Fear and Reality – “Love Me, Love Me, Love Me” Analysis

It’s time once again for another niche post! It’s been too long, really. The following is a very in-depth analysis of my favorite Vocaloid song ever, Kikuo-P’s “Love Me, Love Me, Love Me”.

For those completely uninitiated, check out my last post about Vocaloid if you want a basic crash course on it. Vocaloid is an incredibly fascinating genre of music overall, but today I was feeling the itch to talk about how much I love this one particular song without getting too bogged down with the more general ideas of its genre.

“Love Me, Love Me, Love Me” is a prime example of my favorite part of producer Kikuo-P’s work, in that it presents a rather basic story with such creepy and otherworldly imagery that it comes off incredibly fresh and unique. If you’re looking for something super spooky in the world of Vocaloid, you really don’t have to travel too far. Probably due to the unreality of its “singers”, a lot of Vocaloid songs are free to explore very dark themes without being hindered by real-life morals and norms (an idea that I definitely want to expand upon at a later date).

However, personally, a lot of these songs leave me feeling uninspired, mostly because they are so incredibly unrealistic that I’m not even frightened by them. A lot of them seem to be trying too hard to be gory and scary and miss out on any actual personal connection the audience. Kikuo-P, on the other hand, opts for a far more personal and emotional take on the idea of creepy songs, one that is more grounded in reality, and in doing so actually evokes an emotional response from his audience. Fear, yes, but also far more complex emotions.

As is the case with most of Kikuo’s work (and most Vocaloid songs in general), “Love Me, Love Me, Love Me”’s meaning is very tied to its visuals, so I’ll be analyzing those as well. If you wish to follow along, here’s the video I’ll be using.

In addition, I also want to shout out this English dub of the song. While I won’t be directly using these translated lyrics, they did assist me in my understanding of this song (and it’s also a really well-done dub.)

The first twenty seconds of the PV to this song sets up the motif it will be following for its entirety, that of a red and black scribbly sort of chaos. It’s immediately unsettling because nothing in the video feels solid. In fact, not even the text of the title of the song, producer, and Vocaloid used is stationary, dropping in quickly and floating aimlessly away. This fits in with the jittery xylophone sounds present throughout the song. All in all, it’s pretty trippy, and also very thematically relevant.

Once the lyrics begin, the movement slows down, presenting only a black screen with a red border, although a ghostly image of a girl’s face flashes in several different colors while tilting unsteadily. Finally, the image settles on a white sketchy image of this girl, the only colors present being her magenta eyes and nails. This image is very important, and will be repeated with some variation throughout the video. Lyrically, we are also introduced to the idea of the “cursed necklace”, a very important, albeit a bit ambiguous, symbol to the meaning of this song.

The image eventually fills with color, revealing a more solid image of this girl. Her hands grip at her neck, but it’s important to note that she wears no actual necklace. The “cursed collar” is instead represented by scribbly white lines which dance around her neck. It’s this imagery that suggests to be that this “collar” is not real at all, but rather a metaphor. (The collar does later appear in the image, but it’s delayed, which makes me think that’s merely a stylistic choice.)

Meanwhile, the lyrics describe the motivation of this “collar”.

“I want people, I want people,
It cried, this cursed necklace,
Don’t get angry, don’t abandon me, don’t go anywhere”

The “necklace” tied around the girl’s neck desires human attention, and positive, loyal attention at that. Personally, I think the desires of the necklace, considering the fact that it isn’t truly real, reflects the desires of the girl herself. It is she who desires this attention. However, clearly this motivation is harmful to the girl.

“Fasten it tightly,
Until you throw up,
So there aren’t any people here.
Nice results, huh?
Hey, hey, aren’t I a nice child?
Aren’t I a cute child?
Hey, hey, I’m a nice child, right?
It hurts, hey”

These lyrics suggest a certain amount of obsessiveness in the girl. Her desire for human attention is so incredibly important to her that it chokes her, stifling her ability to connect with others. The questions in these lyrics reflect her obsessive need to be loved by others around her, constantly asking whether she is “cute” or “nice” while declaring that these feelings hurt.

I also want to draw attention to the visuals presented here.  In this part, a pair of hands clapping along with the beat appears. Between the hands, small red doodles show up, only to be smashed by the clapping hands, creating red scribbles on the hands and the surrounding video. The images shown are of a one-eyed creature, a crudely-drawn woman, and slightly more realistically-drawn man. In addition, the same image of the girl we’ve seen a few times appears between the hands for a bit, but this image isn’t smashed like the others.

I think the lyrics along with the visuals sheds light on what that collar represents. If we consider the beginning of the video to be a reflection of this girl when she was young, we might see the “collar” being representative of a childlike desire for validation from peers. The collar is constantly present, a reminder that this girl must constantly strive to be the very best in order to acquire love and validation from the people around her.

The visuals, on the other hand, seem to reflect an anger towards others around her. I’m not sure what the one-eyed creature represents, but the man and woman look like they could be parental figures. It’s notable that the amount of red scribbles/blood spatter increases drastically when the man is smashed as opposed to the woman. I don’t know what conclusion can be drawn from this, but I think overall this might reflect that it is the adult figures in her life putting pressure on her. I think it may be saying that during this part of her life, she feels the need to please her parental figures most of all. The chorus reflects this need to please others.

“Love me, love me, love me,
More and more,
Love me, love me,
So much that it’s maddening,
It’s painful, it hurts, this curse of mine,
Undo it, undo it, hey!
It can’t be stopped…”

The repetition of the “love me” in the chorus reflects an obsessive need for validation, and explains why she considers it a painful curse that cannot be stopped. The visuals during the chorus show various screaming faces, including that of the girl, represented with a white tie around her neck. Despite being a metaphorical reminder of the “cursed collar” causing all this agony, this image lends emphasis to the fact that the girl feels trapped by her need to please others.

In addition, butterflies begin appearing. Butterflies are symbolic of change and growth, and that brings us to another important motif that we’ll be looking at in the next verse – the growth of our main character. In the last visual of the chorus, she is shown covered in butterflies, then scribbles, and then her image changes. Her hair is longer and she appears to be wearing a school uniform. Clearly, taking the butterflies into account, we can assume she’s aged, perhaps to a high school age taking into account the uniform.

No matter how big your body grows,
This necklace remains small,
It hurts now, it’s not enough now
People aren’t, people aren’t enough now

First of all, we can see that even as our main character grows, her pressure to please others remains. Metaphorically, as she grows, the collar remains the same size, slowly strangling her. The pressure has led to what appears to be a lack of satisfaction towards just the affection of other people.

What does she desire now? Well…

I won’t lose to anyone of my class,
Aren’t I a lovely child?
Hey, more than that child and more than that child,
Everyone, everyone, come look at me!

She desires to be better than everyone else, of course. It’s still seemingly embedded in a desire to be loved, but now it seems the continuing pressure has made it competitive. She wants not only to be loved, she wants to be loved the most of everyone.

Overlaid with visuals of spiders suggesting a predatory instinct, we see the further degradation of our main character from a helpless child just wanting to be loved to someone far more malicious.

Behind the gymnasium, my confession to you,
Was it kind of a lie?
I love you,
You who are so filthy.

This line furthers the connection to the main character aging to high school age, since the behind-the-(insert school building here) love confession is a pretty standard trope. But this one is twisted. Though the narrator claims to love the person she’s confessing to, she also claims that they’re “filthy”.

So I think this scene serves as a more specific example of the depths our main character has sunk to regarding her need for affection. As we established before, she’s gotten to a point where she has to prove herself the most loved, so for her to love someone else is counter-productive.

The next chorus’s lyrics change slightly, with the “Love me, Love me”s followed with a few new lines:

I’ll give you everything
And I will have you, I will have you
Bear everything for me
It’s not enough, you’re not enough
I won’t let you go, ah,
Please forgive me

This is probably in reference to the person she confessed to behind the gymnasium in the last verse. There’s a lot of conflicting ideals here – while the subject wants to “give them everything” and wants to “have” them, they claim that they’re “not enough”. So here’s what I think. I think we’re seeing a conflict within the main character of the song.

