I tried to kill the pain, but only brought more… so much more…
The crucifixion was a suicide, wasn’t it?
(content warning: self-harm, suicide, anxiety disorders)
I’m not sure that’s really what Amy Lee is going for with the “Christ! Tourniquet! My suicide!” lyric that ends this song, but you could do worse than reading a broad Christian narrative into the parallel equivalency being set up there. God sacrifices Jesus; God is Jesus; that sacrifice staunches the bloody wound of original sin. Christ, tourniquet, suicide. Neat!
That is, of course, an incredibly simplistic view that takes three details from a very long book and turns it into a whole big thing. System of a Down sort of did the same thing in 2001 within their hit, “Chop Suey,” tagging a line on “self-righteous suicide” ahead of singer Serj Tankian wailing Jesus’s final words. And it’s more than simplistic, really — it’s superficial, and to the extent that “Tourniquet” has anything to do with religion or Christ, it’s at that surface level.
(Side note: This is also true of any religious reading you could do of Evanescence as a band or Fallen as a whole album, which got a lot of play on Xtian-rock radio back upon its release until Lee came out and said how weird that was. Apparently this was partially due to then-guitarist Ben Moody; also the dude on “Bring Me to Life” was in a Christian rock band, for whatever that’s worth. Not much to Lee, as we’ve discussed previously.)
The rest of the lyrics are pretty surface level, too. The song can be summarized as thus: An episode of self-harm leads to more blood than was expected, and in panicky death the speaker begs for survival or at least redemption. You could mold this into any sort of specific angle you wanted, but that sentence is all the clay you’d have to work with.
The music is fairly stock-standard, as is becoming a bit of a trend here on Fallen. I should emphasize here, midway through this essay series, that I don’t find that stock quality bad per se; this is Evanescence’s debut album, so of course you end up with more reinforcement-of-aesthetic than innovation or exploration within the space. I like the chorus guitar riff; I really like Amy Lee’s singing here, which has some cool howl/cry moments but feels a little more pared back, to fit with a song that’s in some ways more conventional than others on the album.
(That’s something else to highlight that’s a broader positive thing about Fallen — I think that by and large the album does a wonderful job of establishing Lee’s voice as the central instrument without ever making that feel like it’s separate from the accompanying goth-metal trappings. She doesn’t do a death metal snarl, she doesn’t intone monotonically, she certainly doesn’t rap or do Jonathan Davis-style scatting, but the production slots her in perfectly with the chugging riffs and double-bass drumlines.)
But the “I LONG TO DIE” screech in the final third of the song is a little goofy, even for this band, and generally this song just has never stuck with me. The outro strings are nice and lead into the next song in way that always tickles my fancy when I’m listening to albums front-to-back (“Hey, this is like Abbey Road!”). I’m out of things to say about the music. Three returns to salvation out of five.
Let’s step back to that surface reading of the lyrics. First, it’s important to differentiate self-harm from attempted suicide. As depicted in the song, whatever’s causing the speaker to bleed out was borne of an attempt to “kill the pain”. Not self-destruction, but actually more of an attempt at self-realization, finding clarity by removing the irritant of, I guess, painfully debilitating chronic depression (also a recurring psychological theme on the album). Frame this more broadly: our speaker attempts to push back against an unacceptable status quo, is harmed incalculably in the process, and now cries out desperately and guiltily (“crimson regret”) for salvation.
Feminism itself is a pushing back against the status quo. It identifies the present moment in terms of its unacceptable, ingrained hierarchies and finds ways, both creative and destructive (I use those terms as value-neutral; sometimes you need to break down systems, sometimes you need to fix them up), to call out and deconstruct those hierarchies. In terms of its framework it does not differ from any sociopolitical movement.
In terms of its history, cultural acceptance, and the tumult within its advocates and advocacy groups, it indeed aligns well with the Civil Rights Era, the socialist/communist uprisings that have happened across the centuries, abolitionism, and so on. The crucial difference between each of these is in the contextual details: namely, which parts of the oppressive structure are targeted, and what solutions are proposed to do so.
Patriarchy is one name for the power structure in America, but white supremacy and racial oppression are appropriate names, too, and so too are words like bourgeoisie and other things you’d find in a textbook on Marx. These all exist simultaneously, refract and inform each other, but the groups that fight them tend to do so based on personal identification or relationship to the ivory tower’s silhouette, so to speak. Feminism works against patriarchy; civil rights activists fought segregation.
What, then, happens when these two things can or should be part of the same conversation? Second-wave feminism and many American feminist movements have struggled with the power differential between white and black women, setting aside even the structure of patriarchy itself (read bell hooks’s ain’t I a woman? or, for a recent and very reductive version of how this dynamic can play out, this NYT op-ed). Feminism as an organizational movement has been credibly accused of minimizing, ignoring, or sidestepping the effects of other power structures; that accusation could be just as credibly lodged in the other direction.
