Monday, February 11, 2013

Sylvia, You Deserve Better

My recent obsession with Jarvis Cocker led to my discovering the show he hosts on BBC Radio 6 Music, which then led to my discovering 6 Music in general. And it's pretty great: a commercial-free alternative-rock station, playing lots of new indie music plus some fun, unexpected oldies. I now frequently listen to it at work, instead of relying on my iPod. When I arrive at work in the morning, it's late afternoon in the UK, and Radio 6 is playing the "teatime" show hosted by Steve Lamacq. (And how charmed am I that they call it the teatime show rather than the drive-time show? Very charmed.)

One regular feature that Lamacq does is called the "National Anthem," where he reads a news story (typically a kind of whimsical human-interest story — not a major headline) and invites his listeners to suggest songs whose titles/lyrics have something to do with that situation. For instance, last week Lamacq found a news story about a cosmetics company that plans to market perfumes based on the '70s, '80s, and '90s, and the listeners decided that the appropriate National Anthem for that story was "Smells Like Teen Spirit." You get the picture.

Meanwhile, I've also been following the controversy about the new U.K. cover for the 50th-anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, which ignores the book's sad and serious themes in favor of a colorful, frivolous image of a woman with a powder compact:

(Personally, when I saw the Bell Jar cover, what it most reminded me of is the cover of the 50th-anniversary edition of Breakfast at Tiffany's, another book that people want to pretend is far more full of Midcentury Manhattan Glamour than it really is. But at least the Tiffany's cover is a bit darker-colored and more serious-looking; the Bell Jar one is a total mismatch for the book's themes.)

And then, well, you know I've been listening to a lot of Pulp lately, and I realized that if the Bell Jar cover controversy were a National Anthem story, I knew the perfect song for it. What could it be besides Pulp's "Sylvia"? The one whose chorus goes "I know that you deserve better"?

Obviously, the Sylvia that Jarvis Cocker is singing about isn't Sylvia Plath, but I wonder if Plath is the reason he chose that name for the character in his song. If you're writing about a beautiful and troubled girl, your lyrics will gain an extra resonance if you name the girl "Sylvia," patron saint of the beautiful but troubled. It's a lovely name, and sounds similar to trendy names like "Sophia" and "Olivia," but it's rarely used, perhaps because of its tragic associations.

Which is really a shame. As are so many things related to Sylvia Plath. "You deserve better" is what I'd like to say to her on this, the 50th anniversary of her death. A better book cover. A better marriage. A better era in which to be a female artist.

No comments: