Song Analysis


Wednesday 28 September 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

Tori wrote "Siren" with composer Patrick Doyle for the Great Expectations soundtrack in 1997 a few months after the end of the Dew Drop Inn Tour ; more exactly, she composed the song around Doyle’s theme for the movie. Alfonso Cuarón’s movie is a contemporary adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1860-1861 novel.

The story focuses on the ambiguous relationship between Finn (Ethan Hawke) and Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow), two young people who met when they were just kids. Finn has always been in love with her but Estella plays mind games with him ; when she goes to him, she just turns him on then runs away. After having spent a long time apart, they finally meet again as young adults and the disingenuous Estella starts her dirty game all over again. But Finn just falls for her head over feet, not knowing, yet, if she has feelings for him. The whole movie is full of Christian symbology as Estella’s aunt, Ms. Dinsmoore (Anne Bancroft), an old aristocratic kook living in her giant and desolated house, is a very religious woman with a need to take revenge on men: she learnt Estella how to seduce men and keep them craving for more without never giving anything to them. The two young people will finally be able to come to terms with their education and their false expectations about love to truly meet each other’s needs. The movie truly is a story of self and mutual discovery, told from Finn’s point of view.

Estella’s dual personality is very reminiscent of the film noir’s femme fatale but it’s also very close to the mythic figure of the siren, whose beauty equals her cruelty: her singing entices the sailor but he’ll wreck his ship before he can reach her. The sirens are also creatures linked to the underworld in the different cultures where they appear. In antic mythology, it was told they were Persephone’s companions and received their mythic appearance (half-fish or half-bird depending on the versions and cultures) as a punishment for letting Hades take her away to the underworld to be his queen. It’s no surprise Tori chose this particular creature as a metaphor for the dual nature of the woman in her song, especially given the fact a great deal of the movie is located in Florida, near the ocean (the other half being in New York City).

In the movie, "Siren" can be heard when Finn, who left Florida to be far from Estella, works on a boat as a sailor, so the symbology is pretty clear. The song is used as an ellipse: at the end of the sequence, time has passed and the fate will reunite Finn and Estella. It’s like the hero’s doomed to end up in the girl’s nets even though he runs away from her. Her voice (Tori’s voice in this case) reaches out to him and folds around him to bring him back in her lap. Interestingly enough, Tori sings on two instrumental tracks of the score ("Finn" and "Paradiso Perduto") and her both childish and seducing voice can be heard throughout the movie, like a thread calling out the hero.

Even though the song is quite clear if you consider the story of the movie, the lyrics are quite oblique, elliptic and confusing. It’s worth noting the version Tori sings live now is a bit different of the studio version. When Comic Book Tattoo, the comics anthology inspired by Tori’s songs was published, the lyrics printed in the book were actually the ones of the live version, that then became official.

In this version, she acknowledges the mythic creatures when she sings "and I don’t need the light on/to guide me to/your southern lands of gold/I just go. " In antique mythology, the siren’s song enticed the sailors who tried to follow their music. But they guided them on cliffs where their ships would wreck and they eventually devoured them. A tactic which can be related to the ship wrecking tradition in Cornwall, where Tori lives: in past centuries, people used to shine false lights to attract ships and give them the wrong signal the shores were safe. The vessels would wreck against the cliffs and villagers would then take possession of the wealth inside the boat. Tori made it the subject of her song "Jamaica Inn," inspired by the eponymous novel by Daphne Du Maurier.

The rest of the song is at first unsettling as it plays on the two different meanings of the word siren: the mythic creature as well as the siren of an ambulance and of a cell phone. The song’s protagonist is a troubled and troubling woman who calls for an ambulance and the way she’s described is pretty symbolic. Tori tells us we could think this girl is an angel or a saint, but that’s not really the case ( "reach high/doesn’t mean she’s holy/just means she’s got a cellular handy"). The "almost VANILLA" also denies purity to the protagonist.

