UCLA Seminar: The Music of Rufus Wainwright #1

January 19, 2006

[Background: I am teaching an undergraduate 1 unit Freshman seminar at UCLA on “The Music of Rufus Wainwright.” The students are mostly Freshman, and are not music majors. I will post my somewhat scattered recollection of the class, and hope that the participants will post comments to correct, clarify and amplify their thoughts. Others are invited to post their comments as well. I have posted responses to the online seminar from the rw.com bulletin board.]

The UCLA Rufus Wainwright Seminar

The first session of the seminar met today and was marvelous. The topic was “Family:” LITTLE SISTER, BEAUTY MARK, and DINNER AT EIGHT were discussed. We focused mostly on the texts.


“I’m Mozart and I’m mean and have an upper hand with my sister who I tell she’s going to need more than just her musicality to get by. I know everyone is going to think the song is about Martha (his sister who often accompanies him on record and live shows), but I have three sisters, and it’s beyond just sisters it’s really about all women entertainers.” *

There were different views on Rufus’s attitude towards Martha [the class assumed it was about Martha]. Some found parts a bit condescending, others found the lyrics “big brotherly.” There was debate about the meaning of “hips as fodder.” Did this mean that her future was as a mother and not an artist? We puzzled over the meaning of “ave” knowing it means “hail” as in Ave Maria. “Remember that your brother is a boy” — why “boy” and not a man? It was suggested that they wished to hold on to their youthful sibling love, and also suggested that as a gay boy, that perhaps Martha thought of them as sisters, and Rufus wished her to remember that he is male. One female participant hates this song because she hates Baroque music, and one male participant finds this his favorite song on the album. One found the “prim and proper” nature of the song rather theatrical. One speculated that history favors males (from the “hips as fodder” line), but then history “is just a game.”


“That’s about my mother. We spar a lot. She’ll write a song, I’ll write a song; she’ll put me down, I’ll put her down. I’d written a bunch of stuff she thought was terrible (and she was right). But “Beauty Mark” won her over – it was my comeback. I had to rise to her challenge. I said to myself, “Okay, I’m gonna write a perfect little classy thing. I’ll show mama!” It’s the happiest song on the album.” *

There was discussion as to exactly what is a beauty mark. I said I didn’t recall seeing a mole or anything on Kate’s face. One speculated that the mark was Kate’s expectation that Rufus would be a beautiful [heterosexual] male. A Filipina related her experience with her mother who had Catholic expectations of her as Kate may have had for her son. He didn’t want her religion. One chap said the song was more about Rufus than it was about Kate. I pointed out that the song was really a list of dissimilarities and the few similarities were cast with the same melody. Their differences in musical tastes were exemplified by Kate liking a Broadway musical figure (Robeson) and Rufus preferring an opera diva. We discussed his locking himself in his room listening to opera and his parents’ dissatisfaction with this antisocial behavior. A few people shared their relationships with their mothers, male and female.

DINNER AT EIGHT”Four or five years ago, my father and I had a really horrible argument concerning show business and our careers, and I wrote “Dinner At Eight” as a kind of retort. For a long time I didn’t want to release it or even perform it – I thought it was a little too intense so I ignored it. But the song stuck with me, and when this record came around, I realized I had to put it down. I decided now was the time; I finally felt comfortable recording it. I thought he’d understand it and not feel threatened by it. He’s heard it, and he loves it. So, yeah, there was a lot of housecleaning to do before this record was made.”

All agreed this is a deeply touching, beautiful song. One pointed out the irony of such beautiful music paired with such heart wrenching, angry and confessional lyrics. I told them that Rufus in an interview after the fact, referred to this as a love song and asked whether they believed it. They all said NO. One pointed out how strikingly intense the verbs are: take you down; break you down; must go; told to flee; drifting (referring to Loudon’s early departure); put up your fists; running away. And after that, how devastating it was to hear “you loved me.” Reference to David (Rufus) and Goliath (Loudon) was made. One speculated that Loudon was not a good father to have had children who bore such rage; one woman went off on Martha’s vitriolic rage towards her father. I pointed out that Rufus offered to remove the song from the album if his father asked. Loudon replied “go ahead, I probably deserve it.” Loudon and Rufus have subsequently buried the hatchet.

The entire seminar was, although only 50 minutes, was a very intense session. Wedged in between discussion of the songs were stories of coming out. P. talked about his Muslim mother who, after coming out to her, was furious for a week, and now they are best friends. It was mentioned that Rufus’s gayness is not an issue to him, and that some gay people wished that he were more political about being gay. There was discussion about whether members of the class would choose to air their dirty laundry in a public venue, like a song. Some would, some wouldn’t. I asked whether the class talks about their parents to their friends: one woman said yes, that she and her mother are quite close; another pointed out her strong differences with her mother (”she wanted me to be more lady-like; so I joined the men’s crew team”). One member stated: “all of Rufus’s lyrics are about himself.”

