Remembering Lilith: Jewel

by Anne Helen Petersen and Simone Eastman

SE: Should we start by acknowledging our reluctance, perhaps? Or maybe by confessing our embarrassments?

AHP: Yes, I think we can begin by situating her, more than perhaps any other, as a Lilith Fair performer who was so much of that time and moment that she’s completely, wholly out of fashion now. She’s not your mom’s well-loved cardigan that’s now just vintage and refined; she’s the embarrassing Gap overalls.

SE: Oh my god. She has all these albums I’ve never even heard of and don’t especially want to listen to, even for the purposes of our art. But she is nonetheless a crucial figure, because she was positioned as the face of Lilith Fair in the festival’s first season:

Analyzing why she would have been chosen for a Lilith Fair cover story is like shooting misogynist fish in a gender studies barrel, though, right?

AHP: But Simone, it’s not even that she was just the cover lady — she was, apparently, the HEADLINER, and rest were just her gang? That’d be like renaming The Babysitters Club as “Stacey and Her Less Good Looking Losers.” (SE: Well . . .?) Also please analyze: “macho” vs. “empathy,” but “empathy” that is still “hot.”

SE: MISOGYNIST FISH. GENDER STUDIES BARREL. I suspect the subtext here is the Warped Tour, which started in 1995; in ’97 Lilith Fair was the highest-grossing traveling festival. (I am deeeep in Lilith Fair research, y’all.) So this formulation, besides its obviously problematic whatever whatever about gender and feeeeeeelings, is always already about money and profit. But I also don’t even know that I would define the music of the Ladies Of Lilith (LOLOLOLOL) as particularly empathetic — in what way is it about understanding the pain of other people more than it is about an artist dissecting her pain and the audience identifying with it?

Is empathy what I’m supposed to get from “You Were Meant For Me”? “So I picked up a paper, it was more bad news/ More hearts being broken or people being used”? “Same old story, not much to say/ Hearts are broken every day”? Thanks for the insight, lady. Is that the hot empathy Time identified?

Speaking of both my mom and Gap overalls (mine were from Old Navy), I bought myself Pieces of You for my 14th birthday. (I also bought Jagged Little Pill, though, so maybe karmically that makes a difference.) I feel like I should explain here, finally, that my mom had these Draconian standards as to what kinds of media I could consume. Until I bought myself these CDs, the only music in my house was smooth jazz and classical radio, a playlist of classic rock that met my mother’s lofty aesthetic standards, and the entire Steely Dan catalog, minus Pretzel Logic. When I asked for the Billy Joel Greatest Hits I and II set for my 18th birthday, she refused on the grounds that Billy Joel was “too subversive.” (If you don’t like her opinions re: Pretzel Logic, take it up with the dead lady.)

AHP: By contrast, my MOM bought both Pieces of You and Jagged Little Pill, which I promptly “borrowed,” which is to say “stole and never gave back and eventually allowed them to be stolen from the backseat of my car when I was a sophomore in college.” My subversive music purchasing was in the form of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, with its giant pot leaf on the cover just begging to force a horrible conversation about marijuana, revealing that my 8th grade self didn’t even know what that leaf represented, let alone that I should be hiding it under my bed. IDAHO GIRLS: either very sheltered or very not.

SE: If I were the kind of person to use the abbrev “smh” I would use it here. But yes, it’s true: I listened, wholeheartedly and unironically, to Jewel. The lead single was, of course, “Who Will Save Your Soul?”

Thoughts: A) I am digging/wondering about this mid-to-late ’90s obsession with voyeurism as expressed in music videos. B) I still kind of like this song, though in retrospect it was some real sleight of hand to make this the lead single, sort of like if you read that one reasonably good poem I wrote as a teenager and made some assumptions about my possessing any kind of talent at all, and then you got to my lengthy lyric meditation on an old woman eating lunch at the Chinese buffet or the one about how roses have thorns and how that’s just like life. Like, one could be convinced on the basis of this decent song that the rest of the album is pretty good. But is it? Is it pretty good, or is it all cliche poems about dewy rose petals at dawn?

AHP: I think I used to transcribe Jewel lyrics into my journal, turn the page, then write my prose poems “inspired” by Jewel’s lyrics, and the results were no better or worse than my work uninspired by Jewel’s lyrics. Which is all to say: you’re right.

