On Cat Power: It Must be the Colors

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When I first started listening to Cat Power’s music, I was still with a man I very much loved. He played music, he was a music man, and for four years, I depended on him for all my music. All the music I listened to, I listened to because he shared with me. It was he who introduced me to Cat Power’s music and the first album he gave me was Moon Pix.

When it came to Moon Pix, I immediately attached to the song “Colors and the Kids.” I remember listening to “Colors and the Kids” on repeat during my last few months in Santa Cruz. It was my last quarter at the university and I was supposed to be finishing my manuscript of flash fiction. I don’t remember much of that spring except I was having trouble writing and I was listening to this song repeatedly. Right now what I clearly remember is one moment when this song was on very loud. I stood in the middle of my bedroom and looked out the window. I remember that the sky was gray and that it did not seem like the middle of spring. It seemed instead to be the middle of winter.

That spring felt a lot like winter. When I had free time I spent it indoors even though I do not remember what I did during those days. I did not write because I no longer took pleasure in writing. Writing began to bore me. In “Colors and the Kids,” Cat Power sings, “It must be the colors and the kids that keep me alive/Because the music/Is boring me to death.” As I listened to the song, I found myself wondering what was keeping me alive. I had thought what kept me alive for much of my life was the act of writing but that spring realized I was wrong.

Cat Power uses simple chord structures in her music. In August 2007, she told Greil Marcus, “I’m not a learned musician, I don’t really know where what chords are and where they graduate and where to gather keys, so I just kind of mess with the notes.” In “Colors and the Kids” I hear her playing what seems like simple chords on the piano and she plays them slow. She takes her time with every key and chord she hits. She does this too with the way she sings each word. She sings the song slow, she sings the song sad.

At times I can hear desperation in her voice, especially towards the middle of the song. Since I tend to be exact, I will tell you that I start hearing the desperation in her voice starting in the third minute of the song and the song is six minutes and thirty-six seconds long. In the third minute of the song, she sings, “I could stay here/Become someone different/I could stay here/Become someone better.”

I think she sounds most desperate because of her delivery of the lines and because of the lines themselves. As she sings these lines, she sings the notes in a higher pitch and I think too I hear her hitting the piano keys harder. She could stay, she could become someone different, she could become someone better. She could, but probably does not. I do not know that for certain. All I know for certain is that she recognizes what could happen. Then she switches back into singing in the previous pitch. Two minutes later she repeats that the music is boring her to death.

Before she repeats that the music is boring her death, she sings “It’s so hard to go into the city/’cause you want to say hello to everybody/It’s so hard to go into the city/’Cause you want to say/hey I love you to everybody.” I realize she’s using the second person but I still think she is the you. In my mind I have the image of a woman by herself, staying away from the city, not because she dislikes the people in the city but because she likes them too much. She thinks of where she could go and she knows why she does not go. She sings the song, she stays where is.

She is somewhere on “this January night.” It is the middle of winter and it is probably cold. It is cold and she is alone and she is thinking about what is keeping her alive. It is not so much herself. It’s not so much the song she’s singing. It’s the colors and the kids. She ends the song with the chorus. “Yellow hair/you are such a funny bear” and I have the image of a child she loves, and if not a child, then someone with a childlike spirit. I think this child or person does not belong to her but that does not seem to matter because what matters is that the child is one of two things that keeps her alive.

During my last spring in Santa Cruz, I took much comfort in listening to this woman. I thought I was listening to a woman who was like me. She was a woman who felt lonely and at times desperate. However unlike me she knew more about herself than I knew about myself. She knew what kept her alive and I did not know what kept me alive. The song offered me hope. I hoped that maybe at some point I could become as self-aware as the woman singing the song.

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You Are Free

As I wrote this essay, it occurred to me that I have for some time avoided Cat Power’s album You Are Free. I now know why. It seems to me an obvious statement that the mind works in associations. Sometimes the reason people love songs has not much to do with the song itself and has more to do with the memory the song evokes. For instance I love the song “Groove is in the Heart” by Deee-Lite, not so much because it’s an amazing song but because I remember myself as a five year old, turning up the radio and dancing in the living room. When it comes to You Are Free, I listen to the songs and I remember much of what I do not want to remember.

“Baby Doll”

My friend once made a mixed CD that he called a “break up” mix and I considered making a break up mix but could not think of a group of songs that seemed to apply to my situation. (I prefer to write “situation” rather than “break up.” I did not then like to use the word “break up” or “ex” nor do I now. Break ups are something that happen to people who date. I did not date, I fell in love with a man who for four years was my best friend and love of my life. I did not break up. I lost him.) Then one early afternoon, while I driving the Ventura Freeway, I heard “Baby Doll” and thought this was a song that could be on my hypothetical “break up” mix. I thought about actually making the mix but realized the mix would have one song and that is not much of a mix at all. So I did not send my friend a CD with one song. Instead I put the song on repeat. As I drove the Los Angeles freeways, I sang along, and for a time I thought I might learn the song on the guitar and play it for some people, some time, some place.