Everyone in the class had something to say. Everyone is quite different. Some don’t know his music at all, and others are Rufus fanatics.

* Quotes attributed to Rufus Wainwright are taken from “Oh What a Rufus World.”

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Roger Bourland January 18, 2006 at 10:17 pm

[The following postings are a parallel online seminar of the UCLA class for the benefit of the rw.com members who wish to participate. The RWBB members are more advanced than my undergraduate group and I expect them to know more about everything pertaining to RW. I began with the following questions.]

The first topic will be THE FAMILY, and specifically, LITTLE SISTER, BEAUTY MARK, and DINNER AT EIGHT.

1.Do you know of other artists that write about their families? (lovers/wives/husbands/exes not included)

2. What is Rufus saying to Martha in Little Sister?

3. What is Rufus saying to his mother in Beauty Mark?

4. What is Rufus saying to his father in Dinner at Eight?

5. If YOU were a recording artist, would you communicate with your family through your songs?

6. Are all of these songs appropriate for any artist to sing? or are they too personal and RW specific?

7. What were Martha’s, Kate’s, and Loudon’s responses to these songs?

karennerak January 18, 2006 at 10:18 pm

1. Loudon’s the first person that jumps to mind, lol. Obviously most artist end up doing a song about a family member at SOME point, but I can’t think of anyone who makes it a recurring subject in their songs. But if you want a name, Kate Bush has written a song about her mother and one about her son.

2. In an interview he said it was about how , as a son, he always had an extremely close relationship with his mum, and Martha had to fight hard for her place, in order not to fall into the background. About the line, “And remember that your brother is a boy” he said specifically that she used to criticize certain aspects of his behaviour (for example his posessiveness and bossiness) and he would try to explain to her that it was just part of being a boy.

I can’t remember where I heard him say it, though, sorry.

3. I think he’s trying to portray the unconditional love between them. He lists the differences between them, but stresses the similarities. With the conclusion of the song, (“I may not be so manly, but still I know you love me, even if I don’t have your beauty mark”) he says that even though they’re very different from one another, and he knows that he is not everything she always wanted him to be (Rufus tends to beat around the bush when the subject comes up, but I think he must have been very hurt when it became clear that Kate would rather be in denial than accept her son’s sexuality), the bond between them is more important than even he himself can understand.

4. Pfffff… Well it started after they did a photo shoot for Rolling Stone Magazine, and Rufus said very harshly that Loudon would never have had that chance without him. I think Rufus is examining their relationship without flinching away from the pain they’ve caused one another, but in the end… when he says, “But ’till then, no daddy, don’t be surprised, if I want to see the tears in your eyes” on one hand he’s being very mature and saying he wants his father to show him his feelings, but by using the word “daddy” I think he might be trying to say that he’s still the son, the child. He’s making himself very vulnrable.

But in the end he knows Loudon loves him. It might not feel like enough, but it seems like love is the only thing that keeps them from hating one another.

The thing about Rolling Stone Magazine is true, but the rest is mainly my rambling, so er… don’t take my word for it.

5. GOD NO!!! I’m constantly shocked at the honestly within that family. It seems completely wrong, somehow, to share your feelings with an audience before you work them out within your family.

6. I honestly can’t imagine anyone doing them justice (ESPECIALLY not ‘Dinner at eight’), but I’m open to anyone who tries!

7. Rufus was worried about playing ‘Dinner at eight’ to his father, but Loudon said he probably deserved it, and after he’d heard it he said it was beautiful. Kate loved ‘Beauty mark’ because Rufus pouring himself out to her, “and yet he was humorous about it” (got that off the dvd! ). Though I’ve never heard Martha mention ‘Beauty mark’, I can’t imagine her not loving it!

cath January 18, 2006 at 10:18 pm

Crumbs… um, well..

2. Little sister – I think he is commenting on two areas here – their shared position as siblings and their shared calling/profession as musicians. I don’t know so much about the dynamics of Rufus’ and Martha’s relationships with their mother, but certainly the mother/son relationship is an intense and close one (writing as the mother of two grown up sons!)(and I just watched the Hard Times link you posted and there are moments when Rufus’ and Kate’s faces have identical expressions as well as features!). As to their standing as musicians, they sit side by side at the same keyboard but Rufus is telling Martha that she will have the harder journey, and that there will be times when she may have to play the feminine card to get where she wants to be (“use your hips as fodder”). Interesting that as a gay musician Rufus’ sexuality is invoked more often in regard to his music than would be the case for a straight male musician.

