Sarah McLachlan's Surfacing: A Blueprint for Navigating Millennial Girlhood

Sarah McLachlan, NYC, September 1995.
Photo: Bob Berg (Getty Images)

When I was a very little girl, my first love was just the entire concept of older girls. They weren’t crushes exactly, more like a sweeping awe at the idea of being a female teenager—freedom, possibility, a two-piece swimsuit with actual bra cups and two whole breasts to put in them. Having had just half a decades’ experience at being alive, being an older girl was literally the only thing I’d ever had to look forward to. Especially since the biggest events of my childhood had thus far pretty much been: My parents deciding, basically in the maternity ward the day of my birth that they couldn’t stand each other and making that feeling legal around my third birthday; my baby teeth coming in grey, requiring surgical removal; and a hubcap lodged in a tree in our front yard loosening itself at a moment unfortunate for the top of my skull, which introduced me to both the words “stitches” and “concussion.” Compared to me, who was largely invisible save for the occasional need to remove my teeth or sew my head back together, teenage girls were a whole different brand of person, lovely and perfumed top-shelf-of-the-curio-cabinet humans, content just to exist on earth in order to make it pretty and fun.

My sister is eight years older, and so when she was starting high school in 1989, I was starting first grade. Once, after their youth group meeting (the very gatherings where they set my rock albums on fire), she and two of her friends took me to Taco Bell. Their names were not Tiffany and Brandy, but they were close enough to understand that these were formidable, Heathers-caliber girls, their thick, tiered bangs artfully barrel-rolled and vertically shellacked until they’d fashioned something resembling a baroque dormer encircling oeil-de-boeuf faces streaked magenta with Cover Girl blush. They wore blazers with brassy buttons, and their loofah-like chiffon hair bows smelled of Rave Number 4 Mega Hold and Exclamation! perfume. In their Taco Bell booth, I cowered in a corner, too intimidated to eat or speak, which was ultimately to my benefit because on that day I learned older girls will tell you everything if you just shut the fuck up and listen.

In particular, these girls had found an illicit love note from a girl they hated to Tiffany’s crush Brian, who had flirted with her at Army of the Lord rehearsals yet been weird ever since. She’d had the audacity to sign the note SWAK, an absolute indicator that she was planning to break her purity pledge to be at the very least fingered by Brian. I did not know what any of those terms meant, but as with Penny’s abortion in Dirty Dancing, it did not matter if I could not grasp the minutiae. The feeling was transmitted just fine.

Over the next six years, I learned a lesson the tween little sister character Danielle Chase explains in an early episode of My So-Called Life: keep to the corners and pretend to be reading. As a younger sister, I also realized early that this approach often means no one even knows you’re in the room listening, and then, at some point, they just accept you’re there. Outside of watching Bold and the Beautiful in the summers with my grandmother, lurking near teenagers provided nearly the entirety of my early understanding of human relationships. A friend’s older sister introduced me to VC Andrews; a middle-school neighbor to Sweet Valley High; once, while my babysitter was in the shower, I worked up the nerve to look at nearly two whole pictures from the issue of Playboy featuring Drew Barrymore.

But by the time I was an actual teenager, I’d come to understand that those girls were full of shit. Because for all my listening, nothing that good was happening. While the boys were still child-sized, I fell asleep one night to wake up five-seven and always just positively slicked with oil despite the layers of Clinique double powder quadruple powdering my T-zone. A neighborhood boy who barely reached my earlobe had rung my doorbell, stood on his toes, jammed his tongue in my mouth, and ran away, an encounter that I thought might mean I had a boyfriend but did not. That was the extent of my first two years of teenage experience.

