[Description: Cover of Charlotte Martin's album Dancing on Needles, which depicts Martin, shown in profile, in some sort of woodsy outdoor environment. She appears to be looking up at something out-of-frame.]
When I first started hearing about Charlotte Martin’s album Dancing on Needles in some preliminary press coverage last year, I was both excited to hear the album and more than a bit skeptical when it came to the tone of some of the coverage. Some of this coverage focused on the fact that Martin’s new record had been inspired by her battle with severe chronic nerve pain, and the apparent “happy ending” to her story; as someone with chronic pain, it seems to me that this type of narrative is often trotted out in order to reassure the audience that the subject is “better now”–even though that’s not the way it works out for most folks with chronic pain. For many of us who deal with chronic pain issues, there is no “ending,” happy or not; chronic pain is, by its very definition, unending. Oddly, many narratives of disability in popular culture propose an end or accord some sort of “inspirational” power to a disabling health condition, often meant to reassure many nondisabled folks’ existing attitudes about disability.
Popular culture, at least in the United States, tends to engage with disability in ways that are both extremely limited and highly specific. There are a number of well-worn tropes about disability and ability that popular culture drags out time and time again, namely: Disability is always tragic and awful. Illness and/or disability can be turned into a 100% positive “opportunity” to discover what’s really important in life, or to teach the person with the disability or illness–and the nondisabled people around them–a crucial life lesson that they never would have learned if not for their illness/disability. Disabled people are freakish, abnormal, scary, and are thus not deserving of basic human treatment; they deserve only pity, charity, or to be gawked at. They are constantly angry about their lot in life (think of House, for example–even with all of the complexities that make him such an interesting character). They are just jealous of people who are normal because they themselves are not normal. People with disabilities can “overcome” their limitations, but only by doing amazing things that, above all, serve to inspire nondisabled people (what’s up, Supercrip)!
Dancing on Needles, thankfully, does none of the above. If you’re looking for a completely inspirational record, or one with easy answers, you may want to look elsewhere.
Charlotte Martin has made quite a few albums. I have heard almost all of them (exception: Piano Trees, which apparently was a tour-exclusive album and one that I haven’t been able to track down). They are all spectacular in their own ways, but this one might be my favorite, and not just because many of the songs are about dealing with chronic pain and the uncertainties that it poses. The entire album is a complex, layered work about dealing with chronic pain and its uncertainties. We have all seen works of art about disability that rely on one or more of the tropes and narratives listed above. To which I say, YAWN, because most of the aforementioned tropes and themes get excruciatingly boring after a while (not to mention overused), and then you have a lot of people thinking that those tropes are the only ways to engage with disability/ability in creative work, simply because those are the stories that have been used so often. Dancing on Needles does not fit into any of those narratives quite so easily, at least not with lyrics such as:
My reflection is a woman I do not know/Thunderclouding ’cause she hasn’t got far to go/I haven’t got far to go (from “Any Minute Now”)
Great ideas/God, we had great ideas/Didn’t know this could happen to me/Struggling/To see the meaning in all of the meaningless/I wasted when I had you here (from “Life Vest”)
Of course, there are multiple ways to interpret the album’s lyrics, including those excerpted above, but since the album has been described repeatedly in articles and press materials as being inspired, in part, by Charlotte’s recent experiences with chronic pain, I’d be pretty surprised if at least some of the lyrics did not refer to it at all. Even if the lyrics are not straightforwardly about chronic pain throughout, all of the songs on this album add up to an incredibly interesting, rewarding record that seems, more generally, to be about life changes and the uncertainties that they pose. I’d argue (mostly from personal experience!) that chronic pain, and living with pain, can be and often is a major life change. Learning to live with pain entails some sort of change, usually; Dancing on Needles is a stunning example of how great art, and great music, can spring from tremendous life changes.
Musically, it is also a great pop album. I hope that this will not be the only pop record that features a first-person experience of disabling chronic pain as one of its main themes. Of course, it’s probably not going to completely revolutionize pop music and that genre’s treatment of disability, because it is one album. The important thing is that this album is a starting point, and one that has set the bar pretty high at that.