Again, apologies for the absence; things have been nutty. I went to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, work was crazy, and now things are slowing down a bit around the holidays. So I’m going to clue you in on one of my best musical discoveries this year, and next week I’ll be publishing my 2008 top 10.
It’s rare for me, but love at first listen happens and this past autumn, it was love at first listen for me with the band These United States, who are DC-based but hail at least in part from Kentucky, and so get their country-roots-rock pedigree honestly.
It’s no secret that I love roots rock. Give me Springsteen, The Band, The Stones, etc., and I’m a happy camper. Much as Britpop and Scottish indie have made their way into my cynical little heart, I like American music, as the Violent Femmes might say, or at least music from which you can trace a direct ancestry back to Robert Johnson and the devil at the crossroads. When I listen to Springsteen or The Band or The Stones, it’s less like passively listening to music and more like taking a long, cold drink of water on a hot day. It’s nourishing and satisfying in a way that pop/rock music rooted in other traditions just isn’t for me, and certainly it’s the love of a twangy guitar that made me stop chatting to my friends and pay attention when These United States played at the Sunset Tavern here in Seattle a few months ago.
I was there to see another band, the band of a friend of a friend, and These United States opened for that band. They look like a Weird Beard band like Iron & Wine or Fleet Foxes (this categorization is courtesy my friend Anne, who loathes the Nouveau Freak Folk that has oh-so-gently propagated in the Northwest indie scene over the past few years), all scruff and plaintive eyes, but lead singer Jesse Elliott has an intelligent, academic edge to him that lets him write and perform lyrics about Custer’s Last Stand, Mark Twain, Johnny Appleseed and other self-conscious bits of Americana and get away magnificently with the archness of it all. On the opener, “West Won,” Elliott references the Cain and Abel story (but seemingly in the same vein that the story is used in Steinbeck novels; as a tale of the emotional torment and filial failing of Cain rather than a simple tale of murder) along with Dionysus, who is drinking booze “at the back of the bus” to paint a lyrical picture of desperation.
With a sweeping melody, “West Won” evokes the landscape of the Western United States, occasionally harsh and unforgiving, desperate and dry.
Crimes is actually the second album These United States put out in 2008. The first is called A Picture of the Three of Us At the Gate to the Garden of Eden and my reaction to it was an overwhelming sense of “meh” to be honest. I think Crimes is far more interesting. Where A Picture… is mellow, and, dare I say, even fits with the Weird Beard genre a little, though These United States are a lot more edgy than Fleet Foxes and their ilk, Crimes is capable of rocking out. I highly recommend purchasing Crimes, but my recommendation for A Picture… is much more lukewarm. It almost sounds like two different bands produced the albums and it will be interesting to see if the These United States of Crimes sticks around or if they evolve into something new again.
The band veers nearly into straight-up country on “Those Low Country Girls,” a rollicking party song about, um, girls.
Certainly the star of the show on this album is Elliott’s voice, which reminds me a tiny bit of Levon Helm in its ability to crack and break at just the right moment in a song, like in The Band’s “Tears of Rage” and These United States’ “Heaven Can Wait” or to drop into a lower register to rouse his bandmates’ into party-mode, like in The Band’s “Chest Fever” and These United States’ “Low Country Girls.” (Note: Elliott reminds me of Helm just a little; I do not pretend that he is the second coming of Helm, whose voice is nearly unmatched in rock, though adding some honky tonk piano a la The Band might be good for These United States).
“When You’re Traveling At the Speed of Light” is the closing number on Crimes ends with the repeated refrain “if the thing that drives you onward is your heart you must not let that engine die” shouted by many voices after the instruments have ceased, and this was the repeated refrain that These United States ended their set at the Sunset with as well. It’s powerful coming from this band, after an album full of copious references to our American ancestors (the Cain and Abel story, even, having particular resonance in a country formed by revolution), to suddenly fade out on a song about the heart. It’s as if These United States are talking about the things that form the heart of America, and I think they are successful in getting a message across about the idea of moving forward, engines (steam trains, cars, hearts, souls, everything else that made this country able to be crossed) at-the-ready. You can say what you want about the truth or untruth of that idea, or about its ramifications for the people who inhabited the land before us whities arrived, but it’s a powerful image, and a fantastic way to wrap up the album.
No time for a real review, but I am currently majorly digging on Condo’s third album Best of Luck, which is due to be released on October 14th on Rock Park Records. I found their press release a bit funny, as it describes them as “channeling the cool glare of Bauhaus and the Fall with the playfulness of Siouxsie and the Banshees.” The front cover compares them to Jarvis Cocker/Pulp.
Uh, no. Try again.
Condo aren’t innovative or new, and despite their current residency in New York City they are squarely, squarely in the “Britrock” genre of music (their lead singer is British). Think The Editors mixed with a smidge of James, nothing so edgy as Siouxsie. “Judge of That” is the epitome of this 90s throwback sound:
Still, the guitars get pretty hard at points on the album, something else I appreciate. The twee-pop standard of a boy-girl duet (ergh; come on? seriously? are we not past that?) turns dark and un-twee on “Left at the Lights,” which starts off sort of boring but picks up around the middle.