It was during these greasy doldrums I learned via Sarah McLachlan’s perfect album Surfacing that it’s twenty-something-year-old girls who know the fuck what’s up. As Sarah (who has been my best friend since 1997, thus granting me the right to call her by her Christian name) sings in the track “Arms of an Angel,” the album’s “sweet madness/glorious sadness” was perfect for hiding in a bedroom atop a comforter from the Girls’ Bedroom section of a JC Penney’s catalog, teaching myself to smoke cigarettes bummed from a senior girl while my parents were at the casino, and conjuring up recollections of the faces of boys at school I’d never spoken to in my life and imagining them falling so in love with me that we just completely lost our fucking minds. On a late-night talk show, I remember a smarmy host asking Sarah if she was aware that American women had named Surfacing their favorite album to “make love” to.

But as an American girl, I wanted to make love to the album itself in order to get the passionate experiences described in Surfacing, of which I could gather the connotation if not the exact denotation, as fully integrated into my own body as possible. That is why I listened to Surfacing in its entirety at least once a day, every day for approximately two years.

Around 16, I began to have a taste of real-life experiences more closely resembling those I had gleaned the scent of while observing motionless in the corners of my sister’s slumber parties, then pitched into full-blown fantasies courtesy of my best friend Sarah. A shitty boyfriend who was violent before I had quite learned that boyfriends were not allowed to choke me, a best guy friend secretly in love with me waiting just off to one side making sure for a full year that other guy didn’t hurt me in any way that would last forever, trying and failing to make a move on a girl I thought might be into girls outside a rave, a life-alteringly magical four months with a sweet, beautiful, fucked up 18-year-old boy who would break my heart at least 473 times over the course of seven years before finally tearfully confessing he was marrying someone else. And as my life got dramatic, Surfacing became something I was embarrassed to admit had briefly consumed the entirety of my obsessive thoughts as a brand new teenager, akin to the shame of the childhood summer I spent hidden up a tree in my grandmother’s yard, thinking of nothing but One Life to Live’s Luna using her love and psychic ability to save Max from that cave.

But covid has been nothing for me if not regressive, and one night when I was profoundly stoned, “Full of Grace,” the song the true fans will know as “Winter Is Cold (And Bitter),” Surfacing’s penultimate track, was featured in an episode of Dawson’s Creek. The vinyl copy of Surfacing I immediately ordered upon hearing that 30-second snippet was delivered the day before Christmas Eve. On Christmas, my best friend, who had spent his Surfacing years listening quietly in his own rural Louisiana bedroom marveling at the range of human emotion he would be allowed to feel once it was not dangerous for him to say he was gay out loud, sat with me on the hardwood floor of our Los Angeles apartment, both of us just roilingly drunk and belting out every single syllable to an album neither of us had heard since beepers were a stylish means of communication. Drunk as I was, for the first time, I experientially understood what it means to be an unraveled archive of failure, as Sarah calls herself in “Black and White.” But to that feeling, I immediately countered “No, you’re not. It feels like you are but you’re not,” realizing that I had become an older girl, instinctually telling the younger one that I know exactly what’s happening. You have been in situations that are shitty and you have done things that are shitty but those two are not the same thing as being forever shitty.

On sober listen, I realized the entire album tells, start to finish, a story most of us live many times over the course of the transition from girls who know nothing beyond the information provided by older girls to people who know what the fuck is up. While even Sarah McLachlan has acknowledged that she has, at times, felt a little embarrassed by the vehemence with which women forged the square her album claims in our cultural tapestry, let me say directly to you Sarah, since you are, of course, reading this, Surfacing is a goddamn masterwork of Gen X telling the oldest of Gen Y exactly what kind of bullshit is about to go down. I simply did not know what I did not know and therefore could not heed your warning at that time.

Take the album’s opening track, “Building a Mystery,” about a “beautiful fucked up man” who loves studying ancient religions and throwing tantrums. What Sarah is telling me, I can see now, is that she has met, and I will meet, a person Izzy Camina has accurately monikered a “Local Indie Softboy.” He is perhaps the best artist in our MFA program or plays drums in a popular band in our college town or he volunteers for a thing and thinks we might be a good volunteer as well or he swiped us on a dating app because he’s super into thinking about cults and fucking loves Snapped too. He “wears sandals in the snow” and is “beautiful with an edge and a charm.” As a 14-year-old, this was the start of a movie starring a young Johnny Depp. “Fuck him Sarah!” I cheered as a child. Now, I recognize this as the beginning of something like the inciting incident offspring born from the unholy union of Norah Ephron and Emily Brontë. Fuck him, Sarah. By which I mean please, do not fuck this man, Sarah.

