Song Analysis

Pretty Good Year

Monday 8 August 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

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

"I’ve told 100 guys I’ve written this for them, haha." - Paramount Theater, Oakland, CA 7/11/96

"On all of my travels I kept meeting people that were 23 and felt that their life was over... but I think that’s also from my living in England for two years. No one else can speak about a tragedy like the English can. But there’s no pity in ‘Pretty Good Year.’ I don’t believe in pity on this record. It’s working through being a victim. This girl is not a victim anymore. She’s trying to take responsibility, but it’s a bit hard." (Schwann Spectrum, Spring 1994)

Greg’s letter

“Pretty Good Year” was the first song Tori wrote for Under the Pink before she ever went to the old hacienda in New Mexico where she basically wrote and recorded the whole record. She was inspired to write the song after she received a desperate letter from a young man from the North of England, Greg. “This one got to me,” Tori explained to the Baltimore Sun in January 1994. “It missed getting to me for, like, three months. But it just got passed around to different people, and finally somebody just—I was walking through the record label in between the tour up in England, and somebody put it in my bag. They just said, ‘You know what, Tori? This has been sitting around here. Just take it.’And I took this letter, and I opened my bag two days later, and I read it. It was a picture of—he had drawn himself. It was a pencil drawing. Greg has kind of scrawny hair and glasses, and he’s very skinny and he held this great big flower.” “And he wrote me this letter that touched me to the core about how at 23, it was all over for him,” she continued in Performing Songwriter. “In his mind, there was nothing. He had become and all his dreams, he just couldn’t seem to catch the kite by the tail. You know, sometimes you see that kite flying and bloody hell, you just have to grab the tail, bring it down and see what’s on that kite. Well, he just couldn’t find a way around putting his desires and his visions into anything tangible, except this letter.”

The fact that this boy had lost all his dreams, illusions and will struck a chord in Tori, who had seen a lot of clever but disillusioned young male adults during her tours. It particularly struck her that guys had this state of mind “more than the girls, they were a bit more, ‘Ah, things are just beginning to happen.’ The guys, it was finished. The best parts of their life were done." [1]

Greg also explained that his girlfriend left him for his best friend and that he was pretty sure he would have to take his father’s job - the North of England being “where the working people live,” as Tori put it during her March 20, 1994 Seattle show. “Most people work their father’s mine and stuff. They have a harder life than people in the south and then they kind of hate them.” Which got her thinking about how the young generation of the 90’s is much more desperate than their parents and desperately tries to avoid numbness - which was already the core subject of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana that Tori covered in 1992. “There isn’t a hope that there was when, I think, maybe 15 years ago or something,” she elaborated in the Baltimore Sun. “There just seems to be this—they feel like the generation above were liars. This whole peace/love thing. Who gives a shit what you did when you were 18? You’re a fuck now. You’re 47. It’s like, who cares? I don’t want to hear what you did, the march you did when you were 19. The whole thing about, ‘OK, hang on a minute. You did a march when you were 18, 19, and you’re telling me that I can’t take birth control pills? I’m 15 years old. It’s my fucking business.’ ‘But you’re under our roof.’It’s like, they’re full of shit. Because they’re not dealing with, well, hang on a minute, how would I feel if I were 15?”

To refuse self-pity

In the song, the narrator tries to pull Greg from the passivity and self-pity he indulged in while refusing to pity him. “That was the main thing. Of course this was the worst year of his life; it’s a tragedy, this song. Yet... it’s like the worst thing you can give somebody is support for their pity,”she told B-Side. This transpires in lines such as “maybe a bright sandy beach is gonna bring you back/maybe not so now you’re off you’re gonna see America/well let me tell you something about America ” or “Lucy was pretty/your best friend agreed/well still pretty good year.” She totally understands what he’s going through but refuses to lessen his ability by indulging too much on his suffering and despair.

To regroup himself and move on, he has to stop seeing himself as a victim and the casual but still compassionate “still pretty good year” Tori whispers to him is the best help she can provide; he’ll have to do the rest of the job. Meaning no matter what you go through, no matter how painful, it can give you an occasion to grow as a human being and it’s not ’the end of the world,’ other people have gone through this and you can if you just get out of the numbness fear and/or depression can put you in. It’s not going to be a done deal, the pain won’t go away in a minute, but it’s that first step you have to take to begin the healing process.

