Politics of the Transitory Body in the Music of Neutral Milk Hotel
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, the second album recorded by Neutral Milk Hotel, is an unearthly meditation on the rapture of vitality and the tragedy of nonbeing in which the terrors of a young woman’s war-torn world are lyrically interlaced with the solitude of vocalist Jeff Mangum’s shattered childhood. Functioning simultaneously as exaltation and eulogy, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea chronicles three characters—the Ghost, the Dark Brother, and the Two-Headed Boy—who each present conflicting views on life, death, and sexuality through the lens of gender. Emblems of pure, sensual womanhood juxtapose and at times overlap with jarring images of masculine violence, establishing a richly visceral artistic landscape wherein life and death become inextricably bound to language, consequence, contact, and space.
The Ghost functions as a paradigm of femininity throughout In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, while a unique and ethereal instrument called a singing saw serves as her proverbial “voice.” References to a birth “…in a bottle rocket, in 1929,” (Appendix A, Fig. 6), death in 1945 (Appendix A, Fig. 3), and burial in 1945 with “…her sister and mother and five hundred families” (Appendix A, Fig. 3, 5), all clearly establish the Ghost’s living identity as that of Anne Frank, whose diary immortalized her astonishing will to live and love despite the horrors of the Second World War. Mangum often describes Frank in divine and reverent terms: “drenched in milk and holy water,” with wings emerging from her spine, and white roses blooming in her hair and eyes (Appendix A, Fig. 6). Through her archetypal fulfillment of seraphic feminine imagery, Frank conveys the fragility of the physical, the purity of adolescence, and most importantly, the fleeting exultation of vitality, which can “flash on a screen in the blink of an eye and be gone” (Appendix A, Fig. 1).
That is not to say, however, that the female body reduced to merely an object of narrative desire or artistic symbolism throughout In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. In the haunting acoustic ballad “Communist Daughter,” (Appendix A, Fig. 4), Mangum celebrates female autonomy through his image of a young prostitute—her name an allusion to her body’s paradoxical existence as both capitalist commodity and public property—who masturbates to reaffirm her own existence. Using imagery of cocoa leaves to symbolize pleasure, depictions of cars careening through the darkness to evoke the discord of midnight city streets, and a vision of snowcapped mountaintops—a woman’s genitalia stained by semen—Magnum tenderly recounts the moment in which the Communist Daughter uses the pleasures of her body to reaffirm her existence: assuring herself of her own worth through a communication of sensuality, isolation, and visceral ecstasy. As the music reaches its climax, Mangum’s voice soars gloriously above the melancholy strumming of his guitar: describing with reverence the way in which “Sweetness sings from every corner”—the sound of the girl’s self-induced orgasms, echoing through an empty room—as the young prostitute, “Proves that she must still exist / She moves herself about her fist.” Furthermore, this bittersweet exultation draws parallels to Anne Frank’s own developing sexuality: as she explains in her diary, “Sometimes when I lie in bed at night I feel a terrible urge to touch my breasts and listen to the quiet beating of my heart….” Both Anne Frank and the Communist Daughter find their visceral ecstasy and autonomy in spite of a world that offers them none: but as the relative shortness of “Communist Daughter” reaffirms, their physical rapture remains transient and fleeting.
