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The confessional poetic indie-pop of Hatfield and Dando.

February 1, 2011 \am\28 1:18 am

She’s coming over / we’ll go out walking / make a call on the way.

She’s in the phone booth now / I’m looking in. / There comes a smile on her face.

There’s still some of the same stuff we got yesterday.

There’s still some of the same stuff we got yesterday,

I’m too much with myself / I wanna be someone else / I’m too much with myself.”

So croons the proto-punk and once-upon-a-time alternahunk Evan Dando of the Lemonheads. I know some of their songs as intimately as I do my own thoughts. Upon hearing their breakthrough release, It’s a Shame About Ray, my teenage self also fell in love with the wisp and wistfulness of Juliana Hatfield. 

Following the success of It’s a Shame, Hatfield embarked on a solo career. Hey Babe, released circa 1993, was very similar to the Blake Babies (her first band), yet the songs were more personal and confessional.  Her voice endearingly thin, bares an inner fragility and mirrors too the exposed nerve of her lyrics.

It wasn’t until several years later that I had my first knowing encounters with real card-carrying confessional poetry [cp]. So legend and the history books have it, the term was first used in 1959 by M.L. Rosenthal to describe Robert Lowell’s breakthrough, Life Studies. Lowell’s book is credited with launching the Confessional Poetry movement.

For the uninitiated, cp emphasizes the intimate, and sometimes unflattering, information about details of the poet’s personal life, such as in poems about mental illness, sexuality, and despondence. Another aspect that marks cp, is less the “what” of the matter and more so the “how” of it—cp explores personal details about the authors’ life without meekness, modesty, or discretion. Nothing is masked. The term may have been coined in 1959, but it is undoubtedly a much older tradition. American poets began rebelling against the modernist school of Eliot and Pound; poets like Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Allen Ginsberg, and Frank O’Hara started to use personal information in a way that woke everyone up.

Now enveloped in aural nostalgia and also having just seen the two perform a few days ago, I see so many of Hatfield’s and Dando’s lyrics as a kind of cp put to music. Many of the songs echo with a lyrical confessionalism entertained in many of today’s literary journals.

Lowell’s book was inspired by his battle with mental illness, his marital problems, and the Vietnam War, Life Studies demonstrates a dramatic turn toward deeply personal work with a loosened adherence to meter and form. The poems are characterized by specific and unflinching autobiographical detail.

After recording her album, Bed, circa 1998, Hatfield described its sound as “raw as I felt. It has no pretty sheen. The mistakes and unattractive parts were left in, not erased. Just like my career. Just like life.” In other words, it was written and recorded without modesty or discretion. Hatfield has also described her music and songwriting as a form of therapy, an outlet that helps her to overcome rough periods and depression.

Their 21-song set featured a mix of his and her tunes. The second song, Choose Drugs, was from Hatfield’s 2000 release, Beautiful Creature. With the line, “I say it’s me or drugs / you choose drugs,” the tune simultaneously highlights Dando’s present state while echoing the turmoil surrounding the pair’s storied friendship and fame.

Possibly with the subtext of what is, according to Frank O’Hara, the purpose of cp, which is is to convince someone to have sex with you.

For all the creative boon produced early in their careers, they have almost assuredly been hindered as well; Dando by his addictions and Hatfield by what some would call unrequited love. At one point Hatfield stuttered on her guitar, prompting a sympathetic audience member to call out, “Don’t give up,” to which she flatly replied, “I gave up a long time ago.” Shortly after and producing the most palpable and awkward moment of the show came when Hatfield sang a newer song titled simply Evan.

I’ve tried to write you off / But I can’t so I’ll give it up / Evan, I just love you I guess.”

Okay, Maybe that’s just lovelorn and sappy.

The performance may have been set on stage, but there was nothing staged about the emotion and sentiment behind it. Which, though it was at times a melancholy affair gave the audience of 150 a cathartic experience. I for one felt it when they played a cover of the Velvet Underground’s Pale Blue Eyes.

The confessional poet is aware of the audience and doesn’t pretend otherwise, the performer too. Sometimes they are one in the same.

As the show came to it close, Hatfield sang decidedly and determinedly, “Oh, if we could only be / what we could never be.” And for a few moments onstage, exposed, in the language of their lyrics and their bodies, they confessed to us, what really could’ve been.

  1. February 1, 2011 \am\28 8:02 am 8:02 am

    Great post. What’s odd, or interesting, or notable to me, is that whole battalions of poets who spurn confession still listen to music with confessional-like lyrics.

    Are they still on tour? Off to check. Maybe they’ll play Northampton, MA.

    • February 1, 2011 \am\28 11:12 am 11:12 am

      It seems like they’re either booking shows as they go or the tour is kaput. But Northampton would be a great place to see them…or Mass MoCA.
      Without revelation or reflection, confession is little more than a narcissist’s diary.
      This is also a problem with some reality TV, too. It’s pure spectacle.
      In some ways though, spectacle demands more from the viewer or reader to make their own connection.
      A catchy melody helps.
      I don’t spurn genres or groups, just individuals.
      Have fun at AWP.

  2. Marisa permalink
    February 2, 2011 \pm\28 10:07 pm 10:07 pm

    Interesting post! I love this: “The confessional poet is aware of the audience and doesn’t pretend otherwise, the performer too. Sometimes they are one in the same.”

    I think it’s so unfortunate when confessional poetry is reduced to the revelatory, cathartic, “dear diary” elements, when it’s so often complex, crafted, performative and political — as in Plath, Lowell, etc. It kind of reminds me of the confessional-esque song “My Sister” by Juliana Hatfield & the fact that she didn’t really have a sister at all.

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