Reviving “Ophelia”: On Returning to the Music of Natalie Merchant

Jenny Boyar writes about her midlife rediscovery of singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant.

Reviving “Ophelia”: On Returning to the Music of Natalie Merchant

MY ADOLESCENCE WAS spelled out in three letters, large and animated, flashing neon from the television screen. Not GOD, but close enough: MTV. In the earlier years, I could only watch at my childhood neighbor’s house, my own home being one of no-frills cable. There, the network’s then-steady stream of music videos provided vital accompaniment to our after-school energy and antics. We’d flop around my neighbor’s living room, practically flying over furniture to the tune of a mid-nineties musical cavalcade that whirred by in dizzying succession.

One video consistently brought us to a halt. Within the visual milieu of that era—maybe best described as thrashing angst with a splash of wild color—this music video was comparably understated. Rendered in black-and-white, the plot was little more than a woman walking around New York City taking Polaroid photos. And we stood, transfixed: “Have I been lost inside myself and my own mind?”

I can’t imagine that, at nine years old, I fully grasped the meaning of those words, or any other lyrics in the song. But my mind was developed enough for me to identify it as a place I could get lost in. The woman on-screen also bore a subtle resemblance to my mother, even if my mom’s boomer generation had long aged out of such bohemian wandering.

“She’s so cool,” we would swoon, with the occasional burst of “I love this song!” as we bopped around to the minimalist but catchy percussive beats.

“You girls are way too young to know what good music really is,” my neighbor’s elderly babysitter would contribute from the couch, casting us a reproachful gaze before dozing off again as we bounded into the kitchen, the song’s final bongo lines fading away.

At the time, musical artists could be mysteries. We could see in the video’s opening credits that the singer was called Natalie Merchant and her song was “Carnival,” but we could manage to glean very little else. If I wanted to find lyrics, I had to consult liner notes. And I did: Tigerlily, the 1995 album from which “Carnival” was the first single, became the first CD I ever owned. At age 10, already aware that I often preferred the company of words and music to people, I would sit on the floor of my childhood bedroom amid a flurry of CD inserts. Poring carefully over lyrics, I would listen to the music while my imagination, unencumbered by screens and rapidly accessible information, conjured up all kinds of worlds.

Perspective, whether I was aware of it or not, was likely what drew me into the video for “Carnival.” There was a resonance of observation in the way the singer positioned herself, and her perspective was familiar but also illuminating. From my vantage point in the suburbs of New Jersey, I had seen for myself New York City’s contrast between poverty and glamour—the dichotomies, even, between hardship and the relative comforts of my own life. It was not the colorful carnivals of my childhood storybooks; it was a glimpse at the darker underbelly of the dancing beast.

The album Tigerlily included other overlooked perspectives: of people with disabilities, of the devotion of an aging married couple. Merchant frequently narrated in the first person, her smooth contralto inviting listeners into the rich tapestry of lives.

I still didn’t know much about Natalie Merchant, ultimately. But the green and orange Tigerlily CD, more colorful than “Carnival” yet similarly enigmatic in its simplicity, had a permanent spot in my bright purple boom box. It played on loop in an earth-toned blur until I wore it out.


Just around the time I was introduced to Natalie Merchant’s music at nine years old, psychologist Mary Pipher’s book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1994) made cultural waves as an exposition of girlhood and adolescence. Named for the character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Pipher’s book is structured as a series of case studies that all follow a similar pattern: young girls burst with energy and innate confidence, which peaks around age nine, only to slip into a lifelong descent. According to Pipher, that age is when self-awareness meets cultural pressures and girls begin to grapple with a range of struggles. Reviving Ophelia’s argument has been made many times since, necessarily criticized and expanded upon, but the crux of the notion of adolescence as a plummeting turning point remains true for many.