She’s been taught, or led to believe, that she’s supposed to be constantly the most loved. It’s her curse, her “collar”, constantly strangling her. So when she falls in love with someone else, she’s unsure of how to fit it into her worldview. When she’s constantly trying to make others love her, how can she love someone else? Thus the “Please forgive me.” The subject of the song does actually love this person, but they don’t know how to.

The song then leaps into a repeat of the earlier chorus, minus the last line, “This is happiness, right?”

I think this connects back to what I was talking about earlier – that our character’s worldview is so skewed that she can no longer determine what love or happiness is. I also want to point out the visuals here – we see our character age again. Now, the collar is represented by two snakes twisting around her neck – one white, one black. Despite the obvious implications of the further decay of our main character’s state of mind, I think the dual snakes and their opposing colors also bring back that idea that she’s at war with herself, her love against her need to be loved.

And that’s the meaning of “Love Me, Love Me, Love Me”, but I wanna talk about one other thing, and that’s the genius of the horror presented in this song.

I always think the best horror comes out of fear for real life situations. Ghosts and demons and serial murderers and other oogie boogie creatures are scary on the surface, but true horror comes from forging a connection between the real and the fantastical.

Even though the horror of the song appears to come from the “curse” put on the main character, in reality, the “curse” is a far more real problem of her feeling that she must please everyone.  It’s true that the pressures to please everyone around you grow more suffocating as you get older, but that’s a hard thing to explain. So Kikuo-P uses the fantastical image of the cursed collar to represent this idea and the horror and pain it can cause through horrific, chaotic imagery. This situation is horrific, even if it’s realistic, so the emotions are effectively communicated through the lens of horrific imagery.

Anyway, Kikuo-P does horror so right. And I had to take approximately 2,000 words to prove it. Less niche post coming next week…. maybe.

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The Choice was Never Yours – A “Doki Doki Literature Club” Analysis

(The following post will contain major spoilers for a really, really good game. It’s free on Steam, so if you haven’t yet played it, close this post and do it! It’s about a 4ish hour experience. Do heed the content warnings, however. This game is not for the faint of heart… and I mean it.)

When I heard about “Doki Doki Literature Club” (henceforth referred to as DDLC), I wasn’t expecting too much of it. Sure, a psychological horror game disguised as an anime-styled dating sim sounds like a fun little novelty, but I was expecting the scares to be cheap. You know, your usual jumpscares and incoherent plot leading to more jumpscares. I was expecting a game for youtubers to record their reactions to so we can all have a little chuckle about how 2spooky these anime girls are. What I was not expecting was a genuinely horrifying and yet somehow heartfelt story about the nature of choice.

Don’t get me wrong, there were still a lot of jumpscares and disturbing (very, very disturbing) imagery in this game. But instead of these elements just being in there for shock value, they seemed more in service of a greater thematic purpose than your normal novelty horror game. And also fascinating was the way these elements broke down and criticized the genre it tries to mimic.

So let’s talk about romantic visual novels/dating sims/otome games/ whatever the correct term is.

In a dating sim, the biggest and most important game mechanic is the element of choice. Most games of these type start out with the often incredibly bland player character getting into a situation where they meet a number of attractive characters, all usually corresponding to a certain character archetype. From there, the player can choose which character they wish to pursue romantically. They do this by making certain dialogue and story choices that lead them down the path toward the end goal of romancing their chosen character.

So basically, the only thing separating a dating sim from a weirdly involved novel where instead of turning pages you click the “next” button a lot is the fact that the player gets to choose some aspects of how the story goes.

On the surface, DDLC seems to do the same thing as other games of its ilk. You play as a delightfully bland player character who is roped into joining a Literature Club by his childhood best friend, the positive and energetic Sayori. Although the player is at first reluctant, he becomes far more into the idea once he meets the other three members of the Literature Club: the tough-yet-tiny tsundere with a love for manga and baking, Natsuki; the quiet and shy bookworm with a talent for writing, Yuri; and the confident, helpful president of the club, Monika. Motivated by his interest in these four beautiful girls, the player character becomes entangled in the business of the Literature Club.

From here, the game’s choice mechanic becomes clear. The members of the club enjoy writing and exchanging poetry, so in order to win over the heart of the player’s chosen girl, they will have to choose certain words to put into their poetry to appeal to the girl they like. If the player successfully chooses words that appeal to their chosen girl, they will be rewarded the next day by spending more time with that girl than with the rest of the girls, leading them down the path (seemingly) towards starting a romantic relationship with her.

Or at least, that’s how it seems. But there’s a few important things to note. One, the only three choices the player actually gets are to pursue Sayori, Yuri, or Natsuki. Monika is not an option. And two, no matter which girl the player chooses to pursue, the story of the first act of the game always ends exactly the same way. No matter if the player chooses to pursue her, Sayori will always tell the player that she has had depression for her entire life and never told him due to her fear of inconveniencing him. Then, no matter what the player chooses the player character to say or do, she will always confess her love for him, and then no matter whether the player accepts or rejects her confession, she will always be found the next morning having died by suicide.

After the tone of the game being so cheerful and happy up until this point, most players will understandably be disturbed by this turn of events. They will probably wonder what choice it was that they made incorrectly to cause this to happen. They may try to replay the game, making their choices differently, hoping to be able to “save” Sayori. But the reality is, no matter what choices are made, act one of the game always ends this way.

So, players, probably quite spooked, will go onto act two of the game. This time, the game restarts and is pretty much the same as the first time, but Sayori is nowhere to be found. Any mention of her or clue that she ever existed is completely erased from the game, and the player character doesn’t seem to remember her at all. Instead, it’s Monika who encourages the player to join the Literature Club. From there, things progress similarly sans Sayori, but the atmosphere starts to change. Although it might seem like the player continues to have the choice over whether to pursue Natsuki or Yuri, the game soon railroads the player onto Yuri’s path.

In addition, strange game glitches are seen, corrupting the music, the character sprites, and the background. At this point, it’s pretty obvious that something very bad is going down in this club. However, in the meantime, the player begins to learn surprisingly dark information about Yuri and Natsuki, mainly through strange dialogue edits. The player learns that Natsuki is so short because her abusive father allowed her to be malnourished as a child, and that she spends so much time at the club in order to stay away from him. The player also learns that Yuri has a collection of knives, and uses them to self-harm.

Finally, most unsettlingly, the personality traits of Yuri and Natsuki seem exaggerated. Natsuki’s blunt honesty becomes downright brutality, and Yuri’s passion for her books and writing starts to look like obsession. And between it all, Monika seems willing to step back and allow Yuri and Natsuki to bicker and suffer.

Yet, just as before, the player’s choices are an illusion. No matter what happens, the player ends up alone in a classroom with Yuri, whose obsession for books and poetry have extended to an obsession with the player character. She confesses her love for him, and no matter whether they accept or reject her confession, she stabs herself several times and dies. From there, the player is unable to advance the game away from the image of her body, and must sit through 1440 lines of glitched, illegible dialogue before Monika and Natsuki return. Natsuki, horrified by the scene, flees, but Monika stays behind. She apologizes to the player character for what has happened, and then a small window opens up and the player watches Monika delete Natsuki and Yuri’s character files.

From here, the game resets once more, but this time, the club room is disconnected from the rest of the setting, seemingly floating in space. The player is confronted by Monika, all alone, her posture casual, facing the screen. She informs the player, not the player character, but the person actually playing the game, that she has fallen in love with them. She confesses that, as club president, she was given an omniscient knowledge of the fact that she was in a game, as well as the fact that she was not a romanceable character. Motivated by jealousy toward the rest of the girls’ pre-programmed chance to date the person she loves, she began interfering with their character files. It’s strongly implied that she played up Sayori’s depression in order to drive her to suicide, and heightened Natsuki’s rudeness and Yuri’s obsessiveness in order to make them less appealing. However, due to the fact that the player continued to have the choice to pursue these other girls, Monika was forced to remove them as choices by deleting their files.

From then on, the player is unable to advance from this screen with Monika. Programmed into the game are over 11 hours worth of topics that Monika chats with the player about, and she restricts the player from being able to skip dialogue. The only way to get out of the situation is to go into the files of the game and manually delete Monika’s character file, the same way she did for all the other characters. From there, depending on the actions the player has taken, two different endings are possible.

