Mom Tries to Explain "Supply Side"
175 · 4 June 98
various: Lilith Fair
As of tonight, my book-reading is 667 days behind my book-buying, according to a database that seems, frankly, to take a little too much satisfaction from issuing glum statistical pronouncements of this kind. It is my general policy (and yes, I know what it says about me that I have a policy about this) to progress in the order of acquisition, preserving the illusions that, first, I do intend to read every book I've purchased, and second, catching up is possible. The rare exceptions are almost always cases where I feel compelled to read something I've just purchased, like the remotest chance of my running into the author on the street, and not having anything to say yet, isn't worth the risk. Books written by people I know, personally, don't always qualify for this exception (Christopher John Farley's My Favorite War and Victoria Wohl's Greek-Tragedy doctoral dissertation, books by two of my former Harvard Lampoon colleagues, will wait their turns), but recently I hit three of them essentially at once, just as my regular schedule hit the entire pre-Galatea 2.2 corpus of Richard Powers, whose books are so intoxicating, to me, that I'm loath to plow through them all in a row, so a digression seemed prudent, or even mandated.
The first of the three, and the quietest, is Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, a short meditation on the emotional, historical and moral value of wandering around outdoors and peering at things, by John R. Stilgoe. Stilgoe is a professor of landscape history, at Harvard, and although my casual answer to "What was your major in college?" is "film-making", the department at Harvard in which film-making takes place is actually called Visual and Environment Studies, and encompasses drawing, painting, graphic design, sculpture, photography, film history, art history, architecture and, sometimes incongruously, whatever Professor Stilgoe feels like teaching a course in this year. Stilgoe was my favorite professor for several reasons, some of them personal. He didn't throw me out of a seminar on the evolution of the American suburb for attempting an unrehearsed oral presentation accompanied by two parallel, and unrelated, slide shows, which began, without a trace of intended irony, "People are idiots". He patiently oversaw an independent-study course in which all I had to show for a semester of reading science fiction novels and walking around taking photographs of street signs was a forty-three page, single-spaced essay, in the form of an extensively annotated dialog, titled "Convincing the Man Who Compiled the 'R' Section of the SCRABBLE(tm) Dictionary that the Aliens are Coming", and at the end of his comments wrote "Next time, please, try to figure out not the first and middle steps, but the stumbles -- and what people grasp when they fall.", instead of "This is the most ungainly, unreadable, pretentious, preposterous waste of a credit I've ever encountered. Take it, and your ridiculous mohawk haircut, and get the hell out of my office." When one of his former students started a rock band, and sent him a copy of their first 45, he passed it on to me, explaining that I'd probably know what to make of it (a good theory, but I didn't, and it remains the only Galaxie 500 release I own). And he came to my defense, even after all this, in an ugly administrative squabble that ended up delaying my graduation. The only reasons these situations arose, however, was that his introductory survey course, Studies of the Built North American Environment, was absolutely electrifying. Part of it was his obvious love of the subject, diligent analyses of gas-station architecture and the shift from the railroad infrastructure to interstate highways, but much of it was his intense, borderline-deranged lecturing style, in which he was liable, without any warning, to careen off into a manic rant about something on the order of the danger of our being invaded by Canada. I was thus horribly disappointed, when I got around to reading his books, to find that although they were unfailingly meticulous and insightful, they had none of the digressive chaos of his lectures. Outside Lies Magic isn't chaotic in that way, either, and I'd sooner call it an exhortation than a polemic, but it is an explicit expression of his love for the constructed world, is a book about loving what you can learn from what people build, not just one in which this love is implicit, and it thus captures a kernel of the heady thrill of discovering profound truth lurking behind the most ordinary facades that seems, nine years on, like one of the most valuable things I learned in college.
