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Merritt’s Musical Memories: The Magnetic Fields’ 50 Song Memoir and Autobiography


Under a sustained accordion, Stephin Merritt croons a baritone phrase, “When I write my memoirs / You will read them with pain and with shame / You’ll be searching in vain for you name / For your bleak, insignificant name.”1 It’s a pointed missive to an ex of his mother whose name shall not be mentioned lest the subject derive some pleasure from the acknowledgement. The song, “’77: Life Ain’t all Bad,” is also a wink to its form, coming twelve years into The Magnetic Fields’s latest album, 50 Song Memoir. An indie-pop group who came out of Boston in the 1990s, The Magnetic Fields is a collection of musicians around principal songwriter Stephin Merritt, whose memoir the album relates. Throughout the album and in the 50 Song Memoir tour, Merritt investigates the connections between memoir and music, playing with the tropes of confessional songwriting and autobiographical performance as he relates the story of his life. As with much of Merritt’s work, 50 Song Memoir does not so much give us access to his life as exposes how he constructs it. Key to this construction is Merritt’s queering of confessional songwriting by emphasizing how autobiography is constructed.

In this essay, I analyze how Merritt uses his live show and album to construct a version of himself for consumption by the audience generating intimacy in the face of Merritt’s stated opposition to autobiography. I investigate critical commentary on record as well as theoretical writings about confessional music, and performance theory. 50 Song Memoir is notable for the different registers that it evokes as well as how it explicitly foregrounds the performance of self in live performance and on the album. Several important tracks from the album are embedded as videos and recordings made available by The Magnetic Fields on YouTube. In the cases of “’83: Foxx and I” and “’85: Why I Am Not a Teenager,” the videos shown in this essay were projected on the tour in a frame above Merritt. Recordings and photos were prohibited in during the 50 Song Memoir tour; however, a video produced by the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for “’68: Cat Called Dionysus” is included for reference.2

50 Song Memoir was composed at the behest of Robert Hurwitz, the president of The Magnetic Fields’ record label, Nonesuch, who suggested that Merritt write a song for each year of his life. Thus, each year gets a musical treatment, even if the song may not include particular personal information. For many fans and critics, the album has been read as a companion to Merritt’s other ambitious numbered project, 1999’s 69 Love Songs, a classic record in the independent music world as evidenced by its critical reception and inclusion in the 33 1/3 book series. That record, a three-disc affair, which explores the genre of the love song through its various incarnations, is indicative of much of Merritt’s work, which operates according to specific constraints that Merritt composes around. While some nineteen songs shorter, 50 Song Memoir is no less monumental an undertaking, especially combined with the corresponding tour where Merritt and a group of musicians play the entire album in order from “’66: Wonder Where I’m From” to “’15: Somebody’s Fetish” in a series of two-night stands across the globe. Merritt asks his listeners both in the concerts and those who pick up the record at home to listen through the entirety of the album sequentially. In an interview with The New York Times, he states, “I live in dread that people are going to download songs out of order, or have favorite songs… . All of this focus on favorite things is driving me crazy. It’s part of the American list culture.”3 In total, 50 Song Memoir clocks in at two and a half hours on the album, and around an hour and a half per show in concert. The 50 Song Memoir tour, as I will address in more depth later in the essay, included the playing of the album as well as short interpolations between the songs by Merritt and additional production elements from video projections to a theatrical set.

“Autobiography Need Not Be Exactly the Same Thing as Truth”

Paul de Man, in his influential essay, “Autobiography as De-facement,” argues that autobiography is not a literary genre, but a moment of recognition that can occur in virtually any artistic work. “Autobiography, then, is not a genre or mode, but a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all texts,” de Man states. The autobiographical moment happens as an alignment between the two subjects involved in the process of reading in which they determine each other by mutual reflexive substitution.”4 In autobiographical performance, the presence of a material body complicates de Man’s thesis, because the artist is present. The intimacy of this exchange between artist and audience can problematize an audience’s recognition of the “true” self. According to Deirdre Heddon,

In the field of performance, the act of representing the self perhaps resonates somewhat differently, since in the place of the absent self which all self-referential writing unavoidably figures, the spectator is confronted rather by the physically present self. Indeed, this makes performance all the more tempting (and dangerous) a medium through which to make claims for a ‘real’ or ‘truthful’ self, and is part of the immediacy of performance.5

As Heddon and de Man suggest, the self is not uncovered in autobiography, but rather the act of performance (live or literary) defines the self. De Man asks: “We assume that life produces the autobiography as an act produces its consequences, but can we not suggest, with equal justice, that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life and that whatever the writer does is in fact governed by the technical demands of self-portraiture and thus determined, in all aspects by the resources of his medium?”6 Thus, the act of autobiography creates the self even in modes, like autobiographical performance, where the self is materially manifest. The strictures, limitations, and rules of the particular medium help to express the self as well define reception in the exchange between artist and audience. As I will tease out later in the essay, this exchange helps establish authenticity through an intimacy created through the exchange.