3. Beauty Mark – it is a song of love and gratitude to his mother – not of idealised rosy worship, but the acknowledgement that here is a not perfect woman who has loved her not perfect and not very manly son unconditionally all his life, and that he recognises, values and returns that love wholeheartedly.

5. Communicating – I hope that I would not use the medium of song to say anything very personal to my family that I would not tell them privately first. But I think the power of song, or music, or art, or poetry would be a lovely way to pay a powerful tribute to someone you loved through a more public medium. Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Isn’t she Lovely? (Hey, I guess these two answer point 1!) – there must be lots of others.

6. Anyone could sing these songs but I don’t think they would be more than good songs – they would not carry the pathos/love/intimacy/pain that gave them birth and gives them life when Ruf sings them.

7. As others have said, I know that Kate was touched by the honesty and accuracy of Beauty Mark, that Loudon told Rufus he should go ahead and put Dinner at Eight out because any hurt it caused could not be worse than some of the things he himself had said in song (I paraphrase but it was something like that). I know Kate was struck by the real hurt and anger in Dinner at Eight. No idea what Martha makes of Little Sister….

I hope this is of some help.

ShadowWing January 18, 2006 at 10:18 pm

I only have a couple of things to add to karennerak’s great post. So, it’s what she said plus…

1. Some examples: Iris DeMent (Childhood Memories, Mom and Dad’s Waltz, I’ve Got No Time to Cry, etc); Paul McCartney (Martha My Dear, Lady Madonna, Lovely Linda etc); John Lennon (Mother, Julia, Oh Yoko, Jealous Guy etc); Judy Collins (My Father); Joni Michell (Little Green). Lots of country music stars.

2. I also think he is comparing himself to Mozart and Martha to Nannerl in a tongue-in-cheek way.

3. “Don’t expect me to be exactly like you in every little way.”

4. “I am really angry with you, but I am going to have to figure out how I am going to handle all your rejection. Maybe some of this is my fault, but I will always feel the pain of your leaving me. I am so mad right now that I could fight you to the death, but what I really want is some sign that you love me. Maybe this song will bring us closer.” I think this is a love song to Loudon.

5. I would try. I think it’s flattering to have someone write a song for you. Ideally, though, I would also want to have effective personal private communication with them.

6. I have trouble imagining someone else doing these, but they are all beautiful songs, so who knows?

7. Kate has said she loves “Beauty Mark.”
Loudon says that “Dinner at Eight” is a good song.
I am not sure what Martha thinks. She once said as a child she got mad at Rufus because he had said he was “prettier” than her. This family is just so competitive…
Maybe this is a bit of an apology, especially now that Martha is getting so famous.
Martha and Rufus are each others’ biggest boosters.

*edit* Oh, yeah, cath’s post is great, too. We must have writing at the same time.

samuraiski January 18, 2006 at 10:19 pm

Conc. No. 1

I think it’s very common to write songs about you children although at the moment I can only name one: Stevie Wonders Isn’t She Lovely.
But I’m sure you all can come in with a lot of songs for children, especially babies.

And isn’t most of Eminem’s songs about slagging off his family ?

Rhapsody January 18, 2006 at 10:19 pm

John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy”

Cikgu January 18, 2006 at 10:19 pm

Some more songs about vertical lineage family members:

Don Henley: “Annabel” (his daughter)
Carrie Newcomer: “My Father’s Only Son”
Paul Simon: “Graceland” (“he is the son of my first marriage”)
Jeff Buckley: “Dream Brother” (some say it is about his dad)
Uno Svenningsson: “Skymtar för en stund” (for his son – in Swedish)

jsd January 18, 2006 at 10:20 pm

Isn’t there a song on Alanis Morisette’s first album about the terrible pressure some parents put on their children to succeed – it sounded angry enough to be personal, or is that the ‘intentional fallacy’ raising its head? And, a further thought, maybe we should be wondering how much of Rufus’s output is TRULY AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL. he is a great one for spinning out his own mythology.

karennerak January 18, 2006 at 10:21 pm

Oh, I suddenly remembered a good bit of trivia: Rufus wrote ‘Beauty mark’ after Kate told him that all his songs were depressing and he should try something more cheerful for a change!

Rhapsody January 18, 2006 at 10:21 pm

1.Do you know of other artists that write about their families? (lovers/wives/husbands/exes not included)I think writing about family members is pretty common, judging by the number of responses here, already.

