Last week, at 299 Twitter followers, I offered to let Number 300 pick the next music playlist theme. To my delight, the next follower was one of my favorite bookstores in Philly: Penn Book Center, a West Philly bookshop with a great selection of new fiction and paperbacks, gorgeous art books, and unusual gifts. I always find books there I didn’t even know I was looking for.
Penn Book Center’s Twitter manager suggested “Heartburn” as a theme, adding:
I’m thinking of Nora Ephron’s first book about a marriage falling apart. The main character is a food writer. It’s all about things we love that might hurt us. So maybe spicy foods or acidic sauces or rich dishes that we love but maybe stay with us too long. How does that sound?”
Sounds perfect! Song lyrics across all genres make reference to wanting too much of a good thing, destructive appetites, or the uneasiness in the gut when something seems not quite right. A few good examples show up in previous Food Music Playlists: Rufus Wainwright’s “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” in which he croons “Everything it seems I like’s a little bit sweeter / A little bit fatter, a little bit harmful for me.” Andrew Bird’s weird “Vidalia,” in which obsession becomes intolerance. Pretty much anything on the “Euphemisms” playlist, where food stands in for a desire that threatens to consume the songwriter.
But let’s jump into a batch of all-new selections with a title reference:
Alicia Keys, “Heartburn”
The word “heartburn” make such good wordplay for matters of romance because while it may be a consequence of appetite, its pain is experienced conveniently near the organ we associate most with love and desire, so there’s no need for indelicate descriptions of indigestion or gastrointestinal distress. This campy, sexy live performance underlines what kind of heartburn we’re supposed to imagine here–something much more akin to the colloquial fire in the loins than acid reflux. Though there’s a passing reference to the source of the singer’s condition–something that “tastes so good I can’t resist / getting harder to digest”–the symptoms are more of a full-body response, with “adrenaline rushing in my body” and even “heartburn burning in my soul.”
Feist, “Brandy Alexander”
A Brandy Alexander is a sweet, brandy-based cocktail made of cognac and crème de cacao. Feist’s voice is appropriately sweet and smooth as she croons about a man who “always get me into trouble.” Though the lyrics suggest that she has “an addiction to the worst of him,” there’s no real sense of regret in the light instrumentation and creamy vocals: like the drink and the delectable trouble, the song “goes down easy.”
Ella Fitzgerald, “Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered”
The narrator of this tune certainly feels their romantic distress right in the gut: the lyrics open in the twitchy first stages of infatuation, in which the singer is unable to sleep or otherwise feel the effects of having put away an entire quart of brandy, even with “no Bromo-Seltzer [antacid] handy.”
This song lends itself to full-throated romantic crooning, and is long enough that many performances conclude optimistically with the singer vowing his or her devotion to the “half pint imitation” that has caused such internal distress. But in my opinion, nothing tops Ella’s version–she goes on to describe what happens when love dies and frees her to date again (“thank god”). She reflects on the discomfort of the relationship–“Couldn’t eat, was dyspeptic / Life was so hard to bear / Now my heart’s antiseptic / Since you moved out of there!”
The Beatles, “Savoy Truffle”
According to Wikipedia, “Harrison wrote the song as a tribute to his friend Eric Clapton’s chocolate addiction, and indeed he derived the title and many of the lyrics from a box of Mackintosh’s Good News chocolates. Supposedly all of the confectionery names used in the song are authentic, except cherry cream and coconut fudge.” The chorus would suggest that the real threat of these sweets is tooth decay, but we do also get this warning: “You know that what you eat you are / But what is sweet now, turns so sour.”
To balance out the decided slant toward sweet rather than savory, I’ll return to Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. I haven’t read the novel, but I have often come across an excerpt from the book in which narrator Rachel Samstat reflects on mashed potatoes as a comfort food:
Nothing like mashed potatoes when you’re feeling blue. Nothing like getting into bed with a bowl of hot mashed potatoes already loaded with butter, and methodically adding a thin cold slice of butter to every forkful. The problem with mashed potatoes, though, is that they require almost as much hard work as crisp potatoes, and when you’re feeling blue the last thing you feel like is hard work. Of course, you can always get someone to make the mashed potatoes for you, but let’s face it: the reason you’re blue is that there isn’t anyone to make them for you. As a result, most people do not have nearly enough mashed potatoes in their lives, and when they do, it’s almost always at the wrong time.
Now that’s another kind of heartsickness: cold comfort. So many of the foods we consider comfort foods are rich, laden with salt and fat or sugar and cream, and for that reason are often labor-intensive foods. Perhaps part of the comfort is that they remind the eater of being cared for. But don’t worry, Rachel; if you got as much of those buttery potatoes as you wanted, you might get sick of them too.
The Kinks, “Hot Potatoes”
This song opens with the narrator’s partner telling him to get a job, or else there won’t be anything good to eat. The narrator is unperturbed, cheerfully singing “I said I don’t need your fancy cooking / I like the simple things in life / Just give me those plain hot potatoes / And I’ll be well satisfied.” Cue some lyrics about potatoes, some lyrics about love…. and time goes on, and after so many stanzas about love and hot potatoes it turns out that neither is quite enough to satisfy: “I want your love, I need your love / But all I get is hot potatoes / When I come home late at night / To satisfy my appetite. . . Don’t give me no more potatoes.”
So it goes: at least in the language of lyrics, to feel heartburn is to sin in taste and repent at leisure.