IN RETROSPECT: Vanessa Carlton – “White Houses”

Vanessa Carlton is probably best known for her 2002 debut hit single “A Thousand Miles”, or its memorable feature in the 2004 film White Chicks. That iconic piano motif and those whimsical lyrics of longing won over a lot of hearts, as well as earning the American three Grammy Award nominations, with both the song and her debut album Be Not Nobody charting in several countries.

Carlton has since gone on to release more albums, albeit with less commercial success and not without some label issues, including her most recent Liberman in 2015. But shortly after her big break came her sophomore album, Harmonium (2004), named after the organ-type musical instrument. “White Houses” was the lead single and opening track, co-written and produced by Stephan Jenkins (Third Eye Blind), and it’s a coming-of-age story of naïvety, friendships, comparison and the sensitive topic of losing one’s virginity.

I was completely enchanted by this song at just 10 years of age. Obviously I had no experience of young adulthood, peer pressure or romantic relationships, but I really connected with it because of all the elements that make it a truly outstanding song: captivating and thoughtful storytelling; a delightful and sweet melody; a compelling and at times haunting vocal; intelligent composition filled with wonder and beauty, with emotive chord progressions and fitting production; and content that is real and based on raw life experience.

It ended up being the only single released in the US from Harmonium – due in part to a lack of promotion from A&M Records, Carlton’s label at the time, who were allegedly not too pleased with the album overall, feeling that promotion would be futile – but in my eyes it should have been another hit. It was the perfect follow-up to “A Thousand Miles” (as a lead single from a project of course, as we can’t forget “Ordinary Day” and “Pretty Baby” from Be Not Nobody), and I’m not alone in saying that, as some publications back then even included the song on their “Best Songs of 2004” lists.

Aside from the album’s struggle to perform commercially, “White Houses” was not released without controversy. Some radio stations and music television channels censored or refused to play it, most likely for the lyrics in the bridge where Carlton sings, “my first time / hard to explain / rush of blood / oh, and a little bit of pain”, which I can’t quite understand. In 2004, many songs that were overtly sexual and suggestive would not be banned; on the contrary, you would see even more explicit music videos repeated several times a day on music TV channels (Eric Prydz – “Call on Me”, anyone?) – and even today, you can get away with a lot worse. Alright, yes the song does reference sexual intercourse, but it’s hard to see what is offensive about a cold fact, which, in my opinion, is actually put quite politely and is included in a different context entirely – there’s nothing grotesque in the song whatsoever.

With that delicate and sincere subject matter in mind, “White Houses” is actually positive for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s important for young girls to hear about these “taboo” subjects, otherwise they can feel ashamed because of lack of knowledge, or understanding. Secondly, it highlights the solidarity and strength that comes from having a group of female friends in whom you can confide and with whom you share experiences, which can be vital for a developing young woman’s self-esteem. Along with support in the social sphere often comes some form of peer pressure, which is mentioned in the song, and which a young person isn’t always aware of, even after having been warned about it. Finally, the decision to lose one’s virginity, or even thereafter to be intimate with someone, is one that can be given more thought and deliberation than the perceived urgency of a given moment or circumstance may suggest – not to mention the fact that naïvety can often lead to being taken advantage of. These are all the key underlying messages in the song.

If anything, the lyrics can be categorized as ‘educational’. And shortly after in the song, Carlton goes on to describe the occurrence (or rather, the guy with whom she slept) as a “mistake”, so if you’re still not happy, you could even go so far as to say that “White Houses” has the potential to act as a deterrent. Which is not even the point… It’s a pity that an honest account can’t just be that.

Anyway, isn’t it funny how a so-called mistake can be responsible for such a beautiful song? Carlton has something mesmerizing and wistful about her voice and her musical compositions. She’s a pianist who fully uses and exploits her instrument in a way that claws at your emotions. Her music won’t be for everyone, but it often comes with the territory of being unique, staying true to oneself and not being seen by certain entities within the music industry as enough of a “commercial” artist. It should be worn as a badge of honour.

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