In short, Best of Luck isn’t an album that will change your life, but I always like to give a shoutout – however brief – to those doing rock music and doing it well, and the points Condo lose for trying to be trendy (and succeeding – 10 years ago), they gain by being great musicians. Check it out.
This is very belated. Work (my real day job) got crazy. But here it is! Yay! I wrote most of it a month and a half ago. If you would like, go back and read part 1 and part 2.
I think a lot of people are going to give me shit for the artists I chose. Why Paula Cole? Isn’t she pop? Why Tori Amos? She plays piano! This blog has been pretty traditional in its definition of rock & roll. But when I was looking for women to talk about to explore the creation of an American female narrative in 90s rock, I needed 4 women who were writing their own songs, getting radio airtime and not overtly political. Sure, I could have chosen L7 or Bikini Kill, but they were coming from an entirely different context than the 4 women I did choose. Sure, Exile in Guyville is political – it’s a response text, how could it not be – and Tori Amos covering an Eminem song about murdering his wife is also a political statement (as is that whole album of covers, Strange Little Girls, in which Amos tries to bring out the female voice within each of the former hits), but what these 4 women have in common, I think, more than anything, is that they are all storytellers. They have things they want to write about, both from their own person perspective and from the perspective of characters they create in their song lyrics, and what is interesting to me more than those overtly political statements is the profoundly disenchanted, cynical voice and narrative that is created when you add all these stories up.
I think of all 4 women, Tori Amos is perhaps the best and most complete storyteller, even if you don’t know what she’s talking about half the time. Breathy inflection reminiscent of Kate Bush, an awesome voice, a confessional attitude, great lyrics and mad piano skillz would all be enough to make excellent albums, but Amos knows how to combine all of her talents, emphasizing what is needed to best tell the story. She seems to inhabit her characters fully, whether her characters are outlaws, gay men, washed up models or herself, reliving her own rape at knifepoint (as in “Me and a Gun”).
I want to talk about three of her best-known songs, and explore how they fit into the “narrative of guilt” I’ve been talking about for the past two entries. “Cornflake Girl,” from 1994’s Under the Pink is maybe the quintessential song about being an outsider. The idea of a Huck/Ahab sort of mentality is problematic in the context of being a female rocker, because you are already an outsider, and if my assertion that women of this time period were more exploring the guilt that came with being an outsider, of wanting that freedom but also having the enormous pressure to conform that comes with being female in general, then “Cornflake Girl” is an anthem for the age.
Amos’ words are chosen so carefully and are so painstakingly assembled (she is truly a craftswoman in this regard) so that you have no idea what she is actually talking about, and yet somehow, emotionally, you fully understand that when she confesses in a downbeat, morose way that she “never was a cornflake girl,” she is talking about sex and her own understanding of her sexuality.
I also interpreted a “cornflake girl” in Amos’ world as being the kind of girl who could deny herself what she wanted (cornflakes having been invented, the urban lore goes, to sublimate sexual feelings so that people wouldn’t want to masturbate). And yet again, we have lyrics that say one thing, but the underlying emotion of the song both in Amos’ delivery and in the forceful piano notes, is of anger.
And the man with the golden gun
thinks he knows so much
thinks he knows so much, yeah
Knowing what we know about Amos’ history, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here to point out that the song seems to be about feeling a kind of guilt for her rape because of her sexuality.
“God,” also from Under the Pink, is Amos essentially scolding God for not being around when she needs Him. I say “Him” because in this version of Amos’ God, God is definitely not a woman.
God, sometimes you just don’t come through
God, sometimes you just don’t come through
Do you need a woman to look after you?
God, sometimes you just don’t come through
You could argue that Amos isn’t addressing God specifically, but rather using the word “God” as emphasis. I think in context, and with the song title being “God” that she is indeed addressing some idea of God, and that again, she is mad. But here what’s interesting is the pronouns. In the middle of the song, amid cascading piano, Amos screeches – well the proper word would be “screeches” but that makes it sound like she is off-key or anti-melodic and she is in fact still singin’ pretty – “would you even tell her if you decide to make the sky fall?” (emphasis mine) implying that God has a certain apathy toward the female gender.
There are funny bits of the song, when she characterizes God as being a dude with a golf club in a “4 wheel” headed off “south,” presumably on vacation. The anger she feels at a deity who has turned his back on her is palpable, but what strikes me about this song is that in her vocals, Amos almost seems to give up a little. Never do you hear her ask God to help her, to come back from vacation. Instead, she simply scolds and moves on. This is a quintessential aspect of the female narrative of 90s rock, the idea that we (as a gender) and they (specifically) have somehow been left behind, left out, exiled.
Finally, I wanted to talk a little bit about one of Amos’ later 90s efforts, “Raspberry Swirl,” a single for which she was nominated “Best Female Rock Vocal Performance” at the Grammys in 1999 (the album it was off of, From the Choirgirl Hotel, was released in 1998).