But although I know he meant it literally, I've always taken Professor Stilgoe's great lesson as a metaphor. The built environment intrigues me, but not as much as the less tangible, but often more vivid, worlds we create in literature, and music, and our own heads. I've tried to learn to squint at stories, and people, the way he squinted at drive-ins and intersections. I doubt he'd consider diaristic introspection a workable substitute for exploration ("the victims of advertising and television and computer networks and scheduled school and work", he calls us, at one point in this book, and I'm at a loss for good arguments against including the net in that list), but there is magic indoors, too, if you learn to look. A mirror image of Outside Lies Magic, then, a cautionary tale and interior monologue to complement Stilgoe's vibrant, sunlit promise, is the middle book of this trilogy, DC attorney Julie Hilden's frightening memoir of her refusal to care for her dying mother, and the slow process of discovering the cost of this decision, The Bad Daughter. Julie and I were in college writing classes together, and became friends, of sorts, out of what I assume was mutual admiration (I think she liked my stories; I liked hers from the moment I read "Buddy Holly's Middle Name" on the title page of the first one). Her stories are among the few I kept, after college, and hers is one of the names I've routinely scanned the new-release shelves for, in the years since, confident that it would eventually appear there. But I've seen her only a couple times since we were graduated, and looking back, I realize that although I have a clear memory of her presence, I never really knew much about her. I knew her well enough to have theories about a couple of the renamed characters in the book, but not well enough to know if they're correct. Much of The Bad Daughter, surprisingly, is an explanation for this very sense: not why I didn't know her that well, obviously, but why she didn't let anybody know her that well. I'm not sure I've ever read as clear-headed an autopsy of a writer's own tragic flaw as this. Other people's pain is magnetic, and her refusal to heed the pull of her mother's terrifying decay into early-onset Alzheimer's is undeniably a stark failure of compassion, but there is courage in it, too. There is even more courage in writing the story, picking through the fragments of a shattered emotional life and tracing each shard back to the face of the hammer. Worse, early-onset Alzheimer's is genetic, and so far incurable; DNA thus turns the lesson back on her with all the morality-play subtlety of Zeus in an adulterous fury; this may be how she dies, too. How, then, should she live? What instinct is it that leads her, despite agonizing, towards the end of the book, over the question of how soon in a relationship to reveal this Damoclesian possibility, to write a book about it, revealing it to people who haven't even met her yet at all? This is the strangest paradox of the whole story, perhaps, and yet the one whose correctness I sense most intuitively. She has lived (is living; may outlive) an important story, and the writer in her knows that the obligation to share it is stronger than self-preservation. I hope I will have this strength. I hope I will never need it, but if I do, I hope I find it.
The third part of this extended sortie into the minds of people I didn't know all that well is Bitch, the second book by Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, another of Julie and my Harvard '89 classmates. Elizabeth and I were acquaintances at best, but we had enough mutual friends to end up spending time together. She was the sort of person around which social eddies swirled, and so I read Prozac Nation, when it came out, eagerly, looking forward to hearing parts of my own college experience retold as glamorous fable. To my disappointment, there was almost no outside detail of any kind in Prozac Nation. My disappointment was unreasonable, since the book was a chronicle of the subjective experience of chemical depression, not a soap opera starring people I knew, but the strangest thing about Elizabeth's approach to telling the story, to me, was how unbearable she made herself seem. She came off as a complete emotional wreck, the kind of desperately needy friend who would totally monopolize your life if you let her get close to you, and while that facet of her personality was certainly evident, and probably part of why I never tried to get to know her much better, what Prozac Nation leaves out of the portrait is how enthralling she also was. She was an inspiring character, easily compelling enough in her lucid phases to carry a few devoted friends through the bleaker ones. I feel a twinge of guilt, in retrospect, that I wasn't one of them, but I know when I think about it that I wasn't up to it. I had nowhere near enough tolerance for expansive self-destructiveness, at the time. I'm not sure I've developed much more, since.