In the normal ending, the game restarts and Sayori has taken over as president, since Monika is nowhere to be seen. However, thanks to her new position, Sayori can now see everything that has happened. She takes the player to the same room Monika did and thanks him for getting rid of Monika, saying she’s glad they can be together “forever” now. Suddenly, Sayori’s sprite is glitched out, and several text boxes implied to be the remnants of Monika advance the game toward the credits, saying that she won’t let Sayori hurt the player.

However, if the player has gotten all of the CGs for all three of the romanceable characters, Sayori does not take the player to that same room, and instead simply thanks the player for spending all the time saving and reloading the game just to make everyone happy. She apologizes for not being able to do anything more for the player since the game is coming to an end, but promises that they’ll all still be there for the player should they choose to return. She then thanks the player for playing and the game advances to the credits.

What I want to focus on about this game is the choices, and lack thereof. If we want to draw a conclusion about what exactly is scary about DDLC, it’s not the disturbing imagery, the glitches, or the jumpscares, it’s the lack of control. At every point of the game where something terrible happens, though it may seem like the player has the choice to avoid them, there really isn’t any choice at all. Sayori and Yuri’s deaths, Monika’s takeover, everything is entirely unavoidable. In a way, from the moment the player boots up the game, they are unknowingly giving up their power of choice to Monika (and at the end of the game, Sayori).

If we’re going to draw a conclusion from DDLC, we’d probably say that this game wishes to point out that the scariest and most damaging thing to lose is the power of choice.

But that’s a little too simple, right? I think we can take it a step further. Remember when I talked about how the most important mechanic in an otome game is choice? In a traditional otome game, the player’s power of choice is the most important power they get. Their choice is king – if they pick a character to romance, that character will fall in love with them.

But think about it from the opposing perspective. If the player gets all the choice, then technically speaking, the “relationship” they build in the game is 100% one-sided. The opinion of the romanceable characters in the game on the relationship ultimately means nothing if the player makes the right choices.

And yes, I know that’s a silly thing to point out. We’re talking about pixels, ones and zeroes, lines of code, not living, breathing humans. They don’t deserve the same amount of choice that the human playing the game does, since, obviously, they’re not real.

But DDLC asks the question “What if these romanceable characters did know that they had no choice in the matter?” and “What if they desired that same amount of choice?”

That character, of course, is Monika. Due to her president position giving her the knowledge that she is a character in an otome game, and a non-romanceable one at that, she is aware of just how little choice she has. There is no conceivable way for her to make her own choices. So, the only way she can gain back her ability to choose is to take away the player’s ability to choose. Essentially, the game ends up a sort of reverse otome game, where the player is the one without choice pursued by someone romantically interested in them.

DDLC critiques the world put forth by the dating sim structure, pointing out the dangers of restricting choice, showing how a lack of choice can cause only pain and tragedy.

I also think there’s some level of critique on the way most dating sims handwave the problematic implications of the lack of choice given the romanceable characters. Namely, that being the way most player characters in otome games manage to get every single character to fall in love with them. This happens in DDLC, of course, but almost too well. While yes, the three romanceable characters that are meant to fall in love with the player character do, the non-romanceable character also falls in love with him. The fact that the player character makes too many people fall in love with him is perhaps another critique of the world presented by otome games.

DDLC asks players to step into the world of an otome game, a world where choice can be quickly taken away, and romance is less a mutual agreement between two willing participants and more a choice made by one party and endured by another. And this world is horrifying.

DDLC is a fascinating and well-made game, and such an incredible experience. The way it folds the critique of its own genre into the plot, structure, and scares of the game is really so interesting, and I’m glad I got a chance to play it. I highly recommend it.

(…as long as you’re cool with watching some super horrifying things happen to cute anime girls.)

Musical Month Week 4: A Lovely Tribute

MS FLEMING: “Veronica? Jason Dean told me you just committed suicide!”
VERONICA: “Yeah? Well, he’s wrong about a lot of things.”
MS FLEMING: “Oh… I threw together a lovely tribute, especially on such short notice…”
“Dead Girl Walking (Reprise)”

After writing a post a while ago on how media consistently screws up its depictions of mental illness and suicide, I got to thinking – are there any examples of media that does the depictions right?

And ruminating on it a bit, I came to the conclusion that a great piece of media that does discuss both of these topics in a way that is constructive without glorifying either is the musical “Heathers.” And since it’s musical month, what better time is there to talk about it?

I’ve wanted to talk about this musical for a while. In fact, this post has been sitting in my drafts for months. I initially wanted to discuss JD’s morality as a character, and that’s a still a topic I find fascinating and worthy of discussion, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to continue a discussion on suicide depiction in media, a topic that really deserves further conversation.

Besides being just an overall entertaining and amazing musical, “Heathers” also has a lot to say about mental illness and suicide. Especially how our society as a whole tends to handle both topics, and how it harms the people actually in need. In my opinion, you can easily read the events of the musical as an allegory for our world’s honestly garbage treatment of real people with mental illness and suicidal thoughts… teenagers in particular.

So, let’s meet the main players in the musical, shall we?

Veronica Sawyer, A Teen for All

Let us begin with our humble protagonist, Veronica Sawyer. At the beginning of the musical Veronica is your average everyday high school senior. All she wants is to finish up her final year of high school and jet off to an idealized college life. She doesn’t want to stick out. She just wants to survive until her “freedom” arrives.

She is also most certainly the audience stand-in. Her point of view on events, at least in the beginning, most certainly aligns with how the audience would see them. This is aided not only by her role as a “typical” teen, but also by her personality. She is cynical, smart, and witty, allowing her to have the moral upper-hand on most other characters. So, the audience not only understands her well, but also can take her side morally.

For the rest of this analysis, always consider Veronica the audience stand-in. This is especially important when looking at the other major player in “Heathers”.

Jason Dean, Romantic Rogue

When Veronica first meets JD, it’s incredibly easy to see why she would fall in love with him. He’s dark and mysterious, and seems to represent a part of Veronica that wishes she could dismantle the school system and society that has tortured her for years. He’s a loner with an almost comically tragic past. A mother who died when he was young, an abusive father, and no friends to speak of.

And considering Veronica is the audience stand-in, the musical expects the audience to fall in love with JD as well. Why wouldn’t they, really? He’s a sympathetic character with a dash of mystery and intrigue. So when Veronica makes the decision not only to fall in love with him, but also to quote-unquote “fix him,” the audience is probably right there with her.

However, JD is not what he seems. Well, okay, he is actually what he seems exactly. He’s the romanticized ideal of troubled teen. However, it’s that ideal that is the focus. He’s just an ideal. The ideal that you can take someone with such a sad and troubled past and fix them with love.

So, at first, when JD begins taking Veronica along with him on his mission to fight against “society,” the audience roots for the both of them. And even when that fight claims its first victim, Heather Chandler, there still isn’t much moral ambiguity. After all, Heather is the “mythic bitch” of Westerberg High, someone known for her cruelty to others.

And how do they cover up their first victim in their quest to dismantle the “man?” Why, a forged suicide note, of course.

“Me Inside of Me”

PRINCIPAL: “Heather Chandler’s not your everyday suicide!”
COACH: “We should cancel classes.”
PRINCIPAL: “No way, Coach. I send the kids home before lunch, and the switch board will light up like a Christmas tree.”
MS FLEMING: “Our children are dying! I suggest we get everyone in the cafeteria and just talk and feel together… I’m telling you, we all misjudged Heather Chandler. This is the most beautiful suicide note I’ve ever read.”
“Me Inside of Me”

The suicide note Veronica forges for Heather’s death reeks of martyrdom and meaning. The letter becomes the focus of Ms. Fleming’s attempts to convince her students to reveal their feelings and discuss them. What happens instead, though, is that the entire student body comes to the conclusion that Heather was secretly a tragic figure, who died so others could be happier. And Ms. Fleming, for all her outward desire to help her students, seems more focused on the attention she is getting for spreading Heather’s “message.”

In the meantime, keep in mind that Heather’s death was not at all a suicide. She was murdered in cold blood by JD and Veronica, who go on to commit two more murders under the guise of suicide, this time football stars Kurt and Ram. Kurt and Ram’s supposed suicides lead to a revelation of the suppressed homoerotic desires of their fathers once Veronica forges their suicide note saying that they “died because [they] had to hide [their] gay forbidden love from a misapproving world.”