The very next song is called “I Love You.”

She fucked that man. I mean, I did too. I’m not shaming either of us. Here we are smiling ear to ear just to see this nocturnal Rasta-enthusiast crossing the road, and we are pretending that we forgot to tell him we loved him, but the reality is, he’s already gone. Probably to a gig or an industry party or a reading that he’d totally have invited us to but we’re not going to know anybody and it’s probably going to be pretty boring. Let’s chase after him, Sarah, and stab him several times.

But no. Instead, by the very next song, “Sweet Surrender,” we’re asserting that the “life I left behind me was a cold one,” because it’s true that at least one of us doesn’t have much of a family and has definitely thought about the kind of glamorous club that comes from being involved in a brilliant man’s Zelda-but-he’s-nice-to-me kind of situation. Once gaining admittance to that club we, or at least one of us, would have supported this brilliant man to at least a Stanley Hyman-but-surely-better-than-that brilliance. So let’s just sweet surrender to this man whose big draw is that he writes suicide poems because surrender, we’ve decided, is all we have to give. God damn it.

In a little break from the inevitable, Sarah and I have disappointed an older woman relative. Hers is named “Adia.” This is one of two songs on the album to which I could relate from the jump and relate to this very second. Look team, let’s leave that woman to her misery still trying to peddle the concept of her innocence. Not worth our time.

Oh, Sarah no. The song “Do What You Have to Do” is not, and I cannot stress this enough, what we have to do. This man clearly does not love us the way that we either do or imagine we do love him. He fucking walked away when we tried to tell him we loved him. Did you not hear your own song? And I know you think this person is a “monster broken by the rules of love,” but I promise us, he is just a dude who is going to get through this wearing a “cross from a faith that died before Jesus came” phase and get his MBA so he can go work with his dad. In six years we will double-tap a picture of him with his family in white button-down shirts at the beach on Instagram before getting back to the artistic projects we actually kept doing. In this track, we are “ever swiftly moving/trying to escape this desire” and that’s a great instinct for us. I love that we have the sense to recognize that we don’t know how to let this dude go. Let’s follow that up with some figuring it out.

What would help, we’ve decided with the song “Witness,” is that we’re going to fuck him what we tell ourselves will be one last time that we secretly hope will actually be the start of a whole new album about love and second chances, aren’t we?

Yes, that is what we are doing. And oh, here, let’s promise this dude we “won’t weigh him down with good intentions.” We are mysterious girls with ethereal feelings that can hold many desires at the same time, so he should know it’s chill. He’s totally allowed to pretend he thinks this encounter means the same to both of us while we’re just over here burning in heaven or whatever. Neat. Great. We’re doing this.

“Will a change come while we’re waiting?” It won’t, you know that. We have been waiting and nothing has heretofore changed, so that would be an indicator of future developments. And while we’re talking about this, misery has not been made beautiful right before our eyes. We have gotten ourselves into a situation with this man where everyone is taking their clothes off when what we should do is drop it. All of us.

See, we didn’t drop it.

And now we’re in this dark, cold hotel room feeling endless because we’re alone, save for each other and I guess vaguely Biblical supernatural creatures. Before “Arms of the Angel” was the sad shelter pet song, it was the “I have absolutely humiliated myself by showing affection that this person clearly does not return” anthem. We spent all our time waiting for this stupid second chance, and it was not, on reflection after we’ve had it, the break that would make it okay. And the fact that the song is in both the first and second person is proof that Sarah knew this was going to happen to me even as, at 14, I was so stupid I thought this song was about Meg Ryan falling in love with a literal angel played by Nicholas Cage. My initial false interpretation led to some real Greek tragedy future misunderstanding, but again, that’s not your fault, Sarah. You were trying to warn me but it’s like when a bloody ghost has a message in a scary movie, a bit difficult to look past the ghost and think about possible applications for the message. But we’re here now, and it would absolutely be a boon to be pulled from the wreckage of our silent reverie like, at this moment, because it is truly some CNN tornado footage-looking shit, so it certainly is lucky the arms of this angel are here. But who is the angel in this scenario, Sarah? Is it the friendship we’ve made along the way?

