Janis Ian’s “Watercolors”

Janis IanOne of my favorite songs is Janis Ian’s “Watercolors” off here Between the Lines album. That album was released in 1975 when Ian was only 24 years old. And it boggles my mind. A 24 year old wrote this album?! That’s especially true of “Watercolors,” which tells the story of a very adult situation. It is a conversation between a man and woman as they jockey for power in their relationship.

A lot of people have given me a lot of flack about my belief that all relationships are power struggles. But there is no question that this is how it works. People want to be loved but they also want space, and we are always navigating in our relationships to get the right balance. It doesn’t help that the right balance is constantly changing. And so you get these situations where one person says, “I need my space!” But when they get that space, they find that they didn’t want quite that much space.

I don’t pretend to know exactly what this song means. Ian has written it in a way that is supposed to leave it vague. But my take on it is that the man is having difficulty dealing with the woman’s success and celebrity. But it isn’t even clear if she is just reflecting on a relationship that is now over or one that is in the process in real time. The former is the more interesting interpretation, as the song starts with:

I remember photographs
Watercolors of the past…

Now it could be that she is just sitting thinking about these things when she is interrupted from her reverie. But “watercolors of the past” implies the mixing of life events. Regardless, whether it is remembered or it is a thought interrupted by this reality, the song continues more clearly:

He turned and said — You ask much of me
Then, when we’d made our peace,
We lay between the sheets
He turned and said — I set you free.

This is very efficient verse. They fought, made up with the requisite makeup sex, and he’s still not happy. He offers a gambit. This leads to the chorus that is his angry rant:

Go on, be a hero, be a photograph
Make your own myths
Christ, I hope they last
longer than mine
Wider than the sky
We measure time by
Go on, be a hero, I set you free
Your stagehand lovers have conquered me
They’ll send you carnations,
While smiling faces
Look on and applaud
Go on, go on
Go away from me.

With the second verse, she responds. She is the one with the power in this relationship. So she accuses him of trying to possess her:

I said – Do you wish me dead?
Lip service to books you’ve read?
Articles on how to bed a bird in flight?
You called it love — I called it greed
You say — You take what you want
I say — You get what you need.

And now is her chance to get angry. She tells him literally to go to hell. She takes his gambit. He wants her to go? Then she’ll go.

Go on, be a hero, be a man
Make your own destiny if you can
Go find a fence, locate a shell
and hide yourself
Go on, go to hell
Go away from me
I need no charity

But then we get to the bridge. And here he relents. He backs down. He entices. He argues that they can muddle through. At least for now. And that’s about right. Some people muddle through for 70 years. Others muddle through for 70 days. But it is always a muddle that we negotiate for that perfect balance that we will never find.

He said — Come unto me
I am beauty, I am the light
Come unto me
Hold the darkness, and stay the night
I am wonder, I am the heart’s delight
Tomorrow we’ll fight.

Come on come on
Come near to me
Come be my fantasy
We’ll talk it over again sometime
I’ll send you some flowers to change your mind
but for tonight, turn out the light
Hold me — come on, come on
Set me free
Lend me your charity.

2 thoughts on “Janis Ian’s “Watercolors”

    • I think Ian was very close to her work when she was young. It was hard to watch her in those days. I saw her when she was in her 50s and it was such a stark contrast. She had clearly become a happier person. I agree with you on that performance. But it’s nice to see her happy. She’s a great artist.

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