Blog Post

Natalie Merchant's Resonant History Lesson

Can listening lead to historical consciousness, the sung to a sense of the past?

Last Wednesday, I went to see Natalie Merchant perform at the Brattle Theater, in an event co-sponsored by the Harvard Book Store. This was a remarkably intimate gathering, and a somewhat surprising place to find Merchant. It’s good to see independent artists joining forces with independent theaters and bookstores in the age of the corporate conglomerate.

There are many things to say about the concert, including how wonderfully resonant Merchant’s voice has become. But the most interesting is the mix of history lesson, Victorian and modernist poetry, and music that Merchant brought together with that voice. Merchant’s new album, Leave Your Sleep, is, as The New York Times put it, less about pop and more about poetry, including “poems from Victorian England and Jazz Age America, from E. E. Cummings and Mother Goose.”

Here’s her performing at TED:

While music is not my area of focus—nor, for that matter, is poetry really—what struck me at the concert itself is how these poem-songs also functioned as a lesson in history for the audience. There was nothing dry or didactic about this lesson. In between songs, Merchant would lecture (indeed, within a block or two of Harvard), about the poets she had been engaging. She talked about the reading and research she’d done across the globe to locate pictures and find information about some of the poets from Edward Lear to Charles E. Carryl. This is songwriter and pop singer turned balladeer and archivist.

What are we to make of such lessons and lectures? I’m particularly curious about how to think about the gestures backwards here in relationship to contemporary modes of remix and pastiche, whether in hip hop—The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill springs to mind--or in the club scene, where old and new pop often collide, blend, and fuse in a non-stop stream of corporeal consciousness. This is not to say that Merchant’s history lesson is dry or didactic, or even nostalgic: it’s hardly a rejection of the contemporary. The poem-songs that make up the album draw on multiple traditions in a way familiar to us from both the aesthetics of postmodernism and world cultural politics and forms.

It’s just interesting to think about what kinds of historical consciousness both live musical performance and reproduced listening—for example, to the layering of a Victorian poem with reggae, klezmer, or jazz and funk—could produce within contemporary life, especially given how often listening now is viewed as a regression, not into the past, but into a kind of historical infantalism. Natalie Merchant's history lesson, however, resonates as something else, something louder, lovelier, and ludic--a historical aesthetics, perhaps, for the listener.

Joel Burges's picture
Starting in September 2011, Joel Burges will begin teaching at the University of Rochester as Assistant Professor of Media Studies in the Department of English and the Film and Media Studies Program. He is currently Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is affiliated with Literature and Comparative Media Studies. He is working on a book entitled Turning back the Clock: Technological Obsolescence and Historical Time in Contemporary Culture. He has recently published an essay on filmmaker Douglas Sirk in the 2010 collection Trash Culture: Objects and Obsolescence in Cultural Perspective, edited by Gillian Pye; has another essay related to his book, "Adorno's Mimeograph: The Uses of Obsolescence in Minima Moralia," forthcoming in New German Critique in 2011; and will be publishing a "riposte" to MIT Press's collection Third Person at the electronic book review in 2011 as well.