Bitch, I'm pleased to discover, is an epic attempt, disguised as an exegesis of female American media archetypes, to redress exactly the omission I perceived in Prozac Nation. It is a long and erratic (longer than the other two, put together; it will outsell them by orders of magnitude, I'm sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if the difference in completion rates is just as dramatic), audacious and impatient, judgmental and prurient (both women's books involve enough sex for it to be a selling point; Professor Stilgoe's, thankfully, does not) book intended to demonstrate the appeal of the very personality type that produces long, rambling, audacious, impatient, judgmental, prurient books. "In Praise of Difficult Women", clarifies the subtitle, but all through Elizabeth's ardent defenses of Delilah (amassing Biblical evidence to suggest that Samson is complicit in his downfall), Amy Fisher (what do you expect a gullible, unprepared fifteen-year-old girl to do?), Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton (what purer right is there than suicide?), Hillary Clinton (whose chief failing, to Elizabeth, is that she doesn't demand to be paid for her work, which is a far less glib point than it sounds like in isolation) and Nicole Brown Simpson (it's not a defense of Nicole, per se, but there are too many nuances in that chapter, and it's too incendiary a subject, to be summarized adequately), Elizabeth herself strikes me as a much more intriguing example. It is a difficult book, willful and unapologetic, trying at times, daring you to give up on it, with a smirk along the bottoms of the pages like the first one you don't read will just say "Hah!", in the middle of it, because it knew you'd cave. But the flip side is that, at least for me, the book itself explains the value of not giving up on it. I'm not, personally, drawn to most of the types Elizabeth enumerates, emaciated supermodels and vampiric screen icons, but I would be, if they could write books like this. Actually, more to the point, and this is why the arresting cover photo (she is an attractive woman, but not -- well, you'll see what I mean) seems like a misjudgment to me, I'd be drawn to women who could write books like this no matter what they looked like. Too many bookstore shelves are given over to the impulse to gloss over complications and contradictions; the rare books that try to confront them, understand them, live with them, are invaluable. Bitch, for me, not only supplies retroactive context for Prozac Nation, it also fills in many of the missing pieces in the argument Katie Roiphe (who wrote another complicated book, The Morning After, and who was my roommate for a semester -- go to Harvard, and you'll end up knowing a dozen minor celebrities of your own; arguably that's the point of the place) skimmed through in her second book, Last Night in Paradise.
And so it is, at length, enmeshed in notions of self-worth, and self-direction, and gender roles and perceptions, and the value of confession and patience and observation, that we (or I, anyway) arrive at last at what I've been listening to, as I read. If oppositions are as useful for intellectual leverage as they are for rock climbers, then it's a magnificent coincidence that Bitch should clamber off my to-be-read pile the same week Sarah McLachlan's sprawling, open-hearted two-CD compilation of performances from last summer's inaugural Lilith Fair tour claws its way to the top of my to-be-played stack. The two versions of feminine identity the book and the album proffer could scarcely be more dissimilar. The kinds of musicians that crop up in Bitch, Courtney Love and Patti Smith and Nico and Stevie Nicks and Alanis Morissette, are noticeably absent from this assembly. (So, too, are several other groups, most obviously rappers; the tour has been criticized for its homogeneity, and the album, as a fair representation of the tour, is inevitably vulnerable to the same complaint. But what do you want from twenty-five tracks, over a little less than two hours? I'm more offended by the suggestion that "women in music" is a small enough topic that a single tour or a single compilation could cover it in its entirety than I am by the suggestion that this one fails to.) It is Sarah's tour, and Sarah's album, and so it reflects Sarah's musical and social aesthetics: consumptive allure, dour reticence and predatory sexuality are out; resilience, restraint and nurturing are in.