But I think there’s something to the fact that Jewel’s poetry book, A Night Without Armor, has become a talisman of innocent, earnest youth. In college, my best friend and I continually cited it to each other as a means to distance our own just-okay poetry from the poetry we wrote/consumed during our teen years. Earlier this year, Lena Dunham Instagrammed a photo of her copy because of course she did. The poems in that book (and the lyrics to her songs) aren’t good, aren’t all that different or inspired — but they seemed somehow just good enough, just better enough than my own stuff, that I admired them fiercely.

I’m going to share my theory about “Foolish Games,” which is this: I think the video demonstrates that Jewel was really trying to get horsey girls on board with her. Because otherwise this video is visually illegible.

AHP: Is it weird that I can’t distinguish this from a fan video made by an 8th grader? All I see is blue filter, frosty make-up, and the up-do with chunky front sections that characterized 80% of prom up-dos from the period.

SE: Jewel’s never not thinking about the 8th grader. I asked Horsey Girl Nicole Cliffe about this, and she said, and I quote, “Jewel ALWAYS had the horsey girls.” The Misty of Chincoteague set aside, I also think that, more than most other Ladies of Lilith, Jewel’s songs are supposed to be an imaginative, projective exercise for the listener. Like, you copy Jewel’s poetry into your journal and then you think about what it would be like to find a boyfriend who seems like he could have stepped out of a Jewel song. In “Foolish Games” I think she thinks she’s describing someone really edgy and cool: “You took your coat off and stood in the rain/ You’re always crazy like that.” Isn’t that craaaaazy? And he, what else, oh, he likes Baroque music, Mozart, “philosophy,” cigarettes, and coffee? What a goddamned catch.

AHP: But just ENUMERATING those things somehow seemed edgy — or maybe just edgy to a certain swath of teenage/early 20s girls who hadn’t yet put together that liking philosophy and cigarettes is not the same thing as being a person of integrity and curiosity? Like I’m just wondering what my MOM was thinking of all this earnest, wrongheaded projection.

SE: It’s just, ugh, if only I couldn’t see into the future and KNOW that some Jewel fan would get scorched by a dude with lank, greasy hair and a smelly army jacket who’s “really into philosophy.”

AHP: But it’s a very distinct erotic projection — and very much in line with the erotic fetishization of grunge. Pieces of You came out in 1995 — the same year that the Nirvana Unplugged album won a GRAMMY. It was also the year of Hootie and the Blowfish, which is another way of saying it was the year of blanketing, banal mediocrity. [Ed. — WHAT?! Oh my god.] I feel like Jewel’s voice rang out like a hot, emotional bell.

Which is why Pieces of Me (You) (Everyone We Know) You went PLATINUM FIFTEEN TIMES and became “one of the best selling debut albums of all time.”

SE: To me, one of the most interesting things about Jewel is this very public media construction of a working-class identity. When she first broke, her biography was constructed to aggressively position her as a rags-to-riches success story: grew up in rural Alaska without indoor plumbing, performed duets in bars with her dad, sold her poetry to make money while she was at the Interlochen Arts Academy (where, according to Dan Kimpel’s seminal How They Made It, “70 percent of Jewel’s tuition was paid for by a vocal scholarship, with the remainder of the expenses raised at what turned out to be Jewel’s first solo concert” in her hometown of Homer, AK, lived in her car while traveling around the country performing. In interviews, she said things like “When poverty bites you hard at a young age, you don’t forget it” and “I grew up with dirt under my nails . . . you never get over that.”

This mythology of poverty strikes me as being specifically about claiming a working-class identity, one in which her success comes in spite of a lack of cultural capital. But. I mean, her poverty was real, but also I’m pretty sure that was the case because her parents were back-to-the-landers. I mean, her grandfather was a delegate to the Alaska State Constitutional Convention. Her family’d been there for a long time and had roots, at least, and probably some resources.

And there’s also the thing with her teeth. You know about the thing with her teeth?

AHP: All I remember is that she had bad teeth, she smiled with her mouth closed all the time, and at some point they were fixed. But this was before I really recognized that teeth were such an obvious marker of class in the United States — I didn’t understand that “crooked, broken, ravaged gum lines” was code for “no health or dental care” and “un-Fluoridated well water.”

