While it is rather surprising that Germano’s hymns to uncool did not encounter more commercial success in post-grunge indie scenes, it is no coincidence that Geek the Girl struck a chord with queer listeners around the world. To those, like myself, who did not feel “quite there yet” in embracing the narratives of self-empowerment of the most “out there” queer anthems, Germano’s lulling voice and dark humor felt emphatic, even reassuring. “Just be yourself. Well, that’s the whole point of Geek the Girl. My self is just still pretty fucked up”, Germano explained. “I know that you should really have confidence in yourself and that you have all these problems when you don’t. But, it’s still pretty hard”.
Things become undeniably more difficult as the album reaches its crucial middle point. After the suspicious respite of the joyous instrumental “Jusk Geek”, in the harrowing sequence “Cry Wolf”/ “…A Psychopath”, the protagonist descends into the deepest levels of her consciousness, only to resurface and share her experience of trauma. More so than other cuts on the record, “Cry Wolf”’s ethereal atmosphere resonates with the brand of eerie dream pop that had become synonymous with 4AD in the 1980s, which partly explains why the song was chosen as the sole single from the record.
Sustained by melancholic voice synths and a calm, hypnotic guitar riff, the song chronicles the protagonist’s contrasting feelings towards a man she feels too scared to leave. As textures pile up in dramatic fashion, pierced through by a little melody on the flute and Germano’s plangent falsetto, the lyrics suggest the agonizing reality of abuse and the trauma of public shaming (“A change of mind/ In that back seat or that dirty room/ They say she got just what she wanted”).
It is a testament to the purity of her vision that a ballad so ethereal can accommodate the darkest of subjects while leaving enough space for listeners to fill in the gaps. It is unclear, for instance, whether the line “You should have known better”, repeated in the last verse, is sung by the protagonist to herself or is meant to further damn her critics, adopting their apathetic perspective.
Things are much more brutally clear-cut on “…A Psychopath”, a song so scary it had Germano leave her apartment and sleep at friends’ the night she mixed it. Germano had already spent many a sleepless night fearing the presence of her stalker, an experience narrated in the track. “I had a stalker who knew where I lived and would call me, but the police couldn’t do anything until he actually came there”, Germano said. “A baseball bat/ Beside my bed”, sings Germano over a sparse mix of strings and guitar, “I’ll wait around and wait around/ And wait/ I hear a noise, I hear a noise/ Well I hear something/ I am alone, you win again/ I’m paralyzed”.
Even more literal than the description of her experience is the audible recording of a real 911 call made by a woman named Karen while being threatened in her home by her stalker. As the song builds momentum and its gentle pulse gives way to a noisy crescendo of guitar and violin, we hear Karen’s lacerating screams. Germano, who originally heard the call in a documentary on violence, was well aware it would have unsettled listeners but thought this would have made the message of “…A Psychopath” all the more powerful.
“A lot of people, when you’re being stalked or you’re being harassed by a man, they don’t take it seriously”, Germano explained. “You’re not scared that he’s just going to hang around your house; you’re afraid that he’s going to get in your house and you’re going to get raped like she got raped at the end of that call. Her voice is so hysterical, and I want people to know: that’s what the fear is”.
The freeform arrangement of the song, combined with its raw use of the recording, provisionally suspends any possible affiliation of Geek the Girl with the world of pop-rock. If anything, “…A Psychopath” has more to share with the confrontational sensibility of early Throbbing Gristle and the industrial canon which followed in their wake. Germano’s distorted growls conclude the song before we hear a policeman repeatedly ask: “Karen?” and the deafening sound of the call being cut off. After a few seconds of silence, the Sicilian folk tune returns, its defamiliarizing force so powerful it’s impossible to move a muscle.
The somber sound of ascending violins regains the listener’s focus, making the dreamy textures of “Sexy Little Girl Princess” the gateway to Geek the Girl’s second, reconstructive half. Germano’s whispers sound defiant, even sarcastic as they survey fragments of conversations, which seem to objectify and patronize Geek (“Sexy little girl princess / Say you loved it”).
A similar sense of defiance permeates the austere string and organ arrangement of the instrumental “Phantom Love”, but it’s the viscous “Cancer of Everything”, announced by the screechy sound of guitar feedback, which restores a sense of direction in Geek’s journey. Here Germano gives us an insight into the thought process of somebody who unconsciously resorts to sickness as an “excuse” not to grow and get the attention of others.
Although the jazzy undertones of the song and Germano’s sniveling delivery of lines such as “I’m not trying hard/ I’m not getting well / I’m not improving/I won’t do anything” might seem to suggest mockery of this behavior, it is more likely to indicate a newfound self-awareness of its toxic potential. “I learned a lot from my depression years about being a victim and, like, how you stay stuck in situations because it feels safer”, Germano said at the time. “I don’t want to be in that place ever again”.
The search for a new dimension continues in the album coda. The disarming “A Guy Like You”, driven by the contrast of an earthy electric guitar and sparkly notes of mandolin, stipulates the failure of a relationship, but in anger and exhaustion, Geek finds the strength to look away (“Walk away/ Intoxicated/ Nobody knows /I can’t hear anything”). The funereal “…Of Love And Colors” reconnects to “My Secret Reason” in offering a skeptical look on humanity (“All us fucked-up people/ Can’t we see beyond the pain of losing one another?”), but a utopian impulse seems to overpower depression and social conditioning (“I had a dream of love and colors/ And all the while it seemed real/ And in this dream, we were unique/ Couldn’t it be”) “…Of Love And Colors” resolves into an invite to celebrate one’s ability to change and overcome one’s struggles, while acknowledging the way they have shaped us, sometimes beyond our control.
The surprisingly upbeat “Stars” concludes the record with shocking precision: here Geek seemingly finds hope inside and outside of herself (“Oh precious moment/ In this vague world full of fantasies/ Like my man/ Could it be he takes me there?/ Anywhere/ Far away from here”). A promo CD circulating at the time suggests the jangly number had been considered sufficiently aligned with the alternative rock du jour to get a chance on college radio. Yet, as the poppiest moment on the record, “Stars” does not quite work in isolation. Deprived of its weighty, painful context, it might pass as a rather uneventful little rock song. In the economy of Geek the Girl, however, it is a balm, a hardly won resolution to one of the most gripping explorations of trauma, fear, and self-acceptance ever committed to record.
Although the path to recognition for “difficult” records made by women had been paved, one would have thought, by the success of records such as Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes or even Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, both released in the early ’90s, it is fair to say that Geek the Girl fell through the cracks of the alternative mainstream in ways which would not be imaginable for a record of this magnitude today.
When interviewed during the promotion of her 2006 album In the Maybe World, released on long-time fan Michael Gira’s Young God, Germano said she was not at all surprised by her lack of popularity. “I do think that I sincerely really wanted to reach people who might be going through stuff, things I could help them to go through if they listen to these records. I really wish that more people could hear them if it could help them, that I could reach a bigger audience – not a huge audience, but a bigger one. There are millions of people in therapy, y’know, in AA or all sorts of things. I just think there’s a place for them. I’ll keep my fingers crossed”.
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Houle, Zachary. “The Breeders: LSXX (Last Splash 20TH Anniversary Issue). PopMatters. 16 May 2013.
Kemp, Mark. “Stepping Out from John Mellencamp’s Shadow, Singer and Violinist Lisa Germano Hits a Nerve on ‘Geek the Girl'”. Rolling Stone. 15 December 1994. Accessed from forum.mellancamp.com.
Ketchum, Margerie. “Lisa Germano – Hometown Girl, Bloomington Voice”. evo.org. 9 April 1996.