Happy Halloween: A Look at Andrew Bird and the Mississippi Sheiks

Things involved in my Halloween costume:

  • Red lipstick
  • A bright pair of shoes
  • Knee-high socks
  • An old death-kit
  • A hand-powered drill with a very small bit

We seem to be Andrew Bird fans around here; based on that list, if you fall into this category, you may have figured out my costume. I’m going to the office, and to whatever other shenanigans I get involved in, as the lady described in Bird’s “Fake Palindromes” (lyrics). Nobody is going to get it, and I don’t care, because dressing up for Halloween is all about making myself happy.

But let’s talk a little about “Fake Palindromes”, shall we? I love this song. I’m not the only person I know who loves it. In a concert in Millennium Park in 2008 — Sarah was there —  several people rushed the stage and seemed to have a lovely time doing so. (Dancing starts around :45.) I’ve got a tape of that show (bless tapers and artists who allow taping), and Bird seemed pretty pleased with the end result, saying, “Thanks, seriously… you don’t know how encouraging that is.” At every show of his I’ve attended where it was part of the set list, the crowd goes nuts.

For a while, though, the song was a cipher to me. I didn’t know why it was called “Fake Palindromes”, other than the sloping violin runs — they’re not quite the same coming down as they are going up — and I didn’t know what the Barbie figure in the first verse had to do with anything at all. I figured that a lot of Bird’s lyrics are like that, though, and went on with my life.

Then, browsing around on Flickr one day, I came across this Polaroid of Bird, chalkboard in hand, with the words THE MISSISSIPPI SHEIKS written there. The idea of the project is to document artists with their own favorite artists. I was all over this one, because that’s how I find new music most of the time — I look at whom artists I love choose to cover, and I check out the original artist. So I’m minding my own business, browsing around the iTunes store, and then I see the name of a certain song by the Mississippi Sheiks: “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You” (lyrics).

Assuming you know “Fake Palindromes”, you can probably see why I shrieked and downloaded the song and listened to it six times before doing anything else. After thinking about it a lot — a lot — I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the shared line with its figure of speech in common is the key to understanding “Fake Palindromes”, and that the line isn’t just a nod to the Mississippi Sheiks. Rather, the entire song is a response to “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You” — and the content of that response makes me want to write Andrew Bird a really long and heartfelt thank-you letter.

(This is going to go to a gender studies- and gender violence-related place — just a heads-up.)

To explain why, let’s take a look at something critic Ellen Willis wrote in 1977 in the Village Voice, in an essay called “Beginning To See The Light”:

Listening to the Sex Pistols, trying to figure out if “Bodies” was really an antiabortion song, I discovered that it was something even worse. It was an outburst of loathing for human physicality, a loathing projected onto women because they have babies and abortions and are “a fucking bloody mess,” but finally recoiling against the singer himself: “I’m not an animal!” he bellowed in useless protest, his own animal sounds giving him the lie. It was an outrageous song, yet I could not simply dismiss it with outrage. The extremity of its disgust forced me to admit that I was no stranger to such feelings — though unlike Johnny Rotten I recognized that the disgust, not the body, was the enemy. And there lay the paradox: music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated — as good rock-and-roll did — challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics. What I loved most about Ms. Clawdy was that I could have liberating form and content both; I could respond as a whole person. Listening to most rock-and-roll was like walking down the street at night, automatically checking out the men in my vicinity: this one’s okay; that one could be trouble, watch out. Listening to most feminist music was like taking a warm bath. Ms. Clawdy did not make me wary — but that didn’t mean she let me relax.

You can take “Bodies” and replace it with “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You”, and Willis’s construction still works: the singer wakes up, feeling blue, and the only thing that will work for him is to have sex with a good-looking woman — and he doesn’t care what she thinks about it, because it’s going to happen. The Sheiks, living and working in the Deep South in the 1930s, are playing a song about the cure for unnamed worldly troubles, and that cure is taking out frustrations on a woman.

