Vanessa Carlton – White Houses
I’ve read a couple of people dismiss this as little more than a knock-off of "A Thousand Miles". This is essentially spot-on, although I think such criticisms overlook the fact that "A Thousand Miles" was one of those one in a million pop songs that feels like it’s been beamed in from another dimension, totally distinctive for all its conservative pop classicism. For Vanessa to manage to make something even half as good in the same mould would be quite an achievement. As it is, I possibly enjoy "White Houses" even more than its predecessor (it’s early days though).
It occurred to me that in so many ways this is like the hitherto undiscovered middle ground between "Silent All These Years" and "Summer of ’69". Trebly piano and breathy descending verses meet a stirring rock backbeat and heart-thumpingly huge chorus. A life lived through myths versus the mythic life lived on our behalf. Vanessa synthesises this choice between the warmth of commonality and the allure of solipsism into sweeping every-girl neurosis. Like "Summer of ’69", "White Houses" has just the right amount of specificity to stand in for any sepia-toned tale of adolescence: housesharing with pretty-eyed boys, games of spin the bottle, sleeping on the floor, girls who are less smart but much prettier, losing your virginity on the leather seat of a car – the usual. None of these experiences are universal and yet they have the feel of universality, and "White Houses" pretty openly wants to make a statement about adolescence at large.
Nostalgic pop by definition plays on the attraction of the inaccessible: Bryan is temporally removed from his own former small-scale innocence, Tori emotionally removed from any capacity to accept and live in the here and now. I’m not sure if I can trust Vanessa’s attempt to combine these two types of distance: there’s a sense of both presence and absence to "White Houses", with Vanessa’s character constructed as both participant and observer, an angel perched on her own shoulder calmly recounting, analysing and judging her own actions, and maybe hating herself for doing so, and yet the song still revels in the unmediated experience that Bryan extols.
Of course this has something to do with the subject matter (at heart, "White Houses" is a morality tale, albeit one whose sentiment is familiar and agreeable), but I wonder if it’s now impossible to perform stories of adolescence, in any medium, without this insidious tension present. Films, books and songs no longer merely construct the myths of teenage years, but now are forced to tell the story of that construction, and every character is faced with the task of sifting through the cultural detritus to find a simulacrum they can trust – we might call this Dawson’s Dilemma. What we end up with is a process of selection: Vanessa demolishes one myth (those were the best days of my life) in order to strengthen another (adolescence is painful but also life-changing and character-building). But what is never in dispute is the mystical quality of adolescence, and this process of selection cannot override the inevitability of myth’s reinstatement, the ongoing need to suspend our scepticism and allow the coming of age story to seduce us. Vanessa doesn’t really speak for me, and probably doesn’t speak for you either, but I still want to cheer as she drives off into the sunset, propelled by a cavalcade of strings.