Lyrical Hermeneutics with Speedy Ortiz’s “Everything’s Bigger”

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If such a concept still exists, Speedy Ortiz are on the path of becoming indie-rock mega-stars. This kind of success tends to spell shit for bands in the underground (the list being really, truly endless), but Speedy triumphs on, still improving on their signature loud and buckling on the outside, unfathomably deep and nougat-y rich in the middle sound. They’ve released a couple solid singles lately, but for this edition of Exejesus I’ll backtrack to admire the Real Hair EP, a four song collection that compared to the success of Major Arcana remain overlooked.

Third, shortest, and (the writer’s opinion) best track, “Everything’s Bigger” is one of those brevity bruisers—always over all too quickly. Speedy thuds and fucks their instruments with great abandon in a really fun ass-kickingly kick-ass kind of way—merited— but my focus is lyrics.

At first glance, what makes the song so attractive is its seeming simplicity and taciturnity: it’s a two and a half minute Chiclet of a pop song—especially when compared to our last entry, Pile’s gargantuan “Special Snowflakes”. Problem is, when you actually get down to business, looking hard into the words the little beast spoketh, it’s an intensely complicated meditation on all things human, as nuanced a lyric sheet as any we could’ve chosen. Sadie Dupuis is a poet. She has the MFA and CV to back it up. Her poetry deserves a closer reading.

The lion’s just like me

He’s a twin and I was a twin

Although his twin grew up

First to be accounted for is the title. “Everything’s Bigger” is usually accompanied by “in Texas,” a kind of shitty dick joke that you mostly see on cheap graphic tees sold in (probably) Dallas airports. But there’s no Texas here, something to keep in mind. So, the song’s first important lyric, then, becomes lion. The lion is just like “I”, our narrator, let’s say female (sorry to be presumptuous), but not her. He’s a twin, similar, but not her twin, exact; she has her own twin. The chief difference between the lion’s twin pairing and the narrator’s twin pairing is that the lion’s twin grew up, left home, perhaps left him. It’s not such a stretch to say that Sadie’s got astrology in mind. The lion is fairly obvious, a Leo, and the narrator is, I suppose, a Gemini, the twins. From what I can glean from a few paragraphs of—fuck you, David—Leo’s are magnanimous and dignified, and Geminis have a sort of split personality, two heads occupying one soul. It’s this split personality that’s going to be crucial for understanding the song.

So I must join the stage of

Awful singles ventilating

We head up to Vermont for a couple days

The lion, though part Gemini (let’s a say a fraternal twin as opposed to the narrator’s identical twin), is able to overcome his nature as twin and lead an independent life, but our narrator cannot. And so the narrator joins “the stage,” suggesting an act, “of awful singles ventilating.” With “singles” added to the fray, we can infer that the narrator was in a relationship with the lion, but—and not to jump to any conclusions over sexuality—because of her twinness, her selfishness, her inability to get over her other half, he, his twin, moved on and “grew up.” So the narrator goes on something like a singles therapy retreat/boot camp (?) to Vermont to cleanse herself of the lion and to learn to be alone again with her self(es). She caravans with other annoying singles, who ventilate—that is, discuss, air out, purify themselves—annoyingly. This is obviously all conjecture, maybe a little too much reading in at this early stage, but it’s a necessary reading in to get us off our feet.

The narrator has lost her relationship-twin, the lion, and becomes a single, but hasn’t seemed to lost her self-twin, her sort of doubled/split-self, as we will soon see and as this early “we” seems to suggest. So, within the single is still a pair of twins. But let’s not forget that other big word in here, Vermont. Why Vermont? Miss Dupuis is too good a writer to willy-nilly throw words around, and so every word becomes significant.

Stepping back and looking at the title, something briefly talked about as alluding to the state Texas, now comes a tension between Texas, aka (though maybe a little too easy) conservative South, and Vermont, liberal Northeast. Here’s another twin pair, and if we’ve got our bastardized US history in mind it’s kind of interesting: Texas wants to secede but Vermont won’t let her; Texas wages war on Vermont, and Vermont wages war back; it ends bloody and horribly with Texas being whipped back into submission, and the two states, the two symbolic split selves, are left to pick up the battered pieces together, shoddily re-taping the union once more… but the beaten still fumes and resents.

