Song Analysis

Yes, Anastasia

Monday 8 August 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

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

“The funny thing is that Anna Anderson, who claimed to be Anastasia, died very close to where I was playing, an hour or so from there in the 80s. The feeling I got was that Anna Anderson was Anastasia Romanov. She always tried to prove it and a lot of people believed her and some people didn’t want to believe her, because of what that would have meant.” (B-Side, April/May 1994)

“She says ‘no, you’ve got to understand something from this, there’s something here that you’ve got to come to terms with.’ And that night came, as she softly sings the line ’We’ll see how brave you are,’ and that was really about the whole record. That came just about before everything. And whenever I sing that chorus, ‘we’ll see how brave you are,’ it means so many different things to me. It’s part of my self, my spirit self saying to the rest of myself, ‘if you really want a challenge, just deal with yourself.”’ (B-Side, April/May 1994)

Tori was inspired to write “Yes, Anastasia,” the final song of Under the Pink, at the soundcheck for the show she gave in Richmond, Virginia, on September 14, 1992. She had eaten bad seafruits at a restaurant and felt sick, and she suddenly got inspired to write about Anastasia Romanov, the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II of Russia, who was murdered on July 17, 1918 with her whole family and servants by the forces of the Bolshevik secret police.

The grave hiding nine of the eleven bodies was not found until 1979 (and was only excavated in 1991) and rumours concerning a possible survival of Anastasia or other members of the family were fast to spread after their massacre. In 1920, a woman who took the name of Anna Anderson was found in a mental institution in Berlin and, as she refused to give her identity, rumour had it that she was Tatiana (one of the czar’s daughters), but she instead claimed to be Anastasia. Among the numerous women pretending to be Anastasia, Anderson was the only one to be considered seriously by some of the members of the Romanov family and inner circle, scientists and historians but the truth about her identity couldn’t be established at the time of her living. Her claims were later disproven by DNA testings in 1994 then 2009. Anderson died in 1984 in Charlottesville, Virginia, near Richmond where Tori played that night.

Tori quite romanticized the way she was inspired to write the song at the time, by telling she didn’t know a lot about Anastasia and hadn’t really read much about her but got visited by her “ghost.” Now, we all know how Tori considers her songs as living entities with their own identity who come to tap her on the shoulder to be translated in a sonic form. It’s an allegorical way for her to talk about her creative process and inspiration. It’s a way to say, also, she’s an artist at the service of art and creation rather than a self-sufficient Creator able to create anything without taking any inspiration outside of herself. Tori feels humbled by her art and thinks it’s an important thing for artists to feel they’re a part of creation and not Creation itself, in order not to become complete megalomaniacs. It also matches her way to look at life and human condition: her maternal grandfather was of Cherokee descent and Native American spirituality had a great impact on her life and own belief system. She thus believes in the Great Spirit: creation and sacredness is everywhere, in nature and in each one of us, we are all connected to each other, etc.

So, when she talks about “being visited” by a song or any other entity, it’s her way to explain this mysterious and intangible thing that inspiration is, while describing what it feels to her to have this sudden rush which urges her to go at the piano and write a song. She’s always been known as a composer who regularly writes a song in a single shot, which gives her the impression that the song kind of wrote itself. However, people often misunderstand this and choose to interpret it litteraly. Surprisingly enough, many fans did the same when they heard this anecdote about the writing of this particular song and firmly believed she really said she was visited by a ghost while she had fever.

She finally talked about it more clearly in 1995 during her course on creativity at UCLA, then in the A Piano booklet in 2006. At the UCLA students, she told that she was “reading all about Anastasia Romanov” at the time, so she romanticized a bit her initial version of the story when she pretended that she didn’t know much about Anastasia and the mysteries surrounding her. “I can’t quite recall with the most accuracy right now, but I ran across a book about a woman claiming she was the long-lost Anastasia,” she continued in the A Piano booklet. “Either the book had recently been released or possibly this woman had just recently passed, but either way it was a current topic of discussion. That became an opening for me. It was almost as if the ghost of Anastasia came and tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Now, tell my story. I need to live on in the memory and hearts of people. Whatever happened to me, don’t let this distract you. Don’t miss the point of who and what I was.’”