Reviving Ophelia was released at the beginning of my adolescence; the end would be marked by national tragedies like September 11, and cultural shifts that would cast my childhood into the calm before a storm of screens and search engines, reality seduced into the subliminal planes of the internet. There were other, smaller events in-between, too numerous to recount or even recall: the dismissive attitudes, the cajoling that would grow into hungry glares, the comments about—then violations against—my body that I would eventually direct inward.

For my generation, adolescence only reverberated into a more collectively harrowing frequency of offenses against women that would punctuate our lives at pivotal stages: wars rooted in power and patriarchy, the election of an openly misogynist president over history’s first female major candidate, a global health crisis ending in the swift revocation of women’s reproductive rights. Pipher had written Reviving Ophelia, however problematically, as an exclamation point of warning, but our discourses demanding change were silenced by one global sentence-stopper after another.

There was little chance for revival.

In Hamlet, Ophelia comes most substantially into focus as a casualty of the titular protagonist’s unraveling sanity and Denmark’s growing discontents. Initially, she floats through scenes to offer brief one-liners, existing as a passive reflection of other characters. Her words become most weighted when her grief brings her teetering across the line of sanity; she is most poetic when she is most dismissed by the world, the songs that flow from her bitter with “tears seven times salt.”

In the end, she drowns in her own glamour, the cause hovering ambiguously between suicide and a lethal fall from a tree while attempting to make art out of its branches. Pipher chose Ophelia as an overarching metaphor for her study because, in her reading, Ophelia loses herself in her love for powerful men—a predicament that is perhaps best voiced by King Claudius in the play’s penultimate act: “Divided from herself and her fair judgement, / Without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts.”

Had I been following Merchant’s career more closely throughout the 1990s, I would have known that Ophelia served as inspiration and namesake for the follow-up album to Tigerlily. Merchant’s Ophelia (1998) is not fully in the spirit of Shakespeare or Pipher. In fact, her Ophelia isn’t a spirit at all: she is a vibrant cast of female characters so developed that they may as well exist in the flesh, showcased across both the album and a short film that was made especially for it. Ophelia’s title song, while dark, pulsates more with power than with tragedy:

Ophelia’s mind went wandering
You’d wonder where she’d gone
Through secret doors, down corridors
She’d wander them alone

I now find in this music an alternative path to my own. What would have happened had I wandered through different doors? Had I not lost sight of myself in the darker corridors, a metaphoric type of drowning? Had an inner compass of choice, of genuine agency, not given way to mindless algorithms?

In this alternate history, I hear other songs by Merchant that change the course of my life: “Tell Yourself” (2001), “Break Your Heart” (1998), this time before I stunted myself into years of depression and self-destructive behavior; “Just Can’t Last” (2001), “Ladybird” (2014), before a string of relationships into which I allowed myself to disappear even further. Merchant was singing directly to me, had I just been listening.

It’s not about being nine again; it’s about wanting to be free again. And wanting, more importantly, to fight for that freedom.


Last year, Natalie Merchant released Keep Your Courage, her ninth solo studio album and first album of totally new material in nearly a decade.

It was released in a year in which I seldom said no to concerts. And I wasn’t alone: after an unprecedented stretch of isolation, as the worst of COVID-19 finally seemed to be slipping into our collective past, FOMO was in full force. The live music industry was churning with pent-up pandemic energy, as beloved artists burst onto the scene with massive tours that filled entire arenas. Nostalgia acts flourished. I found myself especially poised to enjoy this musical surge—because, at 37, I finally had the financial means but also because, at 37, I found myself childless, single, and, yet again, overcoming heartbreak.

At first, the Natalie Merchant concert was just another semi-impulsive addition to my already packed calendar. I caught wind of it while attending a performance by Sarah McLachlan, founder of the legendary feminist festival Lilith Fair, for which Merchant herself had been a co-headliner. McLachlan hadn’t even finished her set when I was on my phone buying tickets, having spotted Merchant’s name in the venue program. A specific type of excitement stirred somewhere within me, but I didn’t give it much thought beyond that. I had long ago allowed Natalie Merchant’s music to recede into my childhood, swept away with the world’s tsunami of changes.

