Song Analysis

Parasol

Friday 9 September 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Opening track of the album, "Parasol" references the drawing of French pointilist George Seurat, Seated Woman With a Parasol, which is actually a crayon study for his famous painting A Sunday On La Grande Jatte, which features many characters, including a woman seated on the grass and holding a parasol above her head. Unlike other female characters holding a parasol in the painting, we can’t see her face and features, just her figure dressed in a corset, wearing a hat on her head. She conveys a sense of mystery to the painting as she nearly is the focal point, almost in the middle of the frame.
Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon On La Grande Jatte

Tori revealed to Word Magazine in February 2005 that she saw the painting in an art book on Impressionism. "I was drawn to it and I started to think about Victorian women and then some women today, the type of women who don’t want to intimidate their partner and so allow themselves to become reduced so the other person can feel confident.” Tori has always written a lot in her songs about how women are shamed and silenced in our patriarchal society, even nowadays where women have a lot more freedom than a few centuries or even decades ago. The influence of Christian religion being so big in the USA, she had already drawn some parallels with the British Victorian era in her previous records, but “Parasol” is maybe her first clear statement about that period in her work.

Seated Woman With a ParasolThe song is very much about how a woman disguises her feelings and true self so she is not punished for being who she is in a relationship. In an interview for Paste in February 2005, Tori told that “if a woman was thrown out of the house in Victorian days, all she could do was walk the streets and be a prostitute." Such a woman then had to create herself a mask and pretend to be compliant to the traditions of her circle to prevent such a thing to happen. "I like the idea that a modern woman of today felt a kindred spirit in the seated woman with a parasol,” wrote Tori in a Diary Entry on her official website in 2005. “Because although our woman has a bank account, has a job, isn’t forced to marry anybody. She’s been in this relationship and she doesn’t want to lose it, on one level, but realizes that she must because she’s not valued or appreciated by this person. She realizes that she has to face this."

A lot of people tended to interpret the song solely in the context of a love story but it is quite misleading as the song can be about all sorts of relationships where one person doesn’t feel valued: it could be a romance but also a professional relationship, or any other configuration. Listening to the song, you also can’t help but think about the way Tori disguises personal events in her songs with metaphors and various characters or points of view so you can’t really tell where she hides in the song or what inspired her to write it. What she wrote about the song in her autobiography Piece by Piece tends to validate this point :

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Photo by Kate Turning for Keyboard Magazine, July 05

”Sometimes as I’m hunting for songs I get very still and realize that in ’real life’ I may feel hunted too. ’Parasol’ came out of this feeling. (…) I keep seeing the painting that reached out to me a few weeks ago from an art book and pulled me in through its page into the picture itself. Seated Woman with a Parasol became my protector and still is my protector during times of heightened confrontation—whether that draining, devouring energy is from an outside source or an inside force. ’Parasol’ is my friend and I trust her.

I remember seeing songs as paintings when I was little. The only place people could not get me was in the songs. These were my sonic paintings, where I would notate truthful events and save them and store them by threading them into the symbology, into chords, the melodies and the rythm, the breathing—and it seemed that even my gumchewing had a backbeat. There was no way they could extract me (whoever they were). Sometimes I couldn’t even extract myself.”

After her breakhthrough album Little Earthquakes in 1992, which she compared to "a diary" because of its clear auto-biographical statements, she indeed felt the need to "put some clothes on" with her sephomore record Under the Pink, which featured a lot of cryptic lyrics ("Cornflake Girl," "Space Dog") and a lot of character-driven songs with a lot of names ("Pretty Good Year," "The Wrong Band...,"). Yes, you still had very personal tracks such as "Baker Baker" or "Icicle," but you couldn’t necessarily call the album as a whole an "autobiographical record." Instead, she chose to see it as more of an "impressionist painting." And after Boys for Pele (her break-up album), most of her following records were in that character-driven and sometimes indecipherable vein even though each record contains autobiographical tracks that she commented as such.

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Photo by Kate Turning for Keyboard Magazine, July 05

But in order to protect her private life and her private circle, she chose to be "more of an illusionist than a biographer or an auto-biographer" as she revealed to Little Blue World in their Spring 2007 issue. "Maybe I want you to think that I’m moving away from the very personal," she said in the same interview when Liz Garlinge noticed her last records moved away from her personal experience to reflect on a view of the world. "As you become exposed, you have to make choices. As a writer, I’ve chosen to disguise who I am in certain songs. Therefore, even certain close friends wouldn’t know I’m talking about them or about me, for that matter. If everybody thinks that I’m writing about them all the time then people will be pretty self-conscious around me and I don’t want to live like that." She then chose to become an "observer," to watch things from a distance (or so it seems in the first place because it’s far to be entirely true, even on latter records) as a mean to preserve herself… which is exactly what the "seated woman with a parasol" of her song does.

And the song takes a really broad and rich meaning (far more interesting than the only plain "end of a troubled love story" interpretation) if you consider the period under which Tori wrote it. Indeed, seven months after the release of Scarlet’s Walk, Polly Anthony, the president of Epic Records and main reason for Tori to sign with the label, left the company. Even though Tori was always a bit tongue-in-cheek about her relationships with the executives of the label after Anthony’s departure, she let it slide in 2007 that the people at the head of the company in her Beekeeper phase were "money people."

She confessed in her interview with Gay & the Night (April 24, 2007) : ”It does matter who the top dudes are that you’re dealing with. Because if they don’t appreciate music, if they don’t value what an artist creates, or what music is, then… It matters. (…) There was a real change of people. There was somebody there during Scarlet’s Walk who was great, Polly. And that all ended, she left. And then there was no one, not really [Anthony wasn’t replaced in the first place and the company was managed by Sony president and his EVPs, ndrl]. There were money people, during my Beekeeper phase. So when you think about it all, if you put your noodle on, you can figure it out. And that all really pissed me off. When you’re turning in music from your being and your soul, and there are people there who aren’t in it because they love music, then you can react to it.” She then reacted by not letting anyone of the label hear American Doll Posse and hired art directors and Swedish photographer Blaise Reutersward on her own terms. She handed the record to the label when everything (the music, the artwork…) was complete.