The Brilliance of the Evenstar

There are three important female characters in The Lord of the Rings.

Galadriel, the super powerful, super cool one, whose beauty, wisdom and general awesomeness is unparalleled.

Arwen, the beautiful one who has a tragic but fulfilling love life.

Eowyn, the rebellious warrior prince who does things that no man can do.

If these three formed a clique, I would assume that Galadriel would be the brains, the leader, the effortlessly cool one; Eowyn would be her slightly sporty, energetic second in command and Arwen…Arwen would be the girl in the relationship.


arwen 1There are few characters in the fantasy trove who confuse as much as Arwen Undomiel, alias Evenstar. On the one hand, she is a powerful Elf in her own right, someone who literally gives away her place in the Undying Lands to Frodo, a favour that he can never pay back. On the other, her role in the book is severely limited, condensed into an Appendix where she is little more than a beautiful presence who sighs and ‘cleaves’ to Aragorn, playing no further active role in his struggle.

In the movies, Arwen veered between a warrior princess like role, rescuing Frodo and facing down nine Ringwraiths, and then becoming a pawn who is quite literally passed from father to husband at the close of The Return of the King. In The Two Towers she is told what awaits her if she actually goes through with the mad plan of marrying Aragorn, and seems swayed by her father’s desire to hustle her out of Middle Earth. ‘Do I not also have your love?’ Elrond asks her and, weeping, she confesses that yes, of course he does.

arwen and el

There are many things that I think Peter Jackson did wrong in the movies (namely Faramir), but his evocation of Arwen’s struggle is nearly on par, for me, with his depiction of Thranduil. It’s quite amazingly perfect. In the book, we never really get a sense of what Arwen herself went through—even in the Appendix, it’s Aragorn we are focussed on, and the quest he has to complete. Arwen’s sacrifice is summed up thus:

And she stood then, as still as a white tree, looking into the West, and at last she said: ‘I will cleave to you, Dunadan, and turn from the Twilight. Yet there lies the land of my people and the long home of all my kin.’ She loved her father dearly.

Jackson puts the romance front and centre, shocking those fans who felt his way ‘brutish’ and ‘so not subtle’. He plays out Arwen’s role in her own destiny, stressing how she rebels against both Aragorn and her father in the making of her choice. In the movie, it’s Aragorn who loses hope in their relationship, who tells her ‘it was a dream Arwen, nothing more’, even crassly and rather insensitively trying to give back a gift that symbolized, to her, the ultimate sacrifice. I love how there is just the hint of a bite in Arwen’s retort: ‘It was a gift. Keep it.’

Like, what are you saying?

Like, what are you saying?

Seriously Estel, learn some manners.

Arwen is the one who keeps ‘hope’ for both her and Aragorn, in the face of his demoralisation. He turns to her in his dreams to find inspiration and strength to carry on, dreamand it’s very strongly implied that Arwen is consciously reaching out to him, watching over him in some form. This is not entirely impossible, given that she is the descendent of very powerful Elves, including Galadriel, Elrond and, of course, Luthien Tinuviel, whose form and fate she brings to life again.

If The Two Towers chronicles her rebellion against Aragorn’s loss of spirit, The Return of the King follows her revolt against her father and his desire to protect her. ‘Ada, whether by your will or not, there is no ship that will bear me hence,’ she says, striving to make Elrond understand that he no longer has the ability to force her to emigrate, that it is no longer really a matter of choice for him, or for her, for that matter, to stay in Middle Earth with Aragorn.

Whether he, or her intended, want her to or not, Arwen is staying put.

Deal with it.

Deal with it.

Now is where Jackson, in my opinion, messes up. For some reason, he makes Arwen a weakening force from this point on. Her fate, for some reason, become tied to the Ring. She becomes the physical embodiment of Middle Earth, in some ways, fading as Sauron’s power grows. Though it is her idea to reforge Anduril, it’s Elrond who carries it to Aragorn. If Jackson had to tweak canon, wouldn’t it have been awesome if he’d gone the whole hog and had Arwen bring the sword to him instead, thereby underlining how much of an independent spirit she is? The exchange would have gone like this:

Aragorn: Arwen! But I thought you were sailing to the Undying Lands…

Arwen: Whether by your will or not, there is no ship that will bear me hence. I’ve made my choice, respect it and take this wonderful sword I had made for you.

