David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 181: Erin McKeown (You Were Right About Everything)

September 12, 2022

At some point in the last decade, my sister gave me Erin McKeown's 2005 CD "We Will Become Like Birds" as a Christmas present. As usual, Lisa was spot on in finding something that would speak to me: crisp musicianship, bits of quirkiness, and thoughtful, articulate lyrics. The bird metaphor of the title permeates several songs, which also often focus on the recurring theme of pop music: broken relationships. That all culminates in wonderful ways with the CD's finale, "You Were Right About Everything," a lovely message to someone, probably lover, but not necessarily, admitting McKeown's (or the narrator's) own shortcomings while confessing the other was right about everything, as she she finishes the song "humble on my knees" ready to "come back to life/come back to everything."

Early in the song was a quartet that immediately struck me as the embodiment of her clever song-writing:

"I was fragile, too scared and delicate/

You kept trying, I was the one who quit/

Worn out by the baggage that we bring/

You were right about everything."

There was something about the fluid duality of the lines above that really struck my love of wordplay. Who was the one "worn out by the baggage we bring?" The grammatical construction of the lines (with the creative license of no punctuation) could mean the person who quit was worn out; or that the person who bravely plowed forward was worn out. Those kinds of guessing games make hearing songs over and over always feel somewhat new. Ultimately, I gain much satisfaction knowing that she could say something so simply about the complexity of human relationships.

However, can I say that she says something? Upon researching McKeown, one quickly gets thrown off by pronoun usage. I have to admit up front that I have never been a big fan of "these are my pronouns" (and in fact once had a fit of rage that a long, complicated form for serving with the Higher Learning Commission was being hung up by the fact that I hadn't chosen my preferred pronoun); however, I am generally willing to accept when an apparent man prefers she/her or an apparent woman prefers he/him. (I know I am still showing stubborn acceptance of things beyond appearances. As Nathan Detroit sang, "Call a lawyer and sue me.")

For McKeown, though, if you go to her Wikipedia page, you will see all references are to "they." The first time I went there I thought maybe I had completely missed that "Erin McKeown" was a band, much like Molly Hatchett or Franz Ferdinand.  However, that is clearly not the case and thus the English teacher in me is dying when the first line of the section on McKeown's career goes "they grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia,[2] and now lives in Massachusetts." 

Clearly this is what McKeown prefers, because if you go to her website, the same use of "they" is all over the website. Her home page's main banner says:

Erin McKeown is a musician, writer, and producer known internationally for their prolific disregard of stylistic boundaries.

And apparently prolific disregard for pronoun/verb agreement.

Deeper into the bio found on the About page, we are told that "their singing voice is truly unique —clear, cool, and collected." Fingernails down the chalkboard. Ugh! I hate to tell you, Erin, but I no longer believe you are right about everything!

Nevertheless, despite my "get off my lawn" grouchy old man attitude, I go back to that quatrain I love so much. What if that is capturing her duality (or her multiplicity)? (Sorry, Erin, I can't quite make myself write "their duality.") The second stanza also carries this idea: "I was raised you get out before you sink/you were brave about everything." The one side of her fragile, timid, scared -- the trope of femininity for much of recorded history. The other side confident, always pushing -- the reward for masculinity over the same scope of history. If so, it's a fascinating premise, implying that the masculine was right.  Hmm? All of a sudden, that feels like a hard stop.

Of course, the title might be "You Were Right About Everything," but that final line is "come back to life/come back to everything," the merging of her two halves.

It's all bloody fascinating, ain't it?  But, the grammatical inconsistency of "they" and singular verbs or nouns rankles me. Why can't I get past that? Language is meant to be fluid, apparently like our identities, and change with time. Hell, in this final paragraph I broke two (at least) of the "chiseled-in-stone rules of English" that I de-mythologized on the first day of a Composition I class. I can live with them. Why can't I live with they?

McKeown, Erin. "You Were Right About Everything." We Will Become Like Birds. Nettwerk Records, 2005. Link here.

Day 180: Bobby Darin "Mack The Knife"

Day 182: Tears For Fears "Everybody Wants To Rule The World"

See complete list here.