Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Librarian Thing

with 11 comments

Okay.

Yeah, we disappeared for a while and I have no good explanation for it. Life and work and parakeet mourning and being too diverted by diversions to find time to blog about them. But we have to talk about this –

Walk across the courtyard,
Towards the library.
I can hear the insects buzz on the leaves, ‘neath my feet.

Ramble up the stairwell,
To the hall of books.
Since we got the interweb these hardly get used.

Duck into the men’s room,
Combing through my hair.
When God gave us mirrors he had no idea.

Looking for a lesson
In the periodicals,
There I spy you listening to the AM radio.

Karen of the Carpenters,
Singing in the rain.
Another lovely victim of the mirror’s evil way.

It’s not like you’re not trying,
With a pencil in your hair,
To defy the beauty the good Lord put in there

Simple little bookworm,
Buried underneath
Is the sexiest librarian.
Take off those glasses and let down your hair for me.

So I watch you through the bookcase,
Imagining a scene.
You and I had dinner,
Spending time when you sleep.
And what can I say to you,
Lying there in bed.
These words were the kiss I would play in your head.

What is it inside our heads
That makes us do the opposite,
Makes us do the opposite
Of what’s right for us.
‘Cause everything be great,
And everything be good,
And everybody gave,
Like everybody could.

Sweetest little bookworm,
Hidden underneath
Is the sexiest librarian.
Take off those glasses and let down your hair for me.
Take off those glasses, and let down your hair for me.

Simple little beauty,
Heaven in your breath.
Simplest of pleasures
The world at its best.

Ramble up the stairwell,
To the hall of books.
Since we got the interweb these hardly get used.

Duck into the men’s room,
Combing through my hair.
When God gave us mirrors he had no idea.

Looking for a lesson
In the periodicals,
There I spy you listening to the AM radio.

Karen of the Carpenters,
Singing in the rain.
Another lovely victim of the mirror’s evil way.

It’s not like you’re not trying,
With a pencil in your hair,
To defy the beauty the good Lord put in there

Simple little bookworm,
Buried underneath
Is the sexiest librarian.
Take off those glasses and let down your hair for me.

So I watch you through the bookcase,
Imagining a scene.
You and I had dinner,
Spending time when you sleep.
And what can I say to you,
Lying there in bed.
These words were the kiss I would play in your head.

What is it inside our heads
That makes us do the opposite,
Makes us do the opposite
Of what’s right for us.
‘Cause everything be great,
And everything be good,
And everybody gave,
Like everybody could.

Sweetest little bookworm,
Hidden underneath
Is the sexiest librarian.
Take off those glasses and let down your hair for me.
Take off those glasses, and let down your hair for me.

Simple little beauty,
Heaven in your breath.
Simplest of pleasures
The world at its best.

Those, according to songlyrics.net, are the lyrics to the My Morning Jacket song “Librarian,” from their new album Evil Urges, which comes out this week. Never mind how I’ve heard it already, I just have. And we have to talk about it.

You probably know this, dear reader, but I’m a librarian. I’ve been in Libraryland in one capacity or another since 2001, when, after graduating from college and having zero idea as to what I wanted to do with myself, I got a job working as a circulation clerk. It was love at first date-due stamp, so I went back to school, and, after a false start, a lot of time, and about $23,000, I earned my Master’s in Library and Information Studies last December. I’ve worked at a public library, an academic library, and, right now, while I’m trying to find a professional-level job (um, still), I’m working as a research assistant/private librarian of sorts for one of my former professors. Before we move on here, let’s all take a moment to thank the Republicans for exsanguinating our public institutions. I know I do every day.

Having resided in Libraryland for the past seven years, I’ve learned a few things. I’ve learned that thinking of power relations in our world in terms of information is a very useful way to isolate inequalities. I’ve learned having a relationship with other human beings based on what they read and what they need or want to know is incredibly difficult, intimate, and rewarding. I’ve learned that papercuts are a bitch and cardigans are absolutely necessary.