In music, confessional tropes have been commonplace since the 1970s when singer songwriters like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, and Marvin Gaye spilt their lives onto the airwaves. Emerging out of Second Wave feminism and the dictum that the “personal is political,” singer songwriters, especially women, found confessional tropes to be generative for music as well as a way in which to bring female voices into a more public sphere. Yet, as Stuart Henderson notes in “‘All Pink and Clean and Full of Wonder?’ Gendering ‘Joni Mitchell,’ 1966–74,” such performances also came with limitations as artists like Mitchell were pushed to fit within particular roles. “Mitchell’s performance as ‘woman’ is thus both private and public, both in and out of her control,” Henderson concludes. “The hegemonic construction of ‘female folksinger’ became for Mitchell a kind of symbolic prison – it demanded of her that she be clearly defined, obvious, and therefore, immutable.”7 Henderson contends that while Mitchell used confession as a tool, it also became, for critics and her audiences, a type of performance of “Joni Mitchell” to which she was required to conform. Her “authentic” self, therefore, was the construction of her reception as well as her own invention.

Authenticity has a long and complicated history, particularly in music, where claims of cultural appropriation and copyright still take up ample news time. Despite this, independent music regularly defines itself in opposition to a “mainstream” through claims of authenticity. As Ryan Hibbett explains, indie rock, as a genre, defines itself often as a reaction against particular music as much as an attempt to stake out new sonic territory. Indie music claims an almost dizzying variation of subgenres like indie pop, lo-fi, Brit pop, hardcore, slowcore, and others. These terms, Hibbett claims “are operative at least as much as they are responsive, providing an occasion for distinction valuable on both ends of commercial and artistic exchange.”8 In other words, a subgenre’s definition of territory facilitates musical identity and exchange. Independent musicians often exist in flux. On the one side is an outsider stance that has established the artist’s identity through opposition to, on the other side is outreach to new audiences, which must, likewise, be assured of the particular artist’s independent bona fides. Thus, the performance of authenticity is essential to an independent artist, as the artist deploys their music as a performance of self, which likewise, self-defines. Emily Dolan contends that conventional notions of authenticity are further problematized in indie pop music. In “‘… This Little Ukulele Tells the Truth’: Indie Pop and Kitsch Authenticity,” Dolan uses Merritt’s song “This Little Ukulele” to explore how indie pop uses kitsch to make authentic claims: “Here the ‘honesty’ of this music does not arise from the illusion of unmediated communication (which lurks behind so many ‘unplugged’ concerts), but rather from openly emphasizing the process of mediation. It emphasizes the materiality of the music and the actual experience of listening.”9

Merritt’s persona, as performed through the song, is one of the elements that grounds the “truth” of the song. He casts himself as the opposite of a bombastic, uber-serious songwriter who needs the splash of an orchestra to affirm truth. Merritt only needs the four nylon strings of his ukulele. His claim to the truth is self-fulfilling. And the authenticity is reinforced, Dolan claims, by the use of kitsch, which “arises from a type of aesthetic time travel, when past art forms are resuscitated, but brought back to life in a new context where they have no place or function.”10 “Within popular music especially, kitsch can be evoked not just through use of ‘decontextualised forms,’” Dolan states, “but also through vocal timbre, instrumentation, arrangement and production values.”11 Kitsch is a recurring presence in indie pop, because it helps establish authenticity while also insulating an artist from claims of co-option from a musical mainstream by decontextualizing elements from their previous place. “Kitsch, a positive, redemptive kitsch — pervades indie music,” she states, “from its consumption to its production. Thus, we can recast what it means when a song or band is co-opted by the mainstream: it loses its aura, not of authenticity, but of sentiment.”12 The decontextualized nature of kitsch means that it is already recognized as being plucked from another time or form. Rather than alienating the listener, it amplifies the connection, generating attachment and sentimentality through the shared language of kitsch.