The album's semblance of stylistic consistency is, in fact, what I like best about it, what I like best about compilations in general. I skipped the tour, when it came through Boston, on the grounds that the line-up was of uneven interest to me, and perhaps, stretched over several hours, it would have been, but compressed to one song appiece, from a couple dozen artists, it holds my attention without any sign of strain. It opens, lest any skeptics' preconceptions of fragility have even a minute to settle in, with a roar. Paula Cole's electric rendition of her complex, howling "Mississippi" drips alternately with menace and vulnerability. The Indigo Girls, not best known for rock bombast, slam through a cathartic, wailing "Scooter Boys" as if this is how they always sound. Autour de Lucie's "Sur Tes Pas" is angular and blaring, the Cardigans normally brittle and diffident "Been It" appealingly frayed and awkward. Elsewhere, Abra Moore's band tracks her through the jittery, twisting "Four Leaf Clover" with pulsing assurance, Joan Osborne's bluesy "Ladder" seethes, Meredith Brooks' "Wash My Hands" (not, significantly, "Bitch") crashes grandly, Wild Strawberries' "I Don't Want to Think About It" is choppy and buzzing, Tracy Bonham's "The One" is demented and furious, and the Wild Colonials' "Charm" refuses to let a bizarrely unbalanced mix interfere with its insistent rock gallop. At the other end of the dynamic range, a number of performers opt for solo acoustic sets, or close to them: Dayna Manning's "I Want" is an uncanny Jewel pastiche, right down to the vocal mannerisms and the lyrical naïveté; Lisa Loeb's uncluttered performance of "Falling in Love", with Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, makes me ache for what Firecracker could have been without all the pointless studio sheen; Suzanne Vega's stripped-down "Rock in this Pocket" reveals how much of the simplicity of her early albums endures in her later songs, at least before Mitchell Froom gets his hands on them; the Indigo Girls, Sarah and Jewel soar in multi-part harmony through the folk standard "The Water Is Wide"; Emmylou contributes a quiet, thoughtful version of Anna McGarrigle's "Going Back to Harlan"; Patty Griffin tears into a new song called "Cain" as if it once wronged her clan; Dar Williams bounces through a down-scaled "What Do You Hear in These Sounds"; Shawn Colvin's "Trouble" is melancholy and sparkly; Tara McLean's "Hold Me Jordan" sounds like Jewel again; Victoria Williams's spare, halting "Periwinkle Sky" sounds like only her, as always, halfway between Polly Harvey and Olive Oyl; and even Susanna Hoffs, one of overproduction's most notorious poster children, gets up with her guitar and turns the saccharine "Eternal Flame" into something humble and endearing. And in between these extremes are a handful of miscellaneous interludes to keep things from getting too predictable: September 67's "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" is cool and distracted, Lhasa's sensual flamenco (?) flourish "El Payande" and Yungachen Lhamo's Tibetan vocal solo add at least token nods to other ethnicities, and Sarah's own "Building a Mystery" is textural and glittering, in the idiom of which she is, to me, now the reigning master.
The temptation must have been strong, I'd think, in choosing songs for the album, to pick ones with straightforward thematic applicability, so I give Sarah enormous credit for resisting it (and apologize for the patronization, if it never occurred to her to do it any other way). Paula's "Mississippi" is much more conflicted and ambiguous than the more obvious "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?". The Indigo Girls' "Scooter Boys" intentionally deflects feminist outrage into a comparison with the plight of Native Americans. The Cardigans' "Been It" (included despite some recording glitches, so somebody must have really cared about it) is essentially the same text as Meredith Brooks' "Bitch", but Nina Persson's waifish delivery appears to relish it less. Abra's "Four Leaf Clover" is a relationship-predicament anthem that doesn't bother to disguise its elements of co-dependency. Lisa Loeb's "Falling in Love" turns on one of the most depressing chorus lines I've ever heard, "The time between meeting / And finally leaving / Is sometimes called falling in love", and the sound of people whooping in the crowd in the background is too surreal for belief. "Eternal Flame" is a pure, classic love song without a single feminist note in it. Sarah picks "Building a Mystery" over the more predictable, it seems to me, "Adia" and "Angel" (but stops short of the overt political incorrectness of "Sweet Surrender"). "Going Back to Harlan" and "What Do You Hear in These Sounds" are self-contained and in service to nothing in particular. "Periwinkle Sky" is a rural reverie that seems to me like it's just about to turn into a metaphor for something, and then it stops. And I'm still trying to piece together what Patty's "Cain" is about. If a marketing department had made this album, it would have had the calculated and incoherent diversity of a Benneton ad, and every song would have been a minor variation on "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves". Instead it's about everything and nothing, as any album has the right to be, and I've listened to it repeatedly, and haven't resorted to the Program button once.
