Teenaged Trauma and Salvation Through Music: reflections on Amanda Palmer’s “Oasis”

So as much as I enjoy it when Amanda Palmer writes music to songs penned by her literary giant beau, I LOVE her as a lyricist and pretty much think she’s tops. One of my faves off her solo effort from last year Who Killed Amanda Palmer? was “Oasis”, which I first saw her perform at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco last summer; come to think of it, I recall that concert being an important moment for me re-realizing that I needed to place no other gods before music.

This song created quite the ruckus last year when the video came out, owing to the flippant treatment of the subject matter of teenaged rape and abortion. I’ll direct you to Amanda’s own comments for a thorough breakdown, but also add a few personal notes about why despite its apparent off-the-cuffness, I believe this is a remarkably thoughtful and well-executed piece.

when I got to the party
they gave me a forty
and I must’ve been thirsty
cause I drank it so quickly

when I got to the bedroom
there was somebody waiting
and it isn’t my fault
that the barbarian raped me

when I went to get tested
I brought along my best friend
Melissa Mahoney
who had once been molested

and she knew how to get there
she knew all the nurses
they were all really friendly
but the test came out positive

I’ve seen better days but I don’t care
I just sent a letter in the mail

when I got my abortion
I brought along my boyfriend
we got there an hour
before the appointment

and outside the building
there were all these annoying
fundamentalist Christians
we tried to ignore them

I’ve had better days but I don’t care
Oasis got my letter in the mail

when vacation was over
the word was all over
that I was a crack whore
Melissa had told them

and so now we’re not talking
except we have tickets
to see Blur in October
and I think were still going

I’ve seen better days but I don’t care
oh I just got a letter in the mail
Oasis sent a photograph
it’s autographed and everything
Melissa’s gonna wet herself
I swear

I realize that as a man commenting on a song like this, I’ve got to tread very carefully. I’ve never lived through the traumatic experiences of the song personally, nor will I ever have to contend with the facts of rape and abortion as ever-present hazards in the landscape. That said, the story told here is one very familiar and even personal to me. More than once I knew girls who were sexually assaulted; one time in particular, a friend’s resulting pregnancy scare prompted me to skip school and walk several miles to buy the test she was too freaked out to get herself. This kind of awful ordeal related in the song has a very clear antecedent from my own history, and the very first time I heard the song I was startled by how real it seemed.

The reason the blunt delivery never struck me as being in poor taste is because I found it so terribly true-to-life. In my experience, teenagers who suffer grotesque losses, violations of self or other indignities are rather prone to blurting about it loudly and plainly in ways which make adults uncomfortable. Also incredibly authentic was the portrayal of her friendship with Melissa, who thinks nothing of breaking confidence about her friend’s hardship to the entire school (the speaker is not necessarily any more loyal, spilling the beans to us about Melissa’s own mistreatment within a breath of introducing her). I quite clearly recall my early best-friendships being marked with mutual betrayals–being old enough to want a close friend for selfish reasons, but not yet knowing how to care for them in return–still they remain BFFs, with an unspoken understanding that their falling-out will be amended by October.

The reason for which, of course, is music. Acknowledging again my removal from the hardest-to-face aspects of it, but isn’t that what the song is really about, what she returns to each chorus, what makes all these unbearable things bearable? Isn’t it about the fact that music quite literally saves people’s lives? When nothing and no one else could do it? I know it did for me. Parents didn’t understand, teachers didn’t care, friends cared but didn’t know how to be real friends yet. In those times, when no one, not you or anyone you knew, could say a single thing to give a name or shape to the fiery hell you were feeling, music was all there was. Without music, would we have screamed until our heads exploded? Bloodied our knuckles against the walls? Well, I did both, but I surely would have with greater frequency if I hadn’t had music to collapse into.

So when I hear this cheery tune, so incongruous with its grim account, I have to say that my main emotional response is gratitude: for music, a true BFF to me and so many who needed it.