In the materials surrounding the album and in performance of 50 Song Memoir, Merritt is careful to point out that writing autobiographical songs isn’t a part of his creative milieu. He tells Daniel Handler, in the liner notes on the album, “I am the least autobiographical person you will ever meet.”13 And, after the first song of the 50 Song Memoir tour, Merritt tells his audience, “I usually hate writing autobiographical songs.” He then appends the caveat: “But autobiography need not be the same thing as truth.”14 With both of these statements, Merritt plays with the authenticity of his own autobiography. Given the stated nature of the album, we have to wonder—is Merritt playing with his audiences as well?

“We Left the Next Day”

The protagonist, in many ways, of the first part of the album is Merritt’s mother, who raised him single-handedly through a series of failed dealings with men and religious groups. Her ex-husband, whose name is on Stephin’s birth certificate, is not his biological father and was out of the picture (like Merritt’s biological father) by the time Stephin came of age. As characterized by Merritt, his mother is a “beatnik,” moving from romantic entanglement to romantic entanglement and religious group to religious group. Her quest for personal enlightenment through association with cult-like figures contrasts with Merritt’s skeptical perspective. In “’75: My Mama Ain’t,” Merritt describes his mother’s spiritual takes with a wry twist—“My Mom’s a little flaky / Believes in everything / From auras to zen reiki / Except crystal healing / She draws the line at crystal healing.”15 Likewise, on “‘’74: No,” a spiritual about crackpot beliefs from hollow-moon theory to Communist conspiracies, Merritt shoots down his mother’s far-flung contentions—“My mother believes that this physical universe / Is a big holographic show / And she says someday science’ll catch up with her / Has she a shred of evidence? / No.”16 Despite their differing views, Merritt is fiercely loyal to his mother, as seen on “’77: Life Ain’t All Bad,” where he celebrates the death of one of his mother’s partners with a sing-along: “I hope I never run into / another piece of shit like you / You killed my dog / You killed my Mice / You made my home a den of vice.”17 In fact, the portrait of Merritt that graces the cover of the record was painted by his mother. It offers a glimpse of him through her lens after looking at her through his. His mother becomes a foil for Merritt, allowing him to define himself in opposition to her. While she flirts with gurus, he expresses droll disdain for the metaphysical.

Merritt’s skepticism and protectionism of his mother is hard won. Her dabbling in religions and relationships leaves Merritt’s childhood uprooted. During the 50 Song Memoir tour, he introduces “’73: It Could Have Been Paradise” like this: “One day I came home from school, and my mother showed me a map of Hawaii and said, ‘We’re going to live there now.’ We left the next day.”18 Merritt told The Guardian, “My mother was in a particular kind of Tibetan Buddhism which could well be described as a cult. Her guru was Chögyam Trungpa. He was what was known as a ‘crazy wisdom guru’—he liked to encourage drunk driving, which didn’t turn out well for him.”19 “I’m sure my mother wishes I had spent more time writing about other aspects of my life,” Merritt told Jim Farber in The New York Times, but the one thing that she quibbled with was the placement of a colon in his verse.20

Throughout the first night of concert and in the opening of the album, Merritt is very much traveler in his mother’s orbit. As she moves from town to town, relationship to relationship, the album doesn’t provide a clear narrative journey, as much as it places us in specific, and sometimes fictional, events. In “’70: They’re Killing Children Over There,” Merritt’s mother takes him to a Jefferson Airplane concert, where Grace Slick criticizes the war in Vietnam, saying, “They’re killing children over there.” Merritt mistakes her anti-war message. He thinks that somewhere in the crowd of that concert children are being murdered. Here and in many of the situations that he is placed in, Merritt appears like a fish out of water, attempting to make sense of the world while being too young to fully comprehend. This uncertainty extends to Merritt’s understanding of who he is. “’66: Wonder Where I’m From,” the album’s opening track, in fact, is about Merritt’s rootlessness, and that he doesn’t know where he was born. The portrait that Merritt paints of himself from this period is of a boy with peculiar social understanding, which is shown, metaphorically, through “’68: A Cat Called Dionysus,” where in one of Merritt’s first memories, a young boy wants nothing more than to love a philandering and misanthropic cat.

This video clip, published by the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, gives a sense of the concert’s production, which I will analyze later in this essay. Above Merritt, a large frame projection surface plays various images as he sings each song. In between particular songs, Merritt gives short introductions to the song or commentary. Each of these is scripted, down to the “Ahem” that he says before beginning the show. The scripting of Merritt’s autobiography enables him to figure himself before his audience, as Heddon contends, while narrating this figuration, enabling Merritt to play with the powerful immediacy of live performance.

