Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

“Could You Be My Little Movie Star?”*: A Practical Demonstration of the Ryder-Harris Hypothesis

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With the news that Winona Ryder has reportedly become engaged to Rilo Kiley’s Blake Sennett (or not), this is an opportune time to refine and elaborate upon the Ryder-Harris Hypothesis first introduced last year in my review of Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga, which, at the time, suggested that, upon dating Winona Ryder, any given artist will record an after-hours, alcohol-fueled, acoustic-oriented, critically-acclaimed breakthrough album that features prominent backup vocals from Emmylou Harris. This reference was a largely under-researched casual observation perhaps erroneously called a “Postulate” at the time. This paper will take this initial observation and apply the hypothesis to a number of Ryder’s interpersonal relationships, utilizing web sources, my album collection, absurd hearsay, and notions of temporal discontinuity inspired by my viewings of recent episodes of the ABC TV series, Lost.

Ryder has become as known for her celebrity relationships as she has for her acting ventures, and a great number of her confirmed and rumored paramours have been rock musicians. In Kim Davis’ article, “Winona Ryder Dating Yet Another Musician,” the author lists Sennett, Rhett Miller, Damien Rice, Conor Oberst, Jack White, Pete Yorn, Tre Cool, Beck, Stephan Jenkins, Ryan Adams, Everlast, Jay Kay, Dave Grohl, Adam Duritz, Chris Isaak, Evan Dando, Dave Pirner, Mike Nesmith, and Paul Westerberg as musical performers attached, at one point or another, to Ryder (in addition to Johnny Depp and Mark Whalberg, actors who have, on occasion, ventured into music with varying results). For the sake of a reasonable sample group, I’m eliminating from the study the following musicians:

  • Miller – The Old 97s frontman was interviewed by Sarah Hepola of Nerve.com and answered as follows:

I heard you wrote [Satellite Rides‘] “Rollerskate Skinny” about Winona Ryder.
Yeah, we were both living in L.A., and she was sort of calling me every five minutes and talking about the end of her two-year relationship with, I guess it turns out, Matt Damon. I had just broken up with my girlfriend, and you could feel Winona kind of moving in for the kill. I wrote the song to mean, like, “Are you seriously complaining about your life? Come on.” She came to see me at Largo [a popular L.A. lounge], and I played the song, and that made her even more interested, I guess. She invited me back to her place. And guess who turned her down?

  • Rice – This relationship could not be confirmed. Also, Rice is Irish, and, as the Ryder-Harris effect seems to manifest in music of an old-fashioned Americana bent, it is impossible to speculate on how the effect might manifest on a non-American. (For the same reason, U2 vocalist, Bono, who is linked to Ryder through at least one web source, will not be considered – also, that’s the dumbest rumor this side of the one about Mike Nesmith).
  • Yorn, because I don’t really care.
  • Cool, because he’s not the primary songwriter in his band, and, also, I don’t really care.
  • Jenkins, Everlast, and Jay Kay, because nobody really cares.
  • Nesmith, because she would have been 14 or 15 at the time of the alleged relationship and ew.
  • Westerberg, because he’s cooler than you, he can make whatever music he damn well pleases with whomever he pleases, and his wife Laurie Lindeen’s excellent memoir, Petal Pusher, suggests that Ryder was more of a hanger-on than anything, anyway.

The two most notable cases of the Ryder-Harris effect involve ex-Whiskeytown frontman and songwriting factory, Adams, and unfairly-maligned, heart-&-soul-&-probably-lung-on-sleeve Bright Eyes guy, Oberst.

Rumors about Adams and Ryder emerged in late 2000, early 2001, probably after his solo indie breakthrough, Heartbreaker (featuring Emmylou Harris), was released, but prior to what some might consider his mainstream breakthrough, Gold, was released. This might seem to call my initial theory into question, but more about that later.

Oberst appears to have been attached to Ryder in 2003 (though he has denied anything beyond a platonic friendship). His Emmylou Harris-backed breakthrough, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, was released in early 2005.

Both Heartbreaker and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning were praised as major steps forward for the respective artist. Harris’ appearance aside, the albums share a similarity in their reliance on musical quiet and intimacy and a southern sensibility grounded in country and soul (moreso in Bright Eyes’ case). Both albums betray a preoccupation with failed relationships and drinking to escape loneliness.

While it cannot be determined whether the lyrical content of any of Adams’ or Obersts’ releases can be directly attributable to a Ryder breakup, the Ryder-Harris Hypothesis does not rely on causation, but merely correlation. Furthermore, Heartbreaker‘s release in 2000 calls into question the notion of sequence. One might even make the argument that Ryder was drawn to Adams partially on the strength of Heartbreaker. I suggest that this is not the case, but that our conception of time simply needs adjusting.