Once more, the suicides of teenagers is used to derive meaning for those left alive. Kurt and Ram’s deaths are seen as symbolic of the need for acceptance of LGBT identities, and leads two men to stop denying their feelings for one another. Like with Heather Chandler, Kurt and Ram’s deaths aren’t seen as the tragedy they are, but is rather shown as a positive decision they made that improved the lives of others around them.

And again I must stress – these deaths aren’t actually suicides. They’re murders. But in the frenzy of celebrating the “positive effects” of these suicides, everyone ignores the actual problem lurking beneath.

“The Tiniest Lifeboat”

As all this fake suicide goes on, two actual suicide attempts are more or less glossed over by the Westerberg community as a whole.

The first, Heather McNamara’s in “Lifeboat” and “Shine a Light (Reprise)”, is brought on by the bullying of Heather Duke, who calls her “pathetic” and tells her to “kill herself”. How much help is given to Heather McNamara by the supposedly mental health-conscious community as a whole? None. Nada.

(It’s also symbolic that the scene where Heather Duke tells Heather McNamara to kill herself is a reprise of the earlier song where Ms. Fleming urges the children to share their deepest fears in an attempt to prevent future suicides. Clearly, her efforts are not at all working.)

The second is Martha’s, the constantly-bullied former best friend of Veronica. After crooning out her sadness over the loss of her childhood innocence in “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” she leaps from the Old Mill Bridge holding a suicide note.

Neither Martha nor Heather McNamara succeed in their attempts to kill themselves, and I think this is an incredibly important fact to understanding what “Heathers” has to say about suicide.

Think about it. Thus far, the only two actual suicidal teens fail in killing themselves. Meanwhile, three teens who supposedly succeeded in killing themselves were not actually suicidal. But because they were the ones who actually died, society as a whole pays attention to them and them alone, while people like Heather McNamara and Martha slip between the cracks. Unless you’ve already succeeded in killing yourself, the world of “Heathers” doesn’t care about your mental health.

And Now Back to Our Protagonists

Remember back when I told you to remember that Veronica stands in for the audience? Keeping this in mind, let’s examine her role in the events of “Heathers”.

Veronica, while not being the one to orchestrate the murders, is very complicit in all of them. She is the one who forges both suicide notes, and she keeps what she knows of Heather, Kurt, and Ram’s deaths a secret from the powers that be.

And JD, on the other hand, sweet, troubled JD, is the one to mastermind it all. The musical purposefully writes him to be likeable in the beginning of the musical, so even as he murders people in cold blood, the audience goes along with it. He’s sweet! He just has a troubled past! He loves Veronica! It’s all okay. And Veronica, our audience stand-in, loves him too.

But keep in mind, remembering that she’s the audience stand-in, this implicates the audience as just as complicit in these deaths as Veronica is. They trust JD too, at first, and they give a silent cheer when he slays the “mythic bitch”. Perhaps they’re impressed by his and Veronica’s cleverness when they fake the suicide notes. And maybe they chuckle a little bit at the humorous nature of Kurt and Ram’s deaths. Either way, the full weight of what has happened never really sets in.

Like the rest of the community of “Heathers,” the audience is lead to focus more on these fake suicides than the actual mental health of the still-living teenagers in the musical. Martha and Heather McNamara’s suicide attempts, though heart-wrenching and accompanied by beautiful musical numbers, are mere blips on the overall plotline. And Veronica herself is not around to witness either. It’s only at Veronica’s lowest point in “Yo Girl” that she learns of Martha’s suicide attempt, and it’s only during the last song that she makes peace with Martha once more.

So what does this have to say about the nature of suicide and mental health in society? Well, it’s the sad truth that society as a whole doesn’t really pay attention to the still-living teenagers struggling with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. For those who have already committed suicide, it’s easy for society and media at large to grieve and make something meaningful of it, but “Heathers” points out that very little is done to prevent those still living from meeting the same fate.

In an exaggerated microcosm of our world, the adults of Westerberg High are tricked by two teenagers into romanticizing the murders of three teenagers while ultimately ignoring the actual suicide attempts of two still-living teenagers.

So what does this say about our world and the people in it? What does “Heathers” say about mental health and suicide? Well, it stresses prevention. It points out that we live in a world where it’s far easier to provide commentary after-the-fact. It shows how easy it is to ignore the still-living mentally-ill people at risk for suicide in favor of trying to draw some selfish meaning from the deaths of those who are already gone.

It’s also a kickass musical with a great plot and musical score. Social consciousness and overall quality… what else could you ask for?

Musical Month Week 2: Pierre & Natasha

I want to start this post with a slight disclaimer. I think a lot of parts of this analysis are a bit self-indulgent on my part. I think in many cases analysis of things we love can often fall to self-indulgence due to the fact that the things we love very often connect to ourselves in a personal way. I don’t think it’s unusual or detrimental to an analysis to feel a personal connection, but I also think it can make it difficult to see opposing sides of an analysis.

So, wordy apologies aside, I want to talk about Natasha and Pierre. I want to talk about them both individually but I mostly want to talk about their relationship. This analysis will mostly focus on four songs – “No One Else,” “Dust and Ashes,” “Pierre,” and finally, and most importantly “Pierre & Natasha.” So, let’s break this down.

Part 1: Natasha

At the beginning of the musical, Natasha is defined by her youth. It’s the first thing the audience learns of her – she is young, she is in love. In “No One Else,” this idea is expanded upon even further. In a sweeping ballad, Natasha declares her love for her absent fiance.

While the audience could definitely take note of her passion, they might also take notice of her innocence. Consider her repetition of “I love you,” as if in childish glee over the new adult emotion she feels. Or when she expresses her want to “put her arms ’round her knees,” “squeezing as tight as possible,” and “flying away”. Or, maybe most notably, her naive wish that Andrey will suddenly appear, “sitting in the drawing room” and she’s only missing him because she “forgot” he was there.

Ultimately, while the audience might be charmed by Natasha’s love for Andrey, it’s hard to ignore the fact that she loves him without a hint of realism. In a way, that’s admirable, but as the musical progresses, it becomes obvious that it’s detrimental.

As Natasha is caught up with Anatole, it’s clear that her passion for Andrey was fueled more by childlike glee than actual adult emotion. Throughout the musical, she continues to make uninformed decisions, getting involved with a dishonest man, nearly eloping, and then almost killing herself. While Natasha’s idealism in “No One Else” is beautiful and touching, it is also ultimately hollow.

One could blame Natasha for rushing into things, but in a way the blame could also be put on the world she lives in. She is young, after all. Her marriage to Andrey was not her own decision, and although she was willing to convince herself that she loved him, swept up in the idealism of being a wife, it was ultimately grounded in very few of her own decisions. Similarly, Andrey’s disappearance to fight in a war is out of Natasha’s hands. So is her whirlwind romance with Anatole, who repeatedly is the one to make the plans, up to where he almost whisks her away on a troika. She is repeatedly a victim of her society and those around her, using her for their own ends.

So, by the time of “Pierre & Natasha,” Natasha has had her innocence and naivete beaten out of her. While she certainly deserves some of the blame, it is obvious that the mistakes of others have been pinned to her, bringing great shame to her name.

Part 2: Pierre

Unlike most of his fellow characters, Pierre is not explained with a short little word and phrase. Instead, Pierre gets an entire song, aptly named “Pierre,” to explain his mentality at the beginning of the musical.

Essentially, Pierre is a man unsatisfied with his current life. He feels as though he has declined in his age. He constantly compares himself to Andrey, feeling as though Andrey’s choice to go to war makes him a better man. In comparison, Pierre views his life as too quiet, too sedentary. The rest of the cast appears to see him as a sad, yet generally good-hearted old man. (Interestingly, Pierre doesn’t really seem that much older than the rest of the cast, at least not physically. Regardless, he gets referred to as the old man a lot.)

However, we also are introduced to Pierre’s romantic life, or the lack thereof. While he is married, his wife, Helene, clearly doesn’t love him. The two of them argue, and refer to each other only as “wife” and “husband.” In addition, Helene’s romances with many other men (and probably also women, let’s be honest) is pretty much common knowledge to the rest of the cast. Pierre only briefly touches on this situation in “Pierre,” when he remarks that “the women they all pity me / because I’m married / but not in love / frozen at the center.”