“Anonymous Figures with Animal Heads”

For music critic Carl Wilson, Merritt’s relationship with his mother mirrors a transition in the history of popular music as well.

The combination of baby-boom generational drama, the self-help ethos of the “me decade,” and the swelling of star culture made singing about yourself the opposite of the scandal it was for Eva Tanguay: It became the default, almost a prerequisite… . Merritt, however, is an irony-addicted caucasian Gen X’er. He grew up with too many people around him “finding themselves” and turned to the hardline spiritual skepticism that comes up on several 50 Song Memoir tracks. Many songwriters of his vintage backed far away from explicit confession, and most such indie auteurs (Smog, Sebadoh, the Mountain Goats, Silver Jews, Destroyer) preferred to operate under band names, … not their own birth names, because being so-and-so the singer with a guitar/keyboard came to seem cheesy.21

Merritt’s musical role model is British New Wave pioneer, and founding Ultravox! member John Foxx. “When I was 16 I wanted to be John Foxx, essentially,” Merritt tells Daniel Handler, “and I still do, essentially.”22 Foxx’s influence is felt musically and lyrically on the second disc of the album in tracks like “’80: London by Jetpack,” “’81: How to Play the Synthesizer,” “’82: Happy Beeping,” and “’83: Foxx and I.” Merritt announces himself as stylistically and philosophically akin to Foxx and the New Waves groups who came of age, like Merritt in the early 1980s. As he sings in “’80: London by Jetpack:” “my ‘roots’ are New Romantic as many ‘critics’ have complained.”23

Establishing himself as rooted in New Wave both sonically and conceptually, Merritt draws a distinctive line between the confessional, emotive tones of ’70s confessional music and the stoicism espoused by Foxx and others. On “’83: Foxx and I,” for example, Merritt connects the musical and the personal:

Foxx and I Have the Roland TB-303 I think it will be easy Miming on “Top of the Pops” Foxx and I Liberated from emotions Exploring other oceans What use have we for hell? Anyone can change into a machine Girl or white, black or boy, Dull or very strange into a machine Come with me

Merritt’s idolization of Foxx’s musical work and personal philosophy is readable from their connection of instruments to their “liberation” from emotions. “I Want to Be a Machine” from Ultravox!’s 1977 debut portrays much the same sentiment. Foxx sings: “Let’s run to meet the tide tomorrow / Leave all emotion dying there / In the star cold beyond all of your dreams.”24 The chorus, “I want to be a machine,” seems to meet that of “’83: Foxx and I.” As Merritt tells Handler, it isn’t simply the musical affinity that he responds to in Foxx’s work, but also the philosophy, “which I now recognize as Epicurean, in which emotion for its own sake is to be avoided—positive or negative.”25

A lyric in “’85: Why I Am Not a Teenager” gives a hint as to why Foxx’s Epicureanism may have had such an impact on a maturing Merritt:

All that money they’ve got, they don’t give you a jot

This is why I am not a teenager When you never get paid, and you never get laid And you’re full of all these stupid hormones And just then they come out with AIDS26

For a self-described socially awkward adolescent, the AIDS crisis would have been a devastating deterrent to the possibility of romantic partnership. Indeed, as the first night of the performance comes to a close, and as we near year twenty-five of Merritt’s life, Merritt takes more of a starring role in his own show.

Merritt has never been closeted and forgoes the traditional coming out narrative for aesthetic reasons. As he explained to Jim Farber, “Once you’ve read three gay coming-out stories, you never need another one.”27 Throughout 50 Song Memoir, Merritt locates his biography within the history of homosexuality in the United States from the emergence of gay rights and establishing of cultural spaces for openly homosexual artists following Stonewall to the AIDS epidemic’s existential threat to gay culture and personal sexuality. On “’69: Judy Garland,” for example, Merritt fictionalizes Garland’s funeral, interweaving it with a depiction of the Stonewall riots. Merritt’s early twenties corresponded with the burgeoning art scene of the 1980s. For a record that was composed in a bar and an artist who has made cameos in songs about bars (like the music video for Conor Oberst’s 2016 “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out”), Merritt fittingly memorializes several clubs and watering holes on this album like in “’84: Danceteria!” and “’87: At the Pyramid.” In so doing, he also acknowledges a history of performers like the Fabulous Pop Tarts and Kiki and Herb while eulogizing now defunct spaces of arts creation and sexual freedom. The closing of night one on the 50 Song Memoir tour is “’90: Dreaming in Tetris,” a song that bookends Merritt’s New Wave obsession and his concerns about his own mortality and sexuality. “Make a record, go to sleep” Merritt sings, “Make another record in your sleep / Dreaming in Tetris / Il faut être absolument New Wave (You have to be absolutely New Wave).” Then, Merritt makes the disturbing observation, “All the young dudes of 25 / Caught diseases. Few survive … We expected nuclear war / What should we take precautions for?”28 Merritt survives the scene from the 1980s, and the emergence of the 1990s brings him to the fore as the key character in his life story.

