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Unrequited love is painful and awkward and therefore generally not celebrated on Valentine’s Day. This seems doubly cruel to me. I would like to counter that, and take this opportunity to examine Rufus Wainwright’s “The Art Teacher,” the most beautiful and involving song about unrequited love that I know. I have a feeling Rufus might agree with me in that assessment. He strikes me as a confident dude.
You can tell that the unique, sonorous power of Rufus Wainwright’s voice is not lost on the man himself. I suspect he’s as intoxicated by it as we are. Every note feels like he has inhaled some kind of divinity and is merely exhaling it mellifluously toward you.
This mastery has surely been achieved with tremendous discipline. But it ultimately appears to involve no effort at all.
If you like Rufus Wainwright, this is certainly an essential reason; his voice is like some kind of Dionysian luxury none of us should be able to afford. If you dislike Rufus Wainwright’s music, his voice is also the primary reason. It seems ideal for show tunes.
I’m in the former camp. I love it.
In Wainwright’s rich catalogue of indulgent melancholy, “The Art Teacher” is the clear master work. It is deeply, wildly sad. The “voice” in the song is an older woman (the phrase “pants suit” suggests she’s in her 60s) who is recalling a childhood crush on the title character. We learn that the crush was not only unrequited, but possibly the worst kind of unrequited: never even recognized by the crush object.
The scenario unfolds in past tense. We learn this crush was no ordinary crush. It was the kind of crush that makes the soul soar with aching, delirious longing. The song suggests it is the kind of pure love that perhaps only happens once in a lifetime.
Through the memory of the woman, we learn that the art teacher was a passionate and inspiring (and presumably handsome, alluring) high school teacher. The teacher loved art and, because he was talented, he was able to transfer that love to his students.
We’re taken on class field trips to the Met. We gaze at classical masterpieces and we can feel the young girl swooning, overwhelmed by the beauty of both the art and the teacher. Of course, the teacher only intends to convey love of art.
In the present, all of this is now just nostalgia. The girl has now become a woman. And the art teacher is now long gone, possibly not even alive anymore.
One particularly affecting detail is that the woman is married. She married some kind of captain of industry, perhaps lovelessly. She has made profound compromises in her life. But the heaviest, most haunting suggestion in the song is the sense that she has resigned to make peace with all of it. Maybe she accepts her fate to pine away forever for a childhood crush.
Because this story is so moving, we forget about the gender mischief of Wainwright (a confident gay man) singing from a woman’s point of view. And we also forget about the time/age displacement that has him speaking from the perspective of someone much older.
All we feel is the ache and desire.
The last line of the song is delivered with an upward arching melody that feels almost exultant. But it is extremely sad: “Never have I loved any other man.”
And just as we’re feeling the tragedy of that, we’re met with a final surprise: An audience erupts in applause, making it apparent we’ve been listening to a live performance this entire time. It serves to remind us that Wainwright’s musicality is prodigious. But it also feels like a startling, sudden communion with many other people experiencing the same emotion.
So maybe you are not alone after all. Happy Valentine’s Day.