The song is the ninth track of the album, sounds simple, and is not long. It is less than three minutes and has approximately sixteen lines and each line varies from at least one word to at most seven words. The song addresses the you and I think the you is fixed. The song sounds much like an open letter. She asks the you questions in an effort to make him or her think about their present situation. These questions are poignant and straight to the point. Two of the questions are “Don’t you want to be free?” and “Don’t you want to be clean?” I think the questions carry with them some anger but the anger comes from a place of tenderness. Before each question, she addresses the you, as “Baby,” “Honey,” and “Baby Doll.” She sings these words in a tone that’s tender. “Baby Doll” is the title, which makes me think the tender feelings for the you is probably the motivating factor for singing the song.

In “Baby Doll” I think Cat Power is singing about the experience of knowing someone who has an addiction. This someone may or may not be herself. I mention the possibility that she may be singing to a part of herself, because of course a person can know they have an addiction and want to stop and just not be able to stop. In August 2007, Cat Power (whose name is Chan Marshall but I never refer to her by her birth name so I won’t start now) spoke about this concept in an interview with Greil Marcus. She refers to this part of the self as a “protective second self.” During the interview she distinguishes two parts of herself that exist simultaneously. She describes one as naive, childlike, and dependent, while the other is the voice of a protective, strong woman. (Earlier in the essay, I told you that I did not know when I first heard “Colors and the Kids” what kept me alive but I do know now what kept me alive and what continues to keep me alive. It is the protective second self of which Cat Power spoke in this particular interview.)

Whoever the you may or may not be, the feelings surrounding the addiction remain the same. One feeling she expresses is anger, which may include a bit of judgment. She sings, “Honey, the shape you’re in, is worth every dime you spend.” It’s another way to say, You’re paying for what you get. You’re getting what you deserve. There are consequences to what you do. Another time anger appears in the song, occurs when she sings, “Did you have a real cool time?” She sings the line and it starts bitter, carrying that anger, which has, by the end of the song, seemed to settle, but by the end of the question, when she sings the word “time,” she sounds sad. It makes sense. Oftentimes underneath anger and judgment and bitterness, is sadness. After this question, she ends the song that way she began the song. She sings, “Baby/black, black, black is all you see/don’t you want to be free?”

Powerlessness is a feeling also prevalent in the song. The woman singing the song can only ask questions and the questions go unanswered. I wonder if she sings the song because a song is the only form of communication left to address the you. I suppose, when it comes down to it, maybe all you can do when someone has an addiction, is ask, Don’t you want to be free?

As I drove the LA freeways and sang this song, I think in some ways I imagined myself singing to the man I had loved for four years, who had during our last year together developed an addiction. In one way, singing this song to him made no sense. I had already left him and refused to talk to him, but there I was, miles away, singing to him. In another way it made perfect sense. I still cared for him and I had things I wanted to say, things which went unsaid.

When it comes to my experience with loving someone who has an addiction, I felt completely powerless and on another level completely responsible. I had this warped perception that if our love had been strong enough, then he never would have chosen a drug over me. If I had loved him more, he would have stopped using, he would have gotten better. It was a perception he aided when we were together, when he was not well, and even when he was to my knowledge clean.

The last time I saw him, I said, You know, I always loved your family, especially your mom, and I hope, even after everything, she doesn’t hate me.

He said, Well she did like you. She loved you while we were together. But you do know, she saw me really sick.

I said nothing because at the time I still held myself responsible for his addiction and for what his addiction did to his body. I am telling you that I thought I was to blame and what I am telling you leads me to the first song on You Are Free.

“I don’t blame you”

In “I don’t blame you,” Cat Power sings about a musician who no longer wishes to perform and turns away from his or her fans. “You were swinging your guitar around/cause they wanted to hear that sound/that you didn’t want to play.” Some people think the song is about Kurt Cobain, others Cat Stevens, but she does not name any specific musician. She refers to the musician as “you,” which operates powerfully in the song because the listener can apply the song to herself. When I heard her sing “you,” I applied the song to myself, when possible. Clearly, I was never on stage, swinging a guitar around. I did however blame myself for the decisions I had made, which mostly had to do with turning my back on people. I think any listener has the freedom to apply “I don’t blame you” to their situation and I would encourage each listener to do so. In one way the song is about a musician, and, in another way, the song is about self-respect. “I don’t blame you” inspires each listener to have self-respect.