“The Day I Finally …”

More than any other song on 50 Song Memoir, “’91: The Day I Finally …,” hints at the theatrical potential of the record. Merritt plays the “one-man band” a percussion set arranged on a stick with the recording sounding as if the listener is positioned somewhere in this room as Merritt bangs and sings. It’s the most lo-fi moment on the album, and one whose production is meant to mirror the emotional content of the song, as Merritt describes that this was the time when he first became seriously depressed. Yet this song (as with other similar songs where Merritt struggles with depression, like “’96: I’m Sad”) doesn’t simply hit a particular emotional resonance. The song riffs on clichés of sadness. The song repeats its lyrics three times and certain words, such as “snap,” “clap,” “stop,” “croak,” “joke,” and “laugh,” are varied with each iteration. The sound words begin as metaphor, using the one-man band percussion to create the sound, and become literal—on the album a snap becomes snapping fingers; the joke is a limerick.29 Merritt’s lyrics instruct that the third time through, in live concert, the audience should make the requisite sounds. The joke should vary nightly.

On the 50 Song Memoir tour, “’91: The Day I Finally …” kicks off night two. Merritt emerges from behind the pink crosshatched house structure at the front of the stage and takes his place with his one-man band. It’s the only time that he appears solo throughout the concert. Regularly, his band is scattered behind the house, though the emphasis in content and voice is solely on Merritt. Unlike other Magnetic Fields albums, Merritt does the entirety of the singing and, on the album, plays nearly all the instruments. He is listed in the liner notes as playing over fifty instruments. In the live show, Merritt is similarly front and center, seated in a small bright pink house with polka dots and crosshatches. It’s filled with eclectic materials, including instruments, like Merritt’s ukulele, but also stuffed animals and toys. The shows of the 50 Song Memoir tour are staged by HOLA award winning director José Zayas with sets by Arnulfo Maldonado, lighting by Mark O’Maley, and projections by Alex Koch.

The concert’s mise-en-scène furthers Merritt’s construction of himself. Merritt not only creates his biography through song, in performance he opens spaces of commentary and counterpoint on the life that he is portraying. This layered self-presentation is readable in and created by the multifocus stage presentation. De Man claims that since autobiography is recognized in the alignment between writing subject and reading subject, “any book with a readable title-page is, to some extent, autobiographical.”30 The title-page of this performance is Merritt’s narration of the life portrayed in image and song. His presence, commentary, and persona guarantees the subject’s authenticity. The performance, therefore, works to create distinctions between the memoir and musician.

Famously droll, Merritt’s persona contrasts with the technicolor house and elaborated visual projections. If Joni Mitchell became restricted by “Joni Mitchell,” then Merritt works to distance himself from the subject of the performance. In concert, Merritt’s banter between songs ranges from frank moments of self-reflection to self-aware banter, playing with schtick and non sequitur. For example, after “’91: The Day I Finally …,” Merritt addresses his audience: “For people who couldn’t come last night … try again tonight. I moved back to New York for good (more or less) during a winter of fourteen blizzards. The city had given up on parking regulations and I thought of the city as a wonderful place where you could park wherever you wanted.”31 Rather than elucidating aspects of Merritt’s story, anecdotes like this manifest as a moment of camp, further suggestive of self. Merritt makes the rootlessness of his upbringing clear, which seems to contrast with the technicolor child-like house that he sings from in the concert. The kitsch bric-a-brac of this house—dollhouses, vintage furniture, and stuffed animals—is repurposed through Merritt’s performance. As Andrew Ross asserts in “Uses of Camp,”

The producer or consumer of kitsch either is unaware of the extent to which his or her intentions or pretensions are alienated in the kitsch text, or else is made to feel painfully aware of this alienation in some way. Camp, on the other hand, involves a celebration, on the part of the cognoscenti, of the alienation, distance, and incongruity reflected in the very process by which it locates hitherto unexpected value in a popular or obscure text.32

Thus, the “setting” of the concert, like Merritt’s banter, doesn’t put the audience in his life, but suggests a way to read it. Over the two-night show that I saw in Boston last spring, the effect was that of a one-man show conceived of by Andre Breton (whose novel Les champs magnétiques inspired the band’s name) or a parody of a one person show where the subject suddenly becomes the narrator.