It’s not until Pierre almost dies in a duel with Dolokhov that we get to hear his true feelings on romance. In “Dust and Ashes,” Pierre comes to the conclusion that the only reason he feels compelled to stay alive is that he still hasn’t fallen in love. He hypothesizes that only through love (romantic love, mind you) can one find divinity.

Pierre, Natasha, and Marriage

So it’s easy to draw comparisons between Natasha and Pierre. Both seem to put a lot of stock into romantic love. For both, it’s their downfall, the main source of their pain and dissatisfaction with their life. But I want to take a look at what part of romance has caused them such grief, because I don’t think you can argue that it’s simply romance as a whole. No, it’s marriage.

Think about it. Pierre is stuck in a loveless marriage, and it’s that marriage that is preventing him from being able to find love, and by extension, divinity. Natasha, on the other hand, is controlled by her impending marriage to Andrey. When she’s finally convinced to act on her “own terms” without worrying about that marriage, she’s caught up with Anatole and ruins her life by trying to elope with him. It’s not love or romance, it’s marriage specifically that is causing both characters such trauma.

In addition, I’d be willing to make this analysis even more specific. It may not just be marriage that is causing both characters problems, it may be the idea that marriage and romance are the same thing. Natasha’s seemingly endless passion for Andrey is actually not at all lasting, and goes away as soon as Anatole becomes a more present option for marriage. And then it’s her haste to marry Anatole that ruins her life. In both cases, her longing to marry both of these men is mistaken as romantic feeling.

On the other hand, we don’t really know why Pierre married Helene. Though, once again, their marriage by no means equals romance.

So, with that in mind, I want to look at “Pierre & Natasha,” the last song I’ll be analyzing. In this song, after Andrey has firmly rejected Natasha, Pierre tries to comfort her. However, the conversation that takes place starts to say a lot more about their relationship with one another.

First of all, I want to point out that in War and Peace, Natasha and Pierre were good friends when they were younger. This song draws attention to that friendship early on, when Natasha refers to him as “Peter Kirilovich,” and he corrects her, wanting her to call him “Pierre.” Not only does this show he feels comfortable enough with her to be on a first-name basis, but “Kirilovich” was his former last name, before his now-deceased father allowed him to take on the name “Bezhukov.” It shows that she knew him during a time before now, when they were both young and idealistic. It’s a sign of familiarity and friendship.

Another point to draw attention to is Pierre’s question to Natasha about Anatole, and her response:

[PIERRE]
But I should like to know one thing
Did you love—
Did you love that bad man?

[NATASHA]
Don’t call him bad
But I don’t know, I don’t know at all

Natasha doesn’t know now whether she ever loved Anatole, and I think this goes to show my point earlier about her confusing marriage and romance. Now that Anatole is firmly not a candidate for marriage, Natasha isn’t sure whether or not she ever truly loved him, or was more excited for the possibility of their wedding.

After this exchange, Natasha breaks down into tears, and Pierre, at this sight, also begins to cry. Despite the fact that Pierre tries to “despise her” for what she’s done, he cannot help but feel for her on a personal level. Again, the audience is shown the connection the two of them share on an emotional level.

He promises her that they do not need to speak of the situation with Andrey again, and says “But one thing I beg of you, consider me your friend / And if you ever need help, or simply to open your heart to someone / Not now, but when your mind is clear / Think of me.” Repeatedly it’s the friendship and close emotional connection Natasha and Pierre share that is brought up. Neither expressly declares a grand, sweeping passion for one another, but it’s made abundantly clear that they care deeply for one another. Even after Natasha tries to say she doesn’t deserve his care after the things she has done, the music cuts out and Pierre delivers the one spoken line in the entire musical:

[PIERRE]
If I were not myself
But the brightest, handsomest
Best man on earth
And if I were free—
I would get down on my knees this minute
And ask you for your hand
And for your love

And yes, you read that right, Pierre heavily implies that he wishes to marry Natasha. Remember how I said that marriage and romance in this play are intertwined in the minds of the characters? It’s this line that confirms what the audience may have been suspecting this whole time – Pierre loves Natasha romantically.

But here’s the thing. Pierre can’t marry Natasha. He’s a married man, she’s disgraced and shamed, “unmarriable.”

Still, this doesn’t seem to sadden either Natasha or Pierre. In fact, it leads Natasha to “weep tears of gratitude / tears of joy / tears of thanks” and to leave the room “smiling.” Pierre too weeps some “tears of joy” of his own, and leaves the room to deliver the final, hopeful number of the musical.

So what does this all mean for their relationship? Well, I don’t think it’s an accident that the couple that cannot even consider marriage is the one that seems the most happy with the idea of their love for one another. Plus, it’s the couple whose platonic love for one another that gets their happily ever after, in a sense.

Pierre’s declaration of love for Natasha is a microcosm of what makes their relationship work. Unlike the rest of the musical, sung grandly with beautiful language, he states his love for her frankly with no music in the background. It’s not grand, but it’s earnest and well-thought-out.

And so what do we take away from Pierre and Natasha’s relationship? The kind of romance that lasts and brings happiness can only exist on a foundation of friendship and shared emotional connection. It has very little to do with passion or grand gestures or traditional marriages.

We don’t get to see what comes of Pierre and Natasha, but I think the audience nonetheless leaves the theater (or the YouTube playlist) satisfied, knowing that the too have found a real love. Platonic, romantic, lasting, and happy.

A Lyrical Analysis of “Pork Soda”

Well, look at the time! Looks it’s time for another lyrical analysis.

Yep, I did this once before, and it ended up being a really fun little stretch of my analytical muscles. It was really only a matter of time before I came back with yet another song to meticulously dissect because what’s more fun than that? Nothing, obviously.

Like last time, I come to you with a song that has really struck me for its incredibly deep and clever writing. However, this time the lyrics are a little bit more ambiguous. As with all analytical readings, this is simply my own opinion of what the lyrics mean. Your interpretation or the actual interpretation could be wildly different! And that’s okay.

Glass Animals’ “How to Be a Human Being” is an album already filled with, er, unusually-written songs. They certainly like to stick to an off-kilter style, but it’s also a goldmine for interesting lyrical readings. “Pork Soda” is my personal favorite of the bunch, both musically and lyrically. Despite its bouncy, goofy sound and lyrics, it’s a surprisingly sad song about loss and confusion. Sounds like a good time! Let’s get to it!

(Also, just to let you know, I will be addressing the… unique title. Don’t worry. We’ll get there.)

“Somewhere in South End when you were fun
You took my hand and you made me run”
We begin the song with a flashback, tipped off to the listener via the past-tense language and also the light vagueness of it all. We’re not exactly where this scene takes place, just “somewhere.”
So, yeah, it’s vague, but what information can we glean from this line? A lot of information, actually. First of all, we know something has happened to the relationship between the speaker and the person they’re speaking of. After all, they’re speaking of this person being fun… in the past tense. Clearly something has gone down.
In addition, we can perhaps assume a few things about the relationship based on how the speaker points out the subject of the song being the one to take their hand and make them run. It suggests a sort of childlike innocence, yes, just two children running and holding hands, but also that the speaker was not the one driving the relationship.
“Up past the prison to the seafront
You climbed the cliff edge and took the plunge”

It’s no accident where the speaker is taken to by the subject of the song. Past the prison suggests freedom, bypassing a common symbol of restraint, opting to run instead to the seafront to dive off a cliff. It’s a wild disregard for safety, plunging forward with the backdrop of the crashing sea.

It suggests a lack of care, a enthusiastic yet ultimately doomed plunge.

If you’re wondering, yes, this is very meaningful for the rest of the song.

“Why can’t we laugh now like we did then?
How come I see you and ache instead?”

One of the biggest motifs of this song is the constant questions the speaker asks. However, for all the questions, there is a distinct lack of answers.

I think, beyond that, these lines more or less speak for themselves. The innocent, excitable relationship that once existed between the speaker and the subject of the song is gone now. They don’t laugh like they used to, and now all the speaker feels is a hollow ache.