I chose this song because it’s a little weird. You can barely hear the lyrics. The song sounds like its name, a swirl of tart-and-sweet lyrics and breathy sounds with layer upon layer of complexity. It is a great song to end a discussion of Amos with, because there is an anthemic feeling to it. There is also an undercurrent of sapphic love, and though Amos says the song isn’t about sex specifically, she has admitted it was written for her best friend, who was having a rough time with men. Things are getting desperate
When all the boys can’t be men
I’m her friend
I’m her man
Here Amos is willing to play around with her sexuality in a playful but forceful way. It’s almost as if she’s daring the men in her friend’s life to be as good as she is to her friend. And while there’s no hint of the guilt I’ve been describing in this song, I think it’s interesting on a gender-play, feminism level. I also think there’s a fair amount of anger in this song too. You think “Angry Girl Music” and you think about Liz Phair and Bikini Kill, but all of the women rockers from the 90s I’ve explored have been angry in their own way, and mostly about misogyny/gender identity/feeling like an outcast.
Amos’ contribution to the narrative women wrote on the airwaves of the 90s is an emotional connection to her characters whether they are substitutes for her own viewpoint or not. She has a gorgeous voice and is a talented – if often obtuse – writer, who manages to describe that feeling of being an outcast and of exiling yourself because of perceived differences that so often were wrapped up in the idea of a “feminine” sexuality. It’s the exact same thing Liz Phair is angry about; the Madonna/whore complex that seems to trap women into feeling guilty about what for men would be “normal” or “healthy” sexuality. And how that sexuality gets twisted even more when you’ve been the victim of a sexual crime. This is what we’re left with after the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s. We have the tools and power to be as sexually free as men are, but not the societal acceptance to do so, and I think because rock & roll is so closely tied up with men’s sexuality, the guilt for women that is wrapped around our sexuality became a huge theme for women rockers of the 90s.
It’s true that I stole your lighter.
It’s also true that I lost the map.
But when you said I wasn’t worth talking to
I had to take your word on that.
-A confession from “Divorce Song”
You’ll have to forgive the nerdy tone of this essay, but response and intertextuality were two of my academic interests in graduate school and so I get excited when I can apply that to my love of pop culture.
Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville is her response album to the Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street. While she has said that it meant to be a song-by-song response, she has never really clarified if that meant that each song on her album lines up directly with each song on the Stones’ album, and the connections aren’t always obvious. Sometimes, they are. For the Rolling Stones’ song “Casino Boogie,” which seems to be about a strung out hustler, Liz writes a song called “Dance of the Seven Veils” whose first verse says “Johnny, my love, get out of the business / The odds are getting fatter by the minute” seemingly from the perspective of a strung out hustler’s girlfriend (who is also a stripper). Both songs also contain the word “cunt” (significant due to the nature of the word and who is using it), though interestingly, in the Stones song it’s used as a noun to refer to the female body part and it’s in Phair’s song that she uses it as a derogatory adjective to describe herself (“I’m a real cunt in Spring”). Most of the other songs don’t line up as well. But the point of Phair’s record seems to be to take the testosterone of Main Street, the brash swagger of Mick and the boys, and turn it into something essentially female (female, but “unfeminine” in terms of the traditional female musician). But within this transformation is an amazing amount of information about how Phair viewed both rock and roll and the state of her own life as one of the few women in the Wicker Park music scene of Chicago.
So how does Exile in Guyville, which is arguably the Ur-text of popular feminist response records, fit into the idea explored in this blog previously that the narrative of rock as written by female rockers in the 90s is about the guilt of being unable to fully attain an Ahab/Huck-esque spirit of adventure; or of having that and having it make the women of this time period feel guilty in for being an outsider.
Exile in Guyville is a challenging record. It is intentionally shocking and vulgar, and Phair is intentionally oblique. What she seems to want to do is to complicate the Rolling Stones Rock Ideal. She specifically chose a record that is considered by many to be one of the best rock albums ever written, and transformed it into a low-fi, anti-melodic, controversial piece of art that is, beyond anything else, angry (and in turn created a piece that regularly appears on “best of lists,” most recently getting a lauded re-issue for its 15th anniversary). In a recent interview with the Village Voice, Phair said:
I feel like I participated in what the truth [is] for young women in their sexuality with that record. Is that going to hold true later? I don’t know. But I participated in the grand bubble of: ‘What is the truth for young women and their sexuality?’ I think that’s why women responded to it, because they said: ‘Yeah, that is true for me, but I would never say it.’
Guyville is dark. The lyrics of Main Street are likewise dark, but that’s not really what you notice about the album. You notice the virtuosity of the music, the country-rock piano, the incredible drums. You notice the whole of the songs, the dirty honkytonk atmosphere they portray. They are sexy. Phair’s record is stripped down, and is often just her and a guitar. In losing the piano, and in putting a female voice in front of some of the same dirty honkytonk sentiments, Phair exposes the sleaze of the Stones and portrays the difference in the way men and women are allowed to sing about sex.
And that’s where the guilt comes in.
