Now I’m bound by the life you left behind…
Fun fact: If you’ve listened to Evanescence’s pre-major-label EP Origin, you’ve heard exactly the same studio take for “My Immortal” that you’d heard the first time you listened to Fallen. Against Amy Lee’s wishes, Wind Up Records stuck with that demo recording through the band’s initial album release and the song’s music video; it wasn’t until later, when the song was re-released as a single after Fallen was a hit, that Lee had the clout to insist on a proper re-record.
Let’s let Lee herself kick off our musical analysis, then:
It’s not even a real piano. And the sound quality is bad because we had to break into the studio to record it late at night when no one was around because we couldn’t afford a real session.
OK well wow that’s probably meaner than I’d have started. To be fair, Fallen was re-issued at some point to include the “band version” of the song; thus it might also include a proper take of the non-band version in place of the demo. This re-issue is what Spotify provides, so we might be running half-blind here. (Comparing Lee’s vocals in the “band” version to the original suggests we’re still stuck with the demo, though; there’s definitely a confidence and soaring quality to the vocals in the newer iteration that the former doesn’t ever quite hit, and a noticeable tinniness over every layer of sound.)
Either way, let’s set aside questions of recording quality. “My Immortal” is the first low-tempo ballad on Fallen (one of two), abstaining entirely from the band’s power riffs and backing drums; it’s a nice showcase for how much work Lee’s vocals can carry a song all by themselves. The piano line behind the song is relatively simple, an eight-note riff that finds some flourishes and movements but never threatens to overtake the vocals. There are some strings, too, and they sound… fine. They remind me of the strings that were added to the original release of the Beatles’ Let it Be, mostly in that they’re superfluous and crowd the mix. You can tell it was a song Lee wrote and performed when she was less confident in her vocal range and power. Regardless of performance, it never quite lets her break out like other songs on the album, even as it crescendos in the final third.
Honestly, this and the stripped-down production gives you some insight (if you’re cynical) into why Wind Up might have loved the demo so much; it’s much more the kind of song they might have expected from a moody female vocalist, something they would have seen as more easily packaged and sold within a pre-existing pop-culture paradigm. It’s almost as important as “Bring Me To Life” for the band’s early success, but it’s not particularly representative of what the band can do. And the “band” part of the band version is short, abrupt, and kind of embarrassing; it’s like someone tried to throw a guitar solo into a Beethoven sonata. One and a half unexpected-guitar-interruptions out of five.
Another thing that was bumming me out while re-listening to this song was that it seemed to defy my critical lens. The lyrics fall pretty squarely within “loss of a former loved one” territory, tweaked slightly to fit the goth-y aesthetic (so instead of just being sad, it’s more about being haunted by the loss — i.e. Casper, the Morose Ex-Boyfriend Ghost). Of course, I was being reductive; there are definitely feminist lenses through which to explore grief and loss, especially considering the expectations and burden of carrying on a man’s “legacy”.
I’m reminded of Alexander Hamilton’s wife Eliza, now well known enough by her own right (though only by virtue of her placement in the play Hamilton, principally about her husband), who spent her entire live after Hamilton’s death dutifully burnishing his legacy, fighting back against the Jeffersonian narrative and sublimating herself entirely into deifying a man who notoriously committed adultery and then publicly carped on about it, disgracing his wife and family in order to declare himself innocent of more politically damaging charges.
Beyond that and without the need for dramas like adultery or death-by-duel, cis–het relationships are too frequently bound to this dynamic. Grief isn’t the only emotional hardship to carry, and it’s certainly not as present as the ones that occur while the partner is still alive. Gender essentialism and societal expectations reinforce a sort of stressed-slacker male archetype, a man who works for a paycheck all day and feels that he deserves to be pampered at all off-hours in return, ignoring the equal or greater work performed by a woman who gets no such break and in fact is expected to provide all the pampering.
Making dinner; cleaning the house; getting the kids to school; tracking the calendar for birthdays and anniversaries and other reminders and reinforcements of social bonds; enduring with a smile complaints about a day spent in an office, after a frustrating or hectic or exhausting day of wrangling children and debts and lifestyle maintenance. The vogue term for all of this is emotional labor: Work typically defined as feminine, and therefore essential or natural, and therefore not “real” labor like a paying job or physical labor, but which is labor nonetheless and brings with it the same stress and exhaustion and, in the absence of respite, slow decay of the self.
My first defined encounter with emotional labor came on the website MetaFilter, via a now mildly internet-famous mega-thread in which users shared their experiences and personal nuances when it came to the topic. It is fantastic and you should take some time to read it; I will not be able delve into the details and individual manifestations of emotional labor the way people do in that thread, and such a kaleidoscope of personal details are a really good way to find all the big and little places where your own experience might align more than you’d expect.
