Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Track Analysis: "Rabbit Fur Coat"

"Rabbit Fur Coat" - Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins

The title track of Jenny Lewis' solo debut is a beautifully written, ultimately disturbing, autobiographical sketch. Using her mother's rabbit fur coat as a recurring motif, Lewis recounts her life story as one inextricably linked to her mother's own early life and subsequent value-system.

Lewis begins with what might at first be taken for fairytale imagery, describing an altercation between her young mother and a wealthy girl. She matter-of-factly states, "I was of poor folk, But my mother had a rabbit fur coat. Then a girl of less character pushed her down the L.A. River, 'Hand over that rabbit fur coat.'" Whether out of jealousy or darker, unspecified motives, the girl takes exception to the coat and physically assaults her. Her mother "...really suffered for that, Spent her life in a gold-plated body cast." That is to say, she is paralyzed by her preoccupation with affluence. Though explicitly warned against doing so, the mother goes to the girl's "mansion house." The only one home is the girl's father, who invites her in. What transpires between the two is unclear, but the subtext is sexual. "They never sang a note, But she took off that rabbit fur coat." When her nemesis arrives at the house and accuses her of stealing from the mansion, the mother declares: "No, I'm in love with Mr. so and so, He invited me in, I'm a girl no more."

This back-story established, Lewis sings, "Let's move ahead twenty years, shall we?" Mother and daughter are living together in the San Fernando Valley. The mother supports them by working as a waitress and collecting welfare benefits. An unidentified woman makes an unsettling suggestion to the mother. "You treat your girl as your spouse, You can live in a mansion house." This is a reference to Lewis' early career as a child-actress (forgettable TV work, as well as co-starring with Fred Savage in the Nintendo-shilling movie The Wizard). It's a concise description of inverted family roles; Lewis, an adolescent at that time, taking on the role of bread-winner. The gambit pays off, with young Jenny Lewis becoming "a hundred-thousand-dollar kid." In what feels like a moment of earned self-realization, Lewis assesses the situation in this way: "When I was old enough to realize, Wiped the dust from my mother's eyes, It's all this for that rabbit fur coat." Her candid assessment: "But I'm not bitter about it, I've packed up my things and let them have at it, And the fortune faded as fortunes often do, And so did that mansion house." The epilogue concerning her mother's current whereabouts is devastating in its casualness: "Where my ma is now, I don't know, She was living in her car, I was living on the road, And I hear she's putting that stuff up her nose, And still wearing that rabbit fur coat." To her credit, the singer does not let herself off any easier. "But mostly I'm a hypocrite, I sing about the deficit, But when I sell out and leave Omaha, what will I get? A mansion house and a rabbit fur coat."

There's a lot for me to like about this song. I admire the confessional nature of the writing, drawing as it does on personal experience. The symmetry of the narrative and its imagery is impressive. Lewis uses the rabbit fur coat as a metaphor for financial striving, and she elegantly sustains this metaphor throughout. By beginning the narrative with her mother's traumatic early experiences, Lewis adds complexity and a level of empathy to what could otherwise be seen as a general recrimination of her mother's values.

Find "Rabbit Fur Coat" in the catalog!