2. What is Rufus saying to Martha in Little Sister?Rufus seems to be concerned about the pitfalls his little sister will face if she pursues a music career. He cautions her about the amount of effort and dedication that goes into practicing on the instrument, and he sees that male performers have an easier time of it than female artists. The allsuion he makes to Mozart and Nannerl is very clever, icing on the cake, so to speak, especially since Rufus has described himself as a young child, thinking he was Mozart.

3. What is Rufus saying to his mother in Beauty Mark?
I think Rufus is telling his mom that although they share some genetic similarities (long hands, reddish complexion..)they did not have the same kinds of childhoods nor the same tastes in music. His music is going to differ from hers, and what he likes or dislikes in the music of others will differ (He prefers Callas…she prefers Robeson). Underneath their differences, he points out that he knows she loves him and that’s the most important thing. As mentioned ealier in the thread, Kate did tell Rufus he wrote depressing songs–and that his piano accompaniment was too complex and cumbersome for popular music. He wrote this song to be what he considered to be a “lighter” little ditty to prove to her that he could do it.

4. What is Rufus saying to his father in Dinner at Eight?He begins by communicating a major pout over his father’s harsh words to him. In typical offspring fashion, he yearns to write a song that will make his father dissolve in tears when he realizes how unhappy and hurt Rufus is, and has been, since he was a young child in regards to their relationship. By the end of the song, however, Rufus realizes that beneath the ugliness and heartache, his father really does love him. *sigh*

5. If YOU were a recording artist, would you communicate with your family through your songs? I am SO not a songwriter, that I can’t even answer that one.

6. Are all of these songs appropriate for any artist to sing? or are they too personal and RW specific? Most of them are able to be sung by others…lots of people have little sisters (in fact, sometimes Rufus says it’s written for Martha while at other times he says it’s written for all three of his sisters), and lots of people have clashes with their fathers. Beauty Mark may be a little more personalized towards Rufus and Kate, but I don’t see why the song couldn’t be liked as a cute song. (The “simple” piano accompaniment is not so simple, so may be a bigger problem for a performer. I love the irony of the way the piano part is so busy and complex when he is singing the more legato refrain, lauding the traits they share. He’s a little brat.)

7. What were Martha’s, Kate’s, and Loudon’s responses to these songs? Judging by the loving way Martha writes about Rufus in Laurel & Hardy, I’d imagine she is okay with Little Sister. Rufus said that Loudon’s comment was that he probably deserved whatever Rufus had to say about him…and that he liked the song, as a song. Kate seems pleased with Beauty Mark…there’s is certainly nothing negative in the song that would anger her. The little “digs” he gets in there musically, are eloquently done.

cath January 18, 2006 at 10:22 pm

1.Tears in Heaven – Eric Clapton.

It occurs to me that the Wainwright-McGarrigles have a unusual family dynamic in that they CAN all communicate with each other through songs, and have the skills and opportunity to do so – my family consists of a clergyman, a primary school teacher, an IT boffin and a physicist – we speak 4 different “languages” at times! It must be like living in a opera.

Rhapsody January 19, 2006 at 4:08 am

“hips as fodder”

I took this to mean that a female artist has to sacrifice her modesty and create a sexy image if she wants to be popular in the current music scene. Rufus comments on singers like Brittney Spears –and one needn’t look too far to see the other current popular singers whose physical beauty and sexy dancing in videos sells more records than the quality of their music does. I think Martha was a bit on the shy and modest side…and Rufus worried about what being a star might require of her.

“remember that your brother is a boy”

This line made me chuckle because I think it speaks to Rufus’ tendency toward megalomania–being the firstborn, and a son. He manages to be full of himself in such an innocent way, that it’s endearing, somehow. There is no mistaking the closeness between Rufus and Kate–Rufus describes it as both wonderful and unhealthy. I imagine Martha often took a “back seat” to Rufus in being promoted by Kate for stage opportunities. It must have been a struggle for her to see the fierce bond between Kate and Rufus–coupled with having an absentee father.

In addition, throughout history, from Mozart forward–the renown musicians and composers have been male, not female. History is on his side.

Meg January 19, 2006 at 6:30 am

I always thought that “hips as fodder” meant that as a woman she would be expected to put children and family before career. She’s under greater (or at least different) pressure from society. Particularly because of the references to history which would seem to hark back to a time when these expectations/pressures would have been much stronger than they are today.

Oh, and Kate does have a mole, so that’s a literal reference.

free2create March 26, 2007 at 1:11 pm

I heard that “Little Sister” is in fact about one of Rufus’ half-sisters (his dad remarried) called Lucy. Wikipedia says there is a sister called Lucy Wainwright Roche.

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