A quick sampling of one of the posts from that thread, to get another voice (user MonkeyToes, specifically) articulating the crux of the conversation here:
One more comment on cards, and I’ll leave that super-specific point. I am a woman. I do not give a damn about cards. But because others do, and because “remembering to buy, write, and send cards” has been coded feminine, my husband and various card-recipients assume that I will take care of it. No one expects a card from my husband. Even when the recipients are *his* family friends. The cards aren’t the point; it’s the assumption about who does that work.
The MetaFilter thread itself was premised on a great 2015 post on The Toast (may it rest in peace) about trying to reframe emotional labor as something women should be given credit for, as something that should be treated equitably in relationships already increasingly built on two-income households, the understanding of child-rearing as a job unto itself, and other gender-equal assumptions. It shone a light on the fact that emotional labor is also as simple as men needing women’s attention, and expecting it, again sublimating the woman to their needs and ignoring the work involved in meeting those needs:
Men like to act as if commanding women’s attention is their birthright, their natural due, and they are rarely contradicted. It’s a radical act to refuse them that attention.
What does this have to do with “My Immortal”? Well, let’s go back to the idea of grief and posthumous relationships. Ostensibly, when someone has died, their demands on your time and attention leave with them. But that presupposes that you didn’t ultimately define yourself by way of your treatment of that person, that you didn’t become Eliza Hamilton wearied into papering over your partner’s faults and needs by blanketing yourself upon them. In fact, in some ways, after the loss of the partner is the clearest time to see the damage that expectations of constant emotional labor can wreak: We ask women to become our crutches and crumble their spines in the process.
Just read the lyrics to the chorus and tell me who was doing all the work here:
When you cried, I’d wipe away all of your tears
When you’d scream, I’d fight away all of your fears
And I held your hand through all of these years
But you still have all of me
Sure sounds like a man who can’t handle his shit, yeah? And a woman who spent an entire relationship handling it for him, performing a weird mixture of mother/lover/cypher so frequently romanticized in songs like this (or any other song about relationships).
Confession time: I find myself expecting this sort of behavior in my marriage a lot more than I should, and am worse at cutting it off at the pass than I should be. Specifically it’s that expectation of attention I can struggle with; my wife and I might be in the same room, reading two different things, and I’ll start speaking unasked about the thing I’m reading, leaning into the unspoken assumption that what I’m reading or thinking takes primary value in the room. At best, this is annoying to my wife. At worst, and in general, it’s representative of the kind of individualized rot that forms when you’ve internalized cultural expectations and hierarchies, no matter how well-read or thoughtful you presume to be.
“My Immortal” presents the worst-case, end-game scenario: A woman who’s built her entire life around the emotional labor she provided to her partner, so much so that even after his death she can’t help but perpetuate it and exhaust herself in the continuous attempt to placate a ghost.
She’s just barely aware of how asymmetrical this is, and how one-sided it always was: the last line before the final iteration of the chorus is But though you’re still with me, I’ve been alone all along. That “all along” really gets me, and is just weird if you’re reading this song as a typical (if Edgar Allen Poe-flavored) romance song: it defines the relationship itself as the poison, not the grief at the relationship’s end. The loss of self occurred well before that point (“you still have all of me”).
In fact, this reading works even if you reframe this not as loss but abandonment. What if Alexander had left Eliza in the wake of his adultery and disgrace, not by means of a gunshot wound but instead simply packing up and moving down to, say, rural Virginia to live a life of thoughtful solitude? What if Eliza had persisted even then in deifying this man, because society and the relationship itself had built up that need within her to perform that labor and already to expect from it no return or gratitude?
You’d have the narrator of “My Immortal” then, wouldn’t you: A woman haunted by a specter who sits at a table after a day of the only labor he cares about, expecting the rest to be taken care of. Imagine a woman cooking meals and placing them in front of an empty chair, each evening on the dot, forever.
Male privilege shackles and claims women’s emotions in a prototypical, patriarchal relationship. It extracts this labor constantly, unasked, presumed, and rankles when it’s not received. Emotional labor can simply be a neutral fact of a relationship, something performed by each partner for the other and for the good of the whole, but in this formulation it is a cancer that one person’s ignorance has instilled into the other’s breast. It’s deadly — in this song’s case, even and especially for the person who hasn’t actually died.
I’ll end by saying this to everyone, as a cis-het white male: It is really and always worth attacking your own complacency. Challenge your ignorance, and fear the potential harm caused by your blind blundering. Privilege is intersectional, and it exists upon a gradient; there are always walls at the edges of your field of vision. The denial, dismissal, and reduction of emotional labor is just one lighthouse signal toward this ocean of behavior in which we all swim. Make sure to clear your eyes and take a look, when you can.
Next time: “Haunted” might be my favorite Evanescence song and the most purely Evanescence song that exists. I’ll try to figure out something insightful to say, instead of just gushing about it.