I’d like to explore one of Phair’s “sex” songs – “Flower.” The song is, without a doubt, pornographic. It lines up with one of the weaker Stones songs – “Let it Loose.” The response here seems to be a sort of “Okay, I WILL let it loose” from Phair, who sing-songs “Every time I see your face / I think of things unpure, unchaste / I want to fuck you like a dog / I’ll take you home and make you like it.”
Yikes. Are you afraid? I’m afraid. And that’s the point.
This is the first aspect of the way sex functions on this album – as confrontation. There is absolutely nothing sexy about this song. At all. The last line is “I’ll fuck you till your dick is blue.” Not only is her lyric intense, her performance of it is scarily aggressive, with Phair dropping her voice into a lower register. The foreboding and distorted guitar that punctuates the lyrics adds to this feeling of aggression.
So we get sex as an attack from one Phair’s female characters. We get it as a method of shocking the listener. We’re not shocked because this is coming from a female character, however, we are shocked at the aggression behind it. The point is purely and completely the aggression. I, personally (and I state this as a personal opinion), read this song to be about how healthy, human sexuality and aggression are subsumed and repressed; Phair is not only making a personal point about how frustrating that can be, she is making a point that on an album like Main Street the aggression and sexuality are entwined because those feelings are so much more normalized in the male realm of music. The new, female narrative of rock in the 90s had no framework for normal aggression or sexuality in women.
The natural song, then, to talk about next is “Fuck and Run” in which sex features (obviously) but is incredibly different from “Flower.” Sex here makes the main character feel incredible guilt and frustration.
Whatever happened to a boyfriend?
The kind of guy who tries to win you over.
Whatever happened to boyfriend?
The kind of guy who makes love ’cause he’s in it.
And I want a boyfriend.
I want a boyfriend.
I want all that stupid old shit
like letters and sodas
letters and sodas.
“Fuck and Run” is quite possibly the most heartbreaking song on the album. There is the element of shock here as well simply by the use of the word. But instead of naked aggression, the listener gets the idea that the character of this song is having sex to please her partner, not herself, and that this kind of empty love has made her despondent enough to proclaim “I can feel it in my bones / I’m gonna spend my whole life alone.” Every single person, male or female, has felt that way at one point or another, but the image is even more acutely powerful when you remember that at the time she is thinking this, the narrator is waking up next to a lover.
This same idea of sex as a way Phair is being controlled is explored, too, in “Canary,” which appears later on the album, in which Phair sings “I come when you circle the cherry / I sing like a good canary.” In “Fuck and Run” the character is chasing approval she thinks she will get from sex and in “Canary” she is doing the same thing. So here, instead of using sex (the idea, not necessarily the act) in an attention-grabbing, confrontational way, we get the flip side of that; having sex for a certain kind of attention and the guilt that leads to within the framework of a society that doesn’t value healthy female sexuality.
It has to be said again that not every female rocker was singing about the guilt of being an outsider, and in fact, many of the songs on this album in particular are not about that. I have not done a scientific study, but I would hazard to guess, though, that far more songs written by women are about existential guilt (not the guilt of a cheating lover; not the guilt of a bad child, but guilt for being who they are). The best example of this I can think of on this album is “Never Said,” which is a response to the biggest-selling single off Main Street, “Tumbling Dice.” The Stones? They get thinly-veiled misogyny and a rockin’ beat over lyrics about being a gambler” (which is, in itself, a thinly-veiled metaphor for being what we might today call a “player”). Phair? She writes a song in which she repeats “I never said nothin'” over and over again, pleading with someone to believe that she is “clean as a whistle, baby.” There’s no bragging in her song, just the repetition of “I ain’t done anything wrong.” On the one hand, the lady doth protest too much, but on the other hand, the fact that Phair’s response to “Tumbling Dice” was to write a song from the perspective of an interrogated lover says much about how she feels about “Tumbling Dice” in general.
The final song I want to examine is “Strange Loop.” I talked in part one about Paula Cole’s lyric “Where do I put this fire?” and how that sort of sums up a lot of what I feel the new female rock narrative of the 90s was about. “Strange Loop” begins with another image of fire (“The fire you like so much in me / is the mark of someone adamantly free / but you can’t stop yourself from wanting worse / Because nothing feeds a hunger like a thirst”).
“I always wanted you,” she continues, “I only wanted more than I knew.” An apt way to end an album about the frustration of being exiled in guyville. Yes, she is saying. I want love and sex and satisfaction (to borrow one of Mick’s favorite words), but I want something else. I want more.
I believe that at its core, Guyville is a response to one aspect of Main Street – the sexuality of that album and indeed of rock and roll in general. Phair’s 1993 album creates a narrative about how female sexuality is undervalued, repressed, denied. And of the guilt associated with that.