Merritt’s particular performance of self also has analogues in musical history beyond the generational shift from “me generation” to Generation X. Wilson notes that Merritt’s sexuality further complicates his relationship to confessional songwriting, citing a 2015 Rolling Stone interview with Merritt where he stated, “gay songwriters in general write character songs because they’re not really in a position to have mainstream success writing in detail about their own lives.”33 Writing in Slate, Wilson takes this observation a step forward, linking Merritt’s self-presentation with drag.

And while his preference for disguise and evasion … may derive from both generational reaction and his anti-social leanings (witness the seventh track, a childhood protest song against “Eye Contact”), it also connects to the lineage of concealment and code (drag, camp, polari) throughout queer history.34

Wilson references “’89: The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo,” where Merritt explicitly disavows personal identification and the corporatization of it—“If only musicians were invisible / Or, like the Residents, identical / Sod MTV; show me a Tractor pull.”34 Critical writing around 50 Song Memoir and much of Merritt’s other musical work often links him to homosexual artists like Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, and Noël Coward. Like Merritt, these artists worked within a dominant culture and made their mark through exploiting their savant tendencies and moving between numerous different styles.

50 Song Memoir, fittingly, also swings between musical styles from song to song. From the New Wave-inspired tracks to reggae on “’94: Haven’t Got a Penny,” faux Dick Dale on “’08: Surfin’,” and a good old-fashioned bar song with “’02: Be True to Your Bar.” These stylistic changes are indicative of Merritt’s career. In his work with The Magnetic Fields, Merritt employs a particular restraint with each record: i is a record whose titles all begin with the letter “i”; The Charm of the Highway Strip is a collection of road songs; 69 Love Songs is just that. Outside of these projects, Merritt has composed pieces of Chinese musical theater with director Chen Shi-Zheng, the soundtracks to two films, the music and lyrics for the musical Coraline, and numerous albums as the principal member behind The 6ths, The Future Bible Heroes, and The Gothic Archies. They can also be read, as Wilson suggests, as ways that Merritt has worked within a hegemonic culture. In this sense, the music of the record and Merritt’s career is an extension of the young man watching Grace Slick or challenging his ethic professor’s philosophical foundations as he does in “’86: How I Failed Ethics.” Merritt’s musical work demonstrates how he attempts to assert himself and react within a world where he is a perpetual outsider. His memoir, then, is a type of performed drag autobiography. Merritt plays Merritt telling Merritt’s life.

During the 50 Song Memoir tour, Merritt references this type of third-person performance in the introduction to “’84: Danceteria!”: “When musicians address the audience it’s called banter when actors address the audience it’s called verfrumdungseffekt.35 Verfrumdungsffekt is an acting term, also called the “alienation effect,” used by the German director, playwright, and theorist Berthold Brecht. As a part of his vision of theatre, Brecht seeks to complicate facile understandings of empathy and, instead, have his audience focus on larger conditions that give rise to the events of the plot. Through alienation, an actor should not become a character, as in versions of “method” acting. Instead, Brecht famously suggests that actors should act as witnesses, telling a story in third-person, much the same way that one may narrate the story of an accident, using embodiment when necessary and treating oneself as a character within a larger context. In using this term, Merritt suggests that he is using alienation in performance as a way to complicate the audience’s experience of himself as a character in his own life. He is aware and makes explicit his self-awareness of his role as the subject, author, and performer of the vision of himself that is put forward for consumption.

“The Vast Majority of My Photographs Are Now Lost / Boo-Hoo”

In the second night of performance, Merritt not only uses a multitude of musical styles, he also incorporates songs that hadn’t made it into other projects. “’88: Ethan Frome,” “’00: Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers,” “’01: Have You Seen It in the Snow?” and “’10: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” are all tracks that Merritt plucked from other projects or that reflect on unfinished work. As he sings on “’00: Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers,” “I wrote the above in this ghost town / For a movie that wasn’t to be / […] All the rights and the money are gone / But the song goes on.”36 The tone of the second night, in many ways, flips from song to song, from the acerbic irony of “’08: Surfin,’” where Merritt disdains the purpose, culture, garb, and appeal of surfing, to the nostalgic tones seen in the prior quotation. Merritt performs himself as an outsider, even in his own story, through much of the concert, so why is it that he becomes nostalgic at this point?