“How come you only look pleased in bed?
Let’s climb the cliff edge and jump again”

The first line here is the only line thus far that has suggested anything other than a platonic relationship between the speaker and subject. I think this is important. It suggests that the relationship between the speaker and the subject was once very rooted in friendship, a friendship built, judging by the first lines, on a childlike sense of adventure. Now, however, the only time the speaker sees the same happiness in their partner is when they’re having sex. It’s a wild change from what once was, also connecting perhaps to an overall loss of innocence.

The speaker wishes to go back to the simple times, however even their wish seems ultimately futile, since it only suggests they plunge off the cliff face again. The speaker seems to acknowledge that even if they were to recapture the reckless joy their relationship once had, it would still end up failing, falling.

“Pineapples are in my head
(Pineapples are in my head)
Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead
(Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead)”

These are the lines that sparked my interest in looking into this song’s meaning and lyrics as a whole. What do they mean?

Well, nothing. They mean nothing at all. And that’s what’s important. This once close relationship is drifting apart, and the speaker can’t figure out why. Nothing seems to make sense. These nonsense lines portray the confusion and lack of distinct reason behind the end of this relationship.

I also think the last line “Got nobody cos’ I’m brain dead” expresses a lot of personal frustration the speaker has with themselves. It’s been suggested that it was the subject of the song that tended to lead in their relationship, but now that they’re no longer invested, the speaker is left feeling dumb. They feel they can’t take charge now and express their sadness over the end of the relationship, perhaps because they never had power in the first place.

“Somebody said that I’m a fuckin’ slum
Don’t know that I belong”

These next few lines start to spiral into each other, and I think they perhaps mirror the thought process of the speaker, slowly spiraling into despair over their lack of power to fix this relationship that’s so important to them.

These two lines further the idea from the lines before, that the speaker feels powerless and lonely. They feel they don’t belong anymore, and can’t do anything about it. I think it’s interesting, though, that this information is attributed to an unnamed “somebody.” I wonder if perhaps that “somebody” represents the paranoia of the speaker, thinking everyone around them can see how pathetic they look. This may suggest self-confidence issues in the speaker in the wake of this failed relationship.

“Maybe you’re fucking dumb
Maybe I’m just a bum”

Here the speaker considers blaming the end of the relationship on the subject of the song, but instead returns back to those same self-conscious thoughts from before. I think this even further proves that these lines represent a thought spiral, chaotically contradicting each other and changing on the drop of a dime.

“Maybe you’re fucking scum
Don’t you go psycho chum”

Now we return to hatred of the subject of the song. You’ll see once again, though, that the tone of the speaker’s thoughts changes in the next lines.

I want to take special note of the second line though, calling the subject “chum.” I think this once again connects to how heavily based in friendship it seems this relationship used to be. Now, though, the person is so unrecognizable from the friend and lover they once had, the speaker calls them “psycho.”

“I want you for the world
I want you all the time
(Stop!)”

And yet, it’s clear the speaker still really loves the subject of the song. These two lines are the first to really agree with each other, but it’s here that the speaker cuts off their own thoughts with a “stop!” It’s clear that these two thoughts are the most painful for the speaker to consider. The fact that they still love the person they’ve drifted apart from is something they cannot even allow themselves to think. So, the “spiral” stops abruptly, and the song fades into instrumentals for a bit, as if resetting, before getting back to the chorus.

“Pineapples are in my head
(when you were fun)
Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead
(you made me run)
Pineapples are in my head
(to the seafront)
Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead
(she took the plunge)”

Once more we return to the confusing and meaningless end of a relationship, but now we have a repetition of some earlier lines. There is one difference now, though, and that’s that the speaker refers to the subject for the first time in third person. It very clearly signifies a disconnect between the speaker and the subject. They’ve removed themselves from the scene of the subject plunging off the cliff, passively describing it as their confusing, muddled thoughts repeat.

So, how is our speaker coping with the loss? By removing themselves fully from any past connection. And how well does that go? Well…

“5000 footsteps in your wet dress
Back to the house with your arms around my neck”

…Not very well, it seems. The lyrics lurch unceremoniously into another flashback. It’s pretty vague. Why is her dress wet? Where did they come from? It’s left up to the audience to interpret. However, the lack of information suggests that, to the speaker, this scene needs no set-up. It’s ingrained in their mind. They don’t need to remember the exact details, just the feelings of the subject’s arms around their neck and her damp clothing.

“We drank pork soda with tangled legs
I won’t forget how you looked at me then”

And hey, I said I’d explain the title! Here it is. “Pork Soda” seems to be a reference to these happy memories the speaker shares with the subject. It’s a weird detail, for sure, but unforgettable. It suggests that this relationship, for the speaker, is too strange and also simultaneously comforting to forget. Even through their confusion and their sadness and their attempts to demonize or remove themselves from their past lover, this memory remains.

It’s no coincidence that this memory is the first lyric that has suggested any returning affection from the subject to the speaker, either. This memory is a memory of love, what once was.

(Also, as a side note, according to Dave Bayley of Glass Animals, the title came from a woman he met with a tattoo that said “Pork Soda.” It was apparently a reference to a pork dish made with coke. I can attest that pork cooked with a can of coke in a crock pot is DELICIOUS, and I assume that is the dish the tattoo referred to.)

“I know I’m no sweet prince of love
Those times when we got drunk”

And this happy memory triggers yet another spiral of thoughts, but this one actually goes somewhere. We start with the speaker justifying their own flaws in the relationship, calling out how they weren’t exactly the most romantic person. In addition, it seems that getting drunk was something they did a lot, which harkens back to all that earlier recklessness in the relationship we discussed.

“Maybe Jamaica rum
Maybe some Jonnie Dub
Maybe you still think of us
Phone buzz, and still I jump”

Our speaker gets sidetracked a bit with the memories of those drunken times, but eventually jolts back into the present. They suggest that there’s still a part of them that hopes the subject will change their mind, which leads every phone buzz to make them jump, hoping it’ll be the subject calling to reignite the relationship.

“Why don’t I say it then?
I want you all the time”

And we return to the motif of questions, but now the question is to the speaker themselves. They wonder why they can’t just tell the subject how they still love her and want to be with her.

“Why can’t we laugh now like we did then?
How come I see you and ache instead?
How come you only look pleased in bed?
Let’s climb the cliff edge and jump again”

And thus, we return to these questions. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, there are no answers. Our speaker is left to continuously fight these repeating thoughts with no end in sight.

“Pineapples are in my head
(Pineapples are in my head)
Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead
(Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead)
Pineapples are in my head
(Pineapples are in my head)
Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead
(Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead)”

And we are left with that lingering sense of confusion and lack of meaning.

This is a really tragic song about a special, loving relationship ending for no real reason. But the way it communicates that confusion – through nonsensical lyrics as well as the off-kilter instrumentation – is really fascinating to me. I hope you enjoyed this analysis as much as I enjoyed writing it.

And hey, maybe next time I’ll do a happier song!

(But probably not.)

 

All the Bright Reasons Why YA Can’t Discuss Suicide Meaningfully

Okay, okay, old topic I know. I’m late to the party. But allow me to take a side on the raging debate. Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why does not do an effective job at discussing suicide or mental health in a positive manner. And I could sit here and reiterate all of the reasons why this is, but honestly, a million and one people have already done that. Just do a google search, really. So today, I won’t be talking about 13 Reasons Why… or at least, I won’t be talking about it specifically. (This is partly because I haven’t watched the series, and partly because I’ve only read a bit of the book.)

I don’t feel exactly qualified to speak about 13 Reasons Why, but I can speak on another YA book I read that deals with a lot of the same themes. A book which, I think, is an excellent example of why so many YA books fail so spectacularly so often at discussing mental health and suicide for teenagers.

This book is called All the Bright Places and it’s by Jennifer Niven. A few years ago, it was marketed pretty heavily in our local Barnes and Noble as the “new John Green!” (This, by the way, is a really common way bookstores market books by local authors around here since John Green lives in Indy. Basically any book about teenagers by a local author also set in Indy gets touted as the “new John Green!” and it’s only sometimes true.)

Still, I picked it up because I thought the cover was cute and the concept seemed neat, and honestly I really like supporting local authors. And I read it.

And it was bad.

No, no, not just bad.

Disappointing.

Which, in a lot of ways, is even worse than bad.