Eowyn peeks into the tent, is confused, but then realizes that Aragorn really was just a random crush who is way too old for her and besides, she is not ready to handle his angsty moods.

It's so much better when you just let me go ahead and do things.

It’s so much better when you just let me go ahead and do things.

See, this is why it’s so easy to dismiss Arwen as ‘the girl in the relationship’. She is set up as this amazing character, but then for some reason, the film makers, and the author, made her fall a little flat. So she doesn’t do the obviously amazing things that Galadriel and Eowyn do—but neither of them, in my completely unbiased opinion, go through the sort of emotional maelstrom that Arwen does in the course of the film. Imagine being, for all want himintents and purposes, rejected by the man you have given up your immortality for, and being told you don’t really know your own mind, that it was all some sort of fairytale ‘dream’.

This despite the fact that the man is about 2000-odd years younger than you. What a patronising prick.

Despite this, you persevere, only to be sent away ignominiously by your dad for your own ‘good’. When you come back, claiming once again that there is still hope, he tells you—in fancy fantasyish words—that there’s very little and your boyfriend is probably going to die. You hurl away the negativity and tell the men to stop being idiots and just get on with defeating Sauron already.

Arwen’s emotional strength is amazing, and it doesn’t get praised enough by readers, viewers or feminist critics. She is not, despite appearances, a doormat. It’s a sad fact that
centuries of literature and decades of film have told us that while love may be a powerful tool for a man (please read the Loving Hero Paradox), a woman in love is not a rational being. A woman in love is weak, confused and apt to go where her hormones lead her, to be the sort of crazy figure Taylor Swift ironically brings to life in ‘Blank Space’. A woman in love is not the captain of her own ship, and is prone to doing disastrous things. Witness Dido, Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play, Hermione’s rare bursts of irrationality, even the doughty Katniss can’t be entrusted with ‘real objectives’ of the rebels because her silly ‘feelings’ will get in the way.

Arwen rebels against this reading, and tells her lover, her father, the rest of Middle Earth, to sod off and respect her decisions. Dying a lonely death on a hilltop? It may not have been ideal, but it was something she chose to do. It’s about time we started respecting that, and realising that ‘the girl in the relationship’ is not always the boy-crazy, silly figure we’ve long imagined her to be.

Tuneful Tuesday: ‘Animals’

Last week I looked at ‘feminist’ Taylor Swift; this week I’m going to analyse what is perhaps one of the most sexist, disturbing, rape-culture espousing songs to hit the radio in the last few months. I’m talking about Maroon 5’s ‘Animals’, of course.

maroon 5

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate Maroon 5. They’ve put out some very catchy songs, with totally (unintentionally) hilarious lyrics. If you’re feeling down about something, just throw on ‘Payphone’ and laugh at the sheer angst that’s captured in those verses. Or listen to ‘Moves Like Jagger’ and try to figure out what Christina Aguilera’s ‘secret’ is. But this song, well, I think Adam Levine is either very stupid and doesn’t get what his words and his video seem to say, or, the much more likely option, he knows, but he just doesn’t give a sh*t.

The stalker trope: However you slice it, there’s no denying that the ‘I’ of the song, the man Levine portrays in the very graphic video, is an unwelcome stalker. He sees the girl stalkerfor a few minutes at a butcher shop (go figure) and seems to decide that he must have her. We see clips of him putting up hundreds of her photos, some of them cut up to display single body parts like one eye. He fantasises about making love to her, stands under her window (presumably) while she’s sleeping, and even dreams of curling up in bed next to her unknowing, sleeping body. He follows her into a club and taps her on the shoulder and does it again, even when she turns away pointedly. Levine’s character is also presented as the quintessential antisocial—we don’t see him actually interact with anyone in the video apart from the girl, and he seems to spend his time hanging out in and humping slaughterhouse-hung carcasses.