When she read this book about Anastasia and the Anna Anderson case — the book can clearly be seen in one of the pictures of Tori recording in the hacienda in New Mexico from the Under the Pink tourbook, as a matter of fact — she was struck by the facts that seemed to prove Anastasia could have been rescued by one of the guards and escaped her fate. A lot of other elements seemed to be in Anna Anderson’s favor too (though other clearly weren’t). “I would be reading so much about how they hadn’t still determined whether they had found Anastasia or not. And that this woman who died a few years ago, everyone believed that she was lying. Not everyone, but most people said she really couldn’t have lived through that. And I tend to believe that it was. ” [1]

In “Yes, Anastasia,” Tori makes references to the historical Anastasia Romanov as well as the myth surrounding her possible survival, to weave an allegorical tale about her torturous path on womanhood, a theme which is at the core of her second solo album Under the Pink. “’s about healing for me, that whole experience, and that’s all through this record too, with ‘Baker Baker’ and healing in ‘Anastasia,’ ‘We’ll see how brave you are,’” she thus told the Baltimore Sun in January 1994.

Indeed, she othen explained in interviews that while Little Earthquakes, her first solo album, was about acknowledging things for the first time and letting inner demons out, Under the Pink was about finding parts of herself she had numbed over the years and healing from her past: the Christian guilt she was exposed to as a Methodist minister’s daughter and the rape she experienced in 1985 and which she acknowledged in the a capella song “Me and a Gun” in 1991.

“...that’s where my experience from the violent kidnapping that I went through with ‘Me and a Gun’ kind of made me able to understand the horror that she went through, and yet, the incredible understanding that she came to, which is the first half of ‘Anastasia,’ that whole, ‘Show me the ways to get back to the garden’ and ‘Driving on the vine over clotheslines. But officer, I saw the sign.’ You’re very aware of what’s happening, that you’re being changed and that you’re numbing yourself, but how do you turn it around? And that’s where ‘We’ll see how brave you are’—when you’re 18, you know everything, and it’s, yeah, I can handle anything. Well, any of us can be brought to our knees real fast. And with ‘Anastasia,’ I would be looking kind of down on myself through different parts of my life, going, ‘We’ll see how brave you are.’ And I get such hope from that one. ” [2]

The allusions to Anastasia and Anna Anderson are very present in the song, though often a bit crypted - very much in the fashion of most of the tracks on Under the Pink, which Tori meant to feel like an “impressionist painting.” The first short verse (“I know what you want/the magpies have come/ If you know me so well then / tell me which hand I use”) seems to refer to the fact that many people, including persons who were a part of Anastasia’s inner circle, seriously doubted about Anna Anderson’s claims, and her handwriting was even studied. While some people claimed that Anna didn’t use the same hand as Anastasia to write, experts testified to a German court in 1938 that their handwritings were similar.

A second level to the line “tell me which hand I use” is of sexual nature and refers to masturbation, something that is further developped by the lines: “show me the ways to button up buttons that have forgotten they’re buttons/Well, we can’t have that forgetting that/girls, girls, what have we done to ourselves.” Like for the first sentence, this one has a double meaning, the litteral meaning being that the narrator forgot to button her clothes. Something that more than certainly refers to the fact that Anna Anderson — who went under the name of Anna Tschaikovsky at the time — had a childlike attitude according to people who came to visit her at the hospital in the early 1920’s. In a letter, Tatiana Melnik (the daughter of the Romanovs’ personal physician) wrote that she had to be “led and directed like a child. [..] She has not only forgotten languages but has in general lost the power of accurate narration. [...] Her defect is obviously in her memory and eyesight. ” [3]

To refresh her memory, Tatiana Melnik filled in Anna with informations about the Romanovs and the right way to behave and talk, hence the lines: “Show me the things I’ve been missin’/Show me the ways I forgot to be speaking/show me the ways to get back to the garden.” “Show me the ways to get back to the garden” more specifically refers to the fact the young Anastasia loved nature and climbing into the trees. Like for the other lines quoted, a double meaning can be seen in it. Considering the song’s core theme is the difficulties of womanhood and how women were victimized in history, the garden in question could symbolically refer to the Garden of Eden.

Because women, of course, through Eve, were considered by the Christian Church to have committed the “original sin” and provoked the humankind fall from grace. Scholar readings, however, lighted the fact that Eve had to taste the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge to bring knowledge to humankind, so man could be independent from God and not remain in blissful ignorance. Of course, knowledge is symbolically dark, it allows to uncover things that are hidden, but it’s a necessary thing and cannot be deemed as ‘sinful.’ The interpretation of Eve’s act as evil and the current definition of the original sin is supposed to come from a bad translation.

Anyway, the suggestion Tori makes to “get back to the garden” could be a way to get in touch again with feminine sexuality and not feel guilty about it anymore. The allegory around the buttons then makes perfect sense. Though the masturbation references are not exactly straightforward, contrary to “Icicle,” Tori herself confirmed this interpretation in an interview for Dutch TV in 1994 by saying that “there are two references [in Under the Pink] to a woman touching herself, in ‘Anastasia’ and in ‘Icicle.’” Litterally, "get back to the garden" can also be seen as a way to going back at a time of long-lost innocence.

