Let me set the scene: one singer and recent divorcée, inspired by what else but Greek tragedy. Of course, I’m talking about Kacey Musgraves, who touted the melodramatic themes of her latest album, star-crossed, for months before we’d heard a single song or even knew the title. “This last chapter of my life and this whole last year and chapter for our country — at its most simple form, it’s a tragedy,” she told Rolling Stone back in February. She went on to talk about ideas like climax and resolution, along with the resilience of tragedy as a form, as muses for its narrative structure.
Immediately upon the album’s arrival, that inspiration was clear. Musgraves divided star-crossed into three five-song acts (“star-crossed” to “if this was a movie” is Act One, “justified” to “easier said” is Act Two, and “hookup scene” to “gracias a la vida” is Act Three), peppering the songs with allusions to ancient Greek and Roman lore like the myth of Icarus in “star-crossed” — all on top of the unsubtle titular reference to Shakespeare’s most popular work. But as a nerd, here’s what I really wanted to know: How would star-crossed actually stack up against the great works by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles that the album’s creator has invoked? To investigate, I called Dr. Angeline Chiu, an associate professor of classics at the University of Vermont whose research interests include Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, and pop culture. Chiu has found classical themes across the pop-culture universe from obvious places like Disney’s Hercules to less obvious ones like Breaking Bad. “If you do classics, you see it everywhere,” she explained. “The fundamentals of storytelling are really transcendent.” We spoke about the Greek and Shakespearean ideas on star-crossed and what Aristotle would make of the whole thing.
Kacey has talked about processing her divorce and thinking of it as having been through a Greek tragedy. What would our working idea be of a Greek tragedy?
At the most basic level, we go back to Aristotle. He wrote the Poetics, which was about what he thought were salient points on different kinds of literature, and he included tragedy in them. What Aristotle said and I thought would be really relevant for the album [is that] we can talk about two general areas. One is structure. Kacey says she wanted to group her songs into three acts with five songs a pop. Now, Aristotle doesn’t specifically say a good Greek tragedy should have three acts; that comes a little bit later. The Romans, there’s a guy called Aelius Donatus — what a name — who said, [uses a declarative voice] “It should have three acts.” And then later, Horace said, [uses a similarly declarative voice] “It should have five acts.” So nowadays, if you take screenwriting classes or whatever, you see the arguing back and forth: Is it three? Is it five? Do the three fit into the five? Are we splitting hairs?
What Aristotle [also] said that is relevant is that tragedy is mimesis: the imitation of an action of life. It’s literally “art imitates life.” That’s pretty perfect for — I don’t wanna call it a divorce album, but it is inspired by or kickstarted by a real action. In a way, it’s an imitation of [it], an artistic version. Then the three acts fit into what Aristotle said: A good tragedy should have a kind of wholeness in the action, that you have to have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. And beginning, middle, and end pretty much map onto three acts.
It took me a few listens to get the act breaks on the album. She’s very clear on “star-crossed” — “Let’s set the scene” feels like this grand opening, then the middle is kind of where it lost me, and the end reaches the big resolution. How did you experience these three acts?
I thought “star-crossed” was really good. In a way, I thought it was too obvious where we’re going. I mean, you can’t say “star-crossed” without everybody thinking about Romeo and Juliet — like, okay, we’re going to just hammer this in there. And there’s actually a Greek mythological reference in there about Icarus: “Did we fly too high just to get burned by the sun?” We’re hitting the Greek-myth thing, and we’re hitting the Shakespeare thing right from the get-go. So it overdetermines what comes later in terms of what you expect.
In the middle, I thought some of the songs started to bleed together a little bit. And some of it’s really good — I like “justified” a lot. But some of the other ones, the persona that she puts in those songs seems passive, or more reflective and kind of flabby. Greek tragedy is nothing if not violently passionate. We didn’t get a lot of superstrong emotions. It seemed more contemplative, and in some ways, it seemed to be more self-focused in a much more passive way than I was expecting.
Like, things are happening to her.
Right. Divorce, as an idea, tends to bring out these volcanic eruptions of emotion, and I didn’t think the album gave us so much of that. And in terms of real life, that’s probably the best outcome, rather than traumatic, violent, emotional action. But we’re talking about art, right? There is actually an ancient Greek tragedy about divorce, or at least a really bad breakup — Medea, by Euripides. You wanna talk about crazy, violent emotions? A whole bunch of people end up dead! [Laughs.]
Yeah, I thought the middle was probably the weakest part of the album. [But getting to] the resolution, I thought it kind of recovered itself at the end.
Kacey is saying it was a Greek tragedy but was also Shakespearean in a way, and she’s bridging these two things together. Shakespeare himself was building on the Greek tragic form, right?
He wasn’t as much familiar with the Greek as he was with the Roman, but the Roman built on the Greek, so ultimately, it goes back to that. And Shakespeare usually does the five acts, as opposed to the three. In terms of emotional development and denouement and all that stuff, it’s definitely there. But even in terms of Shakespearean emotional character development, [the album] seemed a little [muted]? Maybe it’s just the way the music is. Because in some ways, she reminds me of Taylor Swift, as opposed to, like, Dolly Parton or some of these old-school-country country women singing about all sorts of stuff.
Like a bold, Loretta Lynn–type figure. I don’t know what your background in country music is, but —
Oh, I’m from Houston! I worship George Strait!
I mean, it’s also not in that same genre. It’s hard to classify Kacey, ’cause she’s country but not, depending on the song. That’s part of her attraction, right? Like, the previous album that won Album of the Year [Golden Hour] was like, Wow, what is this thing? Star-crossed seems to give off a similar vibe but on a different chord.
