Bradley Copper | 15 May 2017
The patriarchal trope of using a woman in order to explain some woeful truth about a man is of course a damagingly old one. This sexist setup, in which women are one-dimensionally portrayed so as to help a speaker come to some conclusion about himself or his world, while never honouring their experience, is a genric cornerstone that remains in so much literature to the present day. American rock band Counting Crows adopt a version of this trope in constructing femaleness or womanness—the songs are predictably not definitionally specific on this point—as a signifier of clarity. The band’s frontman and lyricist Adam Duritz imagines the women characters in his songs as being able to speak directly about their emotions in a way that he as a man cannot.
This is all put straightforwardly in ‘I Wish I Was a Girl’, from their 1999 album This Desert Life:
I wish I was a girl so that you could believe me,
and I could shake this static every time I try to sleep.
I wish for all the world that I could say
“hey, Elisabeth, you know I’m doing alright these days.”
In this song’s chorus, “girl[ness]” is a way of “shak[ing] this static” and achieving a calmness of self to sleep; it becomes a way of communicating with Elisabeth, an ex-girlfriend listeners know from ‘Goodnight Elisabeth’. What Duritz wants to say is quotidian and simple: he’s “alright” after their break up. But for some reason he needs to forsake his manness in order gain the clarity to express even this simple sentiment.
Duritz’s use of this sort of metaphor goes back to the opening track of Counting Crows’ first album: ‘Round Here’ (1993). This song is about “Maria”, a recurring character in Duritz’s songs who even has her own Wikipedia page; she is a blatant metaphor for Duritz’s mental illness—indeed, Duritz is often open about his dissociative disorder (‘The Lonely Disease’). It is thus difficult not to link his representation of women and their supposed clarity to the condition. Maria “knows she’s more than just a little misunderstood” (my italics), suggesting of this communicative clarity, and her being “close to understanding Jesus” is a symbol of numinous understanding if ever there was one. A few tracks later on ‘Anna Begins’, the titular Anna mumbles in her sleep, “every word [being] nonsense but [Duritz] understand[ing it]” (my italics). Anna’s words do not need to be comprehensible; it is simply enough for Duritz to hear them to understand the accurate transmission of her emotions. In other words, her womanness is what seems to allow this sort of expressiveness.
‘Walkaways’, the final song from the band’s follow up album, Recovering the Satellites (1996), is a one-minute acoustic number that juxtaposes the heavier, guitar-driven instrumentation of the preceding thirteen songs. It is also written entirely in the words of an unnamed “she”:
“I gotta rush away,” she said, “I’ve been to Boston before.
And anyway, this change I’ve been feeling doesn’t make the rain fall.
Well no big differences these days, just the same old walkways.
Someday, I’m gonna stay, but not today.
There is a clarity of purpose in the unnamed woman’s story. Duritz declares on the album’s second track “I leave today, I’m gone” (‘Angels of the Silences’), the same sentiment as this woman; but the album hardly tells the story of somebody who has ‘moved on’ as Duritz indicates. A few tracks later, the aforementioned ‘Goodnight Elisabeth’ sees him admitting to “w[aking] up in pieces and Elisabeth had disappeared again”, the two events’ casual link implied. On ‘A Long December’, the track preceding ‘Walkaways’, Duritz equally spends “one more day up in the canyons / and it’s one more night in Hollywood”, his repetition suggesting of the stasis in which he remains. Admittedly, the woman from ‘Walkaways’ is of course never given the chance to develop, to see if her declaration comes to fruition. But to portray a nuanced character is of course not what the song is interested in. Rather, after a failed attempt at his own clarity throughout the album, Duritz must adopt a woman’s voice in order to reassert his moving on from “the same old walkaways”.
This reading might serve to enlighten some of the band’s later work. The opening track of 2014’s Somewhere Under Wonderland, ‘Palisades Park’, tells the story of a character referred to as both “he” and “she”. Similarly, on 2002’s Hard Candy, Duritz describes his reaction to missing a woman, “going through [his] closets, tryin’ on her clothes almost every day” (‘American Girls’). All in all, Duritz’s use of ‘womanness’ and his charging it with clarity is central to understanding how he imagines the relationship between his own mental illness and his ability to express himself in his songs.
Bradley graduated from the University of York in 2015 and is currently studying an MSc in United States Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He is particularly interested in the ‘American Epic’. Bradley is from Romford, Essex, and in his free time enjoys politics, video games, and cooking.
Edited by Margaret Graton and Charlotte Kessler. The author also wishes to express thanks to Laura Brook for her insightful comments on gender and terminology in this piece.
Counting Crows. August and Everything After. Geffen, 1993.
———. This Desert Life. Geffen, 1996.
———. Hard Candy. Geffen, 2002.
———. Recovering the Satellites. Geffen, 1996.
———. Somewhere Under Wonderland. Capitol, 2014.
‘The Lonely Disease.’ Men’s Health, 17 April 2008. menshealth.com.