“Why So Serious?” The 2012 Mixtape – The Magnetic Fields’ “The Nun’s Litany”


Length: 3:02
Originally released on: Distortion (January 15, 2008)
Samples: Katy Perry – “I Kissed a Girl”

I want to be a brothel worker, I’ve always been treated like one…

Oh, how I wanted desperately to include Katy Perry’s ubiquitous, same-sex spit-swapping anthem on this mix. Never mind the fact that it’s an incomparably manufactured pop song; it said volumes about where North American culture sat with homosexuality this year, about a country where a song about kissing another girl could be a number one hit but where draconian gay marriage bans pass in state after state. But alas, it felt completely out of place alongside the rest of the tracks I had laid out for Why So Serious.

Besides, how could include “I Kissed a Girl” in lieu of the year’s besthedonistic anthem? As a song, “The Nun’s Litany” is arguably even more provocative, but has a depth Katy Perry could only dream of.

The song’s lyrical hook is that it’s sung by a nun, which is in itself fascinating. Our popular concept of the “sisterhood” is so archaic that a nun who’s even aware of these sexual professions is immediately surprising. But smartly, the song doesn’t dwell on the idea, using it subtlety instead: note, for example, the reference to “you” in the first verse (God?)

But there’s so much more going on here. There are references to a strained relationship with the character’s mother; was it her matriarch that forced her into the service of God? Then there’s the spin-the-bottle reference: is this woman pushing 30 or 40, finally regretting that she has never truly experienced a sexual life? My favourite line in the song is where she talks about becoming a dominatrix, “which isn’t like me but I can dream,” she says. What sort of life would this woman be living if she wasn’t a nun? The song leaves me desperate to know more about this woman.

Throughout the year, Fields’ songwriter Stephen Merritt performed the song solo, but as much as I appreciate his affection for gender-bending, my favourite version is the Shirley Simms-sung album version. She’s the star of Distortion, and this is her standout, delivering each wistful verse with the perfect balance of joy and sadness. She takes what could be an incredibly silly lyric, and with each note builds a character that leaves the listener hungry for more.

Download: The Magnetic Fields – “The Nun’s Litany” (Heavenly Hedonism)


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