I had grown up solidly upper middle-class, and had been so thoroughly immersed in it through the first 13 years of my life, that when I hit junior high and was suddenly surrounded by evidence of working class-ness, when a third of my class was getting free lunch, when kids were talking about “doing crank” (read: meth) I was just clueless. I wasn’t stupid — I knew things were different — I just hadn’t ever been taught to recognize class as difference. I was friends with those kids. We talked on the phone. Their parents gave me rides home from practice. But my position made the privilege of my white and painfully braced teeth invisible to me.

That’s a digression and by no means an excuse — more of a testimony to the ways the pervasive myth of classlessness gets propagated. And Jewel’s case seems to be a 1990s case of class fetishization — here was the poor kid made good, the American Dream in artistic action. And the elision of her family’s historical privilege/cultural capital was nothing new: the studios reframed the biographies of dozens of classic Hollywood stars in order to make their success signify as both the product of “hard work” and the logistics of the American meritocracy.

SE: Nice SoCH tie-in. I’ve always admired how you manage your Personal Brand. (AHP: Scandals of Classic Hollywood IS LIFE.) BUT ALSO, you know who had a hard luck story similar to hers and yet did not have multiple biographies written about her when she was 24 years old nor warrant mention in multiple young reader books about celebrities? Tracy Goddamned Chapman, that’s who. Born to a single mom in Cleveland, on scholarship at a boarding school where they took up a collection to buy her her first guitar, started out busking. I think it is only a rhetorical question when I ask why it is Jewel who gets this treatment, not our beloved TC.

AHP: EASY PRIVILEGE ANSWER, SIMONE: white people love books about white people triumphing over the system. Black people, especially black people who still sing about racism and domestic violence and ‘the rape of the world,’ [I’m talking about you, Tracy] … that’s terrifying.

But back to this drawing that seems like it’s from a Driver’s Ed workbook: When I see sentence structures like this in my students’ drafts, I make a little comment in Google Docs that says “sophisticate syntax.” But I’m fascinated that A) these young adult novels are apparently available in full text online for you to screenshot them, and B) she was accessible/popular with audiences younger than 12? The fact that readers of this book would need to know how to say ‘parents’ seems to indicate … age five? Are kids age five concerned with who will save their souls? [DIGRESSION: I learned while teaching at Gifted & Talented Camp that one of early indicators of ‘giftedness’ = existential crises, a.k.a. wondering what will happen to the earth, who will save the polar bears, WHO WILL SAVE YOUR SOUL, etc. et. al. But readers of this book don’t know how to say ‘fame’ so bygones.]

But also segue: who was Jewel’s audience? Only teenage girls? Because the thing about Lilith Fair is that it had to appeal to both teens who could blast their babysitting money/allowances on a ticket and merch AND “older” [read: 20- and 30-something] ladies who could do the same, but also buy alcohol. Was Jewel the counter-programming to, say, The Indigo Girls? Was she there to bring in the young, naive, philosophy-dude-loving non-feminists?

SE: Maybe? I mean, this sort of raises an interesting question/problem. We have such trouble in this culture distinguishing among things that celebrate women, prominently feature women, and are actually feminist. Lilith Fair was the first two, but I am pretty sure it wasn’t the third. I think.

The event billed itself as “a celebration of women in music,” and the implication was that it was somehow feminist, that having an event for women artists was itself feminist. But was it? If feminism is just about parity of representation, sure. But if you look at Jewel’s songs, they’re all about kinda codependent heterosexual fantasies of longing and need. Like if Riot Grrl : Lilith Fair::Shulamith Firestone : Gloria Steinem, Jewel is not even Gloria Steinem. She’s like, okay, she’s not Phyllis Schafly, but she’s TEPID. So: not feminist?

I don’t know. I am definitely at that cranky point in my life where I DO NOT HAVE A PROBLEM saying that some things ARE NOT FEMINIST (yes, I am the Feminist Police, see my badge?) just because they involve women. But maybe the Ladies are all on a continuum of feminism, and maybe that’s something that becomes clearer when we examine how their careers developed after the Vag Fest ended. After Pieces of You came Spirit.

AHP: I always feel bad for sophomore albums. I want to start a support group for sophomore albums. I listen to them more than they deserve and try to love them more than they merit. And 16-year-old AHP really tried with Spirit. There’s a sweet little song called “What’s Simple Is True,” the video for which is, in a move of remarkable foresight, set North of the Wall in Game of Thrones.