On recent episodes of Lost, viewers have been confronted with notions of time typically not explored on network television. It has been implied that the island on which most of the action occurs occupies a different time than the rest of the world. While it is yet unexplored how exactly this works, it has been established that the island is temporally out of sync with a boat that appears to be located only a few miles from its coast; when it is Christmas Day or later on the island, it is Christmas Eve on the boat. This is apparently due to a wormhole or series of wormholes located around the island. In addition, a character recently exposed to electromagnetism becomes, like Slaughterhouse Five‘s Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time upon crossing through one of these wormholes. His consciousness flips back and forth between himself in the present of the series (2004) to 1996. This forces us, the viewers, to approach time differently on the show. In short, we become aware of some version of Minkowski space, a concept directly alluded to on the show via a supporting character named after the developer of the theory. For the sake of the Ryder-Harris Hypothesis, we just need to remain conscious of time as a fourth dimension.

With this in mind, we can begin to approach the Ryder-Harris Hypothesis as something that does not adhere to chronology, but to correlation independent of time. The conflicting sequence of events in how the Ryder-Harris effect applies to Heartbreaker and I’m Wide Awake… is problematic from a traditional cause-effect perspective. It might seem that, while Oberst’s recording I’m Wide Awake… with Harris might have resulted from Oberst’s relationship with Ryder, Adams’ making of Heartbreaker with Harris somehow led to his relationship with Ryder. Neither is an entirely satisfying explanation, especially as Oberst has consistently downplayed his relationship with Ryder, which suggests that her role was not that of a traditional muse for I’m Wide Awake…

To fully appreciate Ryder’s correlative, but not causative, role in Ryder-Harris, consider another album by one of Ryder’s exes, Beck’s 2002 album, Sea Change. Sea Change was released several years after Beck’s relationship with Ryder in 1999 or 2000, but is widely acknowledged to be inspired by the breakup of a previous, but long-term, relationship. Still, Sea Change is, without a doubt, a Ryder-Harris effect album. Though it may lack Emmylou Harris, it’s rich in the introspection and acoustic-mindedness that dominate the two chief albums in this study. Indeed, if any Beck album were to include Harris, it would be this one. Interestingly, around the time of his relationship with Ryder, Beck did collaborate with Harris on a cover of Gram Parson’s “Sin City” on Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons. There is certainly some flexibility in how the effect manifests.

The fact that both Beck’s and Oberst’s albums do not seem to be directly inspired by Ryder suggests that, while the correlation is strong between Ryder and these introspective, acoustic albums, there’s no reason to suspect direct causation. In fact, as demonstrated by the contrasting sequences relating to Adams and Oberst, even correlation must be established with some disregard for the traditional passage of time.

Instead, I propose that there are simply two points that must exist on a given timeline, with Point A being the Ryder-musician relationship and Point B being the production of an introspective, acoustic-leaning album, ideally, but not necessarily, involving Emmylou Harris or a similar icon beloved by alt-country audiences (for instance, Jack White, rumored to have been linked to Ryder in 2002 or 2003, produced and guested on Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose – this opens the possibility that there’s a slightly diluted or misdirected Ryder-Harris effect in the case of rumored Ryder relationships). Keep in mind that points A and B need not appear in any given order, but must simply exist.

Assuming this is true, we can begin to draw some conclusions about Ryder’s other exes.

Dave Grohl, who dated Ryder in the 90s according to some reports, generally makes music that’s a little heavier than most of Ryder’s dating partners. This is reflected on his Harris moment, recorded in 2005 (remember that the correlating album can be released at any time in relation to the Ryder relationship), and released as the second, acoustic disc of the Foo Fighters’ In Your Honor. Ever the mainstream rocker, Grohl doesn’t let In Your Honor stray that far from formula, but it does feature Norah Jones in the Harris role on one track.

Duritz is an unusual case study in that he dated Ryder sometime in the 90s (reports vary), but has yet to release anything that could be considered a full-on Ryder-Harris album. Still, his work with Counting Crows has occasionally wandered curiously close, especially on the quieter moments of the band’s debut, August and Everything After, which featured backup vocals by Maria McKee, former frontwoman of proto-alt-country L.A. band, Lone Justice (with her later soul-inflected and Bowie-esque work, she may be the most interesting Harris stand-in, overall). It is entirely possible, however, that Duritz’s true Harris moment is yet to come (perhaps in some sort of reflective mid-life crisis that results in a solo album and, far more importantly, an end to the haircut that turns off countless rock fans who would probably otherwise enjoy his band’s first couple albums).

Dando, Pirner, and [ex-lead singer of Helmet whose name seems to prompt a weird number of random web hits that make me nervous and has been expunged from this piece] are also more difficult to pin down, both coming from that slightly older generation of rock songwriters in which some country influences were made audible in subtle ways. Dando performed a cover of Gram Parsons’ “1,000 Dollar Wedding” on Return of the Grievous Angel (mentioned above), with Julianna Hatfield covering the backup vocals that Harris originally sang, but this almost seems too on-the-nose, as if Dando somehow became aware of the Ryder-Harris effect in the altered universe of his drug addiction and decided to force a manifestation. Given the right amount of patience, Dando’s moment may still come.