Lili Haydn: Lili
We edge a little closer to male-defined female sexuality with violinist Lili Haydn's 1997 debut album, Lili. Her songs veer into Kate Bush's quirky demesne more than once, but after the bombastic, tech-headed production (her own) gets through with them, they often end up sounding more like Toyah Wilcox. The cover art emphasizes her passing facial resemblance to Liv Tyler, and the protruding lines "She strips for strangers" and "My tits are real", in the first few songs, suggest the kind of album a fashion model might commission to surround to herself with. This superficial impression disintegrates almost instantly, however, and the only thought with any relation to models that lingers behind is that although Lili and Milla Jovovich's The Divine Comedy are polar production opposites, it seems to me that they share a compositional eccentricity and an instinct for abstruse detail. The oblique "Stranger" oscillates from chirpy, falsetto verses to fiery, surging choruses, and the line about stripping turns out to be part of the story of a hitchhiker the narrator picks up (I think), whose plight leads her to the encouraging plea "Liberate me from inaction". "Someday", part "Army Dreamers" dance remix and part gothic death-metal grind, interrupts a hopeful list of things in the girl's future to say "Someday we'll have a new language, / Someday we'll say what we mean", as if a new language is necessary for sincerity, like the language we have has had its capacity for honesty chewed completely out of it. "Real" exaggerates "Someday"'s structure, the delicate parts assuming a lunatic exuberance and the metal passages sinking further into blistering noise. The instrumental "Salome" combines Celtic and Eastern violin urges with a Loreena McKennitt-esque equanimity. "Take Somebody Home", musically the closest thing to a standard pop song (until the end when it starts morphing into "Night on the Bald Mountain"), turns out to be a child's confused entreaty to her mother to let them adopt some homeless people, the stray-pet instinct swelled into genuine human compassion. The dark, pounding "Faithful One", perhaps following the girl's mother into a nightmare, wonders what life would be like without her child. "Baby", its helicopter noises and irregular structure reminiscent of parts of Kate's The Ninth Wave, to me, and its hushed vocals seemingly borrowed from fellow violinist Lisa Germano, follows the baby's part of the story; the wah-laden "Mama" turns back to the mother, but is actually told from the child's point of view, as she apologizes for whatever part her existence played in the mother staying in an abusive relationship, and hopes the mother's experience will show them both how to escape. The brittle "Daddy", punctuated by pummeling orchestral timpani and a blood-curdling half-yodel, half-shriek, has, unsurprisingly, little to say to the absent man other than, over and over, accusingly, "I feel you, Daddy". And after that Lili seems to run out of words for the family, and the finale, "Wants Deep", is another instrumental, slow, drifting piano forming a cold, gleaming frame for Lili's eerie, sighing violin. Her violin winds through all these songs, in fact, and unlike with Tracy Bonham, where to me the violin gets swallowed up in the rest of the noise, and Lisa Germano, where the songs are so frightening that it makes no difference what instruments are involved, Lili seems to me like a rock album built around the violin the way most rock albums are built around guitars. And though the violin isn't strictly a women's instrument, it somehow sounds, in Lili's hands, like the cornerstone of what could, if enough people wanted it to, be a feminine rock form the men would have to sneak into the same way women have had to surreptitiously learn to play power chords.