She gave an interview in which she talked about the title and her understanding of this Shakespearean idea of being star-crossed. If you’ll forgive my cursing, she said it was “to be fucked by love or luck.” That —
It seems like she has a grasp on that idea?
Well! I mean, Oedipus would agree with you. [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s the idea that there are forces beyond our control, like cosmic motions, and humans are just helpless in the face of overwhelming emotions or events.
Speaking of forces beyond our control, Kacey also talks a lot about how the realization that what she had gone through was a Greek tragedy and was very Shakespearean came to her shortly after a trip on psychedelic mushrooms.
[Laughs.] Was it, now?
Yeah, just wanted to put that out there.
Hey, whatever works, I guess. I mean, the Greeks talked about the Muses being goddesses of artistic inspiration. If your muse is a mushroom, well, who am I to judge? [Laughs.]
Anyway, you were touching on this idea that this album, if it were to work as a true tragedy, should be cathartic; it should make the audience feel big emotions.
Aside from structure, I said there was a second part of this — that Aristotle said a good tragedy’s audience response should be feelings of fear or suspense and then pity and then catharsis. You go on this emotional journey.
Did you feel fear, pity, and catharsis?
I could see where she wanted it to go in which songs were in which groups. I am not entirely sure it landed every time on every one of the 15. Some of them did, some of them almost did, and a couple of them were … I kind of don’t like “camera roll.” [Laughs.]
There’s something about “camera roll” that just rubbed me the wrong way. Aside from the fact that in a couple of years, when the tech changes, it’ll be completely obsolete. There was just something about “camera roll” that felt out of place somehow.
I’ve seen people on Twitter going for that side of the album, but I agree, it didn’t quite land to me. What did land the most for me and what’s interesting about this progression that you mentioned — from the pity to the fear and then landing on the catharsis — is the final act. While the emotions are restrained along the way, by then I could hear it more than anywhere else on the album, with “what doesn’t kill me” and “there is a light.” It felt climactic.
Right, I thought the last set was pretty good, that it did go for the cathartic resolution. It did better than the middle. I think the first song, “star-crossed,” sets up the fear and the pity, that this is a disastrous thing that happened. Developing the fear and pity, I thought, was hit-or-miss, but the effort to land the cathartic resolution was more successful.
You were talking about the sound not being this bold, exuberant thing that the Greeks might have gotten from a tragedy, but toward the end, there are these synthesizer moments and this wild flute solo and she’s finally going for it.
Okay. [Laughs.] I’m glad you mentioned the solo ’cause I was like, What am I listening to? But it definitely gets your attention.
And you were saying that traditionally these tragedies would be very musically audacious and exuberant.
Yeah, we have reconstructions of some of the musical instruments at the time, and you can reconstruct some of the music from the rhythms and the patterns that we have. Greek tragedy is many things, but subdued is not one of them. [Laughs.] They would have been out there in these elaborate costumes and masks. They didn’t really spend a lot on scenery; it was all in the costuming and the choreography and the dancing and the singing. But subdued is not in their vocabulary. And in some ways, it seemed like the album was pretty subdued for a lot of it. It’s like easy-listening divorce. [Laughs.]
Did you have a favorite song on the album?
I did like “cherry blossom” a lot. Part of it is because I’m Taiwanese American, and we have lots of Japanese influence kicking around here [on this song]. There’s that riff on “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” [where she says,] “Tokyo wasn’t built in a day.” I thought that was clever! [Laughs.] And in Japanese culture — and it’s kind of in play in Taiwan, too — is the idea that cherry blossoms are beautiful, but they’re very fleeting. For as long as we’ve had them in folk culture and tradition, they always stand for the fragility of life. You can apply it to how relationships can sometimes be like that: They’re beautiful but delicate, and before you know it, it blows away and it’s over. I thought that was kind of poignant. And maybe that’s what we’re after in the album. Maybe instead of the volcanic, old-school treatment of hurt and pain, we’re going for the poignancy of it.
So to put the question really directly, do you feel Kacey was successful in channeling Greek tragedy through this album?
I mean, here’s the professor talking, [in a professorial voice] it depends on what you mean by successful. [Laughs.] I think it was successful in several ways and not in other ways. The attempt to frame it with that kind of structure and that goal is admirable, and even if it didn’t land all the time, it was a great effort. That in itself, a unified artistic vision. Aristotle would’ve recognized that; it should be a unified whole, he said. In that sense, the effort itself justifies what she’s done. In terms of mimesis, what Aristotle said about great tragedy as the imitation of life, I think that landed because it is an imitation or a performance of life, and it happened to be her own life. Fear, pity, catharsis — catharsis hit the best. I think the fear and pity got a little bit muddled, though it started really well with “star-crossed.” And I thought the resolution — the poignant catharsis of Okay, all this happened, and we’re gonna pull ourselves together and proceed, older and wiser, maybe a little sadder, but wiser — I think that landed pretty well.
I really appreciated this conversation; this was extremely fun. Thank you for being game to talk about this.
Oh, I will gladly talk about classics any place, anywhere. One of the great things about Kacey and all this is that the Greek tragic idea is still alive and well. It still is part of how we present narrative and emotions and how we process things and tell stories.
Well, the next person who puts out a Greek-tragedy-inspired album, you’ll be the first person I email.
Hey, if “Greek tragedy” can be said in the same breath as “Grammy Award,” then I think we’re all doing pretty okay!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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