In 2018 the messiness of this arrangement has perhaps never been clearer. Twitter hashtags position much of the left as a collective #resistance, but groups clustered and self-identified by their oppression function side-by-side with very different definitions of that oppression, both its source and effect on them and those around them.
I am not interested in arguments that this has led to “mob rule”; that’s stupid, honestly, and the sort of thing you can only say at a 400-mile distance from the words and reactions on the ground. What’s happening instead is the sort of apparent-but-not-really chaos you get when activist groups with same-sounding but different agendas find ways to turn up the volume on their respective sound systems. Feminists can be called out (often rightfully, when it happens) for forgetting black people, or being TERFs; men discussing economic disparities get called out (often rightfully!) as ignoring systemic racism or other factors.
Basically, we live in the social-discussion equivalent of taking the three networks and exploding them into a thousand cable channels, and then into a million million YouTube channels, except the channels are all still playing at the same time. Context is so fraught now because you are constantly abutting someone else’s niche, and in spheres of social groups and minority representation and social justice, that proximity can resemble invasion, especially if you’re thoughtless about it.
Back to TERFs: If you haven’t heard that term before, it means trans-exclusionary radical feminism, and (I’m going to be very simplistic here, so bear with me) refers to a subset of feminist thought that holds that trans women are just men dressing up as women, unable to properly identify with the experience of “actually being” a woman. This is frankly a horrid viewpoint to hold, to my mind, and in fact I imagine most people credibly accused of being TERFs would say it’s horrid, too, and then find a different way to phrase the same thing. In this context, some feminists see the world of trans activism and declare it “other,” tangential to its purposes and power structures.
That declaration of in-group/out-group is essential to social group formation, and it’s unsurprising to see it play out in such a fraught way in spheres like Twitter where a small window to capture attention can demand declarations of authenticity and clear ideology. (These conversations used to just happen in liberal academia, where as I understand it they were no less messy or fraught but did at least come with much longer lists of works cited at the end. Much love to academics.)
But words spoken by a TERF (or someone declared to be a TERF) can hurt, even severely, those who are so marginalized as to see the out-grouping as reification of their social exclusion. The actual inflicting of pain is unintentional, or incidental (or maybe I’m just presuming too much good faith); it is hard-to-nigh-impossible to maintain a careful and delicate understanding of all contextual paths at once in our current social climate, and an innocuous statement can rupture a whole community in ways you couldn’t have imagined were you not, ahead of time, ingrained enough in that community to be able to speak and listen in their linguistic framework.
So this has been a lot of academic puffery to come around to this: What do you do in that moment, when you’ve said something shitty and inadvertently been a racist/sexist/bigot, and you’re self-aware enough to realize your mistake?
“Tourniquet” is a song about someone whose anguish comes from her understanding that she cannot put the genie back in the bottle; that once severed, the vein will bleed out until intervention beyond her control arrives.
If the speaker is the Tweeter now accused of being a TERF, her response is to suffer the consequences a bit melodramatically, yes, but also without denying her complicity. (Incidentally, I like this reading a lot better than having to dig into how problematic it is to prop up an act of self-harm as the “fault” of that person.) Here the line “crimson regret, and betrayal” is interesting: the betrayal is a betrayal of one’s ideology, in a world where you assume that your feminist/abolitionist/social-justice credentials form in your mind a sort of “first, do no harm” moral compass.
And the speaker never answers her own questions, i.e. “Am I too lost to be saved?” This is in stark contrast to, say, the bad allies we discussed earlier in this series, men like Jian Ghomeshi who presume to reframe and thus minimize their violations.
No, the speaker of “Tourniquet” surrenders to the will of those she has harmed–even sees the harm as to herself, sharing her own sense of in-group identification with those who bleed. (Yes, I know this sort of distorts the fact that the song’s about self-harm.) Under this reading we can see this as a sort of basic, if melodramatic, portrayal of what we’d expect from someone operating in good faith across intersectional lines: total ownership of the harm caused and a plea, prostrate, for forgiveness (response to which plea is not assumed or taken for granted).
Basically: sometimes, no matter how woke or careful you are, you screw up and realize that you weren’t listening before you spoke. When that happens, what can you do except accept responsibility, apologize, and let others speak for a moment? It’s a big room, with many voices. We must be generous if we want to ensure that everyone is heard.
(Coda: My discussion of TERFs here is hilariously inadequate and ill-informed. If you want a more complex take on it, alongside many other issues within and around feminism and the trans community and the alt-right distortion field around these conversations, plus many other things, you should really find the voices of those for whom those issues are more immediate. For one, I’d recommend ContraPoints for some very thought-provoking — but also fun! — dives into this stuff.)
Next time: I heard “paper flowers” as “they burn flowers” for so long when I first listened to “Imaginary”; instead of writing a whole essay about similarly idiotic mishearings of simple lyrics, I’ll point you here and move on to discuss safe spaces and trigger warnings and snowflakes, oh my.