“I just hope she’ll play ‘Carnival,’” I would say to my friends as, two weeks later, we filed into a venue filled to capacity.

She did play “Carnival.” But that came at the tail end of a concert that began with Merchant, then approaching 60, floating barefoot across the stage, a vision in flowing skirts and long gray hair. Keep Your Courage had dropped a week before the show, and she politely demanded that the audience put their phones away to hear it.

“I promise there will be songs where you can all video yourselves to your heart’s content,” she laughed into the microphone, as phones slipped sheepishly into purses, pockets. “Let’s just be here together for a while.”

I didn’t need to put my phone away; I was too transfixed to even contemplate pulling it out. Once again, as I had been at nine years old, I was brought to a halt by Natalie Merchant. Except, this time, there was no screen between us—she was in front of me, in full and vibrant color, less bohemian and more flowery, obviously older, yet fundamentally familiar, singing: “So you took a hit and the ship is going down / Hold on, hold on.”

Now, Merchant was singing from the perspective of an adult woman who makes her way through life only to look back in palpable disappointment. Now, she was urging that woman to keep her courage.

The concert lasted for three hours or three minutes, and without our habitual distractions, there was no choice but to be completely present for all of it. Merchant had an ensemble of musicians behind her as well as a procession of literary figures within her, brought to life through soaring lyrics: she sang of Aphrodite, Ophelia, Narcissus, Walt Whitman. She sang and spun and spun, and blew everyone away.

After the concert, for the first time since probably the time of Tigerlily, I purchased a physical album in order to read the liner notes. In them, Merchant describes Keep Your Courage as “a song cycle that maps the journey of a courageous heart.” Referencing the etymology of “courage” in the Latin word “cor,” for “heart,” she recounts the album’s inception during the COVID-19 pandemic but insists on a broader, more fluid engagement with the many facets of feeling. “Love,” she writes, “is a battle to survive.”

In 2023, my curiosity did not need to end with liner notes. I now had the internet to perform the comprehensive, instantaneous deep dive into Natalie Merchant that my nine-year-old self had lacked; my friend had even pulled up a 2023 New Yorker profile during the show’s intermission. I learned of Merchant’s extensive body of creative work since Tigerlily and her career with 10,000 Maniacs before that, of her activism, of her Library of Congress appointment, and of her motherhood. I learned that the pandemic had signified for her, as for most, a time of great personal strife. A fervent, encompassing love was what she took away from all of it.

For the first time in years, I was invigorated by a unique kind of love—that of entering the world of a musical artist, of becoming a full-fledged fan. I don’t know if the gravitational pull of Merchant’s music would have been so strong had the circumstances of the world and my life not left me with a yearning for connection. I don’t know that it matters. With this musical awakening, I was experiencing a burgeoning return of the confidence I had once possessed many years ago, before I learned all the ways I could doubt it.

I saw Merchant perform at a total of five concerts over the remainder of the year. My relationship with music became communal again: I bought my parents concert tickets, and together we watched her sing in front of a full orchestra. I met wonderful people and witnessed my own friends’ appreciation of her music grow as we, in turn, grew closer. I traveled to shows in Europe, my second trip abroad since the pandemic stifled international travel.

None of this was divorced from events in an increasingly futile world; my European trip in particular coincided with conflict in the Middle East and global travel warnings. At each show I attended, Merchant concluded with her 2014 song “The End,” which she performed while unfurling a flag bearing a giant peace symbol. She had written “The End” about displaced populations; it was removed from her 2001 album Motherland at the last minute due to the events of September 11, even though the song preceded the events. Merchant had seen The End—or rather a larger arc of meaning spanning beginning, middle, and end—even then. I lament not hearing it.