The title and the chorus of the song are “I don’t blame you,” and when she sings this line, I can think I am the you, she is singing to me. In fact I did for a while imagine she was singing to me. Listening to the words “I don’t blame you” over and over again happened to be a healing experience. She did not blame me. Maybe others did not blame me. Maybe one day I would not blame me.

Throughout the song Cat Power reminds the “you” to stay true to who he or she is despite what other people, “they,” may expect. In the middle of the song, she describes a role in which the you is participating and then points out, “but you never wanted them that way.” She points this out as a way to explain why she does not blame you. In doing so she encourages you, the listener, to let go of any role, if the role is at odds with what you once wanted and may still want. She understands that “you simply deserved the best.”

She also reminds you that these other people, who expect much, do not know where you are from. She sings, “Just because they knew your name/doesn’t mean they know from where you came.” They do not know of the “deadly houses you grew up in,” they do not know of the past that has shaped you. Cat Power is in one way asking: To what do you owe people who do not know of your past and yet expect you to perform various roles? In this song, Cat Power answers, Nothing. She sings, “They never owned it/and you never owed it to them, anyway,” which I think is a powerful thing to remind us. They do not own us, we do not owe it. We can say no to it, we can turn on back on it. She does not blame us and maybe one day, we will not blame ourselves. I find this song hopeful. The hope is that we may not now be free but one day we might be.

The Greatest

In January of 2006, Cat Power released her seventh album The Greatest, which received much critical acclaim. Two weeks prior to the release of The Greatest, she was hospitalized. In an interview with “The New York Times” Cat Power said she “just lost her mind.” She attributes her state of mind to depression and her addiction to alcohol. Her hospitalization for seven days, a low point, one of the lowest point she’s had, seemed to be the catalyst for personal change. Soon she became sober. On September 12, 2006, the day The Greatest was re-released, during a live session on the radio show “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” Cat Power told host Nic Harcourt that for four months she rested and recovered.

As it happens, I know what it feels like to just lose your mind. It’s terrifying. When it happened to me, I was quite shaken up and decided to make some serious personal changes. During this time I learned about Cat Power’s personal transformation. I read interviews with Cat Powers, watched online videos of her musical performances, and listened to her recorded performances on “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” I did this because Cat Power had characteristics I wished I had. She seemed better. She seemed happy, brave, and strong. She seemed not to want to die but to live.

Online I saw a (poorly recorded) video of Cat Power performing “Hate” at Bonaroo in 2006. Before she starts performing the song, she lifts her right hand in the air and says “Sober!” As the crowd cheers and applauds, she smiles. She applauds herself. The song “Hate” is on The Greatest. The song is about self-hate. The line that repeats is “I hate myself and I want to die.” When I first heard the song, I felt comforted by the line, especially by its repetition. I felt comforted there existed a woman who, like me, wanted to die. Now I listen to this song and wish the woman singing did not want to die. In 2006 at Bonaroo, when Cat Power performed “Hate” she changed the line. She sang, “I do not hate myself and I do not want to die.”

As I edited this essay, something happened, which I will relate to Cat Power. I checked my bank statement online and noticed two overdraft fees which together added up to seventy dollars. The fees had already posted to my checking account and I immediately called the bank. I argued with the representative on the phone. I’ve never argued with a representative before but more and more I’m learning how to fight. He explained that one of the overdraft fees was for a 99 cent purchase on Itunes. I had purchased Cat Power’s “Colors and the Kids.” I still have a copy of Moon Pix from years ago but the CD is scratched and will not play that song. In order to write this essay, I purchased the song online.

During the conversation with the phone representative who at one point sighed heavily, I said, You realize I’m paying thirty six dollars for a 99 cent purchase. You do realize that.

He said, Well, that’s the way things are.

I said nothing.

Finally he said, Hold on. Let me see what I can do.

That’s the way things are.

It occurred to me that I do not accept the way things are. Sometimes this makes my life difficult but for the most part I think I’ve taken a good stance in not accepting the way things are. Today the bank representative reversed all the charges. What I’m talking about has less to do with banking fees and more to do with resistance. I think now of Cat Power’s song “Maybe Not,” which I think is a song about resistance in that she teaches us what freedom is. She sings, “We can all be free/Maybe not with words/maybe not with a look/but with your mind.” She informs us that we can all be free because freedom is a state of mind.

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original art by Miranda Harter


Zoe Ruiz is the former managing editor of The Rumpus. Her work has appeared in The Weeklings, Salon, Two Serious Ladies, and Ohio Edit. She studied creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and now lives in Los Angeles. More from this author →