This summer my wife and I joined our ten-year-old daughter for our first Ingrid Michaelson concert. Ingrid (it feels so impersonal and stuffy to call her “Michaelson”) is a singer-songwriter in the indie-pop mode. Most of the fans at the concert were several decades younger than my wife and I, and some friends have assumed that we attended just for our daughter’s sake. But the fact is, all three Josephs at the House of Blues that night are big Ingrid fans. Her songs are exquisitely crafted, emotionally compelling, and beautifully performed. I really think she will ultimately go down as one of the great American singer-songwriters.
At one level, of course, Ingrid might be dismissed as a creator of mere “girlsong”. She offers much standard fare about female heartbreak and romantic dreaminess. Her poor heart is constantly getting broken, shattered, sliced, diced, and canned. But something more is always available here. Her songs reach imaginative depths suddenly and stunningly, before one has even realized what is happening. When I first heard Far Away I found it so evocative that I felt sure this was some old classic tune she had pulled from the vault: “I will live my life/As a lobsterman’s wife/On an island in the blue bay/He will take care of me/He will smell like the sea/And close to my heart he’ll always stay.” If this is girlsong, these are deep songs for girls–an introduction to the longterm meaning of human relationships and life itself.
And for all her focus on the female perspective, these songs evoke a world in which men and women are emotionally and even existentially identical. The seamlessly beautiful Breakable repeats the truth: “We are so fragile/Our cracking bones make noise/We are just breakable, breakable, breakable girls and boys.” In this world, indeed, men and women are so alike that it doesn’t really matter what you call them. So Ingrid ignores the feminists’ “inclusive language” and instead freely uses masculine nouns to represent both genders. Men of Snow begins plausibly enough as a story of a snowman who melts away, but quickly becomes as an affirmation of human mortality for both sexes: “One day you’ll know/We’re men of snow.” The searing Turn To Stone also affirms human limits (“our souls are all we own”) and uses traditional masculine language for a traditional (Judeo-Christian) point: “Brother, how we must atone/Before we turn to stone.”
Most recently, Ingrid’s anthem Blood Brothers practically flaunts her masculine vocabulary. “We’re all the same/under a different name/We’re all blood brothers.” The music video to the song depicts Ingrid being made up as a succession of iconic celebrities, both male and female, from John Lennon to Marilyn Monroe.
I would not go so far as to suggest, as the video does, that gender is malleable, and that it does not matter. Men and women differ fundamentally and irrevocably–not just in how they look, but in how they think and feel, and in what they need to lead fruitful lives in society. Many problems in relations between the sexes begin with a failure to recognize such differences. But our common nature is equally fundamental: men and women are both fragile, both mortal, both needing to atone for their wrongs before they die. If we ever forget such truths–and my guess is, we probably will within the next 24 hours–Ingrid has given us some beautiful music to remind us.
Meanwhile, I feel a firm kinship with Ingrid Michaelson on account of the high quality of her songs. You could say we’re blood brothers. I wouldn’t stop you if you did.