The first part of the song contains many allusions to Anastasia and Anna whereas Tori sings in the first person and not the third, but it’s quite safe to assume that she doesn’t sing the part of Anastasia, but rather that Anastasia guides her through her journey because of the experience she had. In that sense, the first level of the lyrics is about Anastasia/Anna while the second level portrays Tori’s personal experience as a woman. Tori’s take of Anastasia’s story in the song is that she escaped and survived, the same way Tori could escape from the rapist who took her hostage and survived this experience.

Anna/Anastasia was physically and mentally damaged from her violent experience, but people were there to help her remember and reclaim her true own identity. After acknowledging the violence she went through with her rape in “Me and a Gun,” Tori had to learn to be “whole again” (“Baker Baker”), to recover her sexual being and heal. She faced many challenges and managed to survive, to “run,” but now she has to deal with herself and can’t run anymore if she wants to do so.

The second part of the song then more particularly deals with “working through being a victim. ” [4] It begins with “Thought I’ve been though this in 1919/counting the tears of ten thousand men/and gathered them all/but my feet are slippin’/There’s something we left on the windowsill/there’s something we left, yes.” About that particular line, Tori explained to B-Side magazine that she meant that “[y]ou can’t blame the men anymore; there’s always you. It comes back to us; it comes back to me.”

From an historical perspective, Anastasia was killed with her family in 1918, but the 1919 reference is certainly not a mistake on her part. It’s more like Anastasia has escaped her deadly fate and what follows in the song is what happened to her after the massacre. Though the lyrics are cryptic and very symbolical —and, in that sense, we could find several meanings to them around the same idea rather than a definite one —, the men’s tears echo those of Greg in “Pretty Good Year,” Under the Pink’s opening track. And we could argue the tears of “ten thousand men” refer to the Russian’s people guilt about the Romanov massacre.

An interesting point is that the Bolshevik party (whose secret police killed the czar and his family) counted around 10,000 men at the time. In fact, the party split in two factions in 1903, and, in the early 1910’s, each one counted a little less than 10,000 members. If that’s so, we could argue that Anastasia first takes pleasure in “counting the tears” of the Bolsheviks who were responsible for her family’s death, but then her “feet are slippin” as she notices she left something “on the windowsill:” the men are not the only one to be helf responsible of women’s fate. Although Tori/Anastasia cannot change what happened to her, she can choose how to react, and she can go nowhere if she feels hatred toward men.

Another historical fact that line could refer to is that Anastasia visited the soldiers in hospital when the war began. She spent a lot of time at their side to help them and hear their dreadful stories. In that sense, she ‘collected’ their tears and the experience herself moved her to tears very often. She was a compassionate being and this is a power Tori can draw from her: still manage to be compassionate of men even after having been violently assaulted by one.

The windowsill could refer to the fact that, according to the notes of the Bolshevik secret police, Anastasia, her sister Maria and their maid Demidova were on the floor beneath the room’s only window when the gunmen came to kill them. The czar, his wife, Alexei and the other grand duchesses and servants had already been killed by bullets in the first episodes of gunfire.

The rest of the song is more centered around women’s behavior toward each other - a central theme to the album which she already confronted in “Bells for Her,” “The Waitress” and “Cornflake Girl ” - although it’s not exactly clear as day, but she indeed acknowledged it. The most clear line about that is “Thought she deserved no less than she’d give/well happy birthday/her blood’s on my hands/it’s kind of a shame ‘cause I did like that dress.” In “The Waitress,” the narrator only felt the desire to kill her colleague, but here, it’s like she really crossed that line, whether it’s litterally or metaphorically.

Metaphorically (the whole song being symbolical and allegorical, anyway), it’s like Tori had let the women down by her behavior toward them, or maybe toward herself. Maybe she numbed her sexual side and didn’t want to look at it and confront the issue once she acknowledged her rape, and, in that sense, she’s in part responsible of her condition and can’t fully blame her original attacker. Or maybe she had to deal with another woman friend who had a violent history and reacts this way and maybe turns against Tori (which was basically what “Bells for Her” talked about according to Tori). ”You’re not the cause of this person’s unhappiness. And yet you seem to be the one standing there getting dumped on, ” [5] Tori told about that particular song line.

That more vicious side was also part of Anastasia’s personality as her relatives described her as “lively and mischievous .” [6] Once, she even rolled a rock into a snowball and threw it at her older sister Tatiana, knocking her to the ground.

