A Personal History of Music, Day 8: “Sweet Surrender” by Sarah McLachlan
A quarter of a century ago — so long ago that this site did not even exist — I wrote a long essay entitled “Why I Have a Soft Spot for Sarah McLachlan.” To get right to the spoiler, it was because, in no small way, I identified with her. As I wrote at the time:
We are both about the same age (she’s about a year older than I), and we both toil creatively, she as a musician and I as a writer. What’s more (and this is where I feel the greatest point of connection to her), we both started doing what we do right around the same time — she making music, and I writing humor columns and criticism. In that respect, I’ve seen an arc to her career that I’ve also followed (in a much more obscure and less financially remunerative way). I see where she is on her career path, and I see some parallels to my own.
I’ll include the actual essay as the first comment to this post so you can see it in full.
Looking back on the essay a quarter of a century later, some things strike me about it. The first is that I was, and this is no real surprise, unbelievably arrogant to compare my then-extremely modest career to McLachlan’s in any way. I was not so foolish that I did not take care to larder my comparisons with caveats and qualifications — even in my twenties I knew that comparing myself to a multi-platinum artist at the upswing of her career when I had produced nothing of note was, at best, hubristic — but no matter how you slice it, “Hey, this immensely successful person and I are sort of following the same career arc,” is a pretty nervy statement to make.
(Plus there are other wildly arrogant things in there, unrelated to Ms. McLachlan, among them me at 28 saying “I’m as good a writer as I ever wanted to be.” Oh, child. No. No, you weren’t. You were as good as you could be. There’s a difference.)
The second thing is that I still understand why the me of 1997 wanted to make that connection to McLachlan, and to the path she was taking in her career. To me at the time, it really did seem like she was carving her own determined path to success, more or less on her own terms; perhaps a little fumblingly, but even so. And, you know, that’s what I wanted for myself, too: To make my own way, on my own terms, maybe occasionally making mistakes and misfires, but even so. It helped that her music was right in my zone as well — vaguely alt-y with just enough drama and sincerity that I could see some of myself in there as well.
“Sweet Surrender,” which I offer here as an example, is a very good example of what attracted me musically to McLachlan in the first place: A desire to be loved and wanted and understood, the hope that the person being addressed can provide those things, and might want to — and at the same time some uncertainty that the singer’s desire for these things will interpreted correctly. What’s happening in this song can be confused with passivity, but it’s not that; conscious choices are being made, along with the recognition that not every choice in play here is the singer’s. All to a mellow-yet-hooky groove. Musically, McLachlan was never a shouter, but it didn’t make her less persuasive when telling her stories. She knew her strengths and played to them. Those strengths worked for me.
So, you may reasonably ask, what about now? A quarter of a century on from this song and the essay I wrote about McLachlan, and two decades into a writing and publishing career with its own share of successes, do I still identify with her?
I don’t, but I think it’s been replaced with something maybe more realistic, and better. The parallels between us that I saw at the time were always tenuous at best; she was doing her own thing and I mapped my own progress to hers in a way that highlighted certain facts and elided others. The facts fit because I made them fit, not because they did so naturally. I did it because I admired her creativity and her path, and because she was close enough to me in age and apparent sensibility that I wanted to see myself as her peer.
I wasn’t her peer, twenty-five years ago. I’m not her peer today. I don’t need to be her peer, or to imagine myself as one. I’m at a place in my own life and career where I am content to be what I always actually was: A fan of McLachlan’s, an admirer of how she moved through her professional world, and appreciative of the music she’s made, which is now part of my life. She had, and has, her own path, and I have mine. They intersect in her songs. That’s enough.