The ‘animal’ imagery: Yeah, yeah, pop stars mix up their metaphors all the time—just think of Katy Perry and her ‘dark horse’ song, the messy misuse of which metaphor earned her this parody—but Levine in this song exhorts his ‘prey’ to both ‘run free’ as well as find ‘another fish in the sea’. I’m still not sure there’s any animal out there that both runs as well as finds its mate in the sea.

But in all seriousness, Levine’s use of the animal as symbolic of something base and primeval is not without precedent. He’s totally espousing Tennyson’s ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. He’s also made it clear that he is at the top of the food chain, the predator in this ‘relationship’ who hunts down and eats alive his chosen meat. Just like ‘animals’, you know? Though maybe he operates more like an insect, some of whom are known to eat their mates after copulating with them.

The blood: At the end of the video, Levine and his victim bathe in a waterfall of blood, ala Carrie. Maybe this is an allusion to the infamous Stephen King story; maybe the proximity to blood and butchery is what gives Levine’s character the sort of uber-stalker powers that he displays. Maybe it’s what gives him the super sense of smell (he claims he can ‘smell’ the girl’s ‘scent for miles’) and  lets him know that the two will eventually become one.

creeep

Or, we can go old school and read the waterfall of blood as an allusion to the girl’s virginity, which Levine will violently wrest away tonight. After this she’ll be just another carcass for him, swinging from the hooks of his slaughterhouse. Ridden hard and put away wet, as Chuck Bass once said. Eesh.

The girl: So, what’s the girl’s take on all of this? We don’t know! She walked into a butcher shop, bought some meat, and seems largely unaware of the torrent of emotions she’s unleashed in this creepy man. According to the lyrics of the song, she has no choice in what Levine intends to perpetrate. She is ‘prey’, she is going to be ‘eaten alive’, she can’t ‘deny’ the ‘animal that comes alive’ when he’s inside her (ew). But what does the Animalsvideo tell me? She seems to have a happening enough life, going out with her friends and not looking like she’s the least bit interested in this desperate man. Her blasé brushing off of Levine’s groping hand in the club communicates that she is secure, powerful enough to push off his advances despite his creepy insistence. She goes about her own life, completely uncaring of his rabid fantasies. And who’s left standing out in the cold and rain? Him.

Conclusion:

Frankly, I don’t understand how anyone can listen to this song and not be the slightest bit disturbed. Then again, I think this is part of the inherent sexism of the entertainment industry: let’s all tear Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus apart, but let’s conveniently ignore the blatantly ‘rapey’ lyrics of ‘Animals’, shall we? Let’s ignore the fact that a man is claiming he wants to ‘prey’ on a woman, regardless of whether or not she wants to ‘run free’. Let’s just close our ears when he sings about how she can ‘pretend that it was [him] alone’ who made things happen—pretty much the go-to line of any guy claiming he didn’t ‘rape’ a non-consenting partner.

Last year, Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ got into a lot of trouble for its problematic music video and lyrics. I’m surprised Levine wasn’t pulled through the same ring of fire. My apologies, ‘sexiest man alive’, but any guy who sings about his need to ‘prey’ on me or another girl is automatically demoted in my estimation. I’m all for tough love, but baby, this ain’t it.

Tuneful Tuesday: I Knew You Were Trouble

So once a week I’m going to analyse a pop song, because I think it’s fun and might be a nice change from the heavy duty fantasy stuff. Also I think pop songs are the future of academic criticism, which has pretty much exhausted everything else. Presenting, example one: Taylor Swift’s ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNoKguSdy4Y

Taylor Swift’s relationship to feminism has long been suspect, like that of many popstars not named Beyonce. People have dissed her for being ‘conventional’ and ‘anti women’ because of her early song lyrics (pieces like ‘Ours’ and ‘Better than Revenge’ come to mind), and the fact that she’s a white, obviously attractive young woman makes her guilty of incredible privilege. I suppose the fact that she sings about love and heartbreak doesn’t help her either, in more than a few people’s eyes. Whatevs. I’ve loved her and continue to love her and unlike all those hipsters who are discovering her ‘feminist politics’ now, I rather think she’s been at it for a while.

