“I wanna love you!”: Music, Intimacy, and Obsession
Last week’s piece on Mitski, as I was writing it, felt a lot like the essays I wrote as an English major in college, to the point that I was tempted to use “speaker” or “narrator” to distinguish the voice of her lyrics from the real person Mitski Miyawaki, as one would when, say, writing an essay as an English major in college. But I held back from that, thinking I had seen it seldom or never when reading about music. In music writing it seems to be standard to go ahead and conflate an artist with the persona in their songs, to assume that the artist uses their music to speak more or less directly to us, as themselves, especially when the songs feel personal, when we can draw a connection between what we know about the artist’s life and what we hear in their work, when the artist even says they mine their own experience for material for songs. So I used “Mitski” to mean two things, considered adding some kind of footnote, thought “Nah come on it’s fine,” and hit publish.
The next night, I saw Jessica Lea Mayfield play a sparsely-attended late show at Subterranean in Chicago. I hadn’t listened to her music all that much prior to the show; knew just a few songs well enough to sing along to their choruses; liked but didn’t love her. As soon as she walked onto the stage, though, I knew I had advanced into another era: My New Life as a Jessica Lea Mayfield Superfan. “gender identity: jessica lea mayfield’s bejeweled platform pumps and kitten-print babydoll dress and blue lipstick and pink tattoo choker,” I tweeted. (A Twitter search for her name plus my handle comes up with ten tweets — mind you, these are just the ones that include her full name. Twitter now recommends that I follow the Avett Brothers, with whom she has collaborated, and her brother David. Don’t even get me started on Snapchat.) Everything about her performance had me enthralled: her look, her sense of humor, and, yes, her music, a blend of grunge and country (“gruntry”? I’m sorry) with dark and intense lyrics delivered in an understated drawl.
I hadn’t planned on seeing her again the next day at Green Music Fest, but over the course of Saturday night’s show I decided that yes of course I had to. I wore my lavender tie-dyed t-shirt with the kittens and butterflies on it, just to be obsequious. She wore a Daria-and-Jane-print skirt that damn near bowled me over. We made eye contact, a little, I think, while she sang, and it made me squirm, in the best way. After her set, I left the festival, which meant passing the area behind the stage where she had played, and there she was loading gear, and yes I looked and looked again as I walked. And yes I thought “I love her” and thought it again.
Then the work week began again, and naturally I began to execute a series of Google searches involving the terms “Jessica” and “Lea” and “Mayfield”. One of these searches was for the lyrics to her song “I Wanna Love You”, from her most recent solo album, 2014’s Make My Head Sing… This had been the first song of hers to stand out to me, with its creaking guitar riffs and stark refrain: “I’m insane, I wanna love you,” she intones, her voice low, steady, deadpan. “Wow, me too!” I smirkingly thought, listening to the song in bed or on the train while nursing a heart-hurt I knew to be overblown, based more on disillusionment than anything really lost. As someone chronically afflicted with romantic fantasies that flirt with delusion, the song’s opening lines — “I have things I wanna do / I wanna do these things with you / I have visions in my brain that are / Different from the truth” — resonated with me, and I appreciated their jarring simplicity and self-awareness. But my search for the lyrics uncovered something else rather jarring: an interview Mayfield did with Noisey, in which she relates the song’s inspiration. Turns out Mayfield wrote the song from the perspective of a real stalker she had. Oops.
My first reaction to this new information was embarrassment: I had identified with a stalker, and especially in light of my own fast-growing acute interest in Mayfield, the backstory of “I Wanna Love You” was a source of dismay. Then I felt a little affronted, uneasy about the song’s arguably flippant treatment of mental illness. And then I kept listening, remembered that “I Wanna Love You” is not the only song of Mayfield’s that deals with “insanity” or outsized romantic feelings. There’s “Sleepless”, which closes out the 2011 album Tell Me, and its aching chorus: “I think I’ve been left alone long enough to do something insane.” On the latest album, “Do I Have the Time” centers on a threat of suicide in response to romantic rejection, and “Party Drugs” describes drug dependency. At Subterranean last weekend, Mayfield played a (new, I think) song with the memorable-to-me line, “I’m extremely unstable and unsocialized.” And her discussion of her stalker in the above-linked interview is not unsympathetic:
I get that my music will [make people] feel really connected to me because I put everything out there. If something is happening in my life I’m going to sing about it — no matter how personal it is. And it might be something that I wouldn’t even talk about, ever. But I’ll sing about it. I think a lot of people feel like they really know me really well, and in this situation, it’s to the extreme. When people manifest relationships with you that have never existed [it’s] kind of weird and unnerving.
Mayfield proposes that what her stalker experienced was an extreme instance of a normal phenomenon. And then again — to return to English major stuff — to accept Mayfield’s explanation as a definitive statement of the song’s meaning would be to fall into the intentional fallacy. The song per se is about stalking, not about being stalked. The video, with its disorienting close-up shots, underscores the blurring of lines between Mayfield and the stalker as she inhabits his point of view.
In the age of social media more than ever before, it can be easy to imagine intimacy with public figures, particularly with musicians who pour their emotional lives into their songs. (Mayfield’s Twitter is all business, but other artists — Mitski is a perfect example — maintain social media presences that are more conversational, fostering a sense that we know them as people.) But cases like “I Wanna Love You” remind us that songs don’t provide us direct access to an artist’s mind and can’t serve as a foundation for genuine intimacy. Jay-Z might not have cheated on Beyoncé; Jessica Lea Mayfield might not have any firsthand knowledge of obsession or mental instability. I am not in love with Jessica Lea Mayfield. I am not the world’s foremost understander of Mitski Miyawaki. Let’s love music, but let’s not get carried away. See Mayfield live, do — but be careful!
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