Thursday, February 27, 2014


"Lucy At the Gym" / Jill Sobule

Because we don't have enough songs about eating disorders. In fact, I can't think of any other songs about eating disorders -- but leave it to Jill to know how much we needed one.

I was so happy to find this video, telling the song's story in Sims animation. We see our singer arrive at the gym -- where, she's quick to tell us, "I don't go that often,." Her slightly shlumpy build bears witness to that fact. (The real Jill Sobule, of course, is petite and elfin, not shlumpy at all.) That remark quickly establishes her as one of us, who always intend to go the gym and never do.

Ah, but Lucy?  Lucy's always there. Already we see that her animated character is thinner than the singer's, as she trudges dutifully on the treadmill. "I stare at her ribs," Jill tells us in a sort of horrified fascination, "they show through the spandex." She observes Lucy's obsessive behaviors -- "Lucy on the scale for the third time" and "She's staring at the clock / And like the second hand she never stops."

Notice how the melodic line doesn't quite resolve, the chromatic intervals rambling around, making no progress. With deadpan irony, Jill notes that Lucy on the treadmill is "going somewhere"; after she switches to a Stairmaster, "She's climbing the stairs / And when she reaches the top" -- which of course one never does on a Stairmaster.  We see her "little legs working," we are told that she's in the gym "through thick and thin," "little" and "thin" suddenly becoming loaded words.

Ah, that poignant bridge, picturing Lucy in the shower -- obsessively soaping her bony limbs no doubt -- and then going home alone. There's a yawning emptiness to that passage, as there is to her life, and all the exercise in the world isn't going to fill it.

That wistful motif on the recorder reminds me of a 60s song, "Come Saturday Morning," the theme song from Liza Minnelli's first big movie role The Sterile Cuckoo. (It was sung by the Sandpipers, with Dory Previn lyrics and music by Fred Karlin, who also wrote the Carpenters' "For All We Know".)  It's an eccentric little film about a friendless college student who has a nervous breakdown -- a pretty apt musical allusion, I'd say.

The real kicker is verse three, the inevitable day when Jill makes it to the gym and Lucy's not there. "It's got me kinda worried / So I imagine the worst," Jill tells us in her tremulous girlish voice. Remember, she doesn't even know this girl, she's only watched her from afar -- but something about Lucy's compulsive behavior has gotten under her skin.

And then, to cheer herself up, she pictures Lucy in heaven, a gleaming gym where "Everyone is beautiful and thin / And here there's no sin " (psychologists have written reams about how anorexics confuse body image and sin, but Jill and her co-writer Robin Eaton do it so deftly). And with the ultimate irony, God adds "And your life can begin."  Anorexics are always postponing life, just until I lose the next few poundsBut sometimes they die first. 

A powerful cautionary tale, right? But scrolling through the comments on YouTube for this video, I read one that says: "I listen to this everyday. It reminds me it's worth it. I hope I reach the top." The Lucys of this world are so skewed, they can't even see that Lucy's plight is meant to be a tragedy. My heart aches for them.

45 DOWN, 7 TO GO


NickS said...

But scrolling through the comments on YouTube for this video, I read one that says: "I listen to this everyday. It reminds me it's worth it. I hope I reach the top."

I remember reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky and him talking about the challenges posed to people running online fora by the "pro-ana" (anorexia) communities. His general feeling is that the most successful online sites are ones in which there's a natural community of users who police and support each other, rather than having a moderator who controls everything. But he talks about some magazine targeted at teen girls trying setting up lightly-moderated chat areas and then being appalled to realize that there was a segment of users who were sharing advice about how to maintain eating disorders. I don't remember how that ended, but it was a striking story.

I do like the song, and I think it gets a lot of mileage out of the image of people on treadmills or stair-masters running but not going anywhere.

Two small quibbles that occur to me. First, the line, "She's there I go / And I don't go that often / So she must live at the gym." doesn't really make logical sense. If Jill isn't there often, then she can't actually infer much about how often Lucy is there (and, yes, she adds more supporting evidence of Lucy's obsessiveness in later verses, but I thought that was a bit of a funny line.

Secondly, I observe that the two Jill Sobule songs you've posted are both about women falling apart and/or destroying themselves. It's just coincidence, but it is interesting to juxtapose Lucy and
Joey in that way.

Wild Hare Club said...

I read this and thought it strange that neither could I think of any songs about eating disorders given their prevalence in our rather screwed up society. So I googled and came up with this article from The Guardian

Worth a read I think.

Hope all's good with you, Richard