the fact that i can’t listen to most of this album, i mentally file it as “too teenage girl.” do i mean too earnest — as though teenage girls lack the capacity for sarcasm and wit and posturing — or too obvious — as though teenage girls are never complex — or too this or that or the other, as though there’s anything at all you could say about teenage girls that would always be true. poisonous cultural narratives run deep — especially when we, as i have done, repeat them to ourselves in order to untangle a messy time.
what people miss in the eternal discussion about how brian is so smart or jordan is so dreamy is that there is a love triangle at the center of my so-called life, but it’s not about the opposing pairings of Team Krakow vs. Team Catalano. it’s about rayanne and angela and sharon, and the swells and ebbs of the fluctuating, complicated currents of girl-love flowing between the three of them. brian and jordan are entertaining and infuriating and distracting and consuming, but together they don’t give the show half the emotional weight angela’s relationships with sharon and with rayanne do.
i don’t cry when jordan stands angela up or brushes her off at the buffalo tom show, or when brian spreads the rumor about the two of them having COMPLETE SEX!, or even when jordan breaks up with her. but i cry when sharon tells angela that after her father’s heart attack, you were the only person i wanted to deal with. i cry when rayanne mumbles into angela’s shoulder i’m too messed up to be your friend anymore. i cry through the entire end of the episode where rayanne sleeps with jordan, beginning when rayanne says, i lost everything. i lost a really good friend.
study angela’s face at the end of that episode, when she’s onstage with rayanne: she’s not crying for jordan, either.
it’s strange to me that this is the song that’s stayed with me the longest, considering it was never a favorite in high school (those were crucify and silent all these years) and, more pertinently, it is perhaps the song which most exemplifies the album’s excesses — fitting, given that it’s the title track. tori tells of dancing in graveyards with vampires till dawn, goth preciousness at its finest, and hating elevator music, which could fit easily on a list of complaints about The Man alongside “all that corporate pop shit” and “dress codes.” and that’s all before the final bridge, before she sings — wails, really — give me life, give me pain, give me myself again, lines straight out of the margins of unused math notes halfheartedly jotted down in the last row, desk pushed as close to the back of the classroom as possible.
still there’s something about the plaintiveness of the refrain that hooks me somewhere deep and still a little tender. while i assume (maybe unfairly) that like most of the songs on the album it’s about and addressed to a man, that the fights that have soured this relationship took place between a heterosexual couple, i always hear it as being about girls. i always hear:
oh, these little earthquakes
doesn’t take much to rip us into pieces
and i think back to girls i loved and revered and shrank from growing up. to the shakiness that persisted no matter how great my affection for them. to the delicate beauty of those relationships. and to their explosive fragility.
“You know kids. They find one person and they just can’t get enough of them. It’s like being in love, only they’re not allowed to have sex. […] Don’t you remember? There’d be, like, this one person, who had, like, perfect hair, or perfect breasts, or they were just so funny, and you wanted to eat them up — just live in their bed, and just be them. It’s like everybody else was in black and white, and that person was in color.” — amber, my so-called life episode 3: guns and gossip
the first person to break my heart was a girl. we were in middle school, she a year younger than i. she had this gorgeous glossy jet-black hair down to her waist, and a beautiful pixie face, and an apartment that always smelled of cigarettes and cat litter and a mother whose fashion i would have thought of as bohemian if i had known the word. we talked about greek myths (her favorite was artemis, mine athena; funny in this context to think now of us two girls reaching towards the virgin goddesses) and sailor moon, school and elaborate story-games we would spend hours dreaming up. if we talked about boys — which i know i did with other girl friends — it hasn’t stuck in my memory. we would sit in each other’s bedrooms drawing and talking about the evolution of our technique, or bring out books we thought the other would like. at sleepovers i would lie next to her skinny body and wonder, not having yet developed anything in the way of a sexuality, if maybe i was a lesbian. i turned out not to be, as i figured out when my body started communicating its desires, but still i look back on that time and i think, i was in love.
i loved her and i wanted to be her. i delighted in her company and thrilled to her approval. for a time we were inseparable, sisters without the fights; then she stopped speaking to me. i didn’t know why; i never found out. i wrote her a letter, apologizing for whatever i had done wrong, begging for another chance; she read it and ignored it. i cried in our school’s library. she was friends with boys now, these perpetually angry boys in her own grade i’d hated even before she (as i saw it) left me for them. i tried not to show i cared. i missed her, desperately.
when sharon tearfully asks angela what she did that made angela not want to be her friend anymore and angela starts crying, saying she doesn’t know, it wasn’t anything sharon did, it just is, i think back to my silent tears among the bookshelves. i understand better now the inscrutable frictions that flare up to the point where they seem unbearable, the way perhaps not exclusively but especially when you are young your conception of self can change so rapidly that everything about your life feels wrong and needs to be discarded like a cocoon. i would go on to feel them too, bewildered and frustrated at myself but unable to shake my sudden distaste for girls close to me, although in the most important cases i was lucky enough to have the chance to come back.