Spencer Kornhaber, writing in The Atlantic, attributes this tonal shift to Merritt’s true love, music:

Merritt’s love for music is so full, so earnest, that by the penultimate track “’14 I Wish I Had Pictures,” you get the sense that he has finally gotten a little embarrassed about it… . But the listener by this point has been convinced of the one spiritual belief that’s driven Merritt’s life: A song can accomplish anything.37

Wilson echoes Kornhaber’s contention that the true subject of Merrit’s memoir isn’t his life but his relationship with music. Writing in Slate, Wilson points out a kind of false ending in 50 Song Memoir. In the next to last track, “’14: I Wish I Had Pictures,” Merritt laments the ability of music to capture fading memory. He wishes to be an artist, a poet, an actor before singing “But I’m only a singer; it’s only a song / The things I remember are probably wrong.”38 The somber tone ruefully reminiscing on the impossibility of truly capturing memory, as Wilson notes, is “a natural end.”39

But, Merritt follows this elegiac song with “’15: Somebody’s Fetish,” a salsa-inspired track suggesting that no one need be lonely as everyone has a peculiarity that someone else probably has a fetish for. Merritt ends the track, and the album, with “And I, who have wandered alone for so long / On my little island, just like King Kong / Here at the end, I have a written a song … for you.”40 Wilson ponders,

That you may be his lover, the man for whom he’s proved meat, not poison. But it also must be the listener. Since this is Stephin Merritt, it can only be accidentally on purpose that this album all about “I” gives its literal final word to “you.” … It may be a final winking note of dubiousness about all this first-person nonsense. It’s probably both, because even when a singer sings about himself, he does it for an audience, for the sake of the show, whether for love or for money, for lust or enlightenment or the Lord. That’s the arrangement and always has been.41

Wilson’s reading suggests that while giving us a sense of Merritt’s journey through the past fifty years, the true dedication of his life is not his mother, John Foxx, or the series of romantic entanglements that pass by anonymously throughout the course of the record. Rather, the true relationship, as it were, has been with the listener. Our “fetish” is for Merritt, his particularities, eccentricities, and persona, as created, Dolan would argue, through kitsch.

When in “Autobiography as De-Facement,” Paul de Man argues that the autobiography is not a genre but a moment that occurs in the process of reading when the reader and subject determine one another, he doesn’t elaborate on the ramifications for that encounter. Yet, as Dolan intimates, the importance is not in the authenticity of a telling, but the in performer’s aura. It could be that Wilson and Kornhaber both hear themselves in the end of this record, and in so doing also “determine” Merritt. Or, that this moment not only forges recognition between subjects, it also fosters an intimacy between them. For Dolan, the feeling of authenticity is subjective in such a way that trumps all other forms. “Personal authenticity,” she states,

is the most subjective form of authenticity: it might be a feeling of honesty, sincerity, realness, but most importantly it is a feeling and what feels authentic to one person might seem fake and insincere to another. Indeed, personal authenticity often has the final word over cultural and authorial forms of authenticity.42

As Merritt highlights the possible slippages between the truth of his life and his retelling of his life, so too does he engender a relationship with his audience that is built on this particular exchange. Not the veracity of it, but the feeling accrued through the telling. Merritt’s stated preference for non-autobiographical work helps affirm his connection with the audience. The use of camp and kitsch, deployment of his persona, and the production elements of the 50 Song Memoir tour contribute to heightening what we hear on the album. As Wilson suggests, we don’t find Merritt in the album as much as we find our own relationship to him. It’s an extension of how Merritt has created himself throughout the record, memorializing himself through music.


  1. The Magnetic Fields, “‘77: Life Ain’t All Bad,” 50 Song Memoir, Nonesuch, 2017, Vinyl. ↩︎

  2. I am indebted to José Zayas for his help in gathering material for this essay. ↩︎

  3. Jim Fraber, “Stephin Merritt Finds 50 Ways to Sing His Life Story,” The New York Times, March 3, 2017, available at ↩︎

  4. Paul de Man, “Autobiography as De-facement,” MLN 94, no. 5 (1979): 922. ↩︎

  5. Deirdre Heddon, Autobiography and Performance: Performing Selves (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 27. ↩︎

  6. De Man, 920. Emphasis in the original. ↩︎

  7. Stuart Henderson, “All Pink and Clean and Full of Wonder?’ Gendering ‘Joni Mitchell,’ 1966–74,” Left History 10, no. 2 (2005): 102. ↩︎