Because if it were a bad book only, I could have put it down and returned it to the store before getting too invested. But because it was a disappointing book, I was engrossed from page one, legitimately enjoying the characters and the story line, right up until I was completely betrayed at the end.

The following post will contain major spoilers for the plot of All the Bright Places. If you plan on reading it, for gods’ sake, don’t. Just read the spoilers. Read this post instead. I promise it’s not worth your time.

So, because you definitely won’t be reading this book, let me tell you about it. All the Bright Places is about two teenagers, Violet and Finch, both of whom struggle with mental illness. Finch has been battling his illness for basically his entire life. His family situation is rather unhealthy, and suicidal thoughts have been something he has had to face for years and years. In order to get past this, Finch makes it a point to find some reason, one reason everyday to stay alive. This is immediately established as one of the most important aspects of his character – this constant mentality of finding that one reason to keep going.

It was this part of Finch’s character that really, really endeared me to him right off the bat. I’ve never seen a character with mental illness so central to his character simultaneously be so positive. Normally, characters with mental illness in YA are either constantly gloomy or negative. Finch is not that at all. He’s a surprisingly realistic teenager who just so happens to also deal with suicidal thoughts.

Violet, on the other hand, is rather new to her illness. After the sudden and tragic death of her older sister, Violet’s once happy life is completely destroyed, and her suicidal thoughts appear as a result.

The beginning of the book sees Finch at the top of his school’s bell tower, a place he often goes to calm down and think through things. While he’s up there, though, he runs into Violet, clearly contemplating jumping off the tower to her death. Finch talks her down, and brings her safely to the ground. From there, the two form a shaky acquaintanceship until a school project brings them together. Their project sends them across the state of Indiana, reporting on various famous landmarks.

As YA standards would dictate, Finch and Violet become close friends and eventually fall in love. Their shared experiences in mental illness becomes a way they connect to one another and they help each other through the tough times and come out stronger for it.

And then, with no build-up whatsoever… Finch commits suicide.

Okay, yes, there is a little build up to it but… the way the book presents the timeline of events, Finch’s suicide comes out of really nowhere. The book would like you to believe that the reasons for his death come from two separate incidents. One, an argument with Violet over… something or other (I can’t actually remember right now, if that speaks to how insignificant it was.) And two, his visiting of a mental health support group and their subsequent suggestion that he consider taking medication for his mental illness.

Putting aside the problematic notion that medication somehow changes or harms people with mental illness, Finch’s death makes absolutely no sense. And not in a “suicide is a senseless tragedy”-kind of way, although it is, but I mean as an ending to his character arc.

As I established up above, Finch’s defining trait from the beginning of the novel is that he looks for a new reason to stay alive every single day, no matter how difficult it might be. Despite the struggles he deals with, he remains positive. He fights through his illness. And yet, his death comes with no struggle. We don’t even see it happen. We’re just told it happens. I honestly didn’t even believe it when I first read it – I expected it to be some sort of mistake.

And with his disappearance also goes all the potential of his character.

And I know what you’re thinking. “But Gillian, what if that’s the point? What if it’s a message on how suicide makes it so people can’t come to a meaningful conclusion of their life? What if it’s symbolic?”

To that I say… I wish. Instead, Finch’s death is only symbolic in the ways that make it more tragically beautiful. He drowns himself in Blue Hole lake, one of the landmarks he and Violet visit. And the way his body is described floating upon that beautiful depth of water… it made me sick. Really sick. Actually sick.

Because if Niven truly wished Finch’s suicide to make a statement on how suicide makes it so people are never able to reach their full potential, she wouldn’t have made his death so endlessly “meaningful.”

And this is the problem with how YA depicts suicide. It strips the realism out of a very real, very terrible problem and makes it into some sort of martyr’s sacrifice.

See, death in fiction is a really dramatic choice for an author to make. It takes a major player in the storyline out of the story completely. If done wrong, it can make a character seem pointless, and can make an audience feel like they cared about a character for no reason.

So, most authors give their main characters meaningful deaths. Those characters who die, do so for a purpose. They die to save others, or to motivate others, or in service of some sort of theme the author hopes to convey. Sometimes, their death fulfills their character arc. For example, perhaps a character whose main flaw is that he is selfish dies saving someone else, thus proving that that character grew up enough to overcome their prior selfishness.

And this is all fine and dandy when the deaths we’re talking about aren’t self-inflicted. It’s okay to glorify deaths that come from courageous acts, or emphasize the beautiful tragedy of a terrible accident. There’s no danger of inspiring real people to go out and die that way too since, mostly, they don’t have any control over that.

However, when we’re talking about suicide, the glorification becomes a real problem. A character committing suicide is a character death just like any other character death, and so authors feel the need to justify them – make them meaningful and beautiful, make them fulfill some narrative purpose.

Here’s the issue though – in real life, suicide doesn’t do any of that. It’s not meaningful. It’s not beautiful. It’s terrible and awful and sad and it never fixes anything.

When characters commit suicide in books, authors peddle the lie that suicide is a death that can solve problems. A death that can teach lessons to other people. For Finch, Niven peddles the idea that suicide is a beautiful end to a beautiful boy’s life, because to depict it as anything else wouldn’t fit the story she was trying to tell. For Hannah in 13 Reasons Why, Asher peddles the idea that suicide can somehow teach her bullies a valuable life lesson.

Here’s the reality. Suicide can’t do that. Suicide is a meaningless loss of life. It is not beautiful, and to depict it as anything else than ugly and meaningless is incredibly dangerous.

Because unlike a glorious death on the battlefield, or a tragically beautiful accidental death via disease, for example, suicide is something that a real person could make the choice to inflict upon themselves. And when they see these suicides in books and other media depicted as beautiful and meaningful, they might think of it as a viable option for themselves.

They might look at Finch, optimistic Finch who just wanted to keep living, and see that there’s no chance for them. That even if they work hard to stay alive, they will ultimately fail. They will see that the best option for them is to die in a beautiful way, so everyone can remember them as the beautiful person they were in life.

They might look at Hannah, who was bullied and mistreated, and see that the best way to teach the bullies a lesson is to kill themselves – to stick it to ’em, teach them a lesson. Show them that their actions have consequences.

And you can stick as many suicide hotline numbers at the end of these narratives as you want. At the end of the day, the message society overwhelmingly clings to is clear. If you struggle with mental illness, or bullying, or anything, and the possibility of suicide rears its ugly head, might as well just go with it. Hey, it’ll be tragic, but it’ll be beautiful and meaningful.

If Niven wanted to actually help real teenagers who struggle with suicidal thoughts, Finch wouldn’t have died. He would have remained alive, as a real and honest example that people with mental illness can fight their battle and win. His choice to remain alive would not only have been more meaningful for his character arc, it would have also been more meaningful for the real people reading the book who were maybe just looking for a sign. Looking for a character like them, who made the brave choice to stay alive, despite everything.

But the problem is, YA (and most media) too often focuses on the story instead of the real people. It desperately tries to carve meaning out of everything. And that’s why they so often fail these real people. They sell them lies. Beautiful, meaningful lies, but lies all the same.

“Okay Gillian, fair,” you say, “But how, then, do we discuss topics like mental health or suicide without the danger of inspiring real people to commit suicide?”

Easy. Let characters like Finch and Hannah live. Don’t shy away from depicting their struggle, of course, but also let them live. Let them be the example that life is always more beautiful and meaningful than death. Always. Let their character arcs end in triumph over the darkness. Let their readers see that there is a hope. Let them see the reality of the situation, not the sensational tragic fantasy.

Because for this issue, we don’t need cautionary tales. We need heroes. We need examples. That’s the only way we can discuss this terrible problem in a healthy and positive way.

And that’s the truth.

(A/N: After writing this all out, I went on Google Images looking for a header image of All the Bright Places and learned that a movie adaptation will be released later this year. I didn’t really intend this post to coincide with that and… I don’t think it needs to be said, but don’t see this movie. Don’t do it. Don’t buy into this.)

Character Spotlight: Owain, Hero of Ages

Defining an all-time favorite anything is not an easy task. I know this to be true from experience. Picking a favorite song, favorite book, favorite movie, favorite artist, etc etc etc is nearly impossible. The pool is too big. I love too many songs and books and movies and artists and etc to choose just one that is, all around, the best.