yellow bird flying, the song opens, gets shot in the wing: textual analysis of a tori amos song is a dangerous if not useless endeavor, but i hear this and i think of how frequently the vibrancy of girlhood gets injured in the fear and confusion of adolescence. i look at little girls in bikinis poolside or on the beach and wonder how long it will be until they hate their bodies, until the very notion of having a body becomes overwhelming and scary, and for how many of them it already is. i look at tall girls and wonder how old they’ll be the first time an adult man hits on them, if none has yet. i wonder what girls will latch on to for power as they come to realize how powerless they’re considered, how they will distance themselves from each other to avoid the deadly label teen girl. what they will do to survive a world that doesn’t want them to be people.
and i hate
and i hate
and i hate
and i hate
watching us wither
on some days, in certain moods, i think of my adolescence as a prolonged falling apart: i was a girl and then i fractured into several things less than that. i was a daughter, a body, a girlfriend, an intellect, a friend, a student, with no core binding those pieces together. when i looked for a self i found only need. everything around me — friends, tests, boys — became a referendum on whether i was enough. even the different manifestations of that hunger — smart enough, pretty enough, popular enough, good enough — were ways of dancing around that central gaping hole.
it is hard to muster the generosity of spirit necessary for true healthy friendship when your spirit is expending its energy trying to bolster its own existence. i am ashamed and saddened that i have only learned this through loving men, but: while they can coexist, love is fundamentally incompatible with that sort of desperation. when your vision is blinkered with mirrors showing you your worst self, it is next to impossible to see someone simply as they are, as a person to love and not an object of validation or rejection.
so many of the slings and arrows of my adolescence, given and received, came from minute actions that seem meaningless in retrospect but meant everything at the time. the word insecure feels inadequate, as though it were a matter of jagged edges and not profound emptiness. my foundation had dwindled to something paper-thin: how else to explain my susceptibility to little earthquakes?
i look at girls and i wonder how little it will take to rip them into pieces, and i hate that i wonder that.
the show never answers sharon’s question, posed — like their initial break-up — in the sanctuary/war zone of the girls’ bathroom. certainly it is too big a question to be answered in one place, by one person. but i offer this: girls tear each other down because no one builds them up. because they know each other to be easy targets from having been easy targets. because they are scared and angry and they have every right to be.
and because we don’t teach them to love each other. we don’t teach them how valuable such love is. movies valorize heterosexual romance as a contest or a conquest; magazines are filled with articles on how to find, keep, and please a man. pop psychologists are happy to lecture on the secrets of happy marriages, communication skills for couples, the fact that relationships take work. no one tells you friendship does too. there are no top ten tips from preventing jealousy from turning you into a selfish friend, no instructions for how to support your friend with her relationship problems when a part of you hates her for having a boyfriend, no encouragement to reach past the awful twisting resentment that she’s got straight hair or a smaller waist or better grades and hold on to how she’s always been there for you, how she makes you laugh. and there’s no one saying these things are worth doing. no one is sharing what to me is such a sacred truth that it should be proclaimed from the rooftops: girls can save your life. some of them saved mine, even after i walked away.
for all the prettiness of jared leto’s eyes, and the sighing over the way he leans, and the fact that my phone corrects “catalano” to “CATALANO” because of how often i have typed TEAM CATALANO — for all that i’m glad angela gets into his car at the end, for all that i want what they go on to share to be at least sweet enough that she never regrets it — for all that, in the end i’m not Team Catalano, not really.
what i really want for angela is to realize what she really lost. i want her to recognize how little she was able, at that time in her life, to build herself up, and how much less rayanne, for all her bravado, had been given to work with, and i want her to find in that awareness the space for forgiveness. i want her to learn that rayanne is worth fighting for, and to find the strength to do it. i want rayanne to be lucky enough to have the chance to come back, and angela to be wise enough to recognize that if rayanne returns, it’s angela’s luck too.
in the end i’m Team Rayanne. and Team Sharon. and Team Angela. in the end i’m Team Girls.
I’m not really familiar with My So Called Life, but an excellent essay about teen girls and their friendships.
”. but i offer this: girls tear each other down because no one builds them up. because they know each other to be easy targets from having been easy targets. because they are scared and angry and they have every right to be.
and because we don’t teach them to love each other. we don’t teach them how valuable such love is. movies valorize heterosexual romance as a contest or a conquest; magazines are filled with articles on how to find, keep, and please a man. pop psychologists are happy to lecture on the secrets of happy marriages, communication skills for couples, the fact that relationships take work. no one tells you friendship does too.”