Merchant’s latest album, Keep Your Courage, is glimmering with female mythological figures who, like Ophelia, have historically possessed power inextricably bound up with tragedy. Joan of Arc, standing dignified on the album’s cover, is less myth than martyr and was, notably, burned at the stake; Aphrodite, the goddess of love, invoked in the song “Come On, Aphrodite (feat. Abena Koomson-Davis),” is known as much for her passion as for her tears. Similar fates meet female mythological figures, even those not featured in Merchant’s work: Arachne wove a tapestry of love and was beaten into a spider, Daphne outran Apollo only to be turned into a tree, and Lilith, the mythic inspiration for the feminist music festival, was banished from Paradise for the temptation she brought upon Adam.

I think, even, of the female pop artists of Merchant’s generation who, during my adolescence, rose to mythic proportions in the grandeur of pre-internet celebrity. I think also of the highly publicized spirals and tragic fates that befell so many of them. It might be more realistic for a female artist to turn into a spider than to expect a long and artistically fruitful career in the youth-driven music industry.

The only female figure in Keep Your Courage not derived from mythology is the character “Sister Tilly,” though she becomes something mythic, epic, in the eight-minute crescendo of a song written in her name. A tribute to an older, dying generation of feminists, the song both uncovers a time capsule, brimming with 1970’s references, and, in billowing sonic ceremony, buries it. Merchant has described Sister Tilly as a fictional composite of women from the generation that preceded her; individually, these women nurtured her into adulthood, and collectively, they fought for many of our now-diminishing rights.

I see Merchant and several of her contemporaries, with their burgeoning third-wave independence and their Lilith Fairs, as serving a similar purpose for my generation. But I also see the looming context of a culture that would push aging, prolific female singers into obscurity—along with any other group that exists on the fringes of its patriarchal center (“Here’s to the girls in the fray,” as Merchant sings at the apex of “Sister Tilly”). Merchant has always seemed to operate freely on the outskirts of this center, even if the reception of her work has never totally evaded it: critics, usually male, have repeatedly complained, then and now, about her lack of humor (in concert, Merchant provided a steady stream of witty commentary between songs) and have even lamented her growth as an artist because it infringes on the hits they want to hear. So often when the work of a female artist gets reintroduced into the cultural lexicon, it is channeled through an echo chamber of nostalgia—when, for example, Kate Bush’s 1985 hit “Running Up That Hill” shot up the US charts in 2022, surpassing its original Billboard success thanks to its being featured in the hit Netflix show Stranger Things (and, with the scene featuring a young female character running away from the arachnidian villain Vecna, someone might as well have turned into a spider). While this kind of afterlife is enduring, even transformative, it seldom accommodates the more expansive trajectory of evolution.

There is no archetype for what it means to age as a woman in a music industry that has historically compromised autonomy; there is likewise no archetype for what it means to age as a woman in a world that has done the same. But then again, freedom is seldom found in archetype: archetype is often what entraps, what demands, what excludes those who can’t, won’t, fit into an oppressive framework. Even when Merchant, a beautiful young singer, could have assimilated perfectly into the dominant cultural ideal, she never wholly relied on popular culture’s more mainstream stories of artistic success. Over and over, she wrote her own mythology.


If I had owned Ophelia in CD form, it would have been, by this point, beyond worn out—due less to the title track than to the song that comes right after it, “Life Is Sweet.”

Any word or phrase repeated to excess risks being drained of meaning. Usually this effect is diminishing, even maddening, but in some contexts, a spiral into meaninglessness can become an opportunity for innovation; repetition can enliven, revive.

In Merchant’s song, the hackneyed phrase “life is sweet” gets lyrically rendered into a message of encouragement to counter the repetitive, defeatist circumstances that would lead any cynic to question life’s sweetness. The song, with its reverberating chorus of “Life is sweet,” breathes life into the otherwise worn-out phrase and, in so doing, returns meaning to life itself.