Under the Pink was very much an album about “working through being a victim"  [2] and healing, which is in part why Tori could relate to Greg’s story. “I was just telling Greg’s story and Greg affected this singer so much that it brought my own stuff into it, and that was kind of a neat surprise, “ she thus revealed to Performing Songwriter. Indeed, Tori talked a lot in 1994 about how Little Earthquakes was about “hatching, and acknowledging things for the first time," (like her rape) while this record was about “breaking from the victim perspective. About how there’s no room for self-pity because you can change things yourself." [3]

She recognized how herself could sometimes indulge in a similar self-pity instead of working on her problems. Aside her intimacy problems as a consequence of her rape, she for instance told how an incident that happened during the recording of the album deeply depressed her. “ one point I was spraying Pledge polish in a cupboard and I inhaled it and I got a lung infection which meant I couldn’t speak, or sing, for three weeks. And I really thought my voice was damaged forever and had to do voice lessons on the phone, with this voice teacher to try and get the natural cortisone back on the cords. I was thinking ‘what if I never sing again?’ Then I’d say ‘if I can’t sing what’s the point in being alive, is this person worth anything at all?’ And there were moments where the only answer to that question was ‘no’. Then I’d give in to the self-pity that comes out in the song ‘Pretty Good Year,’ and in the lyric ‘They say you were something in those formative years.’” [4]

The incident could have been dramatic if her voice was indeed damaged forever - and kinda ironic since her first single was called “Silent All These Years,” a song about finding her own voice - but she understood that she had to work through it and find her self-worth within her own self. In the song, she holds a different position: she’s the feminine and self-assured voice singing to the lost young man. “Check it out. On ‘Winter,’ the father sang to me, ‘When you gonna make up your mind/When you gonna love you as much as I do?’ and in ‘Pretty Good Year’ on the new album, I sing to the boyrfriend, ‘What’s it gonna take till my baby’s alright?’ There’s no self pity in the song and yet it’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy because I can’t make him love himself. I can’t do it. No matter how much I beat it into him, I can’t do it for him. Funny how the tables have turned isn’t it? [5] In the bridge, her vocals sound a bit like the last concerned scream of the girlfriend, the only straightforward emotional outburst in the middle of the melancolic but serene verses in the rest of the song. You can’t quite figure out who Tori is in the song: a mere external narrator or the girlfriend that left with Greg’s best friend, Lucy. “I found that kind of really fun,” reckoned the singer who assumed her songs as clearly auto-biographical in Little Earthquakes. “The emotion is coming from somebody else’s story. And yet it touched me so much that I could sing it. [6]

Like most of the tracks of the album, “Pretty Good Year” is indeed very character-oriented, with the names of Greg and Lucy appearing, as well as enigmatic figures such as “the eternal footman.” About this last one, Tori wrote the following words in Under the Pink’s songbook, “Mountain biking became a major event in my life for a week, the mud was so thick on the tires. We got there just in time to see the mountain thaw. The sound when these two merged was something like ‘thclulpleekooh’ I said on an intake of breath with no lips moving and no throat usage, I like this word. And I liked the idea of the eternal footman saying ‘asta’ [sic] on a mountain bike.”

Though quite cryptic at first, the idea seems to be that when you’re in a stagnant place in your life, that it feels like you’re stuck in mud and that every step in so painful, it would feel much more comfortable and easy to stop trying, take a bike and say “hasta” to all your problems. Tori talked about such a situation in litteral terms in the songbook - she was really mountain biking in the mud - but the image of the eternal footman is a symbolical one in the lyrics and rather symbolizes the passivity and self-indulgence of Greg, who has “tears on [his] sleeve” and “don’t wanna be a boy today.”

Lucy and women’s relationships with men

As for Lucy, the unfaithful girlfriend, she’s an important point in the song which symbolizes the way women treat men when they’re not into the powerful place they’re supposed to be. Although she relates to Greg’s story and is “Greg too” in a way, Tori had to acknowledge she had already acted like Lucy in the past.

“One thing that I do that a lot of women do, we’ve said get sensitive, get sensitive, but you need to be a provider, you need to be able to make me come a few times. You need to be very intelligent, creative, deep and spiritual... And you need to be able to dominate me and throw me against the wall and tell me you love me,” she summarized in B-Side magazine. “Now the other thing in this song is it made me look at when a man doesn’t respect himself: how does that makes me feel? OK, we’re patient. Let’s be fair; we’re patient for two, maybe three weeks. And then what happens? We’re looking at the friend that’s walkin’ in the room with him. It’s OK for us to be, ‘oh, I’m laid off and I’m having a hard time and I am misunderstood and not given a chance,’ but we get embarrassed [when it’s a man]. I’ve studied this with women. If you’re an exception, then you get the gold star.

