Katherine Marino, Candidate for a Ph.D. in Aural Awesomeness
I cannot doubt that every person who has ever listened to Top-40 radio in America has heard Vanessa Carlton's sprightly yet heart-felt ballad, "White Houses." This ditty, probably set at around metronome marking 120-140, appears at first to be nothing more than an up-beat composition about teenagers enjoying their summertime respite from education. It is undeniably catchy, and, had I heard it when it was in the peak of its circulation rate, I would probably hate it as much as everyone else. However, I spent 2004 under a rock, and did not have the pleasure of listening to this little musical gem until a few months ago. Since first my ears played receptor to Ms. Carlton's poignant lyrics and masterfully arranged instrumental score, I have been formulating a thesis to express my opinion that "White Houses" is one of the greatest nay, possibly THE greatest works of music of this century (this is actually extremely viable, since very little decent music has been produced these six years).
I base my thesis on an interpretation of "White Houses" as a coming-of-age story, possibly the best of the genre since Stephen King's novella (later adapted into a film starring River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Kiefer Sutherland and directed by none other than Rob Reiner), Stand By Me. The lyrics alone demonstrate the song's integrity as a coming-of-age story, but I will strive to illustrate that it is their collaboration with the accompaniment and the youthful quality of Ms. Carlton's voice that truly elevates this work into the realm of the sublime.
As anyone who has heard the song more than once can probably affirm, the lyrics of "White Houses" tell the tale of a young woman (who may or may not represent Ms. Carlton herself) who spends the summer in a "little bunk alone with some strange new friends." She and her new companions forge a close relationship through such activities as spin-the-bottle, drinking beer, and dancing. They are apparenty free from the oppressive authority of parents or guiardians, ostensibly for the first time. The first period of liberation, especially through physical distancing from one's parents, is an important and formative era in the life of any young person. The song's narrator at first seems slightly uncomfortable as she ventures into this social frontier, thrust into a situation in which she must not only form new relationships with her peers, but must also discover things about herself. She is forced to develop an individual strength, separate from the crutch of her family and childhood friends, and she accomplishes this by shedding an identifying feature of her former self: her virginity.
The symbol of "white houses," through its repetition and use as the title, stresses the importance of the loss of virginity as a formative act in the transition to adulthood. While the whiteness of the houses obvious symbolizes purity and virginity, as well as childlike naivete, combined with "houses," the phrase comes to represent multiple things for the narrator: the childhood familiarity and safety of home ("home," for all intents and purposes, referring to her family, friends of her youth, etc); the hope and trust lodged in her spirit, untarnished by contact with the reality of the adult world; and, most significantly, the literal physical purity of her body and emotional purity of her heart. The various meanings of the phrase "white houses" are applied in different instances of its use in the song. In the first refrain, when the narrator says, "it's alright and it's nice not to feel so alone / but I hold onto your secrets in white houses," Ms. Carlton is employing the idea of the narrator's pure heart; in the next verse, in which the phrase in preceded by the line "but I put myself in his hands," "white houses" indicates her untouched body; immediately afterwards, with: "love, or something ignites in my veins / And I pray it never fades in white houses," she is speaking again about her heart, supplemented this time with ideas of naivete and the hope and trust inherent in her childlike spirit. By the end of the song after the narrator has discovered that, although she has severed ties with her childhood and her home by losing her virginity, she has discovered a new part of herself and is fundamentally the same person the white houses again come to represent hope, suggesting not only that the adult world does not have to be considered a dark and frightening place, but that one does not have to lose all ties with the past in order to progress in life.
Beyond the symbolism of the poetry (the "red shirt" of her lover, obviously representing passion; and the "black leather seats" of his car, uncertainty, fear, abandonment, and evil), its sentiments those of enduring, though quickly-formed friendships, heartbreak, uncertainty of the future, the emotional loss suffered as one realizes one is breaking ties with the past are common to young people, especially girls, of every walk of life. The fact that the narrator is able to leave this experience (which she entered into feeling unsure of herself) a stronger, more defined person, provides a wonderful moral for young women. It allows them to understand that they are not alone in their transition from childhood to adulthood: although it is important for them to form a sense of self and follow their own intuitions, and although they will invariably get hurt along the way, they share the experience with virtually every other girl on the planet. Additionally, the poem suggests to girls that losing one's virginity will most likely be unpleasant, but that if they learn enough about themselves from the experience, they can emerge as stronger individuals. Interestingly, though it is important for the narrator to leave her new friends (and lover) at the end of the summer in order to continue with the rest of her life (the summer, obviously, symbolising a stage of lust, love, and self-discovery), taken more literally, this act implies that one will and perhaps should have multiple sexual partners, as if to imply that with each partner (who will hopefully become so through an emotional attachment, preferably as deep as love) one discovers even more about oneself. Significantly, this sentiment works to dispel the double-standard so often held, that men were free to philander, but that women must devote themselves to one man. (For the purposes of this argument, it is important that it is the narrator who leaves her lover and not the other way around.)
The composition of the instrumental components of this song are also suggestive of youth, and serve as supplemental symbolism to the lyrics. Particularily the drum beat, which is quick-paced and ceaseless (except for one part, which I will discuss shortly), seems to symbolize both time which is thrusting the narrator into new situations and stages of life, potentially without her consent and before she is fully prepared and the enduring hope in the narrator's spirit. The only place it stops where all accompaniment stops is under the lyrics:
Maybe you were all faster than me
We gave each other up so easily
These silly little wounds will never mend
I feel so far from where I've been
The cessation of the drum denotes both a pause in time for reflection and also a pause again for reflection in the narrator's formation of her individuality. Under the next lyric, "So I go, and I will not be back here again," the beat resumes, illustrating the narrator's renewed sense of strength and hope.
In addition to the instrumentals (which I have not discussed at the length I originally intended because I am lazy), the quality of Ms.Carlton's voice is strikingly appropriate for a coming-of-age ballad. Her voice is high and light, with a childish lack of vibrato and color. While the audience knows that she is an adult, the voice could just as easily be that of a girl ten years her junior. This ambiguity of maturity, though probably completely unintentional, fits well with the idea of the song, and is arguably the characteristic that lends a sense of completeness to the composition.
There you have it. I think I have indisputably illustrated the numerous reasons that "White Houses" is the best song of all time. Perhaps now my roommate (and everyone else) will think twice before telling me to "stop listening to it all the fucking time."