I think Taylor’s first brush with ‘feminist’ lyrics and hitting back at the music industry began with ‘Red’ (2013), the album that signaled her shift from country to pop music. I’m going to analyse one of the songs in this collection, and interrogate its complicated politics.

I Knew You Were Trouble

There are four main points that jump out at me and complicate any reading of this song:

The Fairy Tale trope – Taylor opens with the classic line ‘Once upon a time’, immediately claiming a universal, fairy-tale like space. Her experience, or that of her protagonist, is one that should act as a cautionary fable for all those listening. By using the phrase and literary genre, Taylor also casts herself as a fairy tale character—most likely, based on the events of the song, a princess who’s lost her way. This is not new for her, since she famously used the trope in ‘Love Story’, her first big hit. love story

Taylor’s relationship to the fairy tale has changed considerably—from a naive, waiting–for-rescue princess in ‘Love Story’, she’s become one who narrates her past ‘mistakes’. She should have known this particular prince was ‘trouble’, she says, and not fallen into his arms. The next step in this journey has been taken in ‘Blank Space’, where she’s graduated to becoming the ultimate powerful woman of the fairy tale: the wicked witch.

The audience – Most pop songs are addressed to a generic ‘you’. If you’re a female pop artist, your audience is usually going to try and figure out who the ‘you’ is. This is particularly common with Taylor’s music, thanks to her very publicly-documented relationships with various celebrities. The first comment on many of her romantic songs (or break up songs) is ‘who is this about?’, and the good tabloid journalists (and music critics) will try to provide the answer.

taylor-swift-has-chosen-her-next-victimI’m not going to go into the sexism that’s inherent in this kind of reporting and reception (I’ll save that for some other time). Instead, we should turn our attention to how Taylor, in ‘I knew you were trouble’ shifts between addressing a specific ‘you’ and talking to a larger, general audience. She refers to a ‘he’ who is ‘long gone’, one who’s left her—the same ‘he’, presumably, who she should have known was ‘trouble’. This indicates that she’s already pulled out of her self absorption/heartache (at least in short bursts) to address the larger audience and make a cautionary fable out of her experience. This is pretty strong for a female pop artist, or any artist, who’s writing a break up song.

The ‘I’ factor – What really struck me about this song was how very driven it was by Taylor’s insistence on using ‘I’, on blaming herself for falling for this sham prince. In the voiceover that accompanies the music video, she says, ‘the worst part wasn’t even losing him; it was losing myself’. Taylor is claiming agency for her own mistake—while some may see this as a victim blaming herself for the misfortune that has befallen her, I prefer to see it the same way Taylor does, using it as an empowering experience that she will, in the trouble taylorfuture, avoid, and help her listeners avoid. ‘Shame on me’, she says, for hoping to be a princess again. That won’t be happening any more.

The music video – The video for the song (posted here) is downright disturbing. It opens on a blasted landscape, which we later figure out is the aftermath of a big concert where Taylor was cheated on by her boyfriend. Through the course of the song we realise that this boy came in with problems, possibly owed money to the wrong people, and gets roughed up while he’s out with her. She doesn’t seem to be aware of what exactly is going on in his life—just has a vague idea that he is perhaps bad news, a premonition that’s only borne out later in the song.

enrique heroThe desert-like setting (small town in an arid landscape) and the boy’s evident problems remind me of Enrique Iglesias’s 2003 hit, ‘Hero’. There, a man and a woman have made a break with ill-gotten cash, and the man winds up being dragged away for it while the woman watches, weeping. In ‘Hero’, Enrique asks in a rather sentimental fashion whether his girlfriend will ‘save [his] soul’; in ‘Trouble’, which I choose to read as the female response to this plea, Taylor realises that saving any man’s soul is a hell of a lot of trouble, and probably not even worth the emotional investment. The video shows her trying to help her boyfriend out as he’s being pushed around, and then being cheated on for her pains. So much for trying to be there for him, she should have known he wasn’t a hero worth the saving, just more ‘trouble’ and yet another ‘mistake’.

Jennifer Love Hewitt probably came to the same conclusion after all that broken hearted weeping.