These ephemeral but potent instances of beauty, represented through the notion of femininity, are directly juxtaposed by Mangum’s second character, the Dark Brother. Functioning as the Ghost’s antithesis—and created by Mangum in response to the suicide of a close friend’s brother —the Dark Brother exited this world an exhibition of terrible violence: “…with [his] head filled with flames…as [his] brains / Fell out through [his] teeth” (Appendix A, Fig. 7). Independently, he seems to exist as an ambiguously tragic figure, but in “Holland 1945,” the song wherein the Dark Brother is introduced, Mangum employs the wailing refrain: “And now we must pack up every piece / Of this life we used to love / Just to keep ourselves at least enough to carry on” (Appendix A, Fig. 3). This bitter and passionate language, underscoring the ability of a single act of abandonment to fragment the lives of those left behind, interlaces the violence of the suicidal Dark Brother with the infidelity Mangum’s own father, who, as Mangum explains two tracks later “…made fetuses with flesh licking ladies, / While [he] and [his] mother were asleep in the trailer park” (Appendix A, Fig. 5). In the grief-stricken refrain of “Holland 1945,” which simultaneously depicts the Dark Brother’s suicide, the fragmentation of Anne Frank’s childhood, and the shattering of Mangum’s own family, the savage violence of the Brother’s actions becomes inextricably bound to the sexual exploitation employed by Mangum’s adulterous father. With repulsive and visceral language, including references to “Fat fleshy fingers” and “green fleshy flowers…smelling of semen,” (Appendix A, Fig. 5), Mangum conjures the first overtly negative depiction of human sexuality in his album. His depictions of female sexuality, though perhaps misinformed in their romanticism, are clearly far more positive than the damning image of masculine sexuality as a conduit of violence, power, and exploitation that Mangum’s father and the Dark Brother represent.
The final and most important character in the album, the Two-Headed Boy provides the transcendence, overlapping, or joining of these binary archetypes of gender. He exhibits both qualities of darkness related to the Dark Brother and violent masculinity (“The sun, it is passed / Now it’s blacker than black,”), as well as a spiritual and physical connection to the feminine paradigm of the Ghost when he references the vertebral imagery essential to her seraphic feminine representation, singing, “And in the dark we will take off our clothes / And they’ll be lacing fingers through the notches in your spine” (Appendix A, Fig. 2). It also becomes increasingly evident that the Two Headed Boy exists as a representation of Mangum himself: the vocalist’s intimacy with the character is evident in the passion and physicality with which he performs “Two Headed Boy,” the track for which the character is named. Throughout the song, Mangum’s singing is volatile and augmented by little more than his own guitar, which he strums with almost astonishing energy and force.
The notion of the Two-Headed Boy as an extension of Jeff Mangum becomes almost undeniably evident in the album’s final track, “Two Headed Boy Part 2” (Appendix A, Fig. 7) wherein Mangum, while addressing the Two-Headed Boy directly, switches between first and third person so fluidly that the two identities seem to linguistically interlace as one. It is in this track that Mangum, through his conversations with the Two-Headed Boy, finally harmonizes the violent, masculine imagery of both the Dark Brother’s gruesome death (“Push the pieces in place / Make your smile sweet to see”), and his father’s infidelity (“For a lover to bring a child to your chest / That can lay as you sleep / And love all you have left”), with the tenderness and sensuality that he ascribes to Anne Frank’s femininity (“I’m still wanting my face on your cheek”). In the aftermath of these lines, Jeff Mangum’s own Janus-faced identity is reconciled at last when, in a moment of catharsis, he encourages the Two-Headed Boy to align himself with feminine ideals of the Ghost rather than the violent masculinity of the Dark Brother, asserting that the beauty and rapture embodied by Anne Frank, however transient, is “all [he] could need.”
In this final meeting of the feminine and the masculine, the sensual and the exploitative, the undaunted and the suicidal, the “Two-Headed Boy” can finally be fully understood as the Mangum himself, caught between the violent, masculine, and suicidal urges of the Dark Brother, and the eternal beauty, tenderness, and optimism of the Ghost, Anne Frank. Thus, the representation of the narrator as the “Two Headed Boy,” as well as the recurring motifs of severance and duality that permeate the album, indicate that the divide between the Mangum’s two identities is, in essence, the divide between two opposing ideals of gender, and the various interconnecting facets of power and sexuality that accompany them. In his final words to the Two-Headed Boy, Mangum actively chooses not to commit suicide: he resolves to live fully, to accept that the ecstasy of existence is, like existence itself, only fleeting. The album’s overall narrative, a testament to the inevitable sense of tragedy experienced by individuals whose histories are rooted in their families and their homes, uses the artistic joys of human existence to comprehend and come to terms with the sorrows of the past. It is Mangum’s transcendent vision of a young girl with roses in her hair and eyes: carefree and unbroken—as she might have been but for the senseless evils of the world—and destined to live forever in her diary and his dreams.
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