If rock & roll has essentially been about sex since Elvis’ first hip shake (and let’s not kid ourselves, it has), the American women rockers of the 90s were not only struggling to break into the realm of commercial success when the value of a female rocker was generally accepted to be nil (by which I mean her ability to move tickets and units; there were exceptions to this rule like Debbie Harry and Patti Smith), they were struggling to create in a medium that was essentially about something society at large was not necessarily willing to hear about from the mouths of women. What is so great about Guyville is that Liz Phair just simply does not accept that there are certain things she cannot sing about. She does not accept that she can’t be a little Mick Jagger, a little Patti Smith and a little Johnny Rotten all rolled into one. In fact, the idea of being censored in her own world frustrates her so much, we get songs like “Flower” in which her sexuality explodes into aggression. The world needs radicals to push the center into new ways of thinking, and certainly, Liz Phair did just that with this album. She forced her sexuality onto the listener, but her songs are still punctuated with the existential guilt that was the hallmark of the narrative created by women in the 90s.
Part 3 soon! Tori, Tori, Tori, and her strange little world.
Badassery is back! Life got in the way there for a little while, but I have a lot to say again and I’m going to try to stick to some sort of regular posting schedule.
I was home visiting my parents and celebrating America’s birthday, and we played rock music on the 4th to cover up the sounds of the exploding fireworks that scare our dog. Scout, our dog, likes Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones, so that’s what we played. Good, old fashioned, American music (and I don’t care that the Rolling Stones each come from Britain; what they make is purely, simply, American music and while I would never go so far as to appropriate the Beatles, Mick is as American as apple pie in both his bluesy roots and his commercial shock value). The Stones album of choice was Exile on Main Street, the rollicking country-blues effort that is arguably the zenith of their genius and probably one of the best rock albums that ever has been and probably ever will be made.
More than that, Dad gave me a book called Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock N’ Roll by Greil Marcus. Written in the 70s and updated slightly in 1989, it is one of the first, and surely one of the most imaginative, rock criticism books ever written (wow! lots of superlatives in this entry!). The books takes American myths (Ahab, Huck Finn, Stagger Lee, etc.) and weaves them into a larger narrative of the making of American pop culture through rock music, from the “Ancestors” of Harmonica Frank and Robert Johnson, to four “Inheritors” that Marcus argues are (or, I suppose were, in the mid-70s) reliving the myth of America even as they are remaking it. His four “Inheritors” are The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis. Well-chosen, to be sure, and in the first chapter on Harmonica Frank, Marcus argues of Captain Ahab and Huck Finn that:
…one of America’s secrets is that the reams of Huck and Ahab are not always very far apart. Both of them embody an impulse to freedom, an escape from restraints and authority that sometimes seems like the only really American story there is. That one figure is passive and benign, the other aggressive and in the end malignant; the one full of humor and regret, and the other cold and determined, never to look back; the one as unsure of his own authority as he is of anyone else’s, the other fleeing authority only to replace it with his own – all this hide the common bond between the two characters, and suggests how strong would be a figure who could put the two together…
I thought long and hard about that. Is the only real American story that of a mythic figure with both innocence and experience, cynicism and guilt, who desperately seeks freedom from both these restraints and the larger restraints placed on him by society? Actually, yes. That sounds about right, and truly the artists Marcus has chosen (and, who, I would argue, are properly chosen to represent what rock music was in the mid-70s) create this narrative. Between The Band (who are, okay, actually mostly Canadian), who create strange landscapes in “The Weight” into which the narrator ultimately disappears, and the hip-thrusts and mind-bending non-conformist beauty of Elvis’s face, and the strange characters that Randy Newman inhabits, and the maddening vocals of Sly Stone, yes. That’s the story being told, and that story can be extended through Bruce Springsteen’s hopeless/hopeful protagonists and into the 90s grunge era, when Nirvana wailed their alienation and sought refuge from a terrifying world in drugs…
…and then, something happened. Pop music took over and rock disappeared. Where is it on the radio? Why has it gone underground? It’s funny, because pundits on the news are talking about how the recession, gas prices, social unrest et. al. going on right now is so reminiscent of the 70s and, I figure, it must be true because in Marcus book I ran across this gem of a quote, which describes mid-70s pop culture:
Rock ‘n’ roll is suffering from that old progressive school fallacy that says if what you write is about your own feelings, no one can criticize it. Truth telling is beginning to settle into a slough where it is nothing more than a pedestrian autobiography set to placid music framed by a sad smile on the album cover.
That was written in 1975 but I have never read a more apt description of Coldplay. Music got good again after that for a little while, with punk reinventing the story yet again, but with the same protagonists that stand in line with Ahab and Huck and Stagger Lee, just angrier, with less of a sense of humor (Sid Vicious is Stagger Lee if ever there was one, no?). So I have hope that maybe it’s all cyclical.
These are the thoughts that were going through my head while reading Marcus’s and trying to fit the book into a relevance to my own musical history. I’m a 25 year old girl who grew up in an era when the pseudo-feminism of Lilith Fair conquered both the airwaves and the concert venues, and I’m a 25 year old girl who admires and respects the artists Marcus does, but who also feels that amid the testosterone swagger of Little Richard or Mick Jagger, that an essential voice is missing – that of the female who is given voice to speak for herself. It isn’t the fault of rock critics; the real populist female rockers were few and far between and broke long after rock had its beginnings. We ladies are telling a different story than the one Marcus is framing, and that lead me to ask a question that I probably could write an entire book about:
What narrative are we constructing through rock music? How is it similar or different than this idea of the non-conformist struggling against society’s chains?