But the earnestness of Pieces of You, now smoothed out and synthed out, now seemed a bit overripe. “Hands” makes me feel like I’m listening to an After School Special and “Fat Boy” is just horrible. Fucking HORRIBLE. Tonedeaf song about bullying horrible. But there was a hidden track and you know how I feel about hidden tracks, so I’m pretty sure it stayed in heavy rotation until Lauryn Hill arrived in my life and Jewel became the Velveteen Rabbit of my musical collection, only this Velveteen Rabbit gets lost in the glove compartment, scratched to shit, and thrown in the wastebasket of a Wyoming gas station in 2003.

SE: This seems like an excellent time to bring up this crucial 1999 SPIN magazine review by . . . Sarah Vowell? She says, “once an artist crosses into that seven-zeros zone, the spotlight twists away from her onto her audience. . . In an age of fracture and exasperation, she’s selling union and hope, and the worn out American public can’t sling their money across record store counters fast enough.”

AHP: … Which brings us back to the overarching palatability of Lilith Fair as a whole, a point we’ve discussed at some length. Vowell’s basically touching on the emotive engine of Lilith Fair, a sort of feel-good girl-power that steers clear of alienation or indictment [unless, of course, you’re Tracy Chapman]. It’s somewhat disturbingly close to postfeminism. Or is it postfeminism? Was Lilith Fair just as postfeminist as Spice Girls and Sex and the City?

I mean, we’re past mere representation, right? Like it’s not “enough” just to be a woman and represented in a position of power. Otherwise Condoleezza Rice and Sarah Palin might be considered feminists, even as their policies work to dismantle some of feminism’s long-fought battles. Headlining a festival and playing guitar does not a feminist make. But as you allude to, I’m not sure if that matters so much as how Lilith Fair, regardless of its softcore, apolitical, non-castrating quasi-feminism eventually engendered a bunch of feminist politics. Or did it not have that effect on people who were not AHP and SE? [Please help us with this continued quandary in the comments.]

SE: Right, does Jewel herself (or, if I want to make myself laugh, which I always do, “Jewel qua Jewel”) matter? Does the (confused) individual message matter? Does it matter if, after 1999, Jewel did or not develop as an artist in a way that continued to make some sort of claim on feminism or on the story she told about being a singer/songwriter willing to live in her van with her guitar in order to have a shot at telling her stories? I am not going to lie to you, AHP — I couldn’t, I never would — that I recently listened to this cut from 2001’s This Way on the bus and cried lady tears:

And if you want to know why I cried “lady” tears, why I gendered the tears, it is because after 2001, Jewel began transitioning her career in a way that seemed so baldly about marketing and commercial success that whatever mild transgression she tried to push was completely undermined. I am talking, of course, about “Intuition,” which has a (surprisingly) anticapitalist message (“You learn cool from magazines/ You learn love from Charlie Sheen” seems, I don’t know, weirdly prescient for 2003), but is just . . . weird.

She then made this transition from poppy adult contemporary to country to, I don’t know, total confusion. Because here she is dueting “Proud Mary” with Beyonce, who has invited her to do it “nice and divalicious,” and, well, you’ll see:

Just . . . I don’t know. Part of 16-year-old me, the weirdly naive part of me that still thinks that institutions should actually align themselves with the values they espouse — that part of me wants to believe that artists should (be able to?) retain some part of whatever their core motivation was, even when they (like us) grow and change. That even if I want to throw the part of myself that bought Pieces of You to the wolves, complete with her sloppy cotton Old Navy sweaters and her poor personal hygiene and all photos taken of me between the ages of 10 and 23, I still want Jewel — the “old” Jewel, the “real” Jewel — to be out there doing her thing in a way I recognize. Because if Jewel can do it, maybe I can also find a way to keep hanging out with whatever part of 14-year-old Simone is still knocking around in here. Maybe I can also find a way to honor whoever it is she (Younger Me, not Jewel Kilcher, obviously) helped me become, make my past selves legible to, connected to, my present self. I just don’t want Jewel to throw out the overalls. Hers or mine.

AHP: Holy hell, Simone, there’s no way I can top that. So I’ll just put this Jewel paperback quiz question here for us all to ponder:

THE 1990s: drops mic, walks away.

Previously: Natalie Merchant

With five academic degrees between them, Anne Helen Petersen and Simone Eastman can no longer simply “enjoy” anything. They don’t know what to tell you about their accumulating stacks of Jewel-related trade paperbacks.