This is the exact sort of psychologically split state we find our narrator in. The unity within her, that which makes her function, what makes her recognize the image she sees in a mirror as belonging to her, is fractured, and a centrifuge is at play within her psyche. She is one person (a twin, a Leo, Vermont) but another part of her tells her she’s another (another twin, a Gemini, Texas), and these two sides duke it out, functional-her left in the middle to feel the blows. Her big quest, then, is to coax them—her split self, twins, America—back together.

You say the name of a state when horror’s underway

So you might escape back to a place where horror stays away

Still you might escape

The “couple days” only reaffirms our hunch: “Everything’s Bigger” deals with ones and twos, single and split selves, wholeness and doubleness. In the chorus, we’ve got our just talked about states here, divided into state of mind (call it schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, splitting, the “when”) and literal states or “place,” (Vermont vs. Texas, North vs. South, the “where”), which our narrator evokes, like the Lord’s name, in an effort to keep the “horror” of being human with a fractured identity under wraps. Maybe. We’ve still got more work to do before this coheres, but we can still make a few more early guesses. We’ve zoomed out and the narrator, or, maybe, a narrator in back of the narrator, is no longer talking about herself but staring at, talking at, all of us, a “you.” Breaking this chorus down further, “you” evoke a state of mind, something universal and objective, say twin2, to get over that horrible state of mind, something effecting you personally, say twin1. You universalize your pain. But this is only a temporary solution to a permanent problem. You do this so you can escape “back,” meaning you’ve already been there before, to a place where horror won’t find you, maybe childhood, maybe home, the past. You “might escape” is all we are given, and it’s not too confident a sentence.

Me, I’m just like my wife

She’s a blade and I’m a dull knife

Turned up in a bouquet

The second half of the song starts with another split right off the bat. Wife and knife enter and it looks like our narrator is retreating even further into herself. There’s even less distance between her and her wife than there was between her and her lion/boyfriend, and the syntax of the second verse gets inverted here, too. It’s no longer someone else, the lion, happening to be like her but her now happening to be like someone else. She is “just like” her wife in that they are both metal objects, the wife being “a blade” and the narrator being a “dull knife,” but there’s a big gap between something lethal and something that can’t draw blood. It’s not out of the question to call this blade, a violent word ripe with the explosive potential, Texas, and the dull (weak, tepid, boring) knife Vermont. Regardless of who is who, these two are thrown together against their will, “turned up in a bouquet,” meaning the knives are like individual flowers, roses and tulips bound together, pig parts some cosmic butcher has mashed together like hotdog meat. So, like the US, all the many knives exist in one large kind of knife drawer, and they have the potential—they’re blades after all—to strike out against that which holds them hostage. All this, the kitchen imagery, the map imagery, the astrological star imagery, (note: we’re getting infinitesimally smaller—from outer space to the American home—as we advance through the song) is playing out within the narrator’s head. They’re sketches of her deeply fractured self: she hates herself and she loves herself, and she can’t tell which outweighs which, whether she’s a lover or a hater, and it’s like her life is splitting at the seams into two warring factions.

And we get red for days

Soaking through our silk and unbathed

We head up to Vermont

And now we get war. Our narrator, getting “red for days,” seems to be slitting her wrists. Because of her discordant parts, she tries to kill the whole. It’s like she’s been railing against the hydra: attack one part of you, and two more ugly, hideous, hateful parts grow in its stead. Now she swings for the true head, but evidently she misses and she’s still standing there, feeling, bloodied by the mess she drove herself to make. The “silk” side she wears, self-loving, luxuriant, say Vermont, is ruined by the blood, while the “unbathed,” self-hating side, Texas, is ruined by the silk, and so cheers on the blood and causes more war. Texas and southern-her were not beaten in the first war, the second verse, it seems, and they “head up to Vermont” once more, the narrator following, for a second try at freedom. This would mean that the end of the second verse, the narrator’s heading to Vermont with the obnoxious singles, was an obnoxious Northerner victory. The tides, though, have turned. The narrator is dragged to and fro to her different poles—up North where she is (self)loved but annoyed, stifled, and incomplete, down south where she is (self)hated but free, feeling like she’s got a function—and it’s killing her.

