A few days ago, I heard a new-to-me song on the radio on my drive home from work. As the kids on American Bandstand were wont to say, “It’s got a good beat and it’s easy to dance to” (and by “dance” I mean “tap my foot”). I liked it so well that I found it on Youtube when I got home and it’s now a standard on my playlist (and by “playlist” I mean I’ve been listening to it over and over again).
The song is “No Roots,” written and performed by Alice Merton, and the part that caught my attention was the chorus, with its, appropriately enough, “I’ve got not roo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oots! I’ve got no roo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oots!”
I figured that could mean all sorts of things but thought it sounded kind of Third-Culture-Kid-ish. Sure enough, an internet search told me that Merton’s led a life of international relocation, moving 11 (or 12) times in her 24 years. Born in Frankfort, Germany, she moved to Connecticut, with her German mother and Irish father, when she was three months old. The family later moved to Canada, and when Merton was 13, they returned to Germany—where she learned German and attended high school—followed by another move, to England. Later, on her own, she was back in Germany again, where she earned a bachelor’s degree at the Popakademie (University of Popular Music and Music Business) Baden-Württemberg. (I’m piecing this together from bios and interviews, so I apologize if the details are off. The point is, she’s moved around a lot.)
“No Roots” has done its share of globe trotting, as well, with Billboard reporting that as of August of last year, it had climbed the top-ten charts in Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, and Switzerland. And now it’s crossed the ocean to take on the pop charts in the US, hitting number-one on Billboard‘s Adult Alternative Songs airplay ranking in December.
Merton may not call herself a TCK—or an Adult TCK—but she certainly speaks the language. The lyrics for “No Roots” include
I built a home and wait for someone to tear it down
Then pack it up in boxes, head for the next town running
I like standing still, but that’s just a wishful plan
Ask me where I come from, I’ll say a different land
with the refrain
And a thousand times I’ve seen this road
A thousand times . . .
I’ve got no roots, but my home was never on the ground
Merton wrote her first song, “Lighthouse,” when she was a 16-year-old student in Germany. She tells Billboard that the song was born out of her homesickness. “I just didn’t feel at home in Germany at all in the beginning,” she says. “That’s why I kept on searching for this lighthouse, I guess, which would take me back to Canada.”
Years later, her nomadic life once again provided inspiration, resulting in “No Roots.” Again to Billboard, she says,
I was on the beach, and I was just thinking to myself that I have no one place where I actually feel like I’m at home. I came up with the idea of having no roots—never being grounded to a certain place, but having your home with people who you love.
Talking with Tolga Akar, in an interview for a German radio station, she says that writing “No Roots” was helpful in processing her global transitions:
Once I’ve written a song I know how I feel about something. So this whole no roots topic was this topic that was just swimming around in my head, ‘cause I just felt like I just wasn’t at home anywhere. So I guess it’s kind of like therapy, because I only really knew how I felt about not having a home after I wrote that song.
But the therapeutic effect isn’t only in the creation of the song, for Merton, it’s also in the singing. Riff Magazine asks why her feelings of rootlessness didn’t lead to a “sad ballad.” She replies,
Before I went into the studio, I knew I wanted this song to be up-tempo. This topic at the time wasn’t a happy topic for me because I felt quite lost, but I didn’t want to look back at this song and feel sad while singing it, because I needed something that reminded me that it’s OK not to feel at home in one specific place. I knew that I wanted a hooligan-like choir to chant “roots,” so that it would feel even more uplifting.
If you’re a TCK, or anyone lost and rootless, let “No Roots” remind you “that it’s OK not to feel at home in one specific place.” Sing along with Alice Merton. She’s got the words and the tune.
Or if it’s more your style, you can join the hooligan choir and holler out “Roots!”—with passion—every time it comes around.
(Kevin Rutherford, “Alice Merton Puts Down ‘Roots’ at No. 1 on Adult Alternative Songs,” Billboard, December 20, 2017; Tatiana Cirisano, “Alice Merton’s Wanderlust Anthem ‘No Roots’ Heads to U.S. After Blowing Up in Europe,” Billboard, August 22, 2017; Tolga Akar, “Interview Alice Merton: Scandalous Pics and Real Roots!” Der Beat Von Berlin KISS FM, June 27, 2017; Roman Gokhman, “Q&A: Nomad Alice Merton Raises Anchor, Drops ‘Roots,’” RIFF Magazine, November 20, 2017)
[photo: “Alice Merton 12/11/2017 #37,” by Justin Higuchi, used under a Creative Commons license]