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Book excerpt: We Oughta Know by Andrea Warner

Andrea Warner

Andrea Warner is an associate producer with CBC Music and a freelance writer. This is an excerpt from We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the '90s and Changed Canadian Music, her debut collection of music criticism and feminist pop culture essays, which will be released in April 2015.

The book examines coming of age with Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan, how and why they all became superstars between 1993 and 1997, and what it means that they're still Canada's best-selling artists today. Warner would like you know that this is her first book and she's desperately trying to play it cool, but it's super exciting.

We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the '90s and Changed Canadian Music (Eternal Cavalier Press, April 2015)

From the essay "Adventures in Sexism"

'Victim Culture'

The mid-’90s was a particularly strange time. Alongside the increased visibility and dominance of women musicians, there was another cultural shift running parallel — one that was simultaneously celebrated as an emotional reckoning and dismissed as “victim culture,” possibly the most insensitive and disgusting term ever invented to obfuscate blame and responsibility and perpetuate victim blaming and shaming. 

In 1995, Entertainment Weekly’s David Browne wrote that “Morissette’s seemingly overnight success is almost a textbook example of how to create a rock star.” Among his surefire steps to achieving a Jagged Little Pill-like blockbuster? Make a record that “feeds into today’s popular victim culture.” He cited a few examples of challenges Morissette had faced, including getting mugged in 1993 after moving to L.A. and seeking treatment for depression “brought on by loneliness.” He also hypothesized that perhaps her depression was “brought on by the realization that being big in Canada doesn’t necessarily translate south of the border,” which doesn’t even make sense since he was writing the article because of her “overnight” success and popularity, but okay. He concluded by stating “whatever the motivation, calculated or inadvertent, Jagged Little Pill is a mail-order catalog of grievances anyone, male or female, can relate to — call it talk-radio pop.”

There’s a callousness in the ease with which Browne chalks up a woman’s experience to “victim culture.” Disappointingly, that thread also formed a substantial element of Gerri Hirshey’s epic Rolling Stone feature in 1997. In it, Hirshey interviewed some of the most important women musicians of the ’90s, and presented two distinct factions: women who deal in pain and women who deal with pain.

At one point, Hirshey lauds resiliency as being critical to surviving in the music industry, advising that if “you encounter a woman possessed of unusual tensile strength, it behooves you to settle in and listen up.”

Provided, it seems, you’re listening to the right woman.

Hirshey recounts a 1993 interview with Tina Turner, prior to the release of What’s Love Got To Do With It?, the movie version of Turner’s autobiography. Hirshey recalls the many abuses Turner suffered in her relationship with her husband, Ike:

“Given that we are now living in the Age of Victimhood, a time when our commander in chief can talk about ‘feeling your pain,’ might this film cast Tina as a textbook victim of domestic violence?”

“Victim?” she bellowed. “Victim! Gimme a break!”

I’d baited her, I admitted—and was gratified by her outraged response. I’d been cranky as a wet cat about the ’90s tsunami of public confessionals and celebrity spewings — couldn’t take a second more of Sally Jesse purring, “I hear you.”

“Oh, I’m with you about that victim thing,” Tina said. “It’s everywhere. And I don’t think it does anyone any good.”

Then Tina got on one of her Acid Queen rolls: “Someone tells me I was a victim, I become angry. I was not a victim … I was in control of everything I was doing.”

She didn’t leave Ike earlier because she promised she’d stay till they made it big. She liked the man. And she had some far heavier responsibilities: “There was a mother there,” she bellowed. “To Ike, to the children. Not this sniveling … little weak woman. They had me crying in the film script, and I said, ‘I never cried that much in my life.’”

Hirshey goes on to praise Bonnie Raitt for being similarly stoic and for packing “two decades of womanly experience” — alcoholism, infidelity, record industry problems — into her Grammy Award-winning record, Nick of Time. Raitt, in Hirshey’s estimation, “knows how to make enlightened complaining an exuberant art form rather than a whine.” She continues by connecting Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette to her assessment of Raitt:

Contrast Turner’s and Raitt’s steely reserve to the outpourings of Tori Amos, a woman of the next generation. Amos is part of the singer-songwriter vanguard now turning pain into platinum. She went public with her trauma as a rape victim in “Me and a Gun,” a cut from her Little Earthquakes album. It was, she said, a true and powerful statement. But she had this to say about the Gen X compulsion for hand-wringing: “I think our generation loves our pain, and if you dare f--king take it away from us, we’ll kill you. We like our pain. And we’re packaging and selling it.”

Amos’ wry assessment might help explain the roaring success of Morissette’s collection of danceable diatribes — most notably “You Oughta Know,” the poison valentine to an ex-lover that was a huge hit in 1995. Given Morissette’s first rock outing in 1990 as mall-rat-with-mike and a serious hair-volumizer habit, it’s understandable that many critics viewed her brand-new angsty-me with a certain amount of cynicism. But her mass appeal seemed undeniable. Jagged Little Pill sold more than 11 million copies and won two Grammys — ample testament to the current lively market for the well-amped kvetch.