It’s also interesting to note that what really pushes Taylor away from the boy is not his money problems or his evident ‘bad’ company, it’s the fact that he cheated on her in public. What drives her away is this final, physical betrayal. Who knows, if Enrique had acted the same way in ‘Hero’, might JLH have walked away? His ‘trouble’ is also therefore of his own making—not something that he once fell into and then was unable to walk away from. The sympathy the audience, and Taylor, might have had for him evaporates with this final image of his smug smile vanishing into the strobe lights.

Conclusion

trouble 2‘I Knew You Were Trouble’  negotiates a complicated terrain. On the one hand, the break-up song is traditionally seen as a victim’s plaint, the lament of someone who has been left behind to scoop pieces of themselves together, and thus automatically relegated to the ‘weak’ party. In this case, it’s very clear that Taylor is the one piecing herself together, who has ‘lost’ herself along the way.

On the other hand, the break up song, through its very existence and its assertion of feelings, acts as a self-affirmative medium. It gives its protagonists a chance to explore their residual feelings and come to some sort of catharsis, work through the remnants of relationships that sound (from the lyrics) intense and more than a little emotionally draining. The messy clearing away of these feelings is something that the protagonists do individually, engaging in a one-sided dialogue with the absent other in order to come to terms with their own feelings. It is an entirely self-driven and self-rewarding/abusing exercise, with the absent other as nothing more than a convenient prop on which to deflect abundant emotion.

Taylor’s song straddles this contradictory reading, positing her as both victim (the stray princess, the hunted object) as well as rueful learner, the burned hand who ‘should have known better’. She both denies and grants herself agency, veering from stance to stance within a few brief verses. The reading of the lyrics is only complicated by the music video and the accompanying voice-over. Though she starts the video prone on the bare ground, obviously recovering from some sort of emotional and/or physical blow, she pulls herself upright and ends up traipsing all over that site, heedlessly singing her story. Ain’t no one going to trouble her no more. witch taylor

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop the Taylor Love

This post has been a long time coming. A couple of months ago I put up a status that shared my newfound delight at listening to Taylor Swift. ‘I’m binge listening to Taylor Swift,’ it ran, ‘and discovering she has some profound things to say about life.’  Surprisingly, quite a few people ‘liked’ it, and it incited a great deal of debate on the topic Avril Lavigne versus Swifty. Of course, I supported Swifty in that debate.

I started listening to Taylor Swift (henceforth, I will call her Taylor because that seems to imply we are good friends, a feeling she totally encourages with her down to earth and VERY insightful lyrics) just about a year ago, coming, as ever, late to the music party.  I’m not sure how it started, what brought me to open up lists on 8tracks that were tagged ‘Taylor Swift’, or how long it took for me to realize I was listening to her not out of a hipster-like sense of irony, but because I genuinely liked what she was saying. Or, even if I didn’t like it, I understood it, in a way I haven’t understood any other singer.

taylor striped

A friend of mine once told me half-jokingly that every girl has a Taylor Swift song. He asked me what mine was. At that time, I hadn’t listened to much of her music. If he were to ask me now, I still wouldn’t have an answer, unless it is ‘All of them’.

What I find incredible about Taylor’s music is how very accessible and relatable it is. Sure, many songwriters have penned lyrics that seem to describe exactly what you, the listener, are going through at any point of time, and there are many I could name, but no one sounds as close to me as Taylor does. Listening to Taylor is like reading pages of an old journal; she is unapologetic, she is ‘emotional’ in the manner that many snooty people deride, she, in short, sounds like she’s talking on the phone to one of her best friends. When you’re listening to her, you feel let in, part of a circle, a safe space where your most vulnerable side can be shared, because that’s exactly the privilege she is extending to you.

kim insta

Lookee! Thanks to instagram we now know what Kim Kardashian is…eating? Buying? Wearing? I have no clue what those things are.