I started thinking about the 90s being the heyday for popular female rock vocalists and set my iPod to play some of my favorite records from around 1993-1997 and a story did start to emerge. (Caveat: From here on out I speak of popular music; I am, of course, aware of all of the riotgrrl stuff going on in the early 90s, but I’m talking about – as Marcus is – what you heard on the radio)
We’re telling the story of guilt. Specifically, the guilt of wanting what you’re not supposed to have – your own, self-constructed identity. The women of the 90s wrote songs about other women who wanted to be outsiders but felt they couldn’t take the risk and felt guilty about that, or about women who were outsiders due to circumstance and felt great guilt about not “fitting in” correctly.
Not only were the women of the 90s narrating a story of an Ahab/Huck figure yearning for freedom against an increasingly hostile society, they are vocalizing the guilt that this produces. It’s no coincidence that Tori Amos and Paula Cole both have songs where they compare themselves to Jesus on the cross (“Crucify” and “Road to Dead” respectively). Hubris? Perhaps. But what this says to me is that to be a woman in rock is to not only bare the burden of being an outsider, it’s to bare the burden of guilt for being an outsider, to be unable to fully become a Huck Finn despite a desperate want or need to, to have to define oneself in contrast to others, disallowing a true individual identity because of that guilt. Let’s call this the Lady MacBeth effect. Out, out damn patriarchy! (Okay, that was a bad pun).
I have a lot to say on this topic, and I’m going to try to be as concise as possible. I have selected 4 solo female rock vocalists/songwriters that were widely listened to in the 90s to discuss: Paula Cole, Liz Phair, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple in a four-part series published throughout this week. I realize that it’s rather naive of me to attribute the simple fact of being female and a popular rock vocalist to having the same narrative to tell; that’s not what this is. This is about the narrative created by the music in its own context; the narrative of guilt becomes apparent without having to force any sort of framework around the artists. In other words, I am exploring the narrative created by the text (“text,” to get academic, here means both the lyrics and the performance of those lyrics) not the social/real world narrative created by the performers.
Paula Cole‘s second album, This Fire, from which that ubiquitous Dawson’s Creek theme song “I Don’t Want to Wait” sprang, is better than you remember it being. It’s not a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination. “Me” is almost unlistenable with its syrupy affirmations like “It’s me who’s my enemy” and the breathy sex-song “Feelin’ Love” is anything but sexy. Still, there are two songs that show Cole off as an extremely talented song writer and an even more talented vocalist. I chose her to discuss first because, like Sly Stone, she uses her voice to convey more than her lyrics, and sometimes her vocals aren’t particularly pretty. The song “Mississippi” is my favorite from that album (which I was only lukewarm about) and a good example of that:
“I got a piece of my heart / on the soul of your shoe,” she wails, “the dog in you / spit me out into the Mississippi.” Her voice screeches; it crescendos. People called Alanis Morrissette the first lady of anger in the 90s but Cole is just as angry (so are Liz Phair, Fiona Apple and Courtney Love; Tori Amos is the only one of these women who gets away with simmering rather than flat out rage) and she lets it show. Like Lady MacBeth, though, there are consequences for her rage. The price she pays in “Mississippi” is the loss of self; the proud narrator who declares that she’s “red and thick like fire / I like it from behind” by the end of the song gets a plunky piano and the lines “I feel I’m drowning / I feel I’m / I feel I’m dying.” The chorus begins again, with complicated musical arrangements and the soaring vocals, but the song ends with the sad piano again. This is the story of a woman who relies on a lover for a sense of self when she cannot construct it herself; this is a song about how easy it is for that to get washed away. She’s an individual, “big and proud all over” and yet cannot help but define herself in terms of another.
I also want to address the misunderstanding of the first hit single from This Fire, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” which should have been read as the story of the distancing of the narrator from her ideas of a traditional family framework. People called it proof that women in the 90s yearned for simpler times; that underneath the ambition of the career woman was a girl longing to be taken away by a strong man.
“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” is clumsily written, but Cole’s narrator begins a romance with someone who “gets [her] ready in [his] ’56 Chevy,” a real cars-and-beers type of guy. He farms, he boozes, she washes dishes and births children. Very “ideal” no? By the end, she’s raising the children completely on her own while he wastes time at the bar. “Where have all the cowboys gone?” is repeated throughout the song, but each time Cole adds a little more bite to it. In the end, she performs what I can only describe as the only instance of sarcastic yodeling I’ve ever heard, while an overdubbed, ghostly backing vocal fades slowly away. Again, here, we have the search for an individual identity, but unlike “Mississippi” the narrator seems to be approaching a sense of self by the end. Where have all the cowboys gone? Who cares? That’s the conclusion she draws, but not textually; we’re never told in the lyrics, it’s merely inferred by Cole’s vocal performance. Never able to fully break out of this traditionalist idea, the narrator has almost arrived at a real anger by the end of the song.
