[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 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.