Last week, British folk singer Laura Marling began her U.S. tour of intimate venues, performing in niche gathering spaces like coffee shops and libraries and museums and, in Oregon, a pizza parlor. Her decision to visit unorthodox locales could be called “hipster” for the way it willfully eschews common practice, which, in the case of a touring musician, would mean playing more standard concert halls, or really any venue designed to showcase a musical act. Barring a semantic discussion of the ubiquitous word “hipster” and its shrinking relevance as a term for going against the mainstream (can ubiquity be marginal?), Marling’s choice places her in a very modern cultural moment: that of hipster as an acknowledged lifestyle; indie as art; the renaissance of the record player; and the European “nu-folk” movement of which the British press has named her a forerunner. Yet Marling herself would probably be the first to express uneasiness over being called a contemporary cultural marker. She both is and isn’t; a part of the same trend that begot the zeitgeist-y Mumford & Sons, as well as heir to another tradition that boasts a much more extensive history of hitting troubling, primal nerves: the lonely torch singer.
YouTube Laura Marling, the Quaker daughter of a music teacher who, as a child, found herself “unable to slot myself into the age-appropriate [music] genre,” and the first suggestion that pops up is “laura marling new romantic.”
Not a torch song in the genre’s strictest sense – a man hasn’t done Marling wrong through infidelity or indifference; she’s not pining; she has not lost but in fact tossed her lover – New Romantic also falls short theatrically when held against other staples of the genre: Jacques Brel’s (or Nina Simone, or Sting, depending on your age/generous ear for a French accent) “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” or the naïve expression of mature loss that is Judy Garland’s “You Made Me Love You,” or Adele’s smash “Someone Like You.” But for all its refusal to swell to a climax or let crest a heaving chest of tears, “New Romantic” practices the same self-effacement, the same untempered indulgence, the same reveled love-pain that makes its listeners happy for being able to be unhappy over having felt so deeply, as its forerunners.
(“And I never meant to hurt you when I wrote you 10 love songs/ By a guy I could never get/ cause his girlfriend was pretty fit/ And everyone who knew her loved her so/ And I made you leave her for me/ And now I’m feeling pretty mean/ But my mind has f***ed me over more times than any man could ever know,” Marling asserts her unworthiness on “Romantic.”)
Marling, and Brel and Garland and Adele, are all fully shucked and raw peas in a pod for the way in which they let their vulnerabilities show for our listening pleasure – and for the way in which they let their vulnerabilities show as a means of exacting revenge against those who’ve driven them to lyricize. Because the torch-singing tradition that continues to endure 70 years after Garland first put chin to palm in front of a picture of Clark Gable, is, essentially, a form of emotional hari kari. Which may or may not sound as out-there as the idea of booking a singer to willfully make noise in a library.
To explain, it’s necessary to travel even further back than the era of a 14-year-old Judy Garland, further still than the epoch of the Ziegfeld Follies girls who popularized the genre, to Victorian times, when society upheld the rules of propriety with the same earnest adherence of gangsters to our modern street-code. Back then, if a man wounded another man’s honor, the offended party often felt duty-bound to challenge his opponent to a duel. In speaking of this dignified pistol-slinging, a character in Dostoyeovsky’s Victorian masterpiece The Idiot offers a mistaken description of the Japanese practice of seppuku, or hari kari: “They say anyone who has received an insult goes to his enemy and says ‘You have wronged me, and in revenge I’ve come to cut open my stomach before you,’… and probably feels great satisfaction in doing so, as though it really were a vengeance. There are strange people in the world!”
A flippant take on an ancient ritual about control and dignity in death, the character’s remark nonetheless takes a physical truth and – as this is a novel, and one more concerned with its characters’ feelings than forwarding their actions – manipulates it for full psychological effect. Modern torch singers and their audience speak to the truth of his half-true approximation. It helps answer the question asked by aesthetes and the friends of those for whom wine releases their inner Melody Gardot: From where does the pleasure of listening to a torch song derive, whether sung by Fanny Brice or our hipster, folksy pixie?
It may, on the one (lowered) hand, stem from a not-so-pretty pleasure in abjection. From the satisfaction of spilling, neuroses to navel, our own guts in order to render psychological damage on the one who’s messed with our heads, “as though it really were a vengeance.” “Nevermind, I’ll find someone like you,” Adele wails, placing the unreachable “you” as the pinnacle she reached, fell from, and, Icarus-like, is attempting to remount, albeit via another mountain.
Jacques Brel shakes his head in earnest, sweaty promise that he’ll carefully erase himself for the honor of receiving his ex-lover’s attention: “I won’t speak anymore, I won’t cry … only let me become the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of you dog” (kick me, only let me feel your touch). Towards the end of “You Made Me Love You,” Garland’s monologue sees her apologizing for bumping into Gable, or rather, for audaciously existing on that stretch of sidewalk the actor had already eyed for his shiny feet. And then there’s Marling: “And I’m sorry to whichever man should meet my sorry state/ Watch my steady, lonesome gait and beware/ I can never love a man cause love and pain go hand-in-hand/ And I can’t do it, again.”
But masochism, the pleasure of hurting ourselves in front of the one who brought us pain, is still only half the equation. Where hari kari is about honor, torch singing’s verbal gut-spilling is about narcissism. In vicariously self-flagellating, we are self-serving, saving ourselves from the charge of cruelty – we have nothing to feel ashamed of, bad about, guilty for, because hitting ourselves is still technically following the Golden Rule. These songs of “don’t leave me, don’t leave me, don’t leave me, “ or “I’m in a sorry state, a sorry, sorry state,” focus on rendering personal damage, not openly unto others (subtext: like you). They strike a primal chord of neediness in each of us who seeks another person’s singular attention, they beg for the compassion that’s been lost or taken, and they’re willing to settle for pity as a caring sentiment that, if far from compensatory, is focused on us and us as the loci of pain nonetheless. They cut, spill, and smile.
And it’s precisely this paradoxical conflation of self-effacement and moral aggrandizement that may lie at the heart of torch songs’ continuing appeal. Their earnestness both is and isn’t part of the hipster ethos, depending on whom you ask – those who define hipster as an ironic or Byronic sensibility. Either way, for all her “new” titling, Laura Marling’s carrying on of the torch tradition in such an intimate manner makes her both of this modern moment and helps her to transcend it, crafting songs that touch on enduring if unpleasant truths that cross centuries like hipsters crossing Bedford street: with all the focus on themselves.