In Hamlet, “life is sweet” is exactly the kind of platitude that would come from Ophelia’s father Polonius, who speaks the wise but ad-nauseatingly quoted words “This above all: to thine own self be true” to her brother just before his ill-fated departure for university—and just as the meaning of the words arguably, destructively, evades every character in the tragic play. In such a context, Ophelia’s nonsensical lyrical ramblings, where meaning is eroded by tragedy into a pure expression of grief, might hold the most truth. But I want to imagine a world where Ophelia’s songs can hold, even impart, equal amounts of unencumbered joy. I want to imagine “Life Is Sweet” as exactly the kind of song that could come from Ophelia in such a world. I want, finally, to imagine a world where she is not singing alone.

It was, fittingly, during Merchant’s “Life Is Sweet” that I had the most clichéd yet also most meaningful experience in my newfound fandom. In a moment at a show in Glasgow that will stick with me well beyond the 10 seconds it lasted, Merchant sought me out of the crowd, extended her hand and beckoned me to the foot of the stage. Briefly, we held hands and sang the song lyrics to each other—an out-of-body experience that ended when she physically brought the microphone in front of me. (Video evidence exists because, at this point in her tour, Merchant was comparatively amenable to cell phone use.)

The retelling of this event is far too Springsteen-music-video-level-contrived to dwell upon, but I think I can allow the literal to briefly converge with the metaphorical, to hold hands as we did in that fleeting moment. Even as it verges on saccharine fan narrative, the gesture encapsulates what a great musical artist can do: find an individual in a collective—or, rather, make an individual feel found, seen, and accompanied. Holding a microphone to the world, so that other voices may be amplified.

Merchant’s artistry has always been driven by a commitment to taking a microphone to the world around her, to finding the overlooked parts of that world and amplifying them. Of the many timelines we can create out of our ineffably capacious lives, I now have one in which, back in 1995, Merchant found me, and then, many years later, found me again. Not only did she find me; she also sang directly to me. And I was, finally, there to sing along with her.

Discovering a musical artist during your early years can be transformative, but there is also the occasion when an artist dances back into your life at just the right moment—whirling dervish–style, but certainly not in circles. If there is any circularity in Merchant’s career, it is marked not by repetition or return but by concentric expansion: an artist indicating that there is still more of the world they can show you, that how you look ahead need not be dictated by what you look back upon. Someone who says, here is the most honest language I can find to share with you the inner workings of my heart, and here is how I may remind you that you still have your heart, still beating, no matter how many times you feel it breaking.

Mythic figures go to great lengths to protect and possess hearts, their own and others. Hercules was heralded for wrestling the heart out of the Nemean lion while Dionysus, killed and dismembered, was resurrected out of his durable heart. But it is among mythological women that the heart’s semiotics really blossom into love. There is obviously Aphrodite, goddess of love and subject of Merchant’s song on Keep Your Courage. And then, often associated with courage, there is the goddess of wisdom herself, Hercules’s half-sister Athena.

Motherless, birthed from the forehead of Zeus, Athena is no saint: she is responsible for Arachne becoming a spider, and, in addition to being the goddess of wisdom, she presides over war. But her weapons and armor, which protect her own heart, are routinely given away to protect others, to embolden them to move more fearlessly through a dangerous world. Her courageousness is born from, then magnified by, what she gives away.

A visual depiction of Athena could very easily resemble the Joan of Arc on the cover of Keep Your Courage—guarded, heroic, protective. “Love,” as Merchant wrote in her liner notes, “is a battle to survive.” Love is also a vital means by which we may survive. And the shield of love is granted a certain, enduring force when sheathed in art. No art can stop suffering, but an artist can adorn us in that beautiful armor and then lead us, time and (if we are lucky) time again, into the hope of another possible world.

Such a world may feel too hypothetical to even envision, itself made of the delicate wisps of myth, but perhaps we can start by hearing it: the ringing collective of voices. At its core, a beating heart. Life is sweet. We are courageous, revived.

LARB Contributor

Jenny Boyar is a medical writer and holds a PhD in English from the University of Rochester. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Maudlin House, Panorama, FEED, and elsewhere, and her academic work has appeared in several scholarly publications. A Fulbright recipient, she has also been a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.


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