Listening Closer: Idling Above It All in Courtney Barnett’s “Elevator Operator”
Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
Like a kid running away from home. That’s how I feel as I jump in my car for lunch hour and drive from my office up Queen Anne Hill to a panoramic view of downtown Seattle and Elliott Bay. Today, the haze on the horizon seems to levitate Mount Rainier. (I once heard Madeleine L’Engle joyfully exclaim “You have a flying mountain!”) Seagulls are squalling over the dramatic Space-Needled skyline, a cargo ships is slouching toward the harbor, and festive ferryboats are gliding like wedding cakes back and forth from Bainbridge Island and Breemerton.
Here at Kerry Park’s scenic overlook, I see tourists spilling out of buses like excitable chickens turned loose from a pen. They’ve come here to this stock-photography view to dream beyond the borders of their normal lives. Today, I see some of Seattle’s homeless here as well — weary, overlooked, unrecognized, rising above their city so that its hard-hearted streets can seem suddenly smaller. Maybe they’re looking for a listener or a helper. Maybe it’s just a break from the traffic.
We’re all here to rise above it all for a while.
I need these getaways. It’s an honor and a privilege to serve in the office where I work. And yet, the crowdedness, busyness, and the humming fluorescents overhead disrupt my concentration, creativity, and productivity, leaving me anxious and impatient. To do my best work, I need heavy doses of quiet, solitude, natural light.
Here, alone in my car, savoring an hour under the sky’s blank canvas, I begin to begin to begin to remember who I am. I open a notebook and free write my way back to some clear thinking. It’s a discipline of catching my breath, of finding perspective, of sharpening my tools so that I can return and do good work with grace in challenging circumstances.
And as I look for a parking place — I kid you not — this song comes on. So I stay in the car, the key half-turned, listening:
Oliver Paul — twenty years old.
Thick head of hair, worries he’s going bald.
Wakes up at a quarter past nine,
Fare-evades his way down the 96 tram line.
Breakfast on the run again, he’s well aware
He’s dropping soy linseed Vegemite crumbs everywhere.
I’m caught by the story. I’m amused by this young man’s worry about hair loss. I’m familiar with his frantic reaction to waking up late. I’m sympathetic about the budgetary constraints that set him “fare-evading” on public transportation and choking down a cheap breakfast. (In my own early 20s, I was that guy — except I probably didn’t choose the healthy option, as Oliver’s done with his “soy linseed Vegemite.”)
The story continues: Oliver, halfway to work, pushing his way “through the Swanston commuters” — I love the specificity of this story’s environment — suddenly tears off his tie and gives it to a homeless man (an impulse both endearing and ridiculous) and announces that he’s not going to work today. He’s going to run away from responsibility. And do… what, exactly? Nothing particularly useful. Just chill.
Oliver’s having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. As he heads for “the Nicholas Building,” he “trips on a pothole that’s not been filled in.” And then things get interesting:
He waits for an elevator, 1 to 9.
A lady walks in and waits by his side.
Her heels are high and her bag is snakeskin,
Hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton,
Vickers perfume on her breath,
A tortoise-shell necklace between her breasts.
She looks him up and down with a Botox frown,
He’s well used to that look by now.
What an interesting pair: A boy under headphones, frustrated, disheveled, nursing a stubbed toe, and a woman described in a way that suggests she’s fashionable, well paid, but strained and even reptilian, taking extreme and unnatural measures to look a certain way. Unsurprisingly, she judges him at once by his appearance. But then, something unexpected:
The elevator dings, and they awkwardly step in.
Their fingers touch on the rooftop button…
Contact. Connection. They’re both going to the roof. And the woman delivers, at last, the refrain we’ve begun to need:
“Don’t jump little boy, don’t jump off that roof!
You’ve got your whole life ahead of you —
You’re still in your youth.
I’d give anything to have skin like you!”
She envies in others what she feels that her success has cost her. And as she’s telling Oliver not to jump, it’s entirely possible that she may be planning to jump from the rooftop herself.
And Oliver answers:
… “I think you’re projecting, the way that you’re feeling,
I’m not suicidal just idling insignificantly.
I come up here, for perception and clarity.
I like to imagine I’m playing SimCity;
All the people look like ants from up here,
And the wind’s the only traffic you can hear.”
We learn a lot about this young man in this verse: Frustrated with his life’s limitations, he’s seeking perspective, a place that he can breathe, a place where he can experience a sense of “play.” And play is only possible for those who can rise above their fears and frustrations.
But then, falling for the woman’s semblance of success, Oliver changes his tone:
He said, “All I ever wanted to be
Was an elevator operator — Can you help me please?!”
It’s a conclusion thick with irony. Finding a listener, or something close to it, Oliver’s testimony suddenly crumbles into desperation. He starts asking this doomed, despairing woman for help. He wants to be so much more. For Oliver, aspiring to be an elevator operator is aiming high — for him it seems an inaccessible role that might finally bring him some self-respect.
According to the singer and songwriter Courtney Barnett, “Elevator Operator” is based on a true story. And she says, “It’s the only song [on this record] that isn’t about me and my feelings, but about someone else’s…. It seemed like a good way to set the tone for the album.”
It works. In The Chicago Tribune’s review of Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, the great music critic Greg Kot notes the phrase “idling insignificantly” and says that it “would’ve been another great album title.” And James Rainis at Slant says that line “serves as a succinct thesis for an album concerned more with making sense of the trivialities of everyday life than with cathartic bloodletting.”
But then Rainis calls this song “an optimistic parable that tackles unsatisfactory employment.” Well… sure. It’s about unsatisfactory employment. But I think it’s also about much, much more than that. I think it’s about a desire to be fully alive. It’s about how the pressures, the noise, and the “everything-all-of-the-time” nature of city life can awaken in us a desperate thirst for necessities like quiet, play, reflection, and a human pace of activity. I think it’s about how those who flaunt the stuff of “success” are probably far unhappier for having conceded to dehumanizing demands, deadening their own skins. It’s about wanting to live, work, and be the way that we were made to live, work, and be.
When I get to Kerry Park, take in its view of Seattle, and quiet my heart for prayer, I can rise above the day’s immediate stress and regain some perspective. As Stephen Colbert recently explained to a reporter for (of all places) GQ, even the things we find most frustrating or painful or challenging can become causes for gratitude. I am still dreaming of — and praying for — opportunities to do what I feel I was made to do. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, but that’s okay for now. Empathizing with Courtney Barnett’s wonderfully frustrated characters, but buoyed by her boisterous and ebullient music, I can feel both dissatisfaction and thankfulness at the same time.
Perhaps I’m in just the right place. Perhaps my current limitations can remind me not to expect satisfaction from vocational opportunities, or to seek fulfillment from some dramatic change. Perhaps my immediate challenges are serving to remind me to rely on grace instead of circumstances. Perhaps that’s part of what it means to live in faith.
Whatever the case, dear Oliver — I hear you. I understand. What a world it could be if we were invited to do what we were made to do, be what we were made to be.
But now, like a kid who has run away from home, it’s time to take a deep breath, turn around, and go back. Still alive. And grateful to be so.