Have you no shame; don’t you see me?
I mean this in the nicest way: the music video to “Everybody’s Fool” is so hilariously on the nose that it is a perfect, center-of-target fit for its intended demographic, i.e. teenagers who think that “the man is selling us lies” is the most novel idea they could possibly have had.
I really do mean that in a nice way. Evanescence’s brand of moody aesthetic works best at the level of melodrama, and the fake advertisements and extremely pointed contrast from fake to real (in lighting and cinematography and gritty no-makeup-hoodie-goth look) would sell that drama really well even if you watched the video on mute.
There’s an argument to make, of course, that the “real” presented in the video is just as fake as the commercials; Evanescence had a brand to push, after all, even if a sort of vague counterculture gothiness was all it really wanted to push. And there’s no denying that a hint of “I’m a real girl, not like those Barbies over there” is imbued both in this video and in some of the broader way Amy Lee was sold to the public in 2003, as a cool girl who can rock out with the boys.
But we’ll get into complicated dichotomies and how people are packaged and sold in a moment — first let’s talk the music! “Everybody’s Fool” introduces a bit of acoustic flavor to the Evanescence soundscape before throwing in the stock fillings of raspy drums and power chords. The choral backing track is honestly a little lame and underproduced; it’s trying to be a bit ethereal and wispy, but just comes off thin.
The structural songwriting here is OK — the riffs are nice and there’s a bit of interesting variation on the way Lee’s singing that lets the song feel a little more sniping and biting than others on the album. A little, but not much — the “without the mask” bridge feels a little weird and too-quiet, and when the song comes crashing back it doesn’t really do so with any more force than it had before it dropped out.
It might be apparent already, but this isn’t my favorite song musically. There’s just not much variation once the song gets going; it’s telling, I think, that the acoustic flavor I mentioned at the beginning drops out after a few seconds and never comes back. It’s like the band couldn’t quite figure out an angle to make this song compelling or unique, but left the half-formed thoughts in place. Lee’s singing is still great, but this song is wobbly; two “I don’t love you anymore”s out of five.
Musically I might not love this song, but the lyrics are another story. Lee spoke of it as being a song about the Aguilera/Spears model of young celebrity singers — who she describes as “really fake, cheesy, slutty female cracker-box idols.” Yikes to that reductive brush, but it’s important to distinguish Lee’s personal thoughts from the lyrics, which contain multitudes and self-reflections she may or may not have seen as she wrote and sung them.
Take the song past that way of thinking about woman celebrity in the early 00’s (and it’s worth noting, not too take words in bad faith, but that kind of positioning — “they’re fake/slutty/silly, not like me” — matches exactly the sort of brand positioning Wind Up Records and Lee’s agents and all others financially invested in Evanescence would have wanted her to take in an interview with MTV) and it’s just a way of thinking about and trying to expose the falsity of presentation, particularly for women in the public eye but also for those who are asked to use those women as standards by which to hold themselves.
The impossibility of female beauty standards is something you can attack in a lot of ways from the point of view of feminist or gender theory. Those standards are relative to context, to observer and observed, to time period and geography and socioeconomic status and orientation and the messy progression of social norms and the complex and contradictory spectrums of gender. How we are seen and how we see is so broad a topic that in this case, we’re just going to pick a single point of reference and stick to it as much as possible, so as to stop me from trying to fit a whole undergraduate syllabus into a single blog post about a single Evanescence song.
To that end, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, published first in 1990, is seminal piece of feminist writing* and a useful central focus for this discussion. Myth works the notion of beauty standards around the language and drives of capitalism and commerce. Women as consumers in the marketplace are transformed into a simultaneous consumer and consumable — actor and object — requiring them to reach for impossible aesthetic standards of acceptability specifically by purchasing the tools that allow them to attempt to do so:
Ideal beauty is ideal because it does not exist; The action lies in the gap between desire and gratification. Women are not perfect beauties without distance. That space, in a consumer culture, is a lucrative one.
In other words, the myth isn’t so much about the beauty standards themselves but the measures by which women are made to cooperate with social norms to achieve those behaviors (Wolf: “The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behaviour and not appearance.”) In this context, “Everybody’s Fool” get its right on with its music video — Amy Lee (the character in the video, but also the person herself) is a packaged commodity just like the pizza, the soda, the nuclear family, and so on, and the commercialization presents those commodities as accessible via consumption or purchase.
There are a lot of reasons this is a useful paradigm, but one of them is that it takes us out of an easier mode of discussing patriarchy in which men are the inherent enemy. The enemy here is consumer culture, not other people; culture itself is a sort of mass manipulation or mirage. I mean “manipulation” directly — one of the key lies of advertising is to pretend that it is not advertising but instead reality, which in this context means:
What editors are obliged to appear to say that men want from women is actually what their advertisers want from women.
