Not all earworms are former Billboard Top Ten successes, well-known by everyone who hears even a few notes of their melody. Some earworms can be obscure songs that come to have personal meaning to the listener. They get burned into your mind through repetition and conscious nurture. That’s very much the case with me and this week’s earworm, “I Feel Beautiful,” by Robyn Hitchcock.
Back in another city and another century when I first became a Robyn Hitchcock fan, it was a deep secret. Not because I was ashamed, but because nobody had any clue who the hell he was. No one had heard of this weird British singer-songwriter guy that I was so very fond of. Then I moved to the Bay Area, where Hitchcock lived for a time and performed often. Just as with my odd penchant for enjoying silent films, I found an instant, albeit small, community of likeminded people. It was a bit disconcerting, but nice. Nonetheless, to the wider world, he remained a cult artist at best. I kept buying his albums and playing them in my headphones, and that was that.
In 1999, Hitchcock released his thirteenth album, Jewels for Sophia, his major-label swan song for Warner. “I Feel Beautiful” is the fourth track and owns a permanent spot in my heart. The song is about as understated as they get: Just Hitchcock on guitar and a little dash of eccentric percussion, plus Grant-Lee Phillips singing harmony. Whereas most love songs either veer immediately into hyperbole or dramatically strain the reins trying, this one is all about the humble and everyday feelings of love. One of the first lines is about watering tomatoes in the garden, for Pete’s sake.
And then there’s the title. Not “I Am Beautiful,” or even “You Make Me Beautiful,” but “I Feel Beautiful.” I was never a pretty girl (nor a handsome one), but, then again, being in love makes everyone shine from the inside.
Of course, it wouldn’t really be a Hitchcock song without taking a turn into the odd. What is that line about being “in the jaws of an enormous beast” doing in the middle of this song? I could wax theoretical about the metaphor – is it about being overwhelmed by a strong feeling, or a looming sense of dread that this love might be coming to an end? — but when it comes down to it, your guess is as good as mine.
Like many Hitchcock songs, it’s also acutely aware of time and mortality. And that’s what makes the love expressed here so sweet. “We’re alive at the same time,” Hitchcock sings. “Like mayflies.” His voice conveys the tender wonder of that sublime coincidence. In its way, it’s a very existential love song. Love is nothing but the meaning we make of it with another person, for a fleeting moment in the vastness of time. Then again, while it’s happening, it’s also sublime.