Though it is at times a bit unclear, Tori seems to speak to a man attracted to the siren ("know teenage flesh/know the chill/know she breaks/my Siren"). This girl can be seen as a seducer who pretends to be fragile ("know she breaks/my Siren") and calls out men for help everytime only to turn them down; after all, Tori makes a point of saying "Never was one for a prissy girl" before saying the protagonist is the one to "call in for an ambulance." Which could be understood as: this girl sets fire then calls for an ambulance to put it out. Hence her warning to the man in love with her : "You know you’re gonna lie to you/in your own way."

But we could go further and also argue that the girl is trapped by her own seduction game: behind her strong stance of independent and seductive woman, maybe she really "breaks" after all and needs an ambulance for real. She’s definitely not holy but "almost brave," "almost pregnant…"

The lyrics also take a broader and darker meaning when you know about the context under which the song was written. Tori was attracted by the fact it was a real collaborative work with composer Patrick Doyle, and she spent three weeks in London to write and record the song and provide vocals on two instrumental tracks. But in her autobiography Piece by Piece, she recalls she was hemorraging every morning for 27 days because of a medical condition she had suffered for years and had already been operated for: endometriosis.

Tori had suffered a miscarriage in December 1996 but didn’t think she could be pregnant again at the time. She then made an effort to work hard on the project and be present everyday. When shen finally went to the hospital, she learnt she had been pregnant but miscarried again because the pregnancy never really attached. She could go back in London afterwards to finish the project then spent three months recovering of her health issues.

Though we do not know if she settled on the lyrics before or after discovering she miscarried, it’s hard not to see a parallel with her condition in it ("call in for an ambulance," "almost Brave/almost pregnant"). Maybe the mere fact of bleeding a lot everyday could have inspired part of it, especially since she was also writing the tracks of From the Choirgirl Hotel at the time, an album heavily inspired by her first miscarriage.

Also, in January 1994, she told The Baltimore Sun that "Yes, Anastasia," like "Baker Baker," was in part a song about personal healing after acknowledging the trauma of being raped in "Me and a Gun." “It’s about healing for me, that whole experience [“Me and a Gun”, ndrl], and that’s all through this record too, with ‘Baker Baker’ and healing in ‘Anastasia,’ ‘We’ll see how brave you are.’” In this sense, the “almost brave” line could be related to that and partly identify Tori with the song’s protagonist. It should also be noted “brave” is given a capital B in the lyrics sheet of Comic Book Tattoo. A spelling Tori most often uses to refer to Native Americans. As part Cherokee, the term would seem fitting if the song refers to her or at least a side of her.

The presence of the word “vanilla” (in capital letters) in the lyrics, beyond the mere symbol of purity, doesn’t seem innocent. The flavoring was unknown in the Old World, the Spanish explorers discovered it on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the early sixteenth century and gave it its name. The settlers arrival to the New World is referenced by Tori in the “I don’t need a light on/to guide me/to your southern lands of gold,” so it’s pretty likely the word “vanilla” was in part chosen by Tori for that reason.

The botanist Philip Miller was the one to give it its current name in 1754. Vainilla comes from the diminutive of vaina, from the Latin… vagina because of its shape and of the way the pod must be split open to expose its seeds. Which takes us back to a woman’s sexuality but also to pregnancy (the seeds). Though known as a very sweet flavoring and often used to symbolize purity, the nature of the vanilla is pretty dual too, much like the song’s protagonist.

Indeed, according to the Totonac mythology (the people who first cultivated the plant), the vanilla orchid was born when Princess Xanat, who had been forbidden by her father to marry a mortal, ran away to the forest with her lover only to be captured and beheaded. The legend says the vine of the plant grew where their blood touched the ground. This story likely stems from the fact the vanilla orchids are hermaphrodites.

Musically as well as thematically, “Siren” is pretty close of the Boys for Pele era (which referenced a lot the settlers coming to America), although the Great Expectations soundtrack was released in 1998 while Tori was promoting Choirgirl.

Information sources
Piece by Piece, pp. 158-162 (U.K. Plexus edition).