Wherry is a music critic at The
were rather belatedly introduced to the world a few months back.
First appearing on television in her video for Intuition, they
were wrapped in a tight black dress and, later, hosed down by
an enterprising group of young firemen (while somewhere else in
music video land a house full of cuddly kittens burned to the
ground, one imagines).
showed up on the cover of Maxim Blender, the "music"
magazine whose attitude toward woman is on loan from Andrew Dice
Clay, beside the headline "Rock's Sexiest Poet Gets Her Freak
so flagrantly flaunted over the last few months, are but the least
subtle sign that Jewel, the coffeehouse singer/ songwriter from
Alaska whose rags-to-riches story was almost as heart-wrenching
as her tales of lost love and fractured society, has most certainly
changed. The humble folky with the crooked smile is now a gyrating,
breast-heaving diva in the vein of Madonna.
In the same
issue of Blender, former indie rock goddess Liz Phair was
announcing her own change in direction. Beside a picture of Phair
pressed up against a mirror, arching her back, wearing just enough
clothes to stay out of Playboy, the singer once hailed
as a new feminist icon proclaimed, "I find myself very turned
on by big and stupid."
and stupid is how many critics are describing her latest disc
-- a self-titled plea for mainstream success that deeply betrays
the outsider roots she established in 1993 with the critically
adored Exile in Guyville.
We have always
demanded change from our female pop stars. We expect some level
of development from the greatest of male solo performers and rock
bands, but out of sexism, boredom or some combination thereof,
female stars as they age and develop as pseudo-normal people are
expected to "grow" as artists, with new images, sounds
and attitudes (for comparison, think Paula Abdul versus Janet
for this is Madonna -- the reigning queen of pop who has been
everything short of a gangsta rapping rabbi over the last two
decades. Her followers and imitators are many, but of late this
desire to change has been most obvious in the youngest generation
of pop stars, with the likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera,
LeAnn Rimes, Mandy Moore and the rest of the teen bubblegum generation
trying, with varying degrees of success, to navigate the all-important
journey from child star to adult artist (here we use the term
"artist" quite loosely).
three of the four mentioned above announced their adulthood in
the pages of Blender, with soft-porn photo shoots -- jailbait
no more, our teen vixens were free to flaunt their bodily assets.
The "hey look at me rub my crotch on this pole" method,
perfected by Madonna, does not necessarily guarantee success or
credibility though. And Madge can certainly attest to the slings
and arrows she has suffered throughout her career as a result
many costume changes.
But as awkward
as those attempts to change public perception proved, Jewel and
Phair are now demonstrating that evolution only becomes more difficult
when one already has maturity and musical relevance on side. As
Britney, Christina et al stumble into adulthood, shedding their
clothes every step of the way in clumsy attempts to appear older,
Jewel and Phair are doing everything they can to reverse the signs
case, she has adopted the language of tweens (song titles include
Run 2 U, 2 Find U, 2 Become 1, and U & Me = Love), while embracing
dance beats and teen pop tunes. Phair, on the other hand, has
recruited Avril Lavigne collaborators The Matrix to help her pen
the glossiest pop money can by.
In a note
to her fans within the album's liner notes, Jewel explained her
record thusly: "I wanted to make a record that was a modern
interpretation of big band music. A record that was lyric-driven,
like Cole Porter stuff, that also had a lot swing. . . I hope
you all love it. I hope it makes you feel young and sexy and smart."
been just as blunt in interviews. "I would never want to
give up my indie-ness. I just don't understand why you have to
be one or the other. I like highbrow and lowbrow," she told
the Associated Press. "I'm the same person I always
was. I just lost the whole 'cool school' thing."
seem less open to such lofty ideals. Though several mainstream
publications such as Rolling Stone and Spin have
been more kind, the indie world has turned on Phair like the spurned
lovers she's used to singing about.
years after Exile", Liz has finally managed to accomplish
what seems to have been her goal ever since the possibility of
commercial success first presented itself: to release an album
that could have just as easily been made by anybody else,"
uber-influential Web site Pitchforkmedia.com said in its
review. "It's sad that an artist as groundbreaking as Phair
would willingly reduce herself to cheap publicity stunts and hyper-commercialized
Jewel's 0304 have been less hostile, but the music has still been
called "plastic-sounding" and "disturbing,"
while Rolling Stone dismissed it as a "wanna-be version
of American Life" -- the colossal bomb Madonna dropped this
Much of the
backlash has to do with where these artists began. That is, both
seemingly started as original artists, relatively untouched by
the mass-production pop masterminds behind the Britneys, Christinas
and Avrils. As a result, their pop-friendly new albums seem all
the more shocking to embittered fans and critics who considered
themselves and the artist above such tripe.
greatest sin seems to be in how half-heartedly each has made the
Even as Jewel
gyrates to the latest homogenized beats, she's still name-checking
Woody Guthrie and railing against pop culture (which is like so
gonna kill your buzz at the next rave, dude). It would all seem
entirely satirical, if it weren't so strangely serious.
still singing about lewd bodily fluids. H.W.C., backed by the
most Top 40 of tunes, will likely be one of the year's most talked-about
with Phair includes the cover to her latest album, upon which
she appears clad only in a guitar to cover up her naughty bits.
Phair claims it wasn't her idea, leaving one to assume she only
posed as such at the prodding of publicity-minded label people.
All of which makes Jewel and Phair seem all the more desperate
for love and attention. Rather than giving themselves over completely
to the mainstream, they are attempting to maintain their street
cred with veiled references to the past. They are ultimately insecure,
lacking the confidence to make a complete step in either direction
and force change upon themselves.
they're left straddling both high and low brows in the type of
precarious position you'd expect of a Maxim lady, satisfying neither
audience and more or less embarrassing