However, there is one category for which I can pick one definitive favorite without a hint of hesitation.

My favorite fictional character ever in anything is Owain from the Fire Emblem series.

That’s a bold statement, I know. Even if you’re not familiar with the character, you may be wondering how he can be so good that he is the definitive best in any series. How can one character possibly rise above so many other great characters I love to claim the throne as the best?

Well… that’s a complicated question, and one I hope to answer in this post. So come with me and let us explore what makes humble Owain, hero of ages, such a fantastic and deep character.

Meet Owain

Owain first appeared in Fire Emblem: Awakening, the revival of the near-dying Fire Emblem series. His role in this game is pretty small. (In fact, his role in both games he appears in is small.)

Owain is one of the many future children the player is able to unlock over the course of the game. He is available for recruitment once the player marries his mother, Lissa, to any one of her potential marriage candidates. He starts out a myrmidon with a slight affinity for magic from his mother, but nothing about his recruitment or role in the game sets him apart from the rest of the recruitable children.

He’s completely unnecessary to the plot of the game. The player could, feasibly and easily, go through it without recruiting him at all.

Now this isn’t terribly uncommon. Only one of the recruitable children is required to finish the game, and that’s Lucina. All the rest are simply add-ons, fun little rewards for playing with the support system in the game. And yet, for Owain, this detail is incredibly important to what makes his character work so well. Keep it in mind.

From first impressions, Owain is a ridiculous character. He’s over-dramatic. He yells dumb catchphrases and pretends he’s an unstoppable and legendary hero. He gives weapons flashy and superfluous names. He claims to have an “unquenchable bloodlust” and a magical sword hand that constantly aches for battle.

The game makes no secret of the fact that Owain is delusional. Other characters treat him like a joke, and he constantly fails to do the things he claims to be able to do. For all intents and purposes, the audience is encouraged to consider Owain a comic relief character and to not take him seriously.

This too is not unusual for Fire Emblem. Fire Emblem is a game that requires a lot of unique characters for the game mechanics of assembling and commanding an army of heroes to work. And in order to ensure the player is able to remember details about as many of these characters as possible, they tend to all have some sort of memorable schtick and not much else to their characters on the surface. This is a topic I’ll probably end up going into in more depth in another post, but basically Owain is just a weird quirky goofball in a whole army of weird, quirky goofballs.

Yes, Owain is completely ordinary for Fire Emblem. Like all the other filler units in the game, he sticks to his schtick. He’s got some decent fighting stats but he’s overall unnecessary to completing the game.

So what makes him special, exactly?

He’s Not Special…

There’s some other information about Owain I didn’t tell you and it’s this – Owain, no matter who his mother Lissa gets married to, is of royal blood.

This is not a shocking statement. His mother is a princess, the younger sister of the main character and eventual king, Chrom. Because of this, he is also a member of the Exalted bloodline, the bloodline around which the story revolves.

Both Chrom and Lucina, (that one child I mentioned earlier who is necessary to complete the game) have character arcs that rely heavily on the fact that they are of Exalted blood. It makes them royal, but it also gives them special story powers – the ability to slay the Big Bad™, Grima.

Lissa’s character also revolves around her Exalted blood. Almost all members of the bloodline get a characteristic birthmark somewhere on their body. On Chrom, it’s on his tastefully exposed shoulder. On Lucina, it’s in her eye. On Emmeryn, Chrom and Lissa’s elder sister, it’s on her forehead. However, Lissa never got hers, and her anxiety over this fact is an important part of her character, and something that is brought up as a point of self-consciousness for her.

Although it’s apparently not unheard of for a member of the Exalted bloodline to never get their brand of the Exalt, for Lissa it means she’s unsure of whether or not she is actually a legitimate royal. For all she knows, she could be a bastard child. The only way for her to know for sure is to hope that one day her descendants inherit the mark.

And thus, lo and behold, enter Owain. If you’re wondering, yes, he does have the mark of the Exalt on his arm, proving definitively that Lissa is actually a member of the royal bloodline. This fact is established early on as one of the reasons Lissa is so close to her son. His very existence proves her legitimacy and puts one of her worst fears to rest.

So that’s cool and all, and it’s definitely one of the reasons why I like Owain so much, but there’s something else about Owain’s blood that makes his character so deep and fascinating.

…Yet Special-ness Flows Through Him

So this Exalted blood, right? It’s a big deal. Like I mentioned before, the two mainest of the main characters have their special main character powers because of this bloodline they belong to. And as the son of the now-proven-legitimate princess Lissa, Owain also shares this blood.

And yet… Owain is not even close to a main character.

He has the blood, he has the brand, but Owain is the only member of this bloodline to not make it into the main cast of characters.

So, think about it. You’re Owain. You’re a prince. You belong to a bloodline of incredible warriors, warriors with the power to slay a giant dragon made of malice and pure evil. Your very existence proves to your mother that she belongs to this bloodline as well.

And yet, you don’t play a main role in the slaying of the Big Bad™ at all.

Don’t you think that would be a little disheartening? To know that your mother, your cousin, and your uncle all played a huge role in the slaying of a legendary beast and the saving of your world because of the very same blood you also possess and yet you aren’t a part of it at all?

Wouldn’t it make you want to be a part of it?

And Thus, Theatrics.

So, taking all this information into account, let’s take a look at Owain’s personality, his schtick, one more time.

He’s overdramatic. He’s a ham. He demands attention. He’s delusional. He pretends to possess a great and unique power, one he can barely control. Well, you don’t have to even wonder where this behavior comes from. As the one member of the exalted bloodline not to play a direct role in the plot of the game, it makes sense why he puts on such a show.

His entire family is composed of legendary heroes, and so Owain pretends to be one.

With this connection, everything about Owain’s character makes perfect sense. Of course he would have a reason to put on theatrics constantly. He has an entire bloodline to live up to. It even works on a more meta game level. Not only in-universe is Owain not a “main character” but he is also literally not a main character in the actual game. His character works both in-universe and out-of-universe and that is cool.

But Wait! There’s More

But of course, Awakening wasn’t the last time we saw Owain. He made another appearance in Fates under the moniker “Odin.” Once more, Owain was not a main character, but he was a normal unit this time, with his own child unit, Ophelia.

I think of the three Awakening kids that got teleported into Fates, Owain got the most interesting character development. While, yes, he’s still the goofy comic relief character from Awakening, there’s a certain maturity to his character that wasn’t there before.

There are two reasons for this slight growth of character. The first one is that Owain, for the first time, is special in regards to the game. He was teleported into this new world for the express purpose of helping them. He and his companions are the only characters with this duty, and while they don’t ultimately end up playing that huge of a role in the plot of Fates, I think the idea is that Owain, for the first time, is a special hero. A hero of time, sacrificing his home and family to help a group of strangers. It’s definitely a reason for him to feel for the first time that his charades might have some actual heroic backup to them.

The second reason is his daughter, Ophelia. Ophelia shares a lot of similarities with her father in that she too has a theatrical personality and likes talking about her secret hidden powers. But unlike her father, Ophelia is not really pretending when she talks about her legendary abilities – she believes in them wholeheartedly.

Where Owain was aware of his normalcy and used theatrics to hide his embarrassment over it, Ophelia only knows her father as a legendary hero, and as an extension, only knows her bloodline as one of magic and heroics. Ophelia is like what Owain would be if he was a main character, or at least was unaware of his relative unimportance as compared to his family members.

So, in that way, their interactions become very fascinating when taking a look at Owain’s character. It does a lot to confirm what I already suspected about his mindset in Awakening. He seems reluctant to crush Ophelia’s dreams, and goes along with her tirades with the same enthusiasm as she, but when it comes to telling her about his actual home, he seems sad and unusually reserved. It really adds a level of depth and growth to his character that I appreciate.

In Summation

Owain is just… a really excellent example of how a side character can be given depth without having to go into too much explicit detail. And that’s why, I think, I can so easily call him my favorite character. I’ve always been attached to side characters, and too often I see them pushed to the side and not given the depth and development they deserve.

And while, yes, I don’t think Owain’s development is probably entirely on purpose by the people behind Fire Emblem, regardless, I believe he stands as a lovely example that side characters can work on multiple levels.

And with that, I leave Owain. For now. But who knows when my analysis hand will twitch again…