Emo Tubercular Hotness: The Playlist

bright-star-movie-poster-1E: I suspect this one might take a little explaining.

This is how it started.  Our friend The Writer pointed out this witty bit in Lisa Schwarzbaum’s review of the new Keats biopic Bright Star:

“Ben Whishaw, in a teal waistcoat, is a vision of 19th-century emo tubercular hotness as the great Romantic poet John Keats.”

Bright Star is the fruit of Jane Campion’s (The Piano) long labor, and the objet du lust of many a costume drama enthusiast.  Forget that Whishaw isn’t half the looker that Keats was (to judge by Keats’ death mask, anyway); he’s got that wispy, emo charm.  Even his name sounds like a sneeze.  The description couldn’t be more perfect.

I soon realized I was listening to quite a lot of music that fit this perfect description as well.  Gentle, earnest alterna-folk-poppy stuff, some of it from successful loves, some not, most of it melancholy, all of it riddled with angst, garnered from TV shows or commercials or happy youtube accidents or mixes from friends.  Heavy on the piano, light on muscle.  Steeped in passion, rife with confusion, more about the wanting than the having.  And as I thought about it all, an idea started to swirl in my brain.  And voila – the Emo Tubercular Hotness Playlist was born.

“Hazy,”  Rosi Golan featuring William Fitzsimmons: Thanks to Dollhouse, this is my new favorite song and in many ways the inspiration for this list. “It’s more than I can bear,” each singer claims, watching the other sleep (and what’s more chastely intimate than watching someone sleep?).  Delicate harmonies turn two versions of a monologue into an achingly sweet duet.

“The Fear You Won’t Fall,” Joshua Radin : I don’t know if I heard this first on Grey’s Anatomy, or from C’s friend L, but either way it was an easy sell.  This meditation on the vulnerability of love is poignant and charming.  There’s nothing more alarming, when falling for someone, than the realization that they don’t have to love you back, and that nothing you do can compel them to do so.  It appears that Radin’s girlfriend Schuyler Fisk sings the female part, although it’s not very gentlemanly of him not to give her official credit.

“Imaginary Girl,” The Silver Seas: There can hardly be a less romantic place to find a song than a commercial about a washer and dryer – but the Romantics were all about the transfiguration of  the everyday, right?  And what could be more Romantic than the dream that lives richly in the imagination?  “I was stranded in the middle of the night/ I was washed out to sea/ out of the water you appeared like a dream to me.”

“And You Give,” Matthew Barber: Anyone who’s seen the video for this song knows why it’s on the list – and if you haven’t, you should. This is all about the hotness. Through the flower-filled English fields we watch a gentleman, tormented in his “burning cell”, suffer love for a maidservant.  

“Take It From Me,” The Weepies: The perfect complement to Matthew Barber; he takes, she gives.  Potential gender politics aside, the song is sweet and quirky and tender and tremendously poetical: “What can I compare you to?/A favorite pair of shoes/maybe my bright red boots/if they had wings.”  There it is again; the familiar taking flight.

“Never Is A Promise,” Fiona Apple : This one comes from the more painful side, the internalizing, spurning side.  “I understand what I am still to proud to mention/to you,” she says, and so she bares her soul to us instead. “The skin of my emotion lies beneath my own/you’ll never feel the heat of this soul/my fever burns me deeper than I’ll ever show.”

“Breathe Me, ” Sia: No stiff upper lip or grand, high blown concepts or fancy words here.  This one is so, so emo. “Ouch, I have hurt myself again,” we’re told. “Be my friend/hold me, wrap me up/unfold me/I am small/and needy/warm me up/and breathe me.”  The song is stripped down, her need is naked, and it overmasters everything.

“Almost Lover,” A Fine Frenzy :   The gentle piano, the refined pain, the hopeless dream, the luckless romance! So what if the verses sound disconcertingly like “Part Time Lover”?  The refrain is haunting and tremulous.  “I cannot go to the ocean/I cannot drive the streets at night/I cannot wake up in the morning without you on my mind.”  “Did I make it that easy,” she asks, “to walk right in and out of my life?”

“This Years’ Love,” David Gray: Gray’s throbbing, rhythmic piano and gravelly burr asks the question so many others do; should I let myself feel this?   “It takes something more this time than sweet sweet lies/oh now/ before I open up my arms and fall/losing all control, every dream inside my soul.”  This year’s love, it better last.

