In September 2020, country singer Kacey Musgraves announced her divorce from her husband Ruston Kelly in Elle magazine. The split followed now-confirmed rumors of Kelly cheating with actress Olivia Munn.
In May, internet-beloved comedian, John Mulaney announced his split from artist wife, Anna Marie Tendler. Mulaney officially filed for divorce in July. In September 2021, the comic announced he will be having a baby with Munn.
What do these relationships have in common? They were both somewhat rocky and complicated relationships. Both Mulaney and Kelly have spoken publicly about both former and current drug abuse and mental illness. Both marriages culminated in the husbands’ involvement with the same woman. But more importantly, they both resulted in some very interesting art.
Considered by some to be the most gut-wrenching breakup album since Taylor Swift’s “Red,” Musgraves’ “Star-Crossed” is a rarity in the current music landscape. It is an album designed in the old-fashioned sense with an intro, an outro, a cohesive theme and the bleeding of one song into the next.
This is not an accidental cohesion. In fact, nothing about this album is accidental. Her painstaking attention to detail is most clearly seen in the parallels between Musgraves’ last album, “Golden Hour,” and her newest album. Almost every song alludes to the dimming of the sunlight, an artistic way to portray the loss of her seemingly perfect relationship from “Golden Hour.”
The title of the album, “Star-Crossed,” conjures the Shakespearean tragedy of ill-fated love, perfectly setting the stage for the unbecoming of the artist’s marriage. The first track contains riffs reminiscent of the theme of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” implying that not all who entered the relationship will leave alive.
The album is written in a style the singer describes as “galactic country.” What this means for the listener is layers of sonic pop and Americana banjo. What really sets her music apart though is the storytelling. Rolling Stone, retrospectively, expresses no surprise at the success of Musgraves’ first album.
“It did so for any number of reasons, among them her biting wordplay, her uncanny ability to layer meaning, and her masterful embrace of the down-home sounds of pedal steel and banjo,” Alex Morris from Rolling Stone said in February 2021.
In another world and resulting from another dissolved marriage, Tendler has released a photo series entitled “Rooms in the First House.” According to the artist’s website, she will be showing this collection at The Other Art Fair in Santa Monica at the end of September.
The photos are mostly self-portraits of the artist dramatically sprawled on ghostly backgrounds. The house itself looks like a Tudor or Tudor revival, filled with richly colored botanical prints. One of the most striking of these photos features Tendler posed as an Anne Bolyne look-alike, the caption reading, “The Moost Happi Anno 2021 (portrait at 36 years of age).”
Supplementing this photo series on Tendler’s social media page are three successive images one portraying a lone pink magnolia tree, rendered in black and white in two other images with Tendler standing beneath it. The caption to one of these images is a poem wondering what it would be like to be a flower, adored.
This provides an interesting parallel to the Musgraves song “Cherry Blossom,” in which the singer pleads, “I’m your cherry blossom baby, don’t let me blow away.” Whether this parallel is purely coincidental or intentional is beyond my own scope of speculation.
Both of these artists are respected in their fields. Musgraves has been long lauded as a musician since her first album in 2013, “Same Trailer, Different Park.” This genre-defying tour-de-force about growing up in Texas connected with country fans and detractors alike, launching Musgraves into a career Rolling Stone compared to Dolly Parton’s.
Tendler, likewise, is a successful multi-discipline artist who had her own career before she became more generally well known for her divorce from the popular comedian.
What I think is vital about this conversation is that the art that has resulted from these two public divorces comes from a place of deep loss. At first glance, this seems like two classic cases of Hollywood romance gone awry. However, the depth of the art lends a more serious consideration to both of the artists.
Both women channeled their tragedy into art and created something beautiful that speaks to a human experience of love and love lost. In their work are echoes of Bob Dylan’s “Blood On the Tracks,” Willie Nelson’s “Phases and Stages” and Frida Khalo’s “Little Deer,” some of the most renowned heartbreak-inspired art of the last century.
Musgraves closes her album with a song by the author Violeta Parra. The song, “gracias a la vida,” has confounded readers for years for being a piece that celebrates the little intimate moments in life while also being the last piece Parra wrote before she took her own life. Musgraves' rendition of “Gracias a la Vida” is layered with distortion and grain that add another layer of nuance to each verse.
The lyrics and the performance together are perfect examples of what both Musgraves and Tendler, not to mention countless others, have tried to do — channel loss into something bigger and more beautiful than themselves.
Both women found themselves at the center of public scrutiny. Their lives were splashed across tabloids and became the subjects of strangers’ conversations. But instead of covering up, Tendler and Musgraves made the world a window into their pain and embarrassment.
It is this window that creates value in art. Art means nothing if it does not connect with people and connection is always bought with vulnerability. It is only when we are willing to expose ourselves to the critics peering through the glass that we also see the friends waving through the window.