On “Killing Me Softly” by Jennifer McIntyre
I’m a sad person. Like…really sad. Like, to this day, I sometimes lock myself in my bedroom and watch YouTube videos of soldiers returning home from war, just to give myself a cathartic cry. I am the definition of existential woe and malaise.
Sadness has been my best weapon for attention since I was a kid, so when I had the choice to be anything, I chose to be sad. By two and a half, I had my pout face down pat. I would spend my daydreams on time-consuming, elaborate answers to the question, “What’s wrong?” And when people didn’t ask, I would fall into a deeper woe that no one noticed my rain-cloudy attitude. It took a solid two decades to understand that rain-cloudy people just kind of suck.
Is it any wonder, then, that my first favorite gift was an expensively hand-crafted rosewood music box that played a rendition of “Killing Me Softly?” Eight year old me could not get enough of the plucky notes and the depressing melody. Finally, I found the crooning of my soul. I found the melancholy of my heart, incarnate. Someone finally understood me and put all of my feelings in a tiny little music box. For months, I fell asleep in my sweet water bed to sadness in E minor. I was obsessed.
Enter the devastating 1990s radio release of Lauryn Hill’s version of the song. Be still my perpetually broken, dismal heart! There are words. There is rhyme. There is devastating exposition behind my music box tune. At last. At long last. She sang to my soul.
The minute I earned enough allowance money, I begged my mom to take me to Music City at the Boulder Mall to get the newly released cassette single. I listened to it all the way home from the mall.
I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd
I felt he’d found my letters and read each one out loud
I prayed that he would finish, but he just kept right on
Yes! Sing it, Lauryn Hill!
Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
On the way to school every day of my third grade year, I would push play on my Walkman, listen, rewind the cassette, and listen to it again. I spent the entirety of my bus rides staring longingly at trees and corn fields and fancy red barns, imagining myself to be the beautiful, forlorn woman the song was about. I liked to pretend I was in a music video, and there was a camera finally capturing my perfect pout face and begging the question, “What’s wrong?” I would sit on the bus, window-side, and choose to be sad.
I was eight years old. I hadn’t so much as kissed any of the boys who chased me on the playground. They were icky. I was a tomboy that played soccer and was bullied by my brother. I didn’t know how to brush my hair and I hated wearing shirts. I was growing so fast my bones ached. I didn’t know what it meant to be in love, to be a voluptuous woman enamored by the allure of men. But I had been training for nearly a decade in the art of being heart-broken.
I would listen to the song, imagining my heartstrings being strummed into breaking over and over again. I would watch myself in the mirror while I cried to make sure I wasn’t an ugly crier. I would crumble in my bed and journal about Lauryn Hill and “Killing Me Softly” and what a stupid-head Robert Onulak was. Robert Onulak had just lost his mom to cancer that year and was desperately trying to cope. I was a jackass. Sometimes kids just don’t get it.
I wouldn’t experience real loss until I was 13 when my best friend was killed in a single-car drunk driving accident with her father behind the wheel. I wouldn’t have my heart broken by a man until I was 19. And I wouldn’t learn to give myself the permission to be happy until several years later. I’ve learned I was selfish that way.
The thing about your first sad song is that it’s the worst kind of gateway drug. I still listen to sad music like some sort of powerful barbiturate. Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” was a college staple. “Fix You” by Coldplay still makes me cry most of the time. Death Cab’s “Transatlanticism” makes me cry every time. I don’t pretend to be the sad girl in the music videos on busses anymore, but I think that’s probably mostly because I don’t ride busses anymore. I’m still a pretty sad person. But at least I don’t pout for attention anymore. My sadness usually stops at my musical selections, and that’s okay by me.
About the Author:
Jennifer Mcintyre is an English teacher and theater advisor at a high school in Vancouver, Washington. She has a particular love for music, writing, and live theater because all three of those things capture the depth of the human experience in a way that nothing else can.