“If You Want Me,” Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova : You might not think it at first, but there’s a lot that’s Victorian in the suppressed passion of Once, the gentle not-quite love story of a street busker and a girl with a broken vacuum cleaner who end up making a magical album together.  And no, the Romantics weren’t Victorians, but this particular song is a plea for a Romantic breakthrough of the more rigid, formal bonds.  It’s a thoroughly modern film, but the theme of two artists whose lives are ennobled by self-denial is very, very old-school.

“Let There Be Morning,” The Perishers: A haunting melody welcoming the end of, well, life, “Let There Be Morning” manages to be simultaneously stirring and elegiac.  This might be our most tubercular find.  Its message?  Beauty remains.  The Perisher’s glorious romantic masterpiece “Sway” is a close second for its tortured plea for forgiveness: if given another chance, the speaker will finally be solid ground for his lover.  This time it will be different.

“The Weakness in Me,” Joan Armatrading: Take that, “Part Time Lover.”  Adultery songs don’t have to be cheesy.  There is genuine anguish in her broken voice when Armatrading pleads with her lover to let her forget, to let her be faithful, to leave her the heck alone.  “[You] make me lie, when I don’t want to… You make me stay when I should not/Are you so strong, or is all the weakness in me?”

“Fortress Around Your Heart,” Sting : When I was a painfully shy young tween, oh how I longed for someone to build a bridge over the walls around my heart!  What’s more Romantic than the desire for someone to rescue you from yourself?  I literally wore through three cassettes tapes of this brilliant album (The Dream of The Blue Turtle). Too much of my life then was like negotiating a minefield, and that image spoke to me deeply.

“Gravity,” Sara Barielles: Talk about unhealthy!  The speaker has a passion she cannot deny – against her will, against her character – for someone cruel.  “You hold me without touch/you keep me without chains,” she sings, “…And all my fragile strength is gone.”

“She Will Be Loved,” Maroon 5: “I don’t mind spending every day/out on the corner in the pouring rain.”  Yep, that’s emo alright.  She will be loved whether or not this enchantress loves him back.  She’s fragile, and sad, and he loves her for her sadness.  He makes of her a figure of Romance.

“Nobody’s Girl,” Bonnie Raitt: (With apologies for the atrocious video – it was that or a cover) Raitt sings with compassion (rather than passion) about that same sort of Romantic figure.  Neither compliments nor devotion nor possession will help this hapless lover achieve true communion with his sad, lonely, lovely beloved. “She gives herself to him/but he’s still on the outside.”

“Northern Sky,” Nick Drake : Tragic suicide Nick Drake is the epitome of the tubercular emo sound, and “Northern Sky” is perhaps his most romantic effort.  (Apologies again for the link, this time for sound quality – the remastered version I have is much better, but I can’t find it online.  Buy Way to Blue, it’s totally worth it.) “I never knew magic crazy as this,” he sings, filled with the beauty of the world around him, exhorting his love to brighten his dark world.  The song pulses with the conviction that love could save him.  Love didn’t save Keats from tuberculosis, and the desire for it didn’t save Drake from his demons; we, at least, are the richer for their struggles.

“Pictures of You,” The Cure: “There’s nothing in the world than I ever wanted more/ than to feel you deep in my heart/there’s nothing the world than I ever wanted more/than to never feel like breaking apart/all my pictures of you.”  He wants the real girl, but he also wants someone on a pedestal.  Betrayal cuts him to the quick.  Is anyone more emo than The Cure?  None.  None more emo.

And there it stands.  We hope you’ve listened and enjoyed!  In some ways it was really hard to limit: passionate songs like U2’s “Hawkmoon 269” and  James Morrison’s “If You Don’t Want to Love Me” tempted, but we ultimately decided that the former was too robust and the latter, too uptempo.  I’m still kicking over the fit of Missy Higgins’ dysfunctional stab at nobility, “Where I Stood.” What do you think?  What did we miss?


25 comments on “Emo Tubercular Hotness: The Playlist

  1. Sonia says:

    I LOVE THIS! Wish I could instantly download. At least two of these are on my playlist for a story idea I’m not supposed to be thinking about right now.