  8. Ryan Hibbett, “What Is Indie Rock?,” Popular Music and Society 28, no. 1 (2005): 55. Emphasis in the original. ↩︎

  9. Emily I. Dolan, “‘… This Little Ukulele Tells the Truth’: Indie Pop and Kitsch Authenticity,” Popular Music 29, no. 3 (2010): 464. ↩︎

  10. Ibid., 463–64. ↩︎

  11. Ibid. ↩︎

  12. Ibid, 466. ↩︎

  13. Stephin Merritt, interview by Daniel Handler, The Magnetic Fields 50 Song Memoir liner notes, March 2017, 9. ↩︎

  14. The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir (Berklee Performance Center, Boston, MA, April 14, 2017). ↩︎

  15. The Magnetic Fields, “’74: No,” 50 Song Memoir, Nonesuch, 2017, Vinyl. ↩︎

  16. The Magnetic Fields, “’74: No,” 50 Song Memoir, Nonesuch, 2017, Vinyl. ↩︎

  17. The Magnetic Fields, “’77: Life Ain’t All Bad,” 50 Song Memoir, Nonesuch, 2017, Vinyl. ↩︎

  18. Magnetic Fields. 50 Song Memoir. ↩︎

  19. Mark Beaumont, “‘From the Inside, It Sure Felt like a Cult’—Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields’ Life in Songs,” The Guardian, March 9, 2017, available at↩︎

  20. Fraber, “Stephin Merritt Finds 50 Ways to Sing His Life Story.” ↩︎

  21. Carl Wilson, “Stephin Merritt Comes Out—as Human,” Slate, March 8, 2017, available at Tanguay was known as the “Queen of Vaudeville” and, bucking trends, sang a number of songs about herself. ↩︎

  22. Merritt, 17. ↩︎

  23. The Magnetic Fields, “’80: London by Jetpack,” 50 Song Memoir, Nonesuch, 2017, Vinyl. ↩︎

  24. Ultravox!, “I Want to Be a Machine,” Ultravox!, Universal-Island, 2006, CD. ↩︎

  25. Merritt, 17. ↩︎

  26. The Magnetic Fields, “’85: Why I Am Not a Teenager,” 50 Song Memoir, Nonesuch, 2017, Vinyl. ↩︎

  27. Fraber, “Stephin Merritt Finds 50 Ways to Sing His Life Story.” ↩︎

  28. The Magnetic Fields, “’90: Dreaming in Tetris,” 50 Song Memoir, Nonesuch, 2017, Vinyl. ↩︎

  29. The Magnetic Fields, “’91: The Day I Finally …,” 50 Song Memoir, Nonesuch, 2017, Vinyl. ↩︎

  30. De Man, 922. ↩︎

  31. Magnetic Fields. 50 Song Memoir. ↩︎

  32. Andrew Ross, “Uses of Camp,” in Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality, ed. by David Bergman (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1993), 63. ↩︎

  33. Wilson, “Stephin Merritt Comes Out—as Human.” ↩︎

  34. The Magnetic Fields, “’89: The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo,” 50 Song Memoir, Nonesuch, 2017, Vinyl. ↩︎ ↩︎

  35. Magnetic Fields. 50 Song Memoir. ↩︎

  36. The Magnetic Fields, “’00: Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers,” 50 Song Memoir, Nonesuch, 2017, Vinyl. ↩︎

  37. Spencer Kornhaber, “A 50-Song Memoir Brilliantly Argues Music Can Change Lives,” The Atlantic, March 10, 2017, available at↩︎

  38. The Magnetic Fields, “’14: I Wish I Had Pictures,” 50 Song Memoir, Nonesuch, 2017, Vinyl. ↩︎

  39. Wilson, “Stephin Merritt Comes Out—as Human.” ↩︎

  40. The Magnetic Fields, “’15: Somebody’s Fetish,” 50 Song Memoir, Nonesuch, 2017, Vinyl. ↩︎

  41. Wilson, “Stephin Merritt Comes Out—as Human.” ↩︎

  42. Dolan, 462. ↩︎

About the Author: 

Hank Willenbrink is a scholar/artist whose essays have been published in Theatre Journal, Contemporary Theatre Review, Theatre Forum, and online at The Lark and HowlRound. He co-edited an anthology of contemporary Spanish and Portuguese-language writers, Palabras: Dispatches from the Festival de la Palabra. His essay on the use of music in HBO’s Girls can be found in HBO’s Girls and the Awkward Politics of Gender, Race, and Privilege. Willenbrink co-founded the music blog We Listen for You and you can find more of his work at

Volume 3, Issue 1

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