And I don’t know whose call it was that I should share a life

With someone who resembles me and copies my speak

Down to every lisp and slur I practice to put on

It’s hard to keep a dialect when you keep changing where you come from

The next verse is our most revealing yet. She admits outright to her twinness, her split-self, saying she shares “a life” with someone she doesn’t know. This someone “resembles me and copies my speak,” but it’s not her; it’s the explanation of the lion and wife lines: two parts alienated from one another somehow make a whole, but this whole is broken because the parts are in misalignment. The someone copies everything about her, but there’s a more important admission in here: yes, someone copies her, but she, too, is only practicing, “put[ting] on” that speech that, in turn, is being copied. So the idea that there’s an authentic her that the ideal is fighting is bullshit, too. Part of her acts and the other part copies the act, making her notice how fake her actions were in the first place. This plays in nicely with her joining “the stage” of singles in Vermont, making the copycat self, self2, let’s say, just as real as the “authentically” her self1. She speaks with a southern drawl and yet has a New Englander’s voice: part of her wants to be where she’s “from,” her past, and the other always wants to move on, her future, the next line tells us, and so she can’t retain one or the other, a coherent sense of identity, her present, because of the infighting within her, the victor in the war of WHO AM I changing minute-to-minute.

And that’s a place where horrors fade away

So you might escape back to a place where horror’s underway

So you might escape back to a place where horror stays away

Still you might escape

So let’s try unpacking the chorus, though slightly altered from the first, once and for all. It’s no longer you saying “the name” of a state, you evoking either (1) a state of mind or (2) your ideal future, but—remember, this is someone more sure of themselves than the narrator now speaking, a God behind the narrator—the last place we visited, the last verse, as being where horrors do, in fact, “fade away.” That would mean horrors fade, the overwhelmingness of being two-in-one dies down, in confession, admission, therapy, some sort of dispelling of a mental shit. The higher narrator, the one addressing “you,” uses no poetry, no metaphor, when speaking, almost like they’re speaking to her, the “I” narrator, through us. So this would mean that the “place where horrors fade away” is not any state, literal or mental, but in an action, in the writing the song (the confession, proposing of a question) itself, the utterance of the previous verse.

Now there is no division between “when” and “where,” as in the first chorus; there are two where’s, and you can either have horror underway or have it stay away, but, either way, you’re not going to let it own you. Through us, God speaks to the narrator, telling her that freedom from her head, “horrors,” comes only through admitting there’s a problem—AA 101. This is a monumental leap forward and means the song, the stating of the problem, can help the narrator get over her own shit, in a way. She wouldn’t, then, have a fractured identity anymore so much as be a single autonomous person who feels the peaks and valleys of life, something much healthier.

Guess I could get set up with someone’s got my given name

With a great sigh, the narrator says she’s willing to take the higher narrator’s advice, to try to love again, which really just means she has escaped, however briefly, from her own shit. She has become a pragmatic realist, and no longer has to flee to an ideal because the real sucks, and, because of this, won’t have the self-mutilating selves resorting to fisticuffs over what “name” (Vermont or Texas, twin1 or twin2, dull knife or blade, etc.) to go by. Someone who’s got her given name is someone like her but separate enough from her that it’s not her. The inside of her head can still be deeply fractured, she still may not be able to get over the fact that she can’t escape herself, because, well, she is herself, but this separation allows for her to leave that head a little bit… which, hopefully, allows her to learn to love a lion (someone other than her) once more. She now simply is, a good thing, a thing that can keep her functioning, and it was the act of discussing the problem, the ventilating (how awful do those “singles” look now, narrator?) the sixth verse, that got her there. We could go a lot farther with this—how does poetry lead to truth? did she give up asking who am I?—but let’s just quit while we’re ahead. Take what you will from that. Obviously no interpretation is right, but I’d like to think we proved Sadie Dupuis a poet of inordinately high quality and got to something deep and human that we wouldn’t have regularly. Maybe. That was really fucking puzzling.

Speedy Ortiz’s Real Hair EP is out now on Carpark.