  2. Krizzzz says:

    If you want a non-cheesy song about adultery (or, at least, infidelity — we don’t know whether the speaker is married), try Ani Difranco’s “School Night.” I’d start quoting, but then I’d have to quote the whole thing. Oh, heck:

    “she went over to his apartment clutching her decision,
    and he said “Did you come here to tell me goodbye”?
    So she built a skyscraper of procrastination,
    and she leaned out the 25th floor window of her reply,
    and she felt like an actress, just reading her lines,
    when she finally said, “Yes, it’s really goodbye this time”
    and far below ws the blacktop and the tiny toy cars,
    and it all fell so fast and it all fell so far and she said:
    You are a miracle, but that is not all –
    you are also a stiff drink, and I am on call
    You are a party, and I am a school night,
    and I’m looking for my door key, but you are my porch light and
    you’ll never know, dear, just how much I loved you
    you’ll probably think this was just my big excuse,
    but I stand committed to a love that came before you and
    the fact that I adore you is just one of my truths.

    The second verse is a killer for moms with kids, just so you know. And it leads into this:

    She’s bent over from the business of begging forgiveness while
    frantically running around, putting out fires — but then
    What kind of scale compares the weight of two beauties?
    the gravity of duties, or the ground speed of joy? tell me
    what kind of scale could quantify elation? what kind of equation
    could I possibly employ, and you know
    you’ll never know, dear…”

    I LURVE her.

    • E says:

      Ooooh, youch, what a writer that woman is. She’s so evocative – her images are ridiculously clear and original.

      (This is kind of like an evil version of the kids book “You Are My I Love You” – just read that to my monkeys so it was on my mind.)

  3. Krizzzz says:

    Are we looking for “I’m drawn to you, but I wish I weren’t”? or “I’m drawn to you, and boy is it complicated”? or “You’re mine and I’m yours and the rest of the world doesn’t get it”? and the like? Any and all of the above?

    Out of curiousity, is there happy EMO? We’re so in love, the world doesn’t get it, and it’s GREAT??

    October Project: In Your Eyes (I’m caught in you, I’m drawn to you — and it’s really tough, because I don’t quite trust you: will you keep all of the promises in your eyes?)

    The Fray: How to Save a Life?

    Regina Spektor: Samson (I loved you first!)

    I actually used to love Fortress (Sting) because it seemed to me that he was trying to get to someplace LESS emo — like he was saying, “I’ve screwed up, that that’s why you won’t let me in, so let me build a bridge” … and let me use all these military metaphors. Hm. Intriguing.

    Tori Amos: Here.In My Head (Do you know what this is doing to me? Maybe I’m just the horizon you run to when she has left.)

    Damien Rice: 9 Crimes — I haven’t entirely figured this one out: can’t hear all the words very well, but it seems to be from the POV of two people cheating on each other, longing for the original partnership, and feeling like worthless shoe scum. The worthless feeling seems to be both causing and resulting from their choices to be unfaithful. They both sound like they feel very small. (And it’s all very dark to have shown up on a Shrek soundtrack!)

    Goo Goo Dolls: Iris — and I don’t want the world to see me, ’cause I don’t think that they’d understand; when everything’s made to be broken, I just want you to know who I am. And you can’ tfight the tears that ain’t coming, or the moment of truth in your lies. When everything feels like the movies, you bleed just to know you’re alive….

    Ani Difranco: Done Wrong: It’s a cold rain, and it’s a hard rain, like the kind you find in song. I guess that makes me the jerk with the heartache, here to sing to you about how I’ve been done wrong. How could you do nothing, and say I’m doing my best? How could you take almost everything, and then come back for the rest? How could you beg me to stay, reach out your hands and plead, and then pack up your eyes and run away, as soon as I agreed?

    Ani again — Adam and Eve: Just do me a favor: it’s the least that you can do — don’t treat me like I am something that happened to you. I am truly sorry about all this….

    I’m just getting warmed up…

    • E says:

      It’s kind of an addictive idea, isn’t it? I really enjoyed doing this – I’m glad you do too!

      I think there might be happy emo (or happier emo, anyway) but not to go with the tubercular. Actually, “Take It From Me” is fairly happy, albiet with the underlying question of whether or not the beloved is going to take what’s offered. Have you discovered The Weepies yet, btw? They’re lovely. I think you might really enjoy them.

  4. Krizzzz says:

    Anna Begins!

    Murder of One comes to mind, but seems almost a little too healthy. Or, that is, the speaker is too healthy, and he’s going nuts watching somebody else be unhealthy: There’s a bird that nests inside you, sleeping underneath your skin, and when you open up your wings to speak I wish you’d let me in.