Paula Cole, in This Fire, which was released in 1996, constructs a narrative of searching – and failing to find – a true sense of self. The album is about that seeking, and about the various roadblocks in her narrators’ paths. Her women don’t necessarily find what they are looking for, but the frustration and rage that Cole conveys with the vocals that express otherwise benign lyrics, are an example of the narrative of guilt woven by the women of rock in the 90s. Subversive, but honest, and devastating when taken in context. The first words of the album are “Where do I put this fire?” Where, indeed.
Next time we get down and dirty with Liz Phair and talk about exile (on Main Street and in Guyville) and the sex you get to have when you’re a rock n’ roller.
I will be the first to admit that this album isn’t for everyone, but I – ashamedly – have loved it since it came out and continue to love it.
Alanis got quite a bit of flack for her sophomore effort. It was complicated, a little too new-agey, and not full of the rage of Jagged Little Pill, the rage that made her famous in “You Oughta Know.”
But I gave Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie a critical listen recently and was still impressed at the quiet moments of brilliance on the album. Morissette can write a lyric, but this album is more like beat poetry set to complex music, which evokes a strange and mysterious mood. She is unconcerned with rhyme and meter in more of the songs; many of them have no hooks and no chorus and most of them weave lyrics that move in and out of various characters’ heads. It’s a bizarre album to be released by someone who, at the time, was arguably one of the best-known female singers.
I think that is what I like so much about this album; sure, she’s not talking about performing oral sex in a movie theater and she’s not as overtly angry, but the entire album is basically a “fuck you” to the record industry and anyone who expected her to make Jagged Little Pill II. How punk rock of her!
So the story goes that after her meteoric rise to fame, Morissette went to India (what else?) and came out on the other side with some doubts about her own position in the world. Okay, it’s a little cliche for my taste, and I can’t really stomach some of the more New Agey philosophies Morissette espouses on the album (“Baba,” about a guru and “Thank U,” the hit single from the album, are both still too much about a vague notion/idea of “spirituality” more at home in a holistic witch doctor’s office than on a rock album), but the writing is absolutely brilliant. Brilliant.
Take a look at “Front Row,” a stream-of-consciousness song about the dizzying highs and lows of a relationship (the chorus is “I’m in the front row / the front row / with popcorn / I get to see you / see you / close up”)
The complex instrumentation here, the Indian instruments adding a rich tapestry of beautiful but intricate music that completely supports the complex story being told. My favorite moment is when she is talking about “30 good reason why we should not be together.” The list she gives her lover is funny. “You smoke. You live in New Jersey,” she smirks. “But the conversation was hypothetical,” she sings, and here, a well-placed, quick breath tells more than any words could, and she continues, “Oh I am totally short of breath for you / Why can’t you shut your stuff off?” That switch is just beautiful; think about the last time you were totally that hot for someone and trying to deny it.
What is particularly interesting about the song is that it pretty much requires you to have the complete lyrics in front of you. Morissette has added lyrics behind the chorus that you can kind of hear, amid the bongo drums and electric guitars, but can’t really hear all of, and they add emotional depth to the song, and remind you – if you are the sort of person I am – of all the crap your brain spews out when you are thinking about or involved in a relationship.
“The Couch” is about Morissette’s father, who was a therapist. She weaves stories of herself, her father, and his patients in second and first person, jumping from character to character. Again, there’s a “world music” kind of flair, but the music is dark, as are many of the stories.
Download The Couch
I walked into his office
I felt so self-conscious on the couch
He was sitting down across from me
He was writing down his hypothesis
I don’t know I’ve got a loving, supporting wife
who doesn’t know how involved she should get
You see his interjecting was just him
calling me on my shit
At the risk of sounding too rah rah self-discovery, this is brave songwriting that lays Morissette open in the most vulnerable way. She gets inside the complicated relationship between patients and their therapists, but against the backdrop of getting inside her own father’s head and writing at the same time about his impressions of her. “Here we are battling similar demons not coincidentally.”
I told you I liked songs with literary lyrics I could sink my teeth into. This is why; because they warrant a thought process much more than “Oooh! Pretty!” and that is Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie’s strength (or weakness, depending on your perspective on really, really complicated music). I have nothing against people who like “Ooooh! Pretty!” music, which is how I classify the recently-reviewed Fleet Foxes album; or Hot Chip; or the Ting Tings. Fun, pretty, good. This album is neither pretty nor fun all the time.
Of course it has its moments. Its biggest weakness is its length, the number of tracks, and its lack of cohesiveness. Songs that would be lovely on another record falter here because they don’t stand up in complexity to songs like the above or “One,” in which Morissette calls herself something that I have often used to describe a certain type of woman, “A sexy treadmill capitalist.” This weakness is apparent on “Unsent,” another single from the album. A lovely, acoustic unsent letter to Morissette’s former lovers, “Unsent” sounds strangely hollow, though it is probably the song on which her voice sounds most traditionally pretty.
It still has that rambling, un-rhymed feeling, but once the strings kick in, it sounds much more like a traditional folk-pop song and less like the rest of the album, which is, actually, my only complaint about the song. Otherwise, it’s funny, self-deprecating, pretty, and interesting.
