Illustration by Jane Montalto.
Warning: This article talks about suicide.
Maya Hawke has been a champion of queer rights and awareness since the beginning of her acting career. In 2019, she debuted the role of Robin Buckley in season three of Netflix’s Stranger Things, creating arguably one of the most mainstream, widely beloved lesbian characters in television history. Following the release of the show, she stated, “If I can hope for anything it’s that maybe some people fell in love with Robin, and that helped them fall in love with girls who love girls, and boys who love boys.”
Following the release of Stranger Things, Hawke appeared in several other projects centered around sapphic characters, including Fear Street (2021) and Do Revenge (2022). Through the promotion of these projects, Hawke continued to speak openly and frequently about her hopes that young people will see themselves reflected in her characters.
In addition to acting, Maya Hawke has released two musical albums and multiple singles, taking inspiration both from her own life and from the world around her. Much like her acting roles, many queer fans have found their own experiences reflected in Hawke’s music over the years. Notably, in the song “To Love a Boy” from her 2019 debut album Blush she describes the feeling of being afraid you can’t love who you’re supposed to.
Softly, Hawke sings:
I want to love a boy the way I love the ocean
Wish I was not afraid of all I have that’s broken
I know I must behave to contain all my emotion
But I want to love a boy the way I love the ocean
In the bridge of the song, she goes on to sing, “I ask why, it’s better to speak than it is to die.” This line seems to reference the 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name, a queer classic, in which the main character poses the question “Is it better to speak, or to die?” in reference to confessing his feelings for a male friend.
Many lesbians have taken comfort in the bittersweet, queer interpretation of this song — the ubiquitous feeling that things would be easier if they could fall in love with a boy.
Many of Hawke’s songs have included similar references to the ocean. She frequently includes mermaid imagery, seemingly as an allegory. This mermaid allegory can first be seen in the music video for “To Love a Boy,” possibly a metaphor for queerness. In the video, Hawke dresses as a mermaid, appearing out of place in the streets of Los Angeles. She shows her desire to fit in, but ultimate failure to assimilate, and the video concludes with her returning — alone — to the ocean.
Her personal intention behind the lyrics remains largely undiscussed, perhaps to allow the listener to form their own interpretation of her words, though recently while introducing the song in concert she said, “When I wrote [“To Love a Boy”] I really, really wrote it about the ocean…but I don’t not relate to its implications.”
Hawke has never publicly stated her sexuality, but she has made her fondness for her sapphic fans known, telling Flood Magazine, “I think it’s cool that when I play shows, young queer women who love Robin can come and connect to my music, too.” In the same interview, she discussed the process of writing her new album, saying, “I’ve gotta go back there: back to puberty, back to my sexuality, back to my education — back to all these things that were mine.”
Her 2022 sophomore acoustic album Moss primarily explores relationships, youth and self-reflection. In anticipation of its release, Hawke posted a link to her Spotify playlist entitled “Music For Mermaids to Kiss to,” potentially referencing the quietly magical and sweetly optimistic closing track on Moss: “Mermaid Bar.”
In the song, her long-running mermaid allegory is on full display as Hawke tells the story of a lonely, lost soul finding community in otherness.
The song begins in a place of hopelessness:
There was no moon, black sky on the night
I jumped from the bridge toward the river
I swear, I saw silver starlight
On the water’s surface, a shimmer
At the surface level, this opening can be taken as the narrator’s contemplation of suicide. This is an incredibly important subject to explore as young queer people are more than four times as likely to commit suicide than their peers. A 2022 study conducted by the Trevor Project found that nearly half of LGBT+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. By opening the song in this way, Hawke immediately draws an air of melancholic seriousness to the lyrics.
Pounded the pulse, I couldn’t finish
Didn’t hear a splash or feel the cold
Was full of bubbles for a minute
Turned to ice, then cycloid scales of gold
Turned to ice, then cycloid scales of gold
At this point, the song turns from reality to surrealist escapism. However, the introduction of fantasy into such a serious subject doesn’t diminish its importance, but rather reminds the listener of a way to escape a dark place — by seeking out community.
