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And this woman was singing my song.

September 29, 2011

CONFESSIONS OF A ’90s SURVIVOR


Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories – Stay (I Missed You)

From: Tails

I’m probably the wrong person to muse about the potency of “Stay.” The ideal candidate would be some girl who was aged 16 to 22 in 1994 when the song shot an unsigned friend of Ethan Hawke to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. I was 11 when the song was popular. Beyond having a crush on a girl in my 5th grade class, there wasn’t a lot to connect me with the song on any emotional level at the time of its strongest prevalence.

But even when I hear the song today or rewatch the simplistic video (by the way, is she moving into or out of that apartment? The bed frame gives no indication. If she’s moving out, I understand her annoyance somewhat. If she’s moving in, she needs to take more of a “I may only have a view of other building’s windows, but look at this f*cking space. This kicks ass and I’m gonna rock this city” attitude and stop whining about the ex), there is something unspeakably ‘90s about it.

Visually, Loeb singlehandedly brought the coffeeshop bookworm look to the masses. Audibly, she actually married a (relatively) disproportionate amount of cynicism (Lisa, babe, everyone has the “YOU’RE NOT LISTENING!” arguments) to a catchy melody and put it at the top of the charts (“You said you caught me ‘cause you want me and one day you’ll let me go—you try to give away a keeper or keep me ‘cause you know you’re just so scared to lose”). Anyone up for a Janeane Garofalo stand-up set next?

If I remember the ‘90s in broad brushstrokes, I remember a certain amount of dispassion. What Loeb was unwittingly (I hope) doing in this video, was giving every single or spoken-for girl with access to popular radio or music television ample ammo for entirely unnecessary arguments.

Dramatization:
We find a college couple in the dining room of a three-star restaurant. The gentleman surveys the menu while the lady bemoans a roommate who insists on having late night trysts despite the fact that finals are in two weeks and a certain amount of time must be afforded to study.

GIRL: I mean, I suppose it’s easy for Sasha, because her parents are paying her tuition and can afford to send her somewhere else if she fails, which she won’t because she’s totally smart and never even has to study, because she always manages to get a ‘B’ at worst anyway. But that’s not me! I’ve got loans! I’ve got to pay for all these books! And I need to maintain a certain average to keep my scholarship.

DUDE: (quietly deciding whether he should splurge on an 8-oz. steak or keep it thrifty by saving three bucks and going with a pulled pork sandwich) Mmm.

GIRL: I’m up! I’m actually studying! Hello! And I’ve got to listen to her get it on with David or whoever the new interest this week happens to be! Like I want to hear that! I mean don’t you think that’s totally unfair?

DUDE: (still looking at menu) Totally.

GIRL: What’s that supposed to mean?

DUDE: (slowly realizing he might have said “Totally” in a sarcastic tone) What?

GIRL: You think this is a joke?

DUDE: I never said—

GIRL: No, you didn’t have to say. I heard the way you said that. All sarcastic. Like this is not a big deal.

DUDE: No, I understand your frustration, but in the grand scheme of things, how big of a deal is it? There’s the library. There are study halls in your building.

GIRL: It’s my room!

DUDE: Well have you talked to her about it?

GIRL: Oh, right. And what am I supposed to say?

DUDE: How about, ‘Hey I need to study, could you please stop the porn rehearsals til all hours of the night?’

GIRL: Oh, yeah. I’m so sure that would fly.

DUDE: Well, something like that. Why don’t you just study at my place?

GIRL: Gross. And have Chad trying to offer me a beer every 10 minutes? You know, what is his deal anyway? I was talking with Lindsay Carpenter last week, and she was saying that Chad was over at her place last Tuesday for like no reason. Does he like Lindsay? Cos he knows she has a boyfriend right?

DUDE: What does that have to do—

GIRL: You know what, if you can’t see that, then I don’t know. What. I sit here and I explain to you this total crisis I’m having right now, and you just make all these sarcastic comments.

DUDE: I’m offering suggestions.

GIRL: Yeah. Real helpful. All of them. And I’m just not taking them because I’m an idiot, right? I only hear what I want to hear. Is that it?