The Tuesdays: The Tuesdays
Another step towards pop convention gets us to the Tuesdays, who look like L7, and are from Norway, but who sound almost more like my sense memory of the Bangles, circa Different Light, than the Bangles themselves do when I actually get the album out. It must be intentional; the catches in Laila Samuels' voice, in particular, are too much like Susanna Hoffs' to have come about any other way than years singing along to "Manic Monday" in a full-length mirror. Perhaps the Tuesdays are more of a rock band than the Bangles actually were, on inspection, but it's easy to imagine that this is largely an adjustment for context, an updating in the same way that Roxette seems to me like what Abba would have sounded like if they'd been born later. Rehashes this unalloyed are a subjective hit-or-miss, but for me this is one of the marvelous ones. I have a place in my heart for these big, shiny ballads and snappy, adorable pop trifles, for lines like "Don't you make my brown eyes blue?", "You can hang your toothbrush next to mine", "When I made love to him / I was thinking of you", and "Free your mind / 'Cause life's too short / To waste your time". And it seems to me that it is this giddy, simplistic, romantic, mythical past, in fact, that lurks, whether they acknowledge it or not -- whether they feel it or not -- behind Katie Roiphe and Elizabeth Wurtzel's darker formulations of a woman's proper responsibilities to herself. Princess was so much easier a part to play. If only there ever really was a time when women, or men for that matter, were born so close to happiness that the only talent required to claim it was not changing shoe sizes overnight.
And out at the far end of the musico-sexual spectrum, finally, where the women have the rubbery complexion of blow-up dolls, and live lives, like Elizabeth paints Nicole Brown Simpson's, from which nothing good is bound to come, is Vixen. The very idea of an all-girl band playing utterly male heavy metal, frankly, is more than a little pornographic, and the band's first two records, 1988's Vixen and 1990's Rev It Up, pandered to the same stunted teenage male notion of sexuality as all those "fantasy" calendars featuring comically misproportioned women in brass bikinis. But embarrassingly, I enjoyed them. I liked Fiona and Lita Ford better, to be sure, but there weren't enough of their albums. These aren't my dream women, any of them, but there's something mesmerizing, to me, about their blissful unselfconsciousness. Compare the cover of Bitch to the cover of Fiona's Beyond the Pale. Both women look like they will drive you insane, but Elizabeth looks like she knows she's being difficult, so it's possible to imagine, if you got desperate, reasoning with her, and because reasoning is possible, it's also possible to resent her behavior. Fiona, on the other hand, looks like she'll probably make a stuffed Persian cat seem like a therapist, and it's as useless to blame her for the damage she causes as it is to pledge vengeance on a tornado. I wouldn't last ten minutes with her, but there's something reassuring about the idea that such women do exist, like it's encouraging to think about retired seamstresses winning the lottery, even if I disapprove of their participation.
Fiona, however, mellowed considerably by her last album, 1992's Squeeze. Lita Ford's last album, Black, was devoid (bereft?) of spandex tights and spike heels. And so I shouldn't be surprised to find that Tangerine, Vixen's comeback, has shaken off most of their old image, too. The task is made easier by the fact that only two of the original members remain, singer Janet Gardner and drummer Roxy Petrucci (whose name was maybe the coolest thing about Vixen), which means that most of the musical duties fall to new guitarist Gina Stile and session bassist Mike Pisculli. The rationale for having a comeback, at all, seemed mysterious to me until fifty-five seconds into "Peace", the fourth song, when a perfect Alanis Morissette chorus starts, and then suddenly it all made sense. Sometime in the last eight years, women have reclaimed even this style. Alanis was part of it, and Tori Amos, and Courtney and Polly and Kim Deal, and Katie and Elizabeth, and a thousand other factors, and there's lots of territory still in enemy hands, but progress is being made. If Vixen can make an infectious, uncontrived rock album and look like real women on the back cover of it, how much further can it be to a Barbie that looks like Mia Hamm, or a Playboy with Jonatha Brooke on the cover in jeans and a sweatshirt, or a world with as many possibilities in between Cindy Crawford and Janet Reno as there are between Leonardo DiCaprio and Jesse Helms?