Friday, November 28, 2008

The Emperor's New Clothes

Sinead O'Connor's incredibly moving, enduringly affecting album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got was released in 1990, during my first year of high school. Most of the songs on this album are about relationships, and while I had no real idea about relationships then, I was certainly obsessed with having one, and with the boys I dreamed about having ones with. Crushes in high school seemed to hit harder than any that I've experienced since. I guess because even friendships were shallower then - or more innocent, to be kinder. I didn't have any experience with real intimacy, and I didn't have the weight of a large and confusing and multifaceted history or world view that I needed empathetic ears and honest dialogue for. I was just fourteen. By the time I started to recognize the difference between actual friendships and people I had fun hanging out with I'd learned to make these distinctions because I'd been let down, misled, or just plain wrong about the people I imagined I knew. So crushes these days, while fun and I think necessary, are also comparatively very fleeting. They never carry that kind of investment, because that kind of investment just doesn't make any sense. First crushes, first hurts; there was no barometer.

I honestly didn't understand the song "The Emperor's New Clothes." It was the line "How could I possibly know what I want when I was only 21?" that I ran into like a brick wall. I didn't understand what she meant, because 21 seemed so impossibly old, and I figured that I already knew what I wanted, at fourteen.

In my canvas World Famous backpack, along with my NoteTote and my Beaver Canoe pencil case, I carried years and years of ridicule into Martingrove Collegiate. In middle school, my classmates would spread my germs and cross their fingers as I walked down the hall. On most afternoons as I walked home from school, the houses on Anglesey boulevard looked blurry through tears that I could never hold back, no matter how hard I tried. I went to Martingrove because nobody I knew from middle school was going there, and I started going by my full name, Amelia, shedding the shortened "Amy" I had been called up until that point. I bought bright purple Converse sneakers and I joined the drama club and the choir and I went to dances and I talked loudly, and people thought that I was fun and open.

It strikes me now that I was incredibly lucky to have been received as I was. I could have been devastated. It seems insane that I tried so hard to be known, to meet people, when all of the people I used to know just called me cruel names and left me to eat lunch alone. I took everyone at face value. I didn't even recognize that people lied about stuff. I was so blissfully innocent in grade nine.

I guess high school is probably like that for a lot of people, if not most people - a training ground for dealing with other human beings. I thought I had a best friend. I thought I was in love. I thought I knew what I wanted.

It makes all kinds of sense that I was moved, along with my peers, by Sinead O'Connor's cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," sitting on the bleachers in the gymnasium at 8 o'clock on a Friday night, watching the boy I wanted to be dancing with as he danced with someone else.

It took a few more years before I connected to "Emperor's New Clothes." I eventually required more reasons for wanting things and people in my life, and for wanting things and people out of it. Of course this song is explicitly about the speaker's experience of enduring other people's reactions to her pregnancy. It's also one of the most empowering songs I can think of. It's so bold and bare and honest and despite the assertive declarations there is, too, the "I would return to nothing without you." Everything is there, and no, at fourteen, despite my purple sneakers and my brand new school I couldn't for the life of me understand how someone so old just couldn't have it together. And when I hear this song, I can remember that confused reception. I know exactly how that felt. Two decades ago.

The Emperor's New Clothes - Sinead O'Connor

It seems like years since you held the baby
While I wrecked the bedroom
You said it was dangerous after Sunday
And I knew you loved me
He thinks I just became famous
And that's what messed me up
But he's wrong
How could I possibly know what I want
When I was only twenty-one?
And there's millions of people
To offer advice and say how I should be
But they're twisted
And they will never be any influence on me
But you will always be
You will always be
If I treated you mean
I really didn't mean to
But you know how it is
And how a pregnancy can change you
I see plenty of clothes that I like
But I won't go anywhere nice for a while
All I want to do is just sit here
And write it all down and rest for a while
I can't bear to be in another city
One where you are not
I would return to nothing without you
If I'm your girlfriend or not
Maybe I was mean
But I really don't think so
You asked if I'm scared
And I said so
Everyone can see what's going on
They laugh `cause they know they're untouchable
Not because what I said was wrong
Whatever it may bring
I will live by my own policies
I will sleep with a clear conscience
I will sleep in peace
Maybe it sounds mean
But I really don't think so
You asked for the truth and I told you
Through their own words
They will be exposed
They've got a severe case of
The emperor's new clothes
The emperor's new clothes
The emperor's new clothes

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