So, that’s the first guilty pleasure album I’ve done. What do you think?
I’m not really a summer kind of person, but here in Seattle our winter has dragged wearily on, from October until now, with precious few good days over the past 8 months. We are pale. We are sickly. We are in desperate need of some of that heat y’all on the East Coast are hoarding.
Usually, around this time of the year, I pull out my favorite summer records and start bopping around my home or my office in sundresses and large sunglasses. This year, it appears, at least for this first part of June, I’ll have to content myself with imagining warm sun on my wan skin by defying the weather and breaking out my favorite summer albums anyway.
What makes a good summer album for me? It has to feel breezy, inconsequential. It usually reminds me of The Beach Boys in some way, and it’s usually a little kick to it somehow. I could have chosen many albums. Pet Sounds, obviously. Anything from the ouvre of the Beastie Boys (well, I suppose anything by any band with the word “boys” or “boyz” in it). It has to leave you wanting a little bit more, just like the best summer days. On top of all of that, though, it has to make you a little nostalgic, if not for your own youth than for a vaguely defined “better time” in general.
5. Femurs – Modern Mexico
A new entry from just last year, enters my heart and my summer iPod rotation. Femurs were one of my favorite local bands of the last year, and the jangly jangly guitars, along with the slightly juvenile lyrics and the wild, acoustic punkiness of this almost DIY album make me feel like I’m hanging out in some garage back in my hometown, listening to the two cute dudes down the street jam on guitars and drums. They certainly aren’t the most musically innovative or gifted band, but they just seem to be having so much damn fun it’s hard not to adore them. (Plus, they put on an INCREDIBLE live show).
4. Belle & Sebastian – The Boy With The Arab Strap
B&S are one of my favorite bands of all time, but I mostly tend to think of them as autumnal music. The pretty harmonies and lovely strings, Stuart M.’s plaintive voice and the plonky piano all seem to add up to something a little more cerebral than I like my summer music to be. Yet on The Boy With the Arab Strap, we get the title track (a fast-paced, fiercely hand-clapped number that will, I swear, be stuck in your head for DAYS if you’re not careful with its deployment), the Stevie Jackson-sung number “Chickfactor,” which is whimsical, but a little heavy, like a humid summer evening, and “Dirty Dream Number Two,” which is one of my favorite summer ditties. It’s about dirty dreams, which I have often when I’m laying prone and semi-naked in the summer heat.
3.Weezer – Weezer (the blue one)
Oh, halcyon, bygone days of youth, when Weezer burst onto the scene with their cute, funny debut album, a nod to another halcyon, bygone era of music with an edgy, hard-rockin’ twist. Released at the beginning of May in 1994 it slow-built its way to the most explosive hit of the summer I was 11. It is the perfect summer album because it combines songs with irrepressible hooks and a beat you can dance to, with humor that slides off the palate like a grape popsicle. Remember “Undone (the Sweater Song),” which was a self-mocking tribute to geeky love come unraveled? Remember “Surf Wax America,” which was about surfing to work and, of course, “Buddy Holly,” which was played over and over at every party I went to the summer between 6th and 7th grades, and still makes me long a little for cake and ice cream instead of the wine and cheese I expect at parties now. More than being simply a cute album, Weezer’s blue debut was – for me – the season of summer wrapped up in a neat little package, all sunny melodies and ever-so-slight overexposure.
2.Dressy Bessy – The California EP
An unexpected foray into Beach Boys territory by Colorado post-riot grrrl rockers Dressy Bessy, the California EP offers a sunny take on a post-modern sound from the year 2000. The tunes are so catchy, you’ll be singing them for days, and despite being a self-conscious effort at a 60s sound, Dressy Bessy injects their punky roots into tracks like “Hangout Wonderful,” which features the surf-rock guitar over a steady, danceable drum beat, but has truly rock & roll vocals from lead singer Tammy Ealom. The title track, “California” asks with almost childlike desperation “Can we go there / this summer / I’ll wear a flower in my hair / If we go there / this summer / I’ll walk right to that salty air / Can we go there / this summer?” Drenched in the “good vibrations” of summer (oh snap! see what I did there?), you want to take Ealom wherever she’s asking to go.
1) Blur – Parklife Parklife is one of my favorite albums of all time, but is certainly my favorite summer album. It’s fun, light without being forgettable, includes references to Martin Amis’ book London Fields and features a song (“To the End”) with the gorgeous, sunsoaked vocals of Stereolab’s Lætitia Sadier. I like Parklife because it feels like a slice of my life, of being broke and young and enjoying life anyway (this was a theme of a lot of mid-90s Britpop, c.f. Pulp’s Different Class). There is a hint of paranoia on the record, a slight feeling that perhaps summer’s at its end, but the hope of the sunshine is always there, and, on a bittersweet note, there are always more bank holidays in the future, even if we all have to work our asses off to get there. No, this isn’t entirely a rain-free record, but it’s light enough to put a great rock sheen on any summer gathering.