Hawke’s following description of the song’s narrator turning slowly into a mermaid can be read as a hyperbolic discovery of one’s queerness. The strange feeling of growing up and realizing that you aren’t what you expected to be, and being initially unsure of why you feel so different from your peers. For many queer people, the alienation that the narrator feels is intensely relatable:
My lungs deflated, my fingers weaved
Ribs separated for gills to breathe
Ran my tongue over my sharp new teeth
Panicked, swimming, collapsed in the reeds
Taken with the current to the sea
Tied disrupting desperate dreams,
My belly empty, body weak
The particular line, “tied disrupting desperate dreams,” calls back to the themes introduced in “To Love a Boy.” It’s the feeling that being queer is a disruption from childhood dreams of heterosexual happiness, a prince charming or a perfect nuclear family.
In the next verse, the narrative shifts from confusion and hopelessness, to slow self-realization. The lyrics show the narrator’s fear of herself and disgust at the instincts arising in her.
When new instincts woke me from the spell
I killed a diamondback terrapin
Was most scared of my awful self
Only at this point does the narrator begin to discover that life goes on, even though she has changed. The music begins to pick up here as the tempo increases and acoustic guitars join in the main melody, creating an instrumental chorus to accompany Hawke’s singing. This instrumentation subtly solidifies the theme of the lonely beginning yet finding community as the song progresses. One of the only songs on the album that features percussion, a soft beat runs throughout the rest of the song which Hawke described in one interview as a “pulse.” As the song continues, Hawke’s voice grows louder, and she becomes more sure of herself. As background harmonies come in, she reaches a turning point in the song.
Also within this verse, the narrator jumps forward in time, past her own self-discovery, instead focusing on her life in the present. She tells how she’s been able to create a place where others like her can gather and find community among other mermaids.
I opened Sardine Dream Mermaid Bar
We serve most oysters and caviar
Leave your seashells in our tall tip jar
There are more like me, I swear there are
The last line here is most notable. Community among queer folks is incredibly important, especially for young people who may not have grown up seeing positive representations of happy queer people. The song also provides community for those who have felt isolated from their peers after realizing they’re queer, further proving its importance.
In the book Baby, You are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall (Gender, Theology and Spirituality), author Marie Carter interviewed 85-year-old sapphic woman, Myrna Kurtland about her experiences as a lesbian in pre-Stonewall America. An excerpt of the interview reads:
“KURTLAND: Well, I had insomnia. I used to phone up all the gay bars, just to hear them answer the phone… just to hear the noise. Oh yes.
CARTER: So you would call and just be on the phone?
KURTLAND: No, I would just hear the noise and the laughter in the background. I just wanted to be there.”
Following the thread of queer analogy throughout her discography, Hawke’s “Mermaid Bar” can be interpreted as a gay bar. If so, the themes of queer community and inclusion in the song are breathtaking. The verse continues:
Come for scallops, come to hear our song
Come if you’re in awful, bad trouble
Come if you’re certain you don’t belong
Some that fall don’t land in bubbles
‘Cause some that fall don’t land in bubbles
Some fans of Hawke’s music have suggested that “Mermaid Bar” can be viewed as a sequel to “To Love a Boy,” considering both contain similar themes, as well as the shared ocean/mermaid allegory. The top comment on the “Mermaid Bar” music video on YouTube reads, “I like to imagine this song as an extended story of “To Love a Boy.” The key difference between the songs is that while “To Love a Boy” is a melancholy lamentation of being different, “Mermaid Bar” is a celebration of those differences and a joyous meeting of others who at one point also felt the same way. While in “To Love a Boy,” Hawke resents her connection to the ocean, “Mermaid Bar” begins with her jumping into the water, and surrounding herself with the metaphorical ocean sung of in the first song.
It’s nice to think that in four years, Maya Hawke has been able to shift her perspective in this way, positioning herself as someone who could offer her listeners sanctuary from their sadness in her allegorical mermaid bar.