Woke Me Up Inside – 7. IMAGINARY, aka In Defense of Safe Spaces

“I really hope that bird doesn’t poop on me”

(I lied! Here’s the next essay after all! You’re welcome!)

Where the raindrops as they’re falling tell a story…

Every time I hear “Imaginary” I get a little confused, because it’s never the version of the song I’m expecting to hear.

(content warning: discussion of triggers and psychological harm)

This is part of a series on Evanescence and feminism; you can read the introduction, and use the wokemeupinside category to find the whole series so far.

“Imaginary” showed up on Evanescence’s pre-major-label demo album Origin. The backbone of the song is essentially intact there, with some of the instrumentation switched up and the lyrics intact with a couple crucial differences (more on that in a second). It’s a pretty staid song in that first permutation, relying on the atmospheric-goth tricks that run through that entire album (it is a demo, after all, and a band still trying to figure out what’s any different about what they’re up to).

Fallen‘s version, by contrast, is pretty interesting for a song coming so late on the album, after we’ve passed the big hits. It’s the first rock-heavy song (so, not “My Immortal”) that has non-guitar instruments taking the key riffs, with the big string opening and the piano that winds rhythmically around the percussion in the verses. Plenty of guitar shows up throughout the song, but it’s more for flavor here than elsewhere.

Amy Lee’s voice also has a bit of a rhythmic/percussive vibe here, particularly in the chorus where it bellows into drum crashes and works to reinforce the song’s pacing. In some ways this is a quieter song than others on the album, but really it’s just a good example of how you don’t need to layer up a wall of guitars to make a song that feels appropriate on a rock album. I like this song and am definitely not running out of ways to describe Evanescence songs! Three and a half origami flowers out of five.

The real reason I brought up the Origin version of this song is that the lyrics changed in a pretty significant way from that demo to what appears on this major-label debut. In both versions, most of the lyrics are simply describing an explicitly unreal dream world into which the speaker can escape. These lyrics aren’t terribly inspiring or original as far as this sort of concept goes, though “candy clouds of lullaby” is a neatly weird turn of phrase.

In the original, the only real reference to the outside world is the “swallowed up in the sound of my screaming” that gets moved to much later in the song on Fallen; otherwise and more emphatically, the song is all about the escapism, including the beckoning of a partner to join her:

If you need to leave the world you live in
Lay your head down and stay a while
Though you may not remember dreaming
Something waits for you to breathe again

This stanza doesn’t appear at all in the Fallen version; instead, we get this, a very different address to an outsider:

Don’t say I’m out of touch
With this rampant chaos your reality
I know well what lies beyond my sleeping refuge
The nightmare I built my own world to escape

This is a great line and critical addition to the song. The speaker might be dancing around in paper fields and conjuring fantasies, but she is doing so fully aware of the world being escaped. She’s defiant to anyone who would claim she’s delusional, because even if her world is a delusion, it was built in response to a known and terrifying reality. She experienced reality, experiences it in the waking life constantly, and has decided (angrily, perhaps reluctantly, but willingly) to seek an alternative in dreams.

Living in the world of “nightmares” and “screaming monsters” without refuge is unacceptable; so what if the shelter is a construction, as long as it provides the intended break from the storm?

Let’s keep that in mind as we start discussing safe spaces.

“Safe spaces” are often discussed more in a broad academic concept than a specifically feminist one, but those things are all hopelessly tangled in modern discourse, and the kinds of spaces and the people seeking them usually fall into the “feminist” chunk of any Venn diagram. But the term really originates from gay and lesbian bars from the 1960s. You might think that the safety described in that case was physical more than psychological, but in fact:

Gay bars were not “safe” in the sense of being free from risk, nor were they “safe” as in reserved. A safe place was where people could find practical resistance to political and social repression.

The term, and this safe-space-to-discuss-resistance context, shifted over to feminist movements over the next decade. It was more about building communities of practice around activism and minority representation; again, the “safety” here is more about providing a context in which voices can be properly heard. (Having just re-watched it, I think suddenly of the extraordinary Nanette and Hannah Gadsby’s refrain, “I must tell my story properly…”)

By the 2000s, the term had lodged firmly in academic spaces; eventually, it was picked up under the same reductive paradigm by which mainstream pundits and general idiots think of “rape culture” as meaning a thing where every man is a serial rapist awaiting trial and conviction.