In addition to the remarkable insensitivity of comparing Amos’s song about her rape to whining rather than “exuberant art,” there’s something incredibly ugly at work in this piece. There’s a harshness that breaks my heart a little bit, since it feels so much like it’s written from the perspective of a person who has been told her own traumas don’t deserve or merit consideration.

I respect that survival comes in many forms for everybody, but it needn’t come at the expense of compassion. And yet so much music journalism, at least from certain publications, is written with a barbed-wire approach, as if cruelty and cool detachment are the same as critical engagement.

In an article titled “Quiet Grrrls,” Newsweek’s Karen Schoemer writes, “Call us insensitive, but when we first heard about Lilith Fair we had one reaction: run.” She goes through a laundry list of rote descriptors — “touchy-feely,” “girl-friendly,” “artsy-craftsy” — before breaking out the really loaded adjectives for the performers: “pious heavyweights,” “fragile young flowers,” etc. At one point Schoemer surmises, “This isn’t entertainment — it’s therapy.”

Coming of age in the post-post feminist landscape of the mid-’90s, my friends and I were all Angela Chases in a world full of Murphy Browns. We hadn’t yet chosen or prioritized ourselves; and though we didn’t know how at the time, it felt like we could learn, and women like Morissette and McLachlan could help. They, too, had been caught up in the twisty wreckages of love and sex and crushing pressures, and they had survived to sing about it and write about it. They just had to dwell in the pain for a little while in order to release it.

But “victim culture” was just one form of attack. Women were also pitted against each other, praised in one sentence and undermined in the next.

Rolling Stone’s Lorraine Ali joined the Lilith Fair tour for five days in the summer of 1997. Her account of that time likens the atmosphere to a high school society:

A pecking order quickly forms: Suzanne Vega is the cool and distant art chick, Paula Cole the down-to-earth best friend, Jewel the stuck-up one, Tracy Chapman the respected activist and McLachlan the peppy student-body president who wears weird-colored eye shadow. The second-stagers — Mudgirl, Leah Andreone and Cassandra Wilson — are like the stoners in the smoking area, possessing the coolest clothes, attitudes and tattooed backup dudes. The Borders Stage’s solo artists — Kinnie Starr and Lauren Hoffman — are the tag-along little sisters, still gawky, unpolished and apart from the social hierarchy.

Ali’s observations are good, if pointed, and infer a Heathers-like fracas bubbling under the surface of all the sisterly solidarity. At one point, Jewel tells Ali, “What’s cool is, no one here acts like a star. It doesn’t matter how many records you sell, even though I’ve sold the most.” At a pre-show press conference, Sarah McLachlan recounts the industry-related sexism she faced when her record was pitted against Tori Amos’. Ali muses that “maybe the fact that there’s little air time allotted to women explains the underlying sense of competitiveness at these press events, which resemble the uncomfortable alliance of a NATO meeting. Answers are filled with feminist-sounding words like empowerment, community and even germination, and the participants look as detached from one another as a seated row of subway riders.”

Ali wraps up the piece in L.A. where “the veneer begins cracking.” Cassandra Wilson is upset about not being asked to play the main stage, and another artist has accused McLachlan of “stealing her quotes to use in press conferences.” It’s a damning bit of tour reportage, and it’s well-crafted, but it certainly paints a very specific picture that feeds into the stereotype that women simply can’t get along.

The flipside is that while Morissette and McLachlan were somewhat embraced and/or scorned by mainstream music magazines for their post-feminist, modern attitudes, Céline Dion and Shania Twain were rejected because they weren’t seen as cool enough. Karen Schoemer, who wrote about Twain’s Mall of America appearance, comes out swinging at Rolling Stone and Spin for excluding Dion and Twain, asking, “What does it take to be a ‘Woman in Rock?’”

Schoemer’s analysis is astute at times, but she, too, veers into women-bashing to convey her points. She argues that “Women in Rock” is no longer gender-specific but political, and that one must be “correctly” female. She tosses out phrases like “Fiona Apple-style fetishistic victimhood,” and then opines that Twain and Dion do “womanhood the old-fashioned, unironic, hyperfeminine way.” This is, she qualifies, because they “comb their hair and flaunt their bellybuttons, and it’s not a statement. Their music is unabashedly domestic, without complicated subtexts.” Schoemer asserts that it’s “W.I.R. [Women in Rock] suicide to say so, but in 1997 there’s something weirdly refreshing about Dion and Twain’s implacable refusal to ride the Girl Power bandwagon, and their unexpected outsider status. It actually takes some guts to be so unapologetically uncool.”

Schoemer ends her essay on a sort-of progressive note, advocating for “Just Plain People in Rock,” rather than continued gender segregation. If only she’d proven capable of writing an essay celebrating two women without insulting and ripping apart a million others, that would have strengthened her credibility substantially.

We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the '90s and Changed Canadian Music comes out in April 2015.

Find Andrea Warner on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner