Mermaid Songs and the Magnetic Fields

5 Apr

So as you may know, the Magnetic Fields are one of the best bands in existence. I mean listen:

I know. A love letter to Billie Holiday! And that somber, somber voice! I would dazzle you with more samples but I don’t want to overwhelm you with that plus what  follows. Instead I will tell you how I knew that there were occasional  random mermaid references in Magnetic Fields’ songs, and then discovered that Stephin Merritt did a whole album of songs to accompany a show based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. It’s called My Life as a Fairy Tale, after Hans’ own autobiography. Songs like “The Ballad of the Snow Queen” and “The Little Maiden of the Sea.” That is when I knew for sure something I had long suspected: that Stephin Merritt is my one true love. Except for the whole him-being-gay part.

Look at these lyrics:

the little maiden of the sea
was not at all like you and me
where we have legs she was a fish
and she could only say:

“I wish…
I wish I were not incomplete
I wish I had some dainty feet,”

you see, one day she’d met a prince
and she’d been pining ever since
(the little maiden of the sea)

she’d gain her own immortal soul
if she became the prince’s wife
she autovivisected
whole, she walked! each step was like a knife
a knife into her dainty feet
and she could neither speak nor sing
but surely, now she was complete
her prince would think of marrying
the little maiden of the sea

he married someone else, of course
and, saying nothing, she went home
then something turned, by mystic force
the little maiden into foam

I know. You can buy My Life as a Fairy Tale here.

So of course I emailed Stephin Merritt and bandmate Claudia Gonson and asked many, many penetrating and mermaidly questions. Their answers follow.

Admit that this is the coolest interview ever.


You’ve mentioned how mermaids are much more common in folk songs than pop songs. Why do you think this is?
Well, pop lyrics are generally bland, rhythmic and repetitive, intended only to make a drumbeat seem meaningful, and rarely involve characters, let alone stories. Whereas folk songs, which are usually presented with paltry instrumentation and no production to speak of, naturally turn to character and story to keep the listener engaged.

In a pop song, if you sing “I love you and your pretty tail,” you may be limiting your audience in unintended ways without actually evoking the mermaid you meant.

Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid story is so dark, so sad, so strange. Had you been familiar with the story before approaching it for “My Life as a Fairy Tale”? What do you think of the story and of Hans Christian Andersen generally?
I first read Andersen in college alongside the Grimms and Aesop, in which context he did not seem especially dark or strange, but definitely sad, since he so clearly identifies with the profound isolation of his protagonists, particularly heroines. Adults who have not read him tend to think of him as a teller of sweet little tales for children, but he’s actually closer to Kafka, and often Poe, than to Beatrix Potter. At least half his stories, including all the famous ones, are bitterly tragic. His little mermaid mutilates her body, becomes mute, and cross-dresses for the prince who marries someone else, whereupon she returns to the sea, and is so sad she is transmuted into foam, and then into a sort of wisp in purgatory, where if she flies into your room and you are naughty, her time of labor is increased.

It seems to me like the little mermaid story (and in fact most of HCA’s stories) very much resonates with your themes of loneliness and alienation and sadness, etc. How did you find yourself connecting to these stories and themes (if you did)?
I’d say it’s a gay thing. Apparently Andersen began writing the story the day after his best friend got married.

“Better Things” seems like it could have come from a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, too. Can you talk about this song a little?
“I was made for better things, dearie,” seems like the sort of thing a fishwife would say. I was picturing a dowdy, cantankerous mermaid complaining about the weather to someone, maybe a little human girl she has taken to her little rocky outcropping, not understanding the girl is dead. That sort of thing.

How would you explain the allure of mermaids generally? Are you yourself susceptible to this allure?
I think straight men like the idea of women with all the knockers and none of the complicated parts. I can’t think of any mythical creature with the opposite way round. Personally I’m not into the knockers either, so it’s all about the outfits. But I’m very fond of Aquaman. Undersea humanoids have the best hair.