Honestly, I don’t recall seeing (or particularly noticing, if I saw) any “safe space” designations or trigger warnings in my time in academia, and as a holder of a Master in Fine Arts and multiple liberal arts degrees, I would have thought I was most prone to exposure. I probably didn’t notice them because they weren’t for me. A cishet white male with no strong experience of harassment, violation, or silencing isn’t going to pick up on or find significance in trigger warnings for those experiences because he hasn’t experienced them.

This is the kernel missed by so many who deride safe spaces and content warnings: those warnings exist for people who need them. The notion of a “trigger” is psychological; it’s literally referring to potential catalysts for re-traumatization. A rape victim might appreciate a content warning about rape because encountering that content unexpectedly can conjure a haunting, horrifying physiological remembrance; likewise violence, the loss of a child, the savagery of war zones, and so on.

(You might argue that kids in undergraduate programs haven’t experienced enough to need that sort of shelter, and of course you’d be wrong and either projecting from your own boring, safe childhood or simply refusing to engage in basic practices of empathy. Sexual assault on college campuses is both rampant and under-reported. Children of all ages, colors, and shapes experience bullying, peer pressure, abuse from adults or authority figures, and other forms of abuse that can easily slip into lifelong trauma.)

Academic liberal arts are, ideally, a space for conversations about all sorts of experiences shared and novel, and a place where anyone feels comfortable contributing to those conversations. Content warnings serve the purpose of letting people engage at their comfort level, not because they’re delicate or oversensitive but because academia is NOT REAL LIFE and people who experience real-life trauma shouldn’t be forced to re-litigate or re-experience it on someone else’s terms just for the sake of a literature degree.

I’m not sure many conversations upset or frustrate me more than this one. I think it’s because I am and will always be an academic at heart, writing like I’m trying to please a professor and structuring paragraphs like I’m hitting bullet points on a thesis outline. The “safety” of a space where our psychological demons are set at bay is exactly the place where the most interesting, the most nuanced, the most dangerous conversations happen.

seriously just watch Nanette

(Again I return to Nanette and Gadsby’s destruction of the notion of art as the result of suffering. Idiots and assholes think this. Art is the result of connection, to other humans and to one’s own humanity. Art — the only worthwhile art, anyway — is empathy, and the sharing of such is the only reason why we could ever recognize art as art.)

This is what a smart moron like Richard Dawkins (brilliant in his field, and a total dunce otherwise) misses when he whines about people needing to get their blankies and suck their thumbs. He’s being the sensitive one here; he’s the fragile snowflake, unwilling to allow the intrusion of other thoughts and perspectives into his worldview.

Because that’s all a safe space is: A space where everyone can look at each other, say “I see you, and I’m listening”, and let that be the place from which we begin a conversation. Doesn’t that sound nice? Isn’t that a fair bit nicer than the actual world we have to experience, where everyone storms in yelling and won’t stop until the heat death of the universe envelops us all?

The speaker’s defiance in “Imaginary” is the most compelling part of the dream to me. “Don’t say I’m out of touch,” she says — how dare someone suggest that finding happiness within is an unreasonable, silly, delusional, or childish reaction to a world of unrelenting horror. Find your cat videos, your poems about flowers, your famous wide-smiling dogs of Instagram and nestle into them as much as you need to avoid being traumatized again, and again, and again by a world that seems determined not to give a shit about anyone being trampled underfoot.

And when you do want to engage, to promote and protest and perform identity and activism, absolutely do so heeding the spaces and warnings you need, because we should be devastated that real life otherwise so rarely provides such pedestrian pathways and street signs. Humanity should consider it a monumental failure that so many people must step terrified past their fellow species, must say or do only certain things lest horrors arise once more.

It is a failure. That liberal academia is trying to find a way to build shelters from that failure, regardless of the complications and confusions when trying to do so for so many people with so many different traumas, is simply miraculous. The alternative is to be stressed, angry, and strained at all times, like a Fox News pundit, or your shitty uncle on Facebook. I’ll take my paper flowers and purple sky and survive like a functional adult, thank you very much.

Next Time: We discuss “Taking Over Me” and take this safety thing a step further with some self-love.

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