Finally, I’ve learned that there is a notable portion of the male population who have a Librarian Thing, who will get that little smile, that glazed-over look during bar small-talk when I respond to the question, “So, what do you do?” I have answered this question and received the reply “That’s hot!” more than once. I have gotten up on a step stool in a knee-length skirt to retrieve a book off of a high shelf and turned around to find a patron leering at me, asking breathlessly if perhaps my choice of clothing wasn’t “inappropriate.” The patron who likes to bring porn up on the library computers just to force a confrontation with a librarian is a fairly common occupational hazard. When I was 23 or 24, I had an approximately 70-year-old patron imply that he would like to deflower me. The take-off-your-glasses, let-down-your-hair joke never, ever gets old. Ever.

The primary problem with the Librarian Thing is that it is predicated on a creepy interpretation of an inaccurate stereotype. Age and race aside, librarians are generally assumed to be uptight, fussy, fastidious women. From there, it’s a tiny step – and not a step that everyone takes, but a step that is required for those who will develop a Librarian Thing – into the bedroom, where uptight, fussy, and fastidious become some odd combination of sexually repressed and erotic hellcat in the sack if only we could get her to let her hair down and…

Jim James has a Librarian Thing. Now, I can’t tell if those lyrics are supposed to be a joke or if he’s writing in character, but he clearly, clearly has a Librarian Thing. Even if it’s supposed to be for laffs, it certainly tells us a lot about him. It’s all there. It’s glorious. If you’ll scroll back up, you’ll see that James has decided that he has to save this poor woman from her outmoded job, low self-esteem, and sexual dysfunction and, good God, let me tell you, he speaks for creepy regular patrons everywhere when he says that he is absolutely the man for the job. The legions of voiceless women that populate rock lyrics are disconcerting, yes, but when, lo and behold, you find that you’re the voiceless woman, well, that’s a spine label of a different color.

Let the healing begin!

Walk across the courtyard,
Towards the library.
I can hear the insects buzz on the leaves, ‘neath my feet.

Speaking from professional experience, there is widely-held anxiety about the silence commonly required in libraries. People are terribly concerned about either being quiet or exerting their perceived right to make noise. When the stereotype of the librarian is deployed in the mainstream media, a joke about being quiet almost always follows right behind.

So please note the commonplace conflation of libraries with silence. Granted, this is, to some extent, a fair association, and, yes, I have actually “shushed” people, but it seems to me that James deploys this particular trope as a way to set the mood, to foreshadow repression. As the song progresses, our focus moves from the outside of the building to the inside to the books and finally to the librarian herself, a synechdochic metaphor of sorts. The librarian is the quiet, the library, the books.

Ramble up the stairwell,
To the hall of books.
Since we got the interweb these hardly get used.

According to a library use survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the University of Illinois in 2007, internet use hasn’t had a negative impact on library use in the United States. So, yeah. Moving on –

Duck into the men’s room,
Combing through my hair.
When God gave us mirrors he had no idea.

Concern with self-image and physical appearance is introduced. This’ll come up later. A lot.

Looking for a lesson
In the periodicals,
There I spy you listening to the AM radio.

Karen of the Carpenters,
Singing in the rain.
Another lovely victim of the mirror’s evil way.

It’s not like you’re not trying,
With a pencil in your hair,
To defy the beauty the good Lord put in there

Look! Periodicals! Professional lingo! But let’s not get distracted here. First off, listening to the radio in the stacks is a no-no. Shhh, remember? Second, she’s listening to Karen Carpenter. Third, James is implying that the librarian is, like Karen Carpenter, somehow undercut by her physical appearance. Here, we’re learning that keeping your hair out of your face when one needs her vision unobstructed is tantamount to starving yourself to death. Moreover, it’s against God. And, if you’d just let down your hair, maybe wear some kicky little heels to work, and, you know, show some cleavage, we’d all be a lot happier. What? Your job requires you to be on your feet a lot? But don’t you want to be pretty?

Simple little bookworm,
Buried underneath
Is the sexiest librarian.
Take off those glasses and let down your hair for me.