“Black and White” is the most “upbeat” song of a decidedly downbeat album that just blasts the hell in with some kicky drums and then fades to what I like to think of as With Honors Soundtrack style campus-movie thrumming. And atop that thrum, finally, we have a song about the advisability of dropping it.

“I put aside/I put away/I push it back to get through each day,” we tell ourselves. Good. Keep doing that. But then, as the college-movie soundtrack beat informs us, we are, quite obviously, going to need to use these experiences to make ourselves artists. We are saying “unravel me” like it’s a command, but we are talking to ourselves here, pal. How much of this thread we’re unspooling should we incorporate because while everyone loves an easy story, they really hate a fool. May I make a suggestion here? Let’s just lean in to the whole of our undoing, lay it all out there?

Wow okay yes, we are archives of our failure. Excellent leaning in. Let’s just start wrapping this up and publish these documents, shall we? Glad we are in full agreement on this.

But now, here right at the home stretch, a small problem. In nearly the final track, Sarah and I finally disagree. In the second to last song on the album, the lyrics read

“If all of the strength and all of the courage

Come and lift me from this place

I know I can love you much better than this

Full of grace, full of grace

My love”

That is not what I heard as a 14-year-old and it is not what I heard until reading the lyrics for the first time in writing this essay. While I understand that the song is literally called “Full of Grace,” this essay should serve as definitive proof that taking things literally is not a talent I possess, and so I heard:

“But it breaks, but it breaks

My heart”

Now that I’ve read rather than heard them, I can recognize the actual lyrics and not the ones I made up. It’s easy. They were always there. But the song, a promise to love someone better as the final thesis in an album where she has demonstrably loved this dude plenty, feels so oddly out of place. Stop loving this dude.

Sarah’s promise is ultimately an “I’ll try better,” while mine is an “I’m not trying anymore because it hurts me to continue to do this.” I think I must have filled in those lines the way I did because for fuck’s sake, here we are acknowledging we’re being pulled down by the undertow and never thought we could feel so low and are really and truly contemplating letting go. The only area toward which we should be focusing our attentions right now is holding on to ourselves.

This is also the second song on this album I felt I could understand from the first listen, denotation, connotation, and all. That sinking feeling, “clawing for solid ground,” Sarah called it. I’d spent all my time waiting, as an earlier line goes, to grow up, completely filling myself with stories and feelings stolen from other people while I sat quiet. They were a promise I would be an older girl someday with a chance to escape a brutally lonely childhood, hair fractured by bizarre tragedy with lots more to come and beleaguered by interpersonal sadness I did not yet have context for, uplifted by those beautiful girls I knew weren’t my friends but felt like them as I compulsively consumed soap operas and memorized lyrics for company in the endlessness that I felt. But there is a compromise here between what Sarah McLachlan wrote and the lyrics I have misattributed to her for 23 years.

First of all, Sarah and I must agree to forget about that person back in the hotel. Additionally, the first and second person both mean us here, just like they did in “Arms of an Angel,” and therefore it is our own strength and courage that are coming to lift us from this place where we feel like letting go. And finally, now that “you” means “us,” just chock full of fucking grace, we must move forward in the knowledge that we can love ourselves much better than this. If we can agree to these terms, smart hot older girl, then we’ve got a deal and can waltz into the final, instrumental track, “Last Dance,” as friends once more. It’s better this way.

DISCUSSION

aliceinwunderland
Alice

Loved this piece. I used to drive around listening to this album my senior year of high school and Full of Grace will always be associated with Buffy.