May 9, 2005

Musical Meanings Monday

What does it all mean?

On Musical Meanings Monday we explore the meaning of a song. I’ll post the song, and you tell me what you think it means. It could be what you think the author meant or what it means to you (because who can tell what the author really meant unless they come right out and say it?)

Here’s today’s song. The lyrics can be found at the links below, but I have pasted it here for your critical review for the duration of the day. Friends can also ask me to play the song for them if they have not heard it.

Polyester Bride
Liz Phair (excerpt)

I was talking, not two days ago
To a certain bartender I’m lucky to know
And I asked Henry, my bartending friend
If I should bother dating unfamous men

And Henry said,
“You’re lucky to even know me,
You’re lucky to be alive.
You’re lucky to be drinking here for free,
‘cause I’m a sucker for your lucky, pretty eyes.”

And then he said,
“Do you wanna be a polyester bride?
Or do you want to hang your head and die?
Do you want to find alligator cowboy boots they just put on sale?
Do you want to flap your wings and fly away from here?”

(Lyrics copyright of their owners, here for educational and critical review purposes only. Lyrics also available here. I will remove the lyric if contacted with copyright concerns.)

OK, guys. What is this song about? What is Henry trying to tell her (us). Or is it all a metaphor to you? Or, do you hear some of the lyrics differently than I have written here?

Let me know what you think.

Posted by James at May 9, 2005 10:18 AM
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I'm oging to listen to it a few more times and then post some thoughts.

Posted by: James at May 9, 2005 10:34 AM

This is a fun idea. Annoyingly, some lyrics will defy analysis because they are meaningless and written for the way they sound over a hook in the chorus. I suspect that's the case here. Either that or the bartender has an oblique way of telling the narrator that she's shallow but he wants to sleep with her anyway.

I saw Liz Phair on VH1's "I Love the 90's" and she's a natural who deserves her own show.

Posted by: Mike at May 9, 2005 10:48 AM

Now I'm somewhat baffled by the lyrics, but I don't think Henry has designs on her. I thought he was telling her that she "had time" to wait for the right person, and if she didn't wait, she'd end up as a polyester bride (I assume a bad thing), shopping for shoes on sale either because she's poor or shallow. The meaning is quite different depending on which interpretation. If it's because she's poor, then Henry's shallow right along with her. I think it is because she's poor, though, because otherwise why a "polyester" bride? A shallow bride wouldn't wear polyester.

But again, pretty confused, and usually not finding meaning in lyrics, so take my interpretation with a grain of salt. I try to make all the words work.

Posted by: Maggie at May 9, 2005 11:12 AM

Well, the fun is in what the lyrics make you think. That's the fun for me, anyhow.

In this song, it always strikes me how her voice changes when she's singing Henry's words. It drops lower (perhaps to evoke a male voice) and it becomes a little monotonous. When I first heard it, it made me think of a robot. Almost like Henry is repeatign the same thing and she's just not listening to him.

It's clear to me that, whatever Henry's advice is, she's not paying enough attention.

But... what is a Polyester Bride? Is Henry giving her good advice, or bad advice? Henry obviously likes her as he serves her drinks for free, so maybe he is interested in her. But she's confused about something and she is asking for his opinion (twice, in the song).

His answers are oblique. Instead of answering her questions directly, he's back on his advice.

I think Maggie may be right about his reassurances. "Don't rush into anything because you're lonely," he's telling her. You've got a life to live. Appreciate what you have and try to live your life rather than focusing on the lousy men you meet.

So, it's good advice. Henry is a good friend. It's obvious he thinks she's attractive, but I don't think he has serious designs on her, at least not that she's noticed. His advice doesn't seem to me to advance any romantic agenda.

That's the way I like to hear it, anyhow. I kinda like Henry.

Posted by: James at May 9, 2005 11:49 AM

I haven't heard the song. I'll have to see if I can hunt it down and listen before I comment on it.

Posted by: briwei at May 9, 2005 1:23 PM

Anyone else not heard this song?


Do you want to find alligator cowboy boots they just put on sale?

Posted by: James at May 9, 2005 1:45 PM

Hmmmm. Tempting, but no. Now, if they had thigh high leather boots...

Posted by: briwei at May 9, 2005 2:06 PM

I think you need to check your email.

Posted by: James at May 9, 2005 2:27 PM

I haven't heard it yet either.

Posted by: Mike at May 9, 2005 2:47 PM

I think Henry is a good friend to her, who probably has feelings for her -yet thinks enough of their friendship to look beyond it and give her good advise and encouragement.

I've never been a big fan of this song, mostly because of the lyrics. They strike me as weak and superficial; which is not at all how I think of Liz Phair. I guess the lyrics are disappointing to me. But perhaps shes merely highlighting the questions many women are ashamed to admit they ask themselves.

I suppose this is just a different side to her honesty; but I prefer her strong/independent/sexual lyrics.

P.S. I saw her at an airport several years ago. She has such a presence, it makes her hard to miss.

Posted by: Sharon at May 9, 2005 2:53 PM

BTW - I'll probably try to do this nearly every week. I have some songs in mind, but if anyone has any suggestions they want to make, I wouldn't mind getting suggestions in email.