Aaannd… the chorus. Do I even need to say anything? “Bookworm” is never a compliment and, ick, “little”? The suggestion is that being well-read somehow obscures a woman’s sex appeal, buries it. And it wouldn’t be the Librarian Thing without the ol’ bun and glasses one-two.

So I watch you through the bookcase,
Imagining a scene.
You and I had dinner,
Spending time when you sleep.
And what can I say to you,
Lying there in bed.
These words were the kiss I would play in your head.

Imagine, if you will, that you are the librarian in this song. You’re going about your business, probably doing some cataloging while you work the reference shift, maybe thumbing through this week’s PW, listening to Karen Carpenter on the sly, hoping the director doesn’t hear it and put another one of those obnoxious, passive-aggressive memos about conduct on the reference desk in your mailbox instead of just, Jesus, confronting you, when you hear it. Heavy breathing behind you, coming from somewhere in the 700s. You try to look over your shoulder without really looking, because eye contact in these situations can be fatal and, God, what if it’s one of the masturbators again and you have to call security and file and incident report and get the cleaning staff to bring some disinfectant… But you manage to look without really looking and, sure enough, you see a pair of eyes staring right at you, right above Popular Mechanics. You turn around, turn up the radio a little, pull the phone a little closer. You make eye contact with Kate, who works at circ. You roll your eyes. She’ll ask you how “your boyfriend” is later. You’ll both laugh. You need a raise.

What is it inside our heads
That makes us do the opposite,
Makes us do the opposite
Of what’s right for us.
‘Cause everything be great,
And everything be good,
And everybody gave,
Like everybody could.

Okay, this is a hair confusing, but I’m pretty sure that James is arguing that this librarian’s approach to life is all wrong. I think he’s trying to suggest that she’s wrongheaded because she seems so uptight and sad to him. Is it because he thinks her profession is going the way of the dinosaur? Is it because he doesn’t like her hairdo? Is it because he thinks she hates herself? Is it because he’s never actually talked to her and therefore has no idea that she has a graduate degree, is a hipster with brutally awesome fashion sense in her spare time, and has a slammin’ hot husband who likes her hair, her glasses, and knows precisely how to mess. her. up? Is it all of these things? None of them? Are his rhetorical skills failing him because he is crippled by her magnificence? Has he ever come out from behind Popular Mechanics? Hard to say, really.

Simple little beauty,
Heaven in your breath.
Simplest of pleasures
The world at its best.

I’m just going to admit up front that I have no idea what he means here, except that I think he just called me and my sisters-in-arms little again. And, oh yeah, simple. Nice.

In conclusion, I’m really looking forward to tracks like “Naughty Night Nurse,” “High School English Teacher,” and “The Receptionist” on future albums.

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Written by Raina

June 7, 2008 at 9:46 pm

11 Responses

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  1. Weird, I was listening to Evil Urges as this post came up in my google reader. I agree with everything here, but the “little” mentions could be just his Southern vernacular being used in lazy lyric writing.

    And fwiw, a girl who reads awesome books is infinitely hotter to me than a girl who has great taste in music or movies. I guiltily sneak continuous glances to the bookshelf the first time I’m in any girl’s place. To me, the nerdy bookworm is sexy.

    And finally, “I’m Amazed” is an awesome track.

    Euge

    June 8, 2008 at 9:27 am

  2. James’ narrator never mentions anything about this particular librarian’s reading habits, though. He’s totally into the image, not her taste.

    I’m liking Evil Urges so far (probably not as much as Z, but I’m still digesting it), but I have to admit that I found the lyrics on this one even more jarring than the playful musical experiments like “Highly Suspicious.” It’s hard to tell whether he’s being serious or taking the unintentional condescension of the narrator to task. Based on the delivery, I lean toward the former, which leads me to wonder if the usually more general and cryptic James has suffered some sort of head injury.

    Dave

    June 8, 2008 at 11:10 am

  3. Yeah, the only clue to her taste is that she listens to the Carpenters. I enjoy an occasional Carpenters binge as much as the next guy, but it hearing someone listening to them wouldn’t exactly speak to their incredible taste in anything other than AM pop.

    Also, I’m from the South, Mississippi. Calling someone a little anything isn’t considered anything but condescending down here.

