Our Lady of Sensuality, Sarah McLachlan
Life lessons and erotic discovery through music.
When I was twelve years old, Sarah McLachlan convinced me that I ought to lose my virginity atop a cathedral altar. Tucked underneath my sheets, a Walkman safeguarded against my thumping, tabular chest, I would summon “Possession” (taped from the radio, no doubt) and squeeze my eyes shut. My understanding of sex was that it was a gauzy, mystified thing, “Voices trapped in yearning, memories trapped in time,” she crooned, narrating the dream that shot incandescent threads beneath my skin. Straining, I could just see it: me, standing beneath vaulted stain glass, trembling in a white nightgown and grazed with deep shadow. A figure — I rarely could discern him — ran his hands down my skinny arms, goose bumps rising at his touch. I didn’t understand, but I was ready.
I can’t claim creative license for this fantasy, because Sarah McLachlan is responsible for its imagery as well as its soundtrack. My imagination thieved shamelessly from the U.S. version of the “Possession” music video. It’s a velvety bit of media: McLachlan performs in a vast, high-ceiled sanctuary licked by candlelight and drenched in a red glow. Alternately she peeks from behind stone columns, her face placid with the sort of sensual confidence that comes of knowing reciprocated desire.
I encountered “Possession” four years after it launched on the radio waves. And yet, when my ears first pricked to its siren call, it seemed impeccably of the moment. In 1997, we ensconced ourselves in a self-serious, druidic atmosphere. We liked our romance with either Celtic or monastic overtones — preferably both — and Enya reigned as our earth-dwelling goddess. My mother listened to Loreena McKennitt’s The Book Of Secrets in our kitchen — that is, when I hadn’t pinched it to gorge myself on “Dante’s Prayer” and “The Highwayman.” Later that year I would twirl in euphoric circles as the Titanic score issued its lament from my portable stereo. “Possession” did not borrow from these Celtic musical conventions, but its earnest ethereality nonetheless marked it as part of the New Age zeitgeist.
This milieu shaped my coming-of-age accordingly; I regarded my fresh sexual curiosity with gravitas. To sing about sex at a site of ritual seemed appropriate; sexual awakening — and careful study of the Pure Moods soundtrack — had inspired me to revere erotic intimacy as something Delphic and monumental. The original music video for “Possession,” is full of lush and irreverent Biblical evocations: An amatory Pietà, featuring a soft-skinned Jesus with tangled, pliant curls, evokes the same eroticized devotion that imbued my pre-teen phantasms.
“Possession,” I later learned, takes the perspective of a man consumed by obsessive lust, and was inspired by a couple of McLachlan’s male fans whose ardency had lapsed into unsettling mania. In 1997, though, I was dazzled by the lyrics, slipping between erotic yearning and spiritual devotion. What befell a body to evoke such blistering proclamations of desire? Horniness and holiness — through Sarah McLachlan they forged a double helix that I could not untwine. I was a pagan through and through, and the only ecstasy I had ever known was pubescent thirst.
Without my headphones, and Sarah McLachlan’s call to worship, the havoc of free-floating sexual energy teased me like a hard-kept secret. That summer, I pined after Taylor Hanson and my next-door neighbor (they were equally indifferent). It would be months before my first period, which at the time seemed a grievous biological oversight. McLachlan released Surfacing that July, and Vh1 and Top 40 radio presented me with my deliverance. “Building A Mystery,” “Sweet Surrender,” and of course, the recently revivified “Possession” became the melodies through which I parsed my fledgling erotic interiority.
“Building A Mystery” introduced me to the trope of the “beautiful, fucked up man” (henceforth, the BFUM), a fantastical lover carpentered out of contradictions. But I had never so much as held hands with a boy, and so I eagerly accepted the BFUM as a living species. He became my costar, my fellow conspirator in those cathedral trysts. Modeled after the anonymous beloved in the “Building A Mystery” music video, he was often an ethereal figure preoccupied by curious acts of romantic devotion. He was sometimes Taylor Hanson, or Johnny Rzeznick, or Billy Corgan. You might find him muttering in the dark, besieged by demons, but if you carefully lifted his head from his hands, he would heal through your gaze. His vulnerability engendered lustful as well as maternal tenderness. I wanted to clasp him against my hypothetical bosom; I wanted to — I didn’t know, though according to television’s depictions of sex it involved him hovering over me, whispering “Are you ok?” Despite his brokenness, I could entrust myself to the BFUM — he would be as gentle and compassionate with me as he was reckless with himself.
The lyrics to “Sweet Surrender” articulated the ambivalence that shaped my burgeoning sexuality: “Take me in, no questions asked / You strip away the ugliness that surrounds me / (Who are you?) / Are you an angel? Am I already that gone?” I assumed the song was addressed to an absent partner (“I miss the little things / I miss everything about you”), but they held no relevance for me. I was tantalized by the possibility of sex, but not so that someone else could play the angel in my narrative, or so I could kneel to his benevolent erotic authority. Like the lover in so many of my “Possession” fantasies, the male body I desired was little more than a specter. Through him, I could reroute my lust and, however clumsily, perform self-worship.
I discovered Sarah McLachlan the same year that I began watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and thus encountered my idealized lover’s consummate manifestation: Angel. He was a vampire plagued with a soul and by romantically involvement with the show’s titular character. As I whimpered through the Season Two finale, I acknowledged McLachlan’s haunting breath — the episode ended with “Full Of Grace” — as a foregone conclusion. Buffy lost her virginity to Angel in the second season, and, soon after, she lost him; desire could condemn us to hell as easily as it could transport us to heaven.
In 1999, during the summer before my freshman year of high school, I saw a preview for Brokedown Palace, starring Claire Danes. The preview featured Delerium’s 1997 “Silence” with vocals by Our Lady Sarah McLachlan. The original album version sounds as if it were recorded in a monastery; its lyrics bridle the twin aches of physical passion and spiritual forsaking that we associate with Surfacing. And although I encountered “Silence” two years after McLachlan had co-written it, little had changed in me: I was unkissed, skittish, and paranoid.
Over the course of junior high I admit I had neglected Sarah McLachlan, largely due to the revelation that was Tori Amos and an inexorable aversion to Top 40 radio darlings. I had determined that I could not be interesting unless my every predilection was considered an acquired taste. I stashed my Tiger Beat magazines and shamefully concealed my crushes on the men they featured. Taylor Hanson had become a liability, but Billy Corgan — I could still own up to him. As for McLachlan, I never publicly disowned her — how could I? — nor did I question the potency of her voice: drowsy and honeyed until it soared to the sky. But I had limited myself to a diet of relative esotericism.
“Silence” finally beckoned me back to McLachlan’s warm, striptease devotionals. “Have you forgotten that desire makes you powerful?” it seemed to ask. I had. I have many times since. But entombed in my most secret self is a life lesson cultivated through listening McLachlan. When I return there, I remember that self-love need not be an evasive flicker, or, like a gust of wind, a heady rush. It can breed from desire and settle in our bones, not as an effect of someone else’s admiration, but instead catalyzed by the pleasure inherent to living as flesh and blood. We can seduce ourselves. We calibrate our worth according to external metrics and scavenge for our own beauty in other gazes. How fortunate we are that our favorite songs are patient with us when everyone else is not.
Rachel Vorona Cote is a writer in Washington, D.C. She has written for The New Republic, Hazlitt, Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and a number of other venues. She is also a contributor at Jezebel.