The lyrics get even more sinister: She looked at me, began to smile, / Said, “Hey, hey, man, can’t you wait a little while?” And the answer is that no, he can’t. He wants to get that girl that money will buy. By the end of the song we don’t know if the “date” is going to happen — but he says, over and over, I don’t care what in this world you do. The song raises the specter of dubious consent — or no consent. The unnamed woman in this song is a means for the singer to get away from whatever’s bothering him, no more, no less.

The connection between “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You” and “Fake Palindromes” is that one line — the title of the Sheiks’ song. Bird’s song gives it away as well: a palindrome is something that reads the same both forwards and backwards, going and coming, from one to the other. A fake palindrome, by extension, is something that merely looks as though it’s the same going forwards and backwards. The Sheiks’ man has blood in his eyes for an unnamed woman, and Bird’s woman has blood in her eyes for an unnamed man.

But while the Sheiks’ interpretation of the phrase uses lust, Bird’s interpretation uses anger — because the lust isn’t the same backwards as it is forwards. The Sheiks’ singer doesn’t stop to consider how the woman might react to his plain, unadorned, potentially violent lust. In contrast, “Fake Palindromes” is all about the woman’s reaction — a modernized version, considering “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You” was recorded in 1930, but it still works.

And that’s the depressing part. The Sheiks’ woman is such a blank template for the man that Bird can superimpose his own image of the woman, with the only recognizable difference being that no money appears to have changed hands — at least, not within the confines of the song. This is a woman that money controls: a dewy-eyed Disney bride, a woman who exists to participate in those certain fads, those stripes and plaids, those singles ads. Bird’s woman is also a woman defined by her connection to men — but a woman who, in the last verse, tells the man (six foot tall, and East Coast-bred) exactly how it’s going to be. He’s going to be bound, she’s going to have control, and she’s quite literally going to get inside his head. With a drill.

It’s a reversal of the power dynamic in “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You”, and — at least for me — it’s absolutely marvelous. This is what Willis is talking about, when she says she can respond as a whole person: I can and do respond, and I don’t think I’m the only one, to Bird’s woman, who’s existing in a world where the pinnacle of success seems to be living as somebody’s dewy-eyed Disney bride, and who manages to seize control where, when, and how she can. I respond to the subversion inherent in the woman’s control of the situation, and, like Willis identifying with Johnny Rotten’s disgust, I respond to the suggestion of violence that’s there in “Fake Palindromes”, because violence, when broken down, is nearly always about power.

And I like music that makes me feel powerful. I can respond to the form and the content, here: this is a woman I want to be like. I want to be this sneaky, this smart, this confident, this brave. I want to be able to engage in the world even when it isn’t easy, in places where people are used to seeing men only in positions of authority.

When Andrew Bird writes about women, they’re usually powerful, and they’re usually women who go out and do what they want to do, in spite of any misgivings or barriers. Take the “Richmond Woman” (lyrics), who wore the red lipstick and the bright pair of shoes before he wrote “Fake Palindromes”. Or take Dora, who goes to town (lyrics) and says, “That’s the way it’s going to be.” (I could go through and do a line-by-line analysis of the lyrics to “Fake Palindromes”, but I think I’ll leave that as an exercise for later — otherwise, I’d be here all night. The lyrics work the same way, though.) Like Willis and Ms. Clawdy, Andrew Bird doesn’t make me wary, but I can’t relax when I listen to him, either — because he makes me think.

So my Halloween costume is about feeling good and feeling powerful — and I don’t know anybody who feels powerful all the time — but in a way, it’s also about saying thank you. I’m making myself over for the day in the image of this woman. I wish it wasn’t a costume, but it is, and I’m grateful to Andrew Bird for putting her out there — and for stepping in to respond thoughtfully and critically to his favorite musicians, and for making a very firm statement that the woman in the Sheiks’ song is a person, not a function.

And also for writing a song that people feel moved to have a dance party to. Can’t leave that out. It’s just as important as the rest of it.

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