    I’m a little baffled by Evil Urges. I like MMJ, but I think it was a misstep. It is almost the equivalent of At War With the Mystics. Although, that is obviously hyperbole. At War was fucking awful. Evil Urges is just not good.

    Luxury-Yacht

    June 8, 2008 at 12:13 pm

  4. I’m from the south, spending significant amounts of time in TN and GA, and I think calling a lady a lil thang is traditional vernacular. But maybe I only know tons of misogynists. Just ask the black crowes!

    Euge

    June 8, 2008 at 11:03 pm

  5. Regionalism or no, calling a grown woman
    “little” is condescending. By itself, it’s not terrible, but, taken together with the rest of the lyrics, it’s all about making this woman small and unreal enough that she can fit right into James’ mental pocket. Again – ick.

    Raina

    June 9, 2008 at 7:43 am

  6. B.

    I give this song a B. I did give it an A but then after reading all the comments, and a great blog, I realized that there may be some underlining stereotyping.

    I am going to hear them at the Bonnaroo festival this weekend. I wonder how the song will be received.

    You have to admit, it does have a certain catch to it.

    Respectfully,

    T

    Tom

    June 10, 2008 at 10:29 pm

  7. Made a simple mistake on the “underlining”. Just thought I would underline this.

    Tom

    June 10, 2008 at 10:53 pm

  8. It’ll probably go over just fine at Bonnaroo. In a lot of the reviews I’m seeing, “Librarian” is being touted as James’ attempt at direct, straightforward songwriting.

    What’s fascinating is that so few critics are recognizing that he’s just not very good at it. The portrait he draws is of a cliche, not a person. Even if you remove the condescending librarian-as-shy-bookworm/hellcat-in-bed motif that drives Raina nuts, it’s just poor writing. It’s like penning a song about a postal worker who (surprise!) goes on a shooting spree.

    Oddly, on an album full of musically formal experiments, the one that fails most completely is the lyrical one. It’s just that it’s not as obvious a change as the forays into soul and funk, so those have become the “love it or hate it” lightning rod for critics and fans.

    Dave

    June 12, 2008 at 9:21 am

  9. When I listen to the song I hear/think quite a few things.
    First of all I enjoy the instrumentation a lot.
    When I am imagining the story he tells I don’t imagine HIM in the situation, but I imagine myself in the library. (This, I think, has a great impact on the way I interpret what he sings about her)
    (A few observations as well: I have a librarian/book worm thing.[I also think the whole sexy librarian stereotype is hilarious] I love the Carpenters. I love the interweb.)

    … bleh I wrote a couple paragraphs and decided to delete them and simplify a little.

    I didn’t feel like it was focused on getting the librarian to act more sexy in the workplace per se, but expressing how beautiful people really are underneath the pinned up hair and glasses (Which I think is just as beautiful either way.) The point is that people try and change how they look to get others to think about them a certain way. This could mean using makeup, wearing certain clothing to inspire somebody else to act a certain way around them… hiding behind conservative clothing when you are not really a conservative person is an example.

    The singer thinks that in this case, the librarian is doing or acting the opposite (I thought he was saying ampersand… what DOES make us do the ampersand?!?) of what she is really like.

    Hopefully he is not masturbating furiously while he is imagining that scene with dinner and such.

    I guess it is fairly creepy that he is stalking around in the library watching her.

    PS. I haven’t ever met a librarian that needed saving. 😀

    Expavesco

    June 18, 2008 at 9:28 pm

  10. I just started listening to “Evil Urges” and came over specifically to see if ya’ll had a discussion about it yet.

    My initial impression is that it is the best ’70s album of the past 10 years, for good AND ill. As for “Librarian,” I’m not sure but I think it is supposed to be James’ “Every Breath You Take.” I’m guessing James expects us to hear more creepiness than he is actually able to convey. At least, I hope so because the alternative…

    BrianM

    June 22, 2008 at 4:28 pm

  11. […] Morning Jacket – Evil Urges Let’s get this out of the way, not just because it nicely encapsulates the problem with one of the more problematic […]


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