So if our paradigm is about consumption and advertising, seducing an audience and being seduced by a fantasy, let’s start at that angle when we turn to the lyrics. Specifically, speaking and being spoken to. Our narrator speaks about an “I”, and speaks directly and accusingly to a “you” (“You don’t know how you’ve betrayed me”). Who’s talking here? Who’s listening?
Let’s try out a few answers and see how they feel, and how they might intersect with the consumer-culture paradigm we’re using:
- She’s talking to another woman. Our narrator is attacking fake women for being fakes. Barbie dolls, blonde bimbos, whatever insulting reductive variation on “pretty airhead” works for you. This seems to best fit with Lee’s own take on her lyrics; while I personally think it’s the least interesting angle, it’s still a progression of the consumer culture notion we talked about above. The narrator here has taken the first step of recognizing the artifice, but she’s misplaced the attack towards women who attempt to resemble that artifice, instead of the structures that perpetuate and sell that artifice as a compelling way to succeed to young women.
- She’s talking to herself. OK, now this is more intriguing! The music video certainly plays into this if you link the protagonist of the video to the narrator — someone who hates themselves for perpetuating the lie. The thing about social norms is that they’re embedded into us by the cultural assimilation we experience simply by our growing up inside that society; even if we recognize the falsity of those norms, we’ve almost always been so exposed to them so continuously that it’s hard to shake them, hard not to fall into assumptions and patterns based on those lies. Body dysmorphia or other forms of self-loathing and struggles with self-care can easily arise from this sort of cognitive dissonance.
- She’s talking to advertisers. We progress now to the concept of a fully self-aware narrator, yelling not at the victims of the system (as in 1 or 2) but at the system itself. I think some of the lyrics play into this nicely (“Have you no shame / don’t you see me”; “More lies about a world that / Never was and never will be”), and certainly this makes her venom easier to accept. From this angle, though, even if we give our narrator all the credit in the world, she’s still falling into a trap by seeming to reach the facile conclusion that her awareness is sufficient to have revealed the social construct on a broader scale (see the progression of meaning behind the phrase “everybody’s fool” up through the final chorus). It doesn’t work this way, of course — we’ve had people like Karl Marx shouting about systems of consumption and exploitation for generations without much impact on the moving train that is capitalism.
The really fun part of this kind of analysis is pointing out that none of these are mutually exclusive, and in fact their simultaneous existence is what makes the song such a nice prism. “Everybody’s Fool” gives us many angles to look at an infinitely complex intersection of gender, consumption, and cultural norms, and how that intersection is experienced top-down and bottom-up, inward and outward.
Let’s do this experiment again, but change the object. Both the music video and song repeatedly reference “the lie”, or “lies” beyond told; a sense of betrayal and revelation (“I know the truth now”) reinforce the narrator’s aggressive, defiant tone. So: what lie has been revealed?
Again, some possibilities:
- Realistic achievement of beauty standards. This is the lie of marketing as fantasy sold to women and perpetuated by women; you portray a mountaintop that cannot be reached and sell ropes to compel people to climb (see Wolf’s line about ideal beauty), and as generations pass, predecessors hand down their ropes to children like family heirlooms. Grandmothers give advice about wearing your hair this way to catch the right man.
- Woman as consumable object. This is more about how women are marketed to men, which is to say, like Barbie dolls — passive items to be collected and used as desired, all the blemishes and inconveniences burnished away.
- Normalizing unrealistic or harmful goals. Wolf emphasizes the ways in which the beauty myth perpetuates societal illnesses like body dysmorphia and eating disorders. And if you believe that an impossible goal must be met, what choice would you imagine that you have other than to destroy yourself, if necessary, to try to reach it? This is the real terror of the beauty myth and of the identity-based myths more broadly perpetuated by consumer culture: they promote cycles of self-annihilation, sacrificing bits of the soul for more inches of rope.
And again, all of these work, especially as conduits to explain the narrator’s anger. She is speaking as a woman in a system that commodifies her, marketed to and packaged at the same time; she sees other women fall prey to that system, likely falls prey to it herself, even despite her clear-eyed recognition of the system. But the beauty myth is not just a fairy tale like Santa that she can drop once she matures beyond it; it’s written into her societal DNA, etched into the foreheads of everyone she sees and who sees her, judges her, objectifies her, tries to package and sell her against her will.
Next time: Hey I wrote just barely under 2,000 words this time! Let’s ramble some more, shall we, this time about “My Immortal,” Fallen‘s second-biggest hit and clearly the #1 break-up anthem of 2003.