"Pretending" / Michael Penn
And here's the scary thing: These people are married to each other.
Rabbit hole exegesis: I just wrote about Aimee's version of Harry Nilsson's heartbreaker "One" and somehow that led me to binge-listen to her soul-shivering "Save Me" from the 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia. Not exactly an upbeat tune, this; in fact, I have it on my iPod in a playlist called "Moody," which is a euphemism for "totally depressive: handle with care."
The title reminds me of Fontella Bass's classic "Rescue Me" -- all appetite and sassy demands -- but "Save Me" is an entirely different sort of song. It's not about physical desire so much as the head games we ladies play with ourselves, way too often. Against that loungy-yet-ominous tempo, it starts oh-so innocuously -- "You look like a perfect fit." But against that downward-loping chord sequence, how swiftly she re-adjusts this, typing herself as "The girl in need of a tourniquet."
And then the chorus cycles in, diving to the crux of the matter. "Can you save me / Come on and / Save me. / If you could save me / From the ranks / Of the freaks / Who suspect / They could never love anyone." A-HA! There we are. Raise your hand if you have EVER counted yourself in that not-so-exclusive club. Every time that chorus repeats, I feel tagged.
Note that she doesn't say the expected "freaks who suspect they will never be loved." Sure, there are legions of those, too. But those "who will never love anyone"? That's an even sadder and lonelier bunch, trapped between their own inadequacy and their crippling consciousness of it. And in a later verse, as she references sufragettes ("the long farewell of the hunger strike"), we find ourselves clinging to our split desire to be independent and yet beloved.
As the bridge puts it, "You struck me down / Like radium [Marie Curie alert for us smart girls!] / Like Peter Pan / or Superman / You will come...." We've all been programmed to believe in heroes who will swoop in and save us. How hard it is to give up that faith. But here we are, still hoping....
From Penn's 2005 album Mr. Hollywood Jr., this winsome track puts the hunt for love into a different context: It's a quest for affirmation that never stops. In halting rhythms he announces: "Let's say that was then / Here we go again / All our friends are filling the room, / It's like a play / And the words that I'll say are not for you." Even after these two misfits have found each other, the wearying need to affirm each other never stops.
And does it work? Penn's chorus is sadly pessimistic: "It's on a happy ending / But baby, I'm pretending." He HAS to be honest with her; he's a decent guy, after all. And I sense that he does love here, as much as he is capable of loving anyone. But there's the rub: the only kind of guy she could be happy is also exactly the kind of guy who can't make anyone really happy. He thinks too much, he feels too much, he's unable to live in the moment. And he is brutally honest -- an absolute prerequisite from her standpoint, and yet the fatal flaw in the whole set-up.
The delicate acoustic setting of this song underlies how fragile this state of mind is, a structure of diminished and suspended chords, sung in Penn's sweet yet underemotive tenor. "Baby, I'm pretending / Even though I know better / But I can't refuse 'cause, / Although on a ruse / You've come to me depending, / Baby, I'm pretending..." He genuinely wants to be there for her, he knows how much she needs him, but he's hyper-aware of his own weakness.
This song is such a gut punch. He knows she needs him to provide "anything sure that's attached and secure," "a lifeline," "something to show / That I really do know." And -- Lord, he wishes it weren't so -- that's exactly what he cannot provide.
Music for Grown-Ups, indeed. And sometimes I wish I weren't a grown-up.