The last verse seems to refer to the discovery of the Romanovs main grave (which contained 9 out of 11 bodies) while also referring to womanhood and feminine attributes (“the mall,” “the knot still in her hair”). Considering the scientific discoveries that were made around the Romanovs burial site in the early 90’s, the “dates-mines” could refer to the fact that the corpses were first dumped in a shaft-mine at Ganina Yama before being moved to another location. An investigation that was first led by White Army Investigator Nicholas Sokolov in 1918 after the family’s disappearance, came to that conclusion because items that had belonged to the family were being found thrown down in that mine - something that could explain the “knot still in her hair” bit: maybe they found the knot of one of the czar’daughters in there. And if we follow that logic, when Tori sings “I’m on my way down/all the girls seem to be there,” although it’s to be understood in a symbolical way —Tori getting in touch with women and her womanness and maybe excavating women’s dark history— it can also be understood in a litteral sense: the mining that led to the excavation of the grave.

But, the particular term “date-mines” is a bit odd. What could it refer to? After a quick googling, it turns out that data mining is “the process of extracting patterns from large data sets by combining methods from statistics and artificial intelligence with database management.” [7] It’s a quite recent interdisciplinary of computer science which is used in scientific discovery and genetics, among other things. A similar process was used in June 1992 for a Russian investigation to compare five of the skulls found in the grave with Anna Anderson’s. Based on the results of this forensic technique, it was declared Anderson wasn’t a Romanov. A result that was dubbed “dubious” by many people, including historian Peter Kurth, because this particular kind of computer modeling was considered too recent to be completely trusted and the results could be erronous or could have been manipulated. It’s quite probable that Tori played around with the two different meanings: mine and data mining. In both cases, it’s about mining and going down, whether it’s going down inside a grave or going down inside the DNA.

In the end, the song is indeed “the final of the finale” described by Tori in the sense it resumes everything Tori had to confront in Under the Pink: her own violence, how women treat each other and her damaged sexual self that she divided from herself after her rape. Like she explained many times in 1992 and 1994, she separated the “prostitute” and the “child” within herself in order to survive the assault. “...the child in you is the one who gets violated the most in any violent attack,” she explained to The Face in October 1994. “You kill your child first. You have to, to survive the situation. The child is gone, and the hooker in you survives. That’s what kept me alive. If the little girl had been operating I would have been dead by now, and I have no doubt of that, because I was dealing with a maniac who wanted to cut women up. Put the sex aside for a minute — this is about hatred. So, my prostitute got me out of it — that side of me that understood what the energy this guy was feeding off was. Just keep him from going crazy. A little girl screaming and crying would have got me killed, so I got rid of her.”

"And bringing her back has taken a lot of work — not to be a bitter tough broad, but to allow yourself to be vulnerable again. How do you do that? Well, that’s where the different personalities come in... the strong side of myself... whether I call it the prostitute or Sven the Viking. The little child is the one who’s so much a part of the writing of the songs, she’s the core, you know, the honesty and the openness.”

And there’s definitely an important part of that child in “Yes, Anastasia.” First, there is the “Poppy don’t go” line in the song’s first verse, which Tori commented by saying “Poppy is the little girl who was in ‘Silent All These Years,’” [8] that is to say the little girl who isn’t afraid of speaking her mind and urge the grown-up Tori to find and reclaim her true voice. This definition matches Anastasia’s own personality as a child and as a teenager. She was often described as bright and gifted but was “never interested in the restrictions of the school room,” and her “sharp, witty remarks sometimes hit sensitive spots. ” [9]
A description that is striking by its ressemblance with Tori’s own personality as a child. In that sense, it’s no surprise the story of Anastasia Romanov struck such a powerful chord in Tori.

Finally, the signification behind the name of Anastasia shades a significative light on the reason why Tori chose to make a parallel between the grand duchess’ story and breaking the chains of women’s slavery, so to speak. Indeed, one of the meanings of her name is “the breaker of chains” and “the prison opener.” She was given that name because, “in honor of her birth, her father pardoned and reinstated students who had been imprisoned for participating in riots in St. Petersburg and Moscow the previous winter. ” [10] Another meaning of Anastasia is "of the resurrection,” something that made her hypothetical survival even more powerful and allegorical. By invoking the spirit of Anastasia, Tori seems to say that there is a hope “past the mission/behind the prison tower” and that it is possible to transmute our pain to be “whole again” one day.

information sources

The Baltimore Sun, January 30, 1994.
BAM, March 11, 1994.
B-Side, April/May 1994.
The Face, October 1994.
Dutch TV interview, 1994.
Tori’s course on creativity at UCLA, February 27, 1995.
A Piano booklet, 2006.

[1Tori’s course on creativity at UCLA, February 27, 1995.

[2The Baltimore Sun, January 30, 1994.

[4B-Side, April/May 1994.

[5B-Side, April/May 1994.

[8BAM, March 11, 1994.