I read somewhere that you pretended to be Polynesian mermaid goddess when experimenting with sounds for Eternal Youth. And I was wondering what do Polynesian mermaid goddesses sound like? And how do you make that sound?
I guess like a siren would sound? Clear, enchanting, sad, watery.

When Stephin first met me I had an unfortunate tic of trying to sing like David Bowie. I had this strong wobbly vibrato. He instantly set to work to get me to sing with as little affect as possible, with a clear, bell-like tone. Like, Astrud Gilberto. I suppose that is the Polynesian mermaid goddess sound. Also, I should say, as 20-somethings we traveled around the country obsessively searching for tiki bars, and visiting a good number. Sadly, most are torn down now. So, it wasn’t that I was trying to sound particularly like a Polynesian mermaid goddess, whatever that would be, but more that I was getting into the spirit of one, which was our tiki bar fantasy. This gave me some sort of inspiration, to do some sort of vocal thing.

Are mermaids a source of inspiration to you?
No, I wouldn’t say mermaids per se, although I do love Tiki Bars (which sometimes have mermaidy themes), and I’m obsessed with the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, which I dutifully attend every year. The Mermaid Parade is my idea of heaven. Mostly because it’s such a hilarious sociological scene, literally everyone is there and it’s very odd how they are all mixed together- cool Manhattan/Williamsburg hipsters, crazy old beach bums, old Italian macho dudes, gay party boys and girls, families with little kids dressed in mermaid clothes, gangsta rappers… you name it. I find it completely chaotic and hilarious. It would never work in Manhattan; It’s too weirdly geeky. The way they are all parading around dressed like mermaids.

What is your take is on Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid – and on Stephin’s take on it? =) Had you long been familiar with this story, and/or were you surprised by how weird and dark it is?
Eep- Not prepared. I defer to Stephin’s very astute reading. But, yes, I am always surprised by the late 19th century/early 20th century’s darkness when it comes to fairy tales, even Mother Goose. They were, I suppose, meant to be learning lessons for little people with burgeoning (yet still sublimated) sexuality. And Freud was just around the corner.

How would you explain the allure of mermaids generally? Are you yourself susceptible to this allure?
Actually I find the whole mermaid mythology a bit hard to swallow sometimes. It’s a feminist thing. Often the stories are about lack of empowerment, and seem to fuel some sort of sex fantasy – there’s this helpless gorgeous half-naked fish, who is trapped outside of the ocean and the handsome dude must save her. etc. In fact recently I stumbled across an irritating YouTube video in which the band dude finds a mermaid in a cave and rescues her and puts her back into the sea. Of course she’s helpless, gorgeous, and elusive. She won’t hold you down because she has to go. The perfect chick.

Have you ever secretly suspected you might have some mermaid in you?
Um Um Um. Well, I had really long hair for the first quarter century of my life. Does that count? No, actually I don’t really have the mermaid spirit I don’t think. My spirit animal is the otter. I see myself as having whiskers and being kind of thick and full of nice protective blubber and lying around on my back in the ocean, bobbing about, eating oysters while drifting along. That said, I do have a mad passion for the ocean. I can stay in it for hours and am an obsessive floater. Once in my youth I fell asleep floating in the ocean and woke up a mile down the beach, to find a row of very concerned people standing at the shore, staring at me. My favorite thing, which is quite mermaidy, is to swim just beyond the breakers to the place where the waves are very powerful but not quite crashing, then pretend I am seaweed and let the waves pull me down under and tumble me around so that I don’t know whether I am right side up or upside down. So, in a way, I am a very oceanic person, like a mermaid. But I suppose I see myself more like seaweed, or an otter. I don’t feel so girly. Nor so naked.

Do you have any advice for aspiring mermaids (vocally and otherwise)?
Green sparkly body paint. Seaweed wig. And when the dude comes to save you, tell him to take a hike. It’s better in the ocean.

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