‘Nearness’ is something that popular culture seems more and more invested in emphasizing. What else explains the surge of reality TV, the stardom of Youtube vloggers—people like you and me, broadcasting to the world from their homes and smartphones, the fame of the common tweeter, many of whose followers number in the hundreds?  Despite this revolution however, stars and celebrities seem in some ways, further than ever. It’s easier to get famous, maybe, but the fame of these idols is of a different kind from that of the Youtube cover artist or reviewer-tweeter. Perhaps it’s the vestiges of the almost supernatural aura that once surrounded big record labels and studios, that impossible-to-define something that made someone recognized by one of these powerhouses ‘better’ than his/her peers. Whatever it is, despite their instagrams and tweets, celebs are still in a clime of their own, perhaps even more so for all the show of their accessibility. 

Taylor though, seems to have something genuine in her music. Cynics will sneer (I know a couple of my friends who definitely will) and say that her music too, like that of her fellow pop stars, is crafted to appear so, tailor-made (pun so intended) to convince me that she understands me and thus gull me into buying her songs and overpriced concert tickets. I might believe them, if it weren’t for the fact that Taylor often gets lambasted for the very reasons I find her music appealing. Her ‘emotional’ songs are roasted as being too whiny, too ‘angsty’ and ‘teenybopper’. She’s raked over the coals for writing songs about the men she’s dated, for giving voice to the sort of insecurities that many young women have in romantic relationships. I think the tag of ‘emotional’ is an extremely sexist one— are men ever derided for being ‘emotional’ in their music? I can think of many men who would certainly deserve that ‘charge’, Sam Smith and even legends like Eric Clapton come to mind.

I could ramble on about her half-philosophically, but here Im going to quickly list five Taylor songs and illustrate, through them, five points that make her music so appealing to me:

‘Story of us’: Taylor seems to say that it’s okay to be a little heartbroken when things don’t work out the way you expected. She gives voice to the nagging pettiness and worries that eat away at a person at the close of a relationship and I, for one, find the words ‘This is looking like a contest/Of who can act like they care less’ much closer to reality than beautiful words about wanting to find ‘someone’ like one’s ex. 

Sorry, Adele.

Sorry, Adele.

‘Red’: You can laugh at the strange comparisons in this song (‘Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you’ve never met’?) but there’s something so heartfelt about every single one that I found myself strangely moved and agreeing with her on the choice of words. Taylor manages to do that, more often than you might think. She takes the weirdest of words and jams them together and has them make sense and sound right in a manner that few other people do.

‘All too well’: This is, to me, the most realistic break-up song ever. It talks about navigating the morass of emotion evoked when confronted by an ex, the what-ifs that tangle with memories both pleasant and unpleasant. That one line, ‘You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest’—I thought it was sheer poetry, even before Taylor commented that it was one of those she is proud of. The song winds through a series of emotions, confused and elated and wistful and angry all at the same time, and it astounds me again and again that she is able to pack all that into four minutes of music.

taylor1

‘We are never, ever, ever getting back together’: This song illustrates the fun side of Taylor. Have you SEEN the video? It never fails to cheer me up. It is so ludicrously over the top that you can’t help but laugh along with her. The song seems to say, as many Taylor songs do, that shit happens but you know what? We’re just going to cut our losses and move the hell on.

And dance while we do it.

Also, confession. The lyric that makes me crack up is ‘While you hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s MUCH cooler than mine’. Too close for comfort.

 

‘Begin Again’: This is wistful Taylor, a Taylor who pops up in ‘Cold as You’, ‘White Horse’, ‘You’re not Sorry’—all slightly sad songs that nonetheless end on a note of hope. I love how her music, despite describeing unhappy scenarios, never descends to pure caterwauling or pleading to be taken back. It’s always a sort of wistful ‘I’m sad this didn’t work out’ vibe that plays through them, and they never descend to self-hate or self-doubt.

 

I think that, in effect, is what I love about Taylor. She dramatizes the emotional whirl storm that is a part of growing up and trusting people, but she never lets the bad encounters color her, or your, perception of life. She ‘can’t stop, won’t stop moving’, and will keep shaking herself off and going on. And she does it with such a delicious sense of self-parody, like in ’22’.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty damn inspirational.

Shake off the doubts yo, shake them off.

                                                               Shake off the doubts yo, shake them off.