Photo credit: Claire Marika
The Electric Woman
recounts the season I spent as a performer in America’s last traveling sideshow. Music was everywhere — on stage while we swallowed swords and threw knives, blasting from the rides surrounding us, echoing through our circus tent at night while we learned new acts after the fairgrounds were closed. This is a story about fear — about the myth that bravery is the absence of fear. Instead, I think it is the willingness to do something despite being afraid: Eating fire. Charming snakes. I learned that lesson from my fellow performers and from my mom, who, despite having suffered a series of massive strokes that left her half paralyzed and unable to speak, chose adventure. She and my stepdad decided to take a trip to Italy, the thing they’d always dreamed of doing. Nobody thought they’d return.
This playlist is full of songs that make me want to run away with the circus all over again, both literally and figuratively. Everyone has their own version of running away with the circus or finally taking that trip to Italy — that thing you’ve loved and longed for, kept tucked in your pocket like a precious stone. These are songs that take me back to the sideshow, to the carnival fairgrounds, and to my fellow performers. They’re also songs for people who may be ready to unfold that secret desire in their pocket and say, Yes, yes. It’s time
“Clap Hands” by Tom Waits
This song is the sound of the sideshow. Rain Dogs
was the album we’d put on late at night, after the carnival was closed, as the clown practiced knife-throwing and the bally girl held fire on her tongue and the fire-eater whipped a rose out of the boss’s hand. It’s the perfect entryway into a new world.
“Tessellate” by alt-J
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The beat of this song makes me think about walking through the carnival late at night, when the lights are off, and the moon is reflecting off the puddles, and something so big and public and full of people is suddenly private. When it’s all yours.
"There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” by The Smiths
This song gets it just right. Sometimes, we need those bright lights: “Take me out tonight, because I want to see people and I want to see light.” There was something so intoxicating about being in the fairgrounds when the lights were whirring and people were everywhere. Everyone was searching for a bit of magic, and sometimes a way of finding it was to get on the ride that made you afraid.
“Born to Die” by Lana del Ray
This song sounds like a classic ballad, but the beat and the tone of her voice add a darkness to it that gives it an edginess I love. And, as Lana says, we were born to die — so might as well go do the wild thing you’ve always wanted to do in the time you have. Might as well head for the circus.
“Tight Rope” by Leon Russell
This song is fun, and very literally about being in the middle of some risky acts: “It’s a circus game with you and me.” I like that the high wire becomes a metaphor in this song for the potential big falls we take, and how differently things may go depending upon where
we fall. The sideshow and circus are full of dangerous, frightening acts, which can absolutely train us to take greater risks in other parts of our lives, too.
“Rise to the Sun” by Alabama Shakes
I love the idea of rising to the sun. I like the line, “I feel so homesick, where is my home, where I belong, or where I was born,” because it separates where one belongs from where one was born. We don’t get to choose where we’re born, but we certainly can choose where we belong, and what places we need to go to help us rise to the sun.
“Dancing on My Own” by Robyn
This anthem makes me dance every time. Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether the person you want to dance with wants to dance back — you’ve just got to dance on your own, all the way past the thing you were afraid of, the person holding you back, and right into the thing you’ve always wanted to do.
“Indian Summer” by Jai Wolf
This is a song I turn up loud, roll down the windows, and blast from my car, or turn up loud in my office and write like mad. The melody is beautiful, the beat is hypnotic, and it makes me ready for adventure. Turn this song up loud. Nod your head along. Where does it make you want to go?
“Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads
“And you may find yourself” living a version of a life you didn’t expect, “and you may ask yourself, how did I get here?” Can you identify the path that brought you here? Can you see what, ahead, you still dream of? Catch a glimpse of it, and hold on. “And the days go by,” so find a way to make them the days you want. Plus, we should all listen to what David Byrne says all the time. He gets the weird.
“Fire” by Jimi Hendrix
“Let me stand next to your fire.” Sometimes we want to be close, right beside, something or someone who burns so, so bright. Also, this is the song our fire-eater performed her routine to, so I can’t hear this song now without imagining her becoming a human candle.
“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” by The Beatles
This song tells the circus story of Mr. Kite and some of his amazing acts. It's a classic circus song. My favorite line is: “In this way Mr. K. will challenge the world,” because when you run away with the circus, it’s not just the acts themselves that are challenging. So many of us performers had bigger challenges in our lives before joining the sideshow, so finding a new family in the sideshow gave all of us another way of challenging the world we came from where we didn’t belong.
“Roustabout” by Beats Antique
A "roustabout" was a term for a laborer in the circus, one of the folks who did the hard work of putting up and taking down tents. This song remixes some classic circus music. It sounds like a circus taking place inside a dream at the bottom of the ocean, or upside down, or in the darkness. Something that keeps your feet off the ground without knowing whether you jumped or fell or tumbled into another world, without knowing whether it matters.
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’s writing has appeared in PANK, Seneca Review, The Rumpus, Sideshow World
, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Alabama and is working on a PhD in creative writing at the University of Utah. She also eats fire and charms snakes, among other sideshow feats. She lives in South Carolina. The Electric Woman
is her first book.