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Phoebe Bridgers and Carmen Maria Machado: pairings from Punisher and Her Body and Other Parties

April 6, 2021 | 12:23pm EDT

Phoebe Bridgers is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter known for her albums Punisher and Stranger in The Alps as well as her collaborations boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center. Carmen Maria Machado is a writer (and AU Alumna :P) known for her memoir In The Dream House and her anthology of speculative short fiction, Her Body and Other Parties. Bridgers often cites Her Body and Other Parties as a favorite book and inspiration for Punisher. As a fan of both Bridgers and Machado, I felt it was my obligation to do my best to pair stories from Her Body and Other Parties with songs from Punisher.

(Spoilers for “The Husband Stitch,” “Inventory,” and “Mothers” follow, so if you’re worried about that you should pause here to read the book)

“The Husband Stitch” x “Moon Song”

While the title of this story refers to the extra stitch doctors will often add when sewing a woman back up after birth to increase their husbands’ pleasure, the story is also a retelling of the classic slumber party horror story about the woman whose head is kept on her neck by nothing but a green ribbon.

In Machado’s telling of the story, the speaker marries a man who is “a little craggy, in that way men sometimes are, and [she] wants” (3). He is liked by her parents, “He is a nice boy, they say. He will be a good man” (6). The speaker says “I have heard all of the stories about girls like me, and I am unafraid to make more of them” (7). Throughout the courtship, “there are two rules: he cannot finish inside of me, and he cannot touch my green ribbon” (7). The beginning of their story is of love and lust, the middle is of increasing control by the husband as he and their son wonder about the speaker’s ribbon, and at the end, the speaker allows her husband to destroy her by untying the green ribbon around her neck.

Similarly, “Moon Song” follows a love that is increasingly destructive, ending with “But you know the killer doesn’t understand.” The speaker in the song and their lover have a love that is similarly all-encompassing to the love in “The Husband Stitch.” Bridgers sings “you pushed me in/And now my feet can’t touch the bottom of you,” implying a deep, consuming love that is drowning in the end. She also sings “And if I could give you the moon/I would give you the moon”--like the speaker in “The Husband Stitch,” the speaker in “Moon Song” is willing to go to great lengths to please their lover.

In these pieces, both Bridgers and Machado leave their audience with more questions than answers. Ultimately, both works could be summarized by Bridgers’ “Moon Song” line “You’re holding me like water in your hands.”

“Mothers” x “Savior Complex”

“Mothers” is a non-linear telling of a relationship between the speaker and a woman she calls “Bad,” exploring the nature of motherhood and also abusive relationships. Bridgers describes “Savior Complex” as “when you get what you asked for and then you’re dating someone who hates themselves,” as the song traces what seems to be a co-dependent, volatile, and exhausting relationship. Both relationships are all-encompassing and draining for the narrator and toxic for both them and their partner.

In “Mothers,” after the speaker meets Bad for the first time, Machado writes “I called her two days later, never having believed more firmly in love at first sight, in destiny. When she laughed on the other end of the line, something inside of me cracked open, and I let her step inside” (48). Similarly, Bridgers sings “Baby, you’re a vampire/You want blood and I promised.” In both pieces, the speaker welcomes their partner into them, alluding to the damage the relationship will cause.

The most direct parallel between the two pieces is in the lines “show me yours, I’ll show you mine” (which is later repeated without “show you mine”) and “She… told me her darkest story and asked about mine” (50). In context, these lines further emphasize the unhealthy codependence of the two relationships, especially when “show you mine” is not repeated, as the speaker in “Savior Complex” is completely sidelining themself for their partner.

“Savior Complex,” as it is so aptly titled, is also an exploration of the speaker’s savior complex. In the first verse, she sings “Overly sincere/Smoking in the car, windows up/crocodile tears,” speaking to some of the tactics she uses to feel like the savior of her partner. It becomes clear throughout the song that the speaker’s partner cannot offer them what they need, in a relationship or to fulfill their savior complex. In the same way, Machado writes “I wanted too much from her, I think. I demanded too much” (56). This section ends with the only point in the piece where we hear a declaration directly from the narrator, who says “I believe in a world where impossible things happen. Where love can outstrip brutality, can neutralize it, as though it never was, or transform it into something new and more beautiful. Where love can undo nature” (56). While much can be said about the way both speakers prioritize love over even their own comfort, the near-absence of the speaker in “Mothers,” despite being told in the first person, mirrors the ways the speaker in “Savior Complex” consistently puts themselves second.

“Inventory” x “I Know The End”

Though Her Body and Other Parties was published in 2017 and Punisher was recorded in 2018 and 2019, both are strangely prophetic, especially in “Inventory” and “I Know The End.” In Bridgers’ interview with Sam Sanders for NPR’s It’s Been a Minute, she summarizes “Inventory” as “it’s a zombie apocalypse, and the way [the story] ends is, [the speaker’s] on this island writing [a list of people she’s slept with] to keep herself sane...But she ends up on this island alone. And I guess I thought if the world was going to end, I'd go up to, like, Big Sur.”

“I Know The End” is part breakup song, part apocalypse song, and also charts the imagined journey to Big Sur that Bridgers references. In both the song and the story, the speaker ends up accepting the inevitability of apocalypse. For Bridgers, this comes in the form of the repetition of “The end is here,” as well as a 19-second, blood-curdling scream that ends with Bridgers gasping for air. In “Inventory,” the speaker sits in her cottage on the island writing lists and says “I keep thinking I can see the virus blooming on the horizon like a sunrise. I realize the world will continue to turn, even with no people on it. Maybe it will go a little faster” (43).

What are you waiting for? stream Punisher, and read Her Body and Other Parties.

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