“But a lot of times it’s more like oooo, gross. And it’s painful to look at, because it’s like ‘why do I need a hero:’ why do women need their men to be heroes instead of equals. We say we want equality: then let’s stop making them heroes and make them equals. We want them to be more. We don’t want to see their weaknesses. We don’t want to see them shivering and puking on themselves. We do! We puke all over ourselves!

“But we have to be fair. We’re not fair. We’re real bitter, but we have to be fair, because we’re not getting anywhere. We can drag them on their knees for the next thousand years. We’ve been drug behind them for how many thousands of years... yeah, we could get them back. But we’re not doing anything: we’re just becoming what they were. And they don’t want to be that anymore, at least the ones that are waking up. And those are the ones who count, really, because it is them who are going to change the planet. You’re always going to have your couch potatoes, but they don’t effect anything; they just fart and take up space. They do pollute. But the people who are going to really make changes are open, they’re out there!”

Getting back at men for the way they treated women for hundreds of years is also an important point since Tori stated that “’Pretty Good Year’ is really part two of ‘Ode To The Banana King. [7] Indeed, as Tori underlined in the same interview, the name of Lucy reoccurs in both songs. And who was Lucy in that Little Earthquakes B-side? A woman who seduces and uses men as a way to get back at their behavior and the way patriarchy as a whole subjugated women.

Since patriarchy divided women in virgins or whores, the last ones being heavily stigmatised by men who still feel the hotties for them and treat them as sexual objects, the women like Lucy turn this weakness and foolishness against them by pretending to be the compliant whores men and society expect them to be. And in “Ode to the Banana King,” Lucy “serves the melon cold” (as in “vengeance is a meal best served cold”) and gets the men’s heads on her plate. And the ironic thing is that while such macho men pretend the women are a manipulative kin supposedly responsible for their fall (think about the notion of “original sin”), they are the ones who created women like Lucy... and they have to take that responsibility, which they most often deny.

In the other hand, what appears in “Pretty Good Year” and what Tori tried to explain in the quoted interview, is that women also have to take responsibility for their behavior. Even though they’ve been victims of men’s behavior in the past, holding on to this victim status to justify their cruelty makes them as bad as the bad guys. You can’t own your power by making another human being crawl at your feet. Now that men are more sensitive and aware to their girlfriend’s feelings, girls like Lucy should be able to have compassion for them and not smash them against the ground. If not, the violence just doesn’t end and healing is impossible.

In that sense, making “Pretty Good Year” the opener track of Under the Pink was the most accurate choice since healing from the violence she went through as a woman who’s been violated as well as a woman who was raised in a conservative Christian environment is core to the stories displayed throughout the album. The final track, “Yes, Anastasia” proves out to be a perfect closer and counterpart to “Pretty Good Year” since it deals with the bloody history of women at the hands of men and the powers-that-be through the tragic fate of czar Nicholas II’s daughter Anastasia Romanov...while trying to take responsibility for women’s behavior toward each other and trying to find a way to heal spiritually and sexually.

On tours, Tori sings the song very scarcely, usually near the end of the tour, to wave her fans goodbye before her next release. “I only played it two other times on the whole [Scarlet’s Walk] tour, “she explained in the Tales of a Librarian EPK. “I mean like I’m talking about 150 shows, and for, again, that moment in time, ‘Pretty Good Year’ was our way of saying goodbye to each other, the musicians, people I’ve loved, lived our lives together for many months, and in a year that’s been filled with war, and we’ve had friends die this year.”

Information sources

The Baltimore Sun, January 30, 1994.

Schwann Spectrum, Spring 1994.

Entertainement Weekly, February 18,1994.

Hot Press, February 23, 1994.

Creem, March 1994.

The Baltimore Sun, January 30, 1994.

Beat Magazine, July 1994.

Tales of a Librarian EPK (video interview)

[1The Baltimore Sun, January 30, 1994

[2Schwann Spectrum, Spring 1994.

[3Entertainement Weekly; February 18, 1994.

[4Hot Press, February 23, 1994.

[5Creem, March 1994.

[6The Baltimore Sun, January 30, 1994.

[7Beat Magazine, July 1994.