Pirner’s Harris moment is also pending. Despite a well-documented relationship with Ryder, the Soul Asylum frontman has, to my knowledge, not produced a Harris album. Every Soul Asylum album has included just a little too much rock for the designation, and I know too little about his solo album to consider it (although the reviews don’t make it sound like a Harris album). It should be noted that Pirner did write a song that might be about Ryder going to the bathroom (probably not related to the Ryder-Harris effect, which typically does not manifest in direct inspiration).

[Unnamed Helmet frontman – reasons explained above] is a big mystery, as his style of music is at odds with what we know of Ryder’s tastes. It must be assumed that he will, at some point, break away from the thick, controlled guitar bursts that define his Helmet output and embrace his inner Gram Parsons (hey, he’s always professed to be a John Coltrane fan, and you can’t hear that either).

We can only speculate on what the future holds or past has held for Blake Sennett. I have yet to hear more than snippets of his Elected output, but it does not seem to be in the Harris album mold. Could More Adventurous have been his destined Harris moment with Jenny Lewis a Harris figure who was simply not content to play second fiddle? Or is there a Harris moment still to come?

And what of those other singer-songwriters who have made low-key, acoustic albums with Harris or Harris-like figures? Can we assume that Ryder will eventually become romantically involved with Neil Young, Patti Griffin, and Linda Ronstadt? Can someone, as I originally asked in the Bright Eyes review, force the Ryder-Harris effect by giving Ryder Jason Isbell’s number?

I hope that this has answered some of your questions about the Ryder-Harris Hypothesis. Keep in mind that this is meant as a non-judgmental, scientific study and is not meant to call Ryder’s dating proclivities into question. If anything, we celebrate her serial monogamy and anxiously await more great albums from musicians unwittingly ensnared by the Ryder-Harris Effect.

* Title taken from Matthew Sweet’s 1991 song, “Winona,” which is named after, but not specifically about Ryder, with whom Sweet is not known to have any personal connection (although he has dabbled in what might be considered country and folk-inflected rock on occasion, perhaps most notably with Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins in the Thorns, and has released an album of duets with Susannah Hoffs, who is not Emmylou Harris, but is very cute).

Consulted Sources:

Browne, Heather. “Did he dazzle you with his extensive knowledge of mineral water or was it his in-depth analysis of Marky Mark that finally reeled you in?”. I Am Fuel, You Are Friends. Nov. 7, 2007.

Davis, Kim. “Winona Ryder Dating Yet Another Musician.” Spinner.com. Nov. 5, 2007.

FeatsPress. “Autumn in New York: Interview with Winona Ryder.” Cinema.com.Gruen, Bob. “April 19, 2003.” Bob Gruen, Rock and Roll Photographer. April 19, 2003.

Hannaham, James. “Hung With Guitar String.” The Village Voice. Sept. 17, 2002.

Hepola, Sarah. “After Last Call.” Nerve.com. ~2006.

Perlich, Tim. “Right Stripes.” Now Online Edition. June 20 – 26, 2002.

Rock of Love.” Getty Images – Entertainment Blog. Feb 29, 2008.

Willman, Chris. “Easy Ryder.” EW.com. March 2, 2001.

Wills, Dominic. “Winona Ryder Biography.” tiscali.film@tv. retrieved: March 2008.


6 Responses

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  1. Somewhere, Chuck Klosterman is seething with envy over this entry.


    March 22, 2008 at 4:42 pm

  2. Why, thank you. I think. I’m not sure how I feel about Klosterman, but I think he’d be a fool to argue with any of the logic put forth here.


    March 24, 2008 at 8:05 am

  3. I know some who love CK, some who loathe.

    I used to LOVE his writing, but I have come to the conclusion he manages to be exceedingly clever without really being that insightful in many cases.

    Still, he’s good water closet reading.


    March 26, 2008 at 8:15 pm

  4. I love Winona’s work with pharmaceuticals, and won’t be satisfied with this train wreck until she has her own reality show on VH1.


    March 31, 2008 at 7:34 am

  5. […] I always suspect that these searchers are surprised and disappointed to discover that I made one fairly inconsequential reference to the guy months ago (and tagged him, as I do all musical figures) and don’t offer much in the way of actual […]

  6. This is pure brilliance. It not only made me laugh, but I find it hard if not impossible to argue against this method. Pete Yorn is underrated by the way. And he does have a song on one of his discs that is a duet with a female singer. Might qualify on a “who cares scale”.


    December 22, 2008 at 4:58 pm

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