Maybe it’s because winter and the holidays always make me mournful and nostalgic, or maybe it’s because a friend just gave me an Anne of Green Gables-related gift, but the last few weeks, I’ve been thrown back hard into memories of teenager-dom. Particularly that intense kind of girl friendship that feels epic, like falling in love before you know what falling in love feels like: the Anne and Diana model, really. (As that link captures perfectly, that type of friendship is especially fraught for us queer girls, who as baby dykes tend to have an even vaguer sense of the difference between love and love-love. Or at least we did in the 90s.)
The song that, for me, captures the painful rapture of being a teenage girl is from one of my favorite artifacts of the 1990s: 10,000 Maniacs’ Unplugged. Is there anything more 90s than Natalie Merchant with cropped hair and platform mary janes? No there is not.
This song falls into a very particular category for me: Songs I Loved As a Teenager Without Really Knowing Why But Which Have Become Indescribably Poignant Now That I’m Over Thirty. (Undisputed champion of this category: R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming.”) I always loved “Stockton Gala Days,” the beautifully paced mania of it, the urgency of the violin. It’s irresistible, and as this blogger writes, it’s one of those songs that was never a proper “hit” but which is indelible to anyone who was a fan of the band.
The lyrics are simple, but they accumulate nuance as the song progresses. The verses mostly consist of flower imagery. We start with a lovely description that introduces one of the mini-refrains (“like none I have seen / apart from dreams that escape me”):
that summer fields grew high
with foxglove stalks and ivy
wild apple blossoms everywhere
emerald green like none I have seen
apart from dreams that escape me
As the song goes on, the flowers change, and the mood deepens.
we made garland crowns in hiding
pulled stems of flowers from my hair
we had wildflower fever
we had to lay down where they grow
“Emerald green” becomes “blue in the stream” becomes “violet serene,” all colors that, apart from this shining summer, are only found in dreams already lost to the speaker. This was one of my early poetic lessons in repetition with a difference: like the lines of a villanelle, almost, the lines about the ephemeral colors kept circling back to a feeling that was both eternal and impossible to grasp.
But then the chorus! Oh, that chorus. That’s what kills me now that I am no longer a teenage girl bursting with the psychological equivalent of wildflower fever. Natalie Merchant leads into the chorus with another mini-refrain: “there was no girl as [X] as you.” The adjectives alternate between “warm” and “bold,” which sound innocuous enough until the rest of the chorus comes in:
how I’ve learned to please
to doubt myself in need
you’ll never, you’ll never know
how I’ve learned to hide, how I’ve locked inside
you’d be surprised if shown
but you’ll never, you’ll never know
Full disclosure: I am getting a little misty trying to write about this. I don’t know what these lyrics mean to Natalie Merchant, but I know what they mean to me: this is what growing up as a girl does to you. You go from the warmth and boldness of blissful, near-symbiotic friendship to a vulnerable, secret loneliness. You please others, you doubt yourself, you lock away the dreams that have escaped you. I’m sure this is not just true of girls; I’m sure some boys experience this particular loss of innocence. But conforming to ideals of femininity requires being smaller, quieter, than you really are. It requires putting yourself second, always. And it requires keeping shut about it, making the work of that femininity invisible, so that even those who once knew you best would be surprised, if shown.
Unlearning the process this chorus describes has been one of the greatest challenges of womanhood for me. And that’s where the song’s musical abandon becomes so moving: it’s an electrifying, wild song to sing. It makes you want to twirl and dance and let yourself go, to use your voice to unleash the very thing you have tried to salt away. It turns you back into girl who once loved the boldest girl in town. It lets you be Anne and Diana, both at once, for minutes at a time.