I chose this song mainly because it's one of Phair's more well-known songs, but I think a lot of people in this group have not been fans, so they may have missed it. Also, because I want to know more about Henry. Also, because my daughter has recently taken to the song.

In the future, I may pick slightly goofier, more well-known songs.

It would be nice if there were a way to let people listen to my iTunes library over IP from a distance.

Posted by: James at May 9, 2005 3:13 PM

Someday, perhaps I'll read an analysis of "A Whiter Shade of Pale" that makes sense.

Posted by: Julie at May 9, 2005 3:30 PM

I have a bit of a different take on the song than I've seen thus far. I felt that the key to much of Henry's response was in the question

"If I should bother dating unfamous men"

I think Henry took mild offense, being just a regular guy himself. I think the protagonist wants to escape what she sees as her rut of a life. Her boyfriends haven't necessarilt been bad or bad to her. But she aspires to a more glamorous life.

His string of "You're lucky"s are Henry telling her to count her blessings. He's saying that he's unfamous and that knowing him has done all right be her so far. She doesn't need to know famous people. She just needs to know people who care about her.

"You've got time" reinforces his desire to see her happy with a real, but unfamous person, rather than alone in a shallow, fake relationship.

My take on the chorus is that all of the things he is talking about are fake or superficial things. He's asking her if that's what she really wants to be.

I don't think he has any designs on her himself. I think the "pretty eyes" bit is just harmless flirting between two close friends.

But like I said, my whole interpretation swings on the "unfamous men" phrase.

Posted by: briwei at May 9, 2005 4:18 PM

That is how I take it too. To say "if I should *bother*" makes it sound as though she thinks men who aren't famous are, well, a bother. Since Henry is presumably an unfamous man, his reply is admirably gentle.

Posted by: Julie at May 9, 2005 4:33 PM

I think Brian and Maggie have nailed it. Never heard the song but that's what the lyrics say to me.

Do you want to be a superficial trophy wife? Or do you want to fly?

Posted by: Chuck S. at May 9, 2005 4:34 PM

btw James,

I had read my mail. I just thought it would be fun to respond to the comment anyway. :)

Posted by: briwei at May 9, 2005 4:38 PM

Perhaps my knowledge of Liz Phair's career/life is coloring my interpretation, but I see this somewhat like briwei (#13).

As most of you probably know Liz jumped on the indie scene in '93 or '94 with her Girlysounds demo tapes and subsequent debut "Exile in Guyville." Her lo-fi, independent, sex-driven, foul-mouthed style quickly made her the darling of indie hipsters and critics alike.

Her next record, "Whipsmart" was a bit more polished and dealt with marriage and children as opposed to the earlier "fuck and run" content. Critics and indie scenesters weren't so excited by this record.
"Polyester Bride" was the lead single off her third record, "whitechocolatespaceegg".

Between Whipsmart and whitechocolatespaceegg, Liz's record label, Matador, had 49% of its interests bought by Capitol Records. Capitol provided cash and resources to Matador in exchange for being able to get some of the returns on the big Matador releases (namely from Matador's big 3 at the time: Pavement, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and Ms. Phair. )

So I see this song as having a double meaning. the "unfamous men" line has to do with her own aspirations in terms of her career and being a pop star as opposed to indie darling. her 2nd record already had some people thinking she was a sell out and whitechocolatespaceegg really turned that up. it is always a big question in the indie world, do you go for the fame and the famous boyfriends and the big record deals (she did) or stay indie/diy/throw in your own cliche.

in addition, when she talks of "those kind of men", I think it has to do with problems in her marriage (she is now divorced).
she was dealing with choices in her personal life - should she stay with her film editor husband or get back out on the scene where she can date the rock stars and actors and other "famous men".

Posted by: jeremy at May 10, 2005 9:59 AM

Thanks for the background, Jeremy. I wasn't aware of a lot of that.

I may be a music lover, but I miss a lot of what is going on with the artists and this was especially true for me during the entire 90's.

Posted by: James at May 10, 2005 10:56 AM

There's also a song called 'Polyester Girl' by an Australian band, Regurgitator. I saw the link when I went looking for the guitar tabs for the song. If you read the lyrics for Regurgitator it seems that the polyester girl is simply a trophy some guy carries along. It came out two years before, so you're talking about stuff in the same period, and Liz Phair makes more obscure references occassionally like to Dorian Gray on the newer album.

Posted by: Jeff at July 15, 2005 2:58 PM

I think you guys are kind of overanalyzing this song. It's really not that deep. With his polyester bride comment, Henry is simply saying, "Do you want to sell yourself short?"

I read an interview with Liz Phair where she talked about all the turmoil and confusion she experienced with becoming famous. The comment about 'unfamous men' in this song probably relates to her struggle with deciding in which world she belongs now that she's famous. She said at one point she considered quiting music and going back to graduate school in art history or some related field. She made the amusing comment that all she had to write about now in her songs was how horrible it is to be a famous rock star. ;-)

I like Liz Phair but I don't think she gets really deep in any of her songs. She pretty much says what she means.. although there might be a few exceptions. But she doesn't have anything as confusing as, "Whiter Shade of Pale". ;-)

Posted by: Scott at August 13, 2005 12:43 PM

I agree about the overanalyzing, but that's the thing. Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Thanks for adding some details.

Posted by: James at August 13, 2005 10:24 PM

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