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.
Barf. Let’s look at a bit differently, shall we?
“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.