    Alanis Morrisette – Uninvited. I actually think this is some of her strongest writing, lyrically and musically. It’s all “I’m intrigued by you, and I have to admit that like that you’re intrigued by me, but I’m also really kind of offended that you think you can just waltz across my boundaries and assume you have me all figured out.” — Like anyone would be, I am flattered by your fascination with me. Like any hot-blooded woman, I have simply wanted an object to crave. Like any uncharted territory, surely I must seem greatly intriguing. You speak of my love like you have experienced love like mine before. But THIS is not allowed: you’re uninvited. — The whole song plays with tension across boundaries, down to the way she suspends notes across measures, and breaks words/syllables in odd places to build the push-pull feeling.

    • E says:

      Ooooo, I LOVE Uninvited. Great thought. That makes me seriously happy – must go listen to it!

    • E says:

      Oh, and I almost put in “Anna Begins”. Loooooove that song. We talked about it earlier here because M thinks of it as a great summer song and I think he is insane to do so.

      • M says:

        You only think that because you are putting this tiny little box around “summer songs” and not allowing for the possibility that someone could associate an ’emo tubercular’ song with summer.

  5. Krizzzz says:

    About Ani DiF and her original images — yes! So much of the writing out there is so flat, and tries to tell by telling instead of showing (or, tells by telling the same thing over and over). She actually writes comparisons that work, metaphors that say, “it feels like THIS” and you say, huh, yeah, it DOES feel like that, how clever.

    • E says:

      Ani really is a genius at provoking that ‘shock of recognition’ moment. I wonder if she’s too strong to be tubercular, though?

  6. thepresidentrix says:

    This may be kind of corny and dated, but when it comes to songs about losing a lover, I once accidentally bought a live Sarah McLaughlin cd, thinking it would be all her classic stuff, and there was this track on it that gives me shivers (even just recalling it to mind) in a way that the original recording (which I found later, and which actually had a mostly different tune) never does. It’s about a woman watching her lover slowly dying, and the words of the bridge go,

    ‘Oh God, if you’re out there won’t you hear me; I know that we’ve never talked at all, but oh God, the man I love is leaving. Will you take him, when he comes to your door?’

    That song makes me so weepy… Maybe tonight wasn’t a good night to get all emo and tuburcular. Or maybe I already was emo and tuburcular, in which case I might as well have a soundtrack for it…

  7. Krizzzz says:

    Kate Bush — Wuthering Heights! If that’s not emo AND tubercular, I clearly don’t know what is.

    • E says:

      Perfect! You know, that’s a song I always forget that I know – partly because the title isn’t in the lyrics of the song (although it makes total sense with the lyrics). Or at least, I don’t think it is.

      And the point of all this dithering is, great thought, Krizzzz.

    • C says:

      But not hot! More like… freaky 🙂

  8. Lisa Schwarzbaum says:

    It’s a high honor to play a part in the creation of such a great blogpost and playlist! Can I add Squeeze’s “If I Didn’t Love You (I’d Hate You)”?

    • E says:

      Thanks for the kind words. 🙂 You crafted quite the evocative phrase. I’m really glad you enjoyed the playlist. (And oooh, Squeeze. Squeeze is good stuff.)

  9. […] Maybe I’m a sucker for smart musical marketing, but I don’t care.  Sometimes it’s the strains from a commercial that captures me – who can resist those slick Ipod commercials?  More often, though, a song underscores a pivotal moment in a drama, provides the intention behind a montage, or the backbone of a dance.  And I can’t help but observe though it may be music I heard first on tv, there’s no way I’d ever have found most of them if I couldn’t google the lyrics. Hurrah for tv in the digital age!  Here’s a sample of my very favorites (minus the ones I’ve mentioned here): […]

  10. Krizzzz says:

    Hey — I know I’m late to the game, but could we include something like “All I Want is You” from U2? I’m not sure it fits — I read Bono’s voice as the healthy one: you want X, and you want Y, and that’s all very nice, and those are great THINGS…but all I want is you.

    And then you wonder about the list of things she wants, and why she wants them, and you wonder about his references to all the promises we make, and you wonder how many ways she’s gotten burned before — and here he is basically saying, “I won’t play those games with you — nor will I do that TO you. What I say is what you get.”

    So maybe he’s not emo, but maybe she is. Or maybe they’re at an emo point in their relationship, and they’re choosing how emo to be from then on. =)

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