Have you ever read Hans Christian Andersen’s original The Little Mermaid? Not that Disney introduced us to an inadequate interpretation. It’s just there’s something special about Andersen’s fairytales, how he captures sweeping hope and sharp sorrow without muddling a story’s simplicity. Many of my friends would object by saying Andersen’s Mermaid in particular is wickedly depressing and weird (without spoiling too much, I will at least give you a hint by saying it does not end like the movie).
But I think there is something to be said for stories about more than getting everything you want exactly how and when you want it. Original fairytales are often darker than their 20th century cinematic makeovers suggest, and this darkness has much to do with the depth of despair and sadness their authors employ during the process of transporting their protagonists and villains from “Point A” to “Point B.” Despite every hero or heroine’s best intentions, the adventure never goes as planned. Usually, there is a mess of hardship before anyone achieves wisdom or peace.
But then, even the plot of a Disney or Don Bluth film romps through heartache and disappointment before the victorious, happy ending arrives. It comes off playfully, since usually there are animals singing and at least one ensemble musical number. Even so, no hero or princess or talking animal reaches their destination unscathed or shielded from necessary sacrifices. No one makes it through without being changed.
We were playing a house concert in Chicago when I first understood that People, People is a fairy tale. We wrote every song in the thick of growing up, discovering for ourselves that trying to live a hopeful life often looks and feels more like a shot in the dark, much more so than it did when we were younger.
Consequently, People, People narrates humans embarking, weaving, and lurching this way and that, sniffing out shortcuts through life to avoid the pain of transformation. Like any unlikely hero trekking toward glory or treasure or true love, we set out with the naïve wish to grow and gain without losing something first. Unable to relinquish our hold on what makes us feel secure and known, we shudder in the face of pain and discouragement, our shame and our pride, our utter helplessness, things most certain to draw us from ourselves and redefine us in ways we could never imagine on our own. These things we swallow, silence, and deny. We reprogram our minds to forget them. We dive headlong into them with every intention of rewiring ourselves and our circumstances, only to find that we dove alone and can’t resurface without help, and furthermore did not possess the proper tools for rewiring to begin with.
This writhing and wrestling for victory despite obstacles is not only at the heart of every fairy story, but every human story. This is the heart of the Gospel, in which something arduous and seemingly insurmountable happened by necessity so that an impossibly joyful conclusion would occur.
People, People is a compilation of songs telling the story of healing and marking various stops along the road to redemption. Each song contributes to the story differently. “Inside Your Head” spurs a spiral of doubts and fears, a winding realization that life is not what it should be and people are powerless to overcome evil when attempting to do so on their own terms. “Fall” mimics an actual fairy tale, describing a personified snowflake as she launches herself into flight before realizing she is plummeting to conformity, lamenting her shattered sense of identity before finding freedom in it. “Common Sense” darkly parodies pop punk music, declaring isolation and insecurity with a laugh so the weight of choosing to live in one’s own shame and loneliness might be less noticeable. “Drink It Down” begins with a confession of weakness in the face of one’s own sin and darkness, but then revels in the wisdom that experiencing life’s brokenness is an integral part of knowing the character and power of Jesus.
Every song walks further and further into a mingling of light and darkness. At the end of the narrative, the title track concludes that the only way to find resurrection for lost and dying things is by first plunging into loss and death. From this, the truest gifts and the fullest life are found.
J. R. R. Tolkien writes that fairytales are not certifiable fairytales unless a miraculous reversal of evil and sadness abruptly takes place. It’s more than a happy ending. It’s a healing.
My favorite thing about People, People is its vibrant declaration that such a thorough restoration for humanity is not only possible, but promised. When our story ends, there will be a tangible banishment of every sad thing. The victor has already risen up, and the enemy is already vanquished. So we can set off on our adventure with full confidence in the hope and love and wholeness we’re after, despite our weaknesses, despite the monsters lurking ahead and behind and within. We can set off with assurance and rejoicing, because there’s so much more than a happy ending awaiting us.
Equal parts children’s fiction writer, musical theatre expert, and emo pop-punk music aficionado, Janie Townsend can always be found among good stories. Along with her unmistakable voice, she contributes a haunting yet playful narrative tone to The Orchardist’s music in the form of meticulous vocal arrangements.