Within a few more seconds, she’s shouting and he’s trying to quiet her down while simultaneously wondering how the hell he got from picking between a wimpy steak or a pork sandwich to this and she’s left the restaurant in a huff.

The thing about “Stay” is that it’s actually quite a passionate song. For women, I imagine the great thing about “Stay” is that they can find a great deal of comfort in it. It’s a breakup song, but it also carries a certain sense of defiance in that “I know it hurts, but this is for the best because things really weren’t going anywhere with you” sort of way. But it also undermines its whole argument—and gives credence to those using it as consolation after an argument or split with the “I missed you, yeah, I missed you” refrain. Can a pop song cut both ways like that? Of course. Human personalities are complex and certainly the range of emotions one goes through after a breakup/argument/fight range from “Dear God, what have I done?” to “I’m glad I will never see that (insert expletive-enhanced adjective of choice here) again.” The problem is it immediately establishes Lisa (and the countless women who adhere to the song) as unpredictable.

Is she simply a shy coffeehouse girl who got tied up with the wrong guy, thus having to leave (or move into?) a boss apartment following their split? Or is she a coquette using the coffeehouse chic as a front to eat shy coffeehouse boys up and spit them out? Is she a strong, proud woman standing up for fellow sisters (in the introductory Lilith Fair lineup), or an attention hound who’s going to bring cameras along when you and she try out a new restaurant?

Again, multi-faceted personalities are not a bad thing, but a certain level of unpredictability can be damning. I’m sure there were a lot of men who were turned on by the “Stay” video—likely owing to library-related fantasies stemming from Lisa’s signature cat-like eyeglasses, but I never bought into it, even in the following years when “Stay” remained somewhat popular and puberty hit me like a ton of bricks. There was something I couldn’t quite figure out about Lisa. It wasn’t the look—that’s a surface thing, and an attractive one at that. In recent years I’ve had dating experience with similarly studious-looking girls that inevitably lead to me shaking my head over a pint of beer and relaying stories to friends in the vain hope that they can make sense of what the hell had transpired. It’s more that she carries a little too much mystery with her. I have no problem with intelligent women. I have no problem with women who harbor strong feminist views. I’d rather never discuss politics in the context of a relationship, but I don’t have a problem with those who have deep-seated right- or left-wing beliefs, so long as they’re not trying to convert me.

After seeing the 10,000 Maniacs “Unplugged” appearance, I’d developed a bit of a crush on Natalie Merchant. Years later, I relayed this to my college roommate who said, “No, you don’t want a girl like that. You’ll come home one day and there’ll just be a note that says ‘I had to go to Africa to find myself.’” It was an obtuse point, but it made sense. Still, it was a character trait that you could expect, even if you hoped no such thing would occur. With Lisa, you could get a woman who coddles you one day and leaves you flummoxed at a 3-star restaurant the next. You don’t know. It’s there in the lyrics of “Stay.” It’s just a bit too much of a dichotomy. It’s as fiercely independent as it is dependent.

So I still don’t know whether it was heartbreaking or wholly appropriate that more than 10 years after she wrote a song that so many women identified with, she was the star of her own E! network reality series about her continued difficulty in finding a man. Do a Google search on “Number 1 Single” and you’ll find out that no one cares nearly as much about whether real love was found on the show (…was it?) as they do that the show afforded them screencaps of a 37-year-old former charttopper in panties.

But the power of “Stay” goes far beyond the reach of jilted girlfriends who feel like their current or former boyfriends treat(ed) them like puppets. The power of “Stay” is (for lack of a better term) its staying power.

I worked out the song on guitar during my junior year of college. My roommate burst into my room as I was faking my way through it and started singing along at the top of his lungs. Part of it was light-hearted comedy, but there was an underlying sense that he really enjoyed singing the song. I’ve used it as a party trick at different get-togethers when the guitars come out. It always, always, always starts a gusto-packed singalong.

Duplicitous though it may be, “Stay” still manages to get people right to the core, whether “this woman was singing my song” in 1994 and 1995 or they found it in later years after their own I love him/I hate him existential dilemma.

And for what it’s worth, Lisa got married in 2009. I knew I should’ve put this post up in 2008 …

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