Lend me some fresh air

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During recent drives, I’ve had a couple of albums on rotation in my car’s CD player, and they’ve gotten me thinking about women and anger.

Specifically, I’ve been revisiting Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and Fiona Apple’s Tidal, originally released in 1995 and ’96, respectively. I was nine and ten years old at those moments, though it’s my pre-teen years I most heavily associate those songs with, as they both received decent to heavy radio play at least through the late ’90s.

I remember first being struck by Apple’s explicit youth; she was only 19 when Tidal crashed onto air and television waves. The biggest hit from it, and the video that played on MTV and VH1 pretty regularly, featuring in top 10 countdown after countdown, was of course “Criminal,” which I had learned to not only sing but mimic fairly closely in vocal styling by the time I was 13. Rewatching it, there is no question as to how young Apple really is. I remember being struck most, secondly, how much she looked like me. I was reedy-thin, big-eyed (also blue), with long dirty blonde hair, too tomboyish to look feminine. I had a disarming stare, too; so much so I’d been advised not to look people directly in the eye, which I eventually trained myself out of doing. Fiona did not: she confronted the camera directly throughout the entire video, no matter who she was crawling over, who was hanging off of her stark body; almost the entirety of that now-classic album cover is taken up by those eyes, those big icy blue eyes, looking right at you. I looked like her; I could sound like her. I wasn’t as angry as her — not yet. Until those particular years, I didn’t feel it was really allowed.

It can be argued it was never really allowed for her — for any woman, truly — either. Despite struggling with the aftermath of her rape, an eating disorder, depression, self-harm, PTSD, and so on… she was never given remotely near the leeway we give our beloved, “eccentric” — typically code for “unapologetic asshole” — male artists. The unfairness of this, particularly taking into account all the additional labor expected of women all our lives — the emotional labor, the caretaker roles, the inoffensive and quiet smile assumed to naturally come with all of it — can’t be understated, either. There is so little room allowed for a woman’s anger, no matter how young and talented she may be. I didn’t care, and loved her anyway, and I loved her anger maybe most of all. I mimicked it when I sang it; I aspired to it, almost.

The opening lyrics to Tidal — nothing arriving first to cushion them in any way, just a sparse, dry snare drum beat — are still probably some of my favorites that Apple ever penned — and given her talents as a lyricist, that is no small praise — and they too are directly, purely, deeply angry:

I tell you how I feel, but you don’t care
I say tell me the truth, but you don’t dare
You say love is a hell you cannot bear
And I say “Give me mine back and then go there
For all I care”

(Emphasis mine, but there is no denying that is how she sings it.) It was the most powerful, immediate, introductory “fuck you” I’d ever heard from a woman, let alone one still under 20, like me. I looked like her, I could sound like her; I could be angry like her, too.

The only woman I remember listening to during those formative years who sounded as angry, in as visceral and unapologetic a manner, was Alanis, and Jagged had only come out the year before. It is the quintessential “angry girl” album of the ’90s, but because of that assessment, it still feels underrated to me. Or maybe the proper word is really “underestimated.” You can crack as many (arguably fair) jokes about the misapplication of the entire concept of “Ironic”‘s lyrics, or make as many laughing asides about Joey from Full House as you like, but the indisputable fact remains: there was no other album as commercially successful, nor as familiar to so many mainstream music listeners of a particular decade, that was as angry as Jagged Little Pill.

My favorite Alanis song off Jagged was always “Not the Doctor.” It’s undoubtedly an album crammed full of one great song after another, which is why current teenage girls still buy it on any format in the record shop I work in to this day, but that track in particular was the one I loved most then, and still do now. I only wish that, when I was singing along to it then, I’d had even the barest inkling of what it truly meant, even if such a thing wasn’t possible; I hadn’t (yet) been used, abused, or discarded by men in the way that allows for a deeper identification with that song. But the entire thing is a screed of different metaphorical ways to say “I will not carry your extremely tiresome fucking baggage.” It’s a deeply important song for any young girl to hear for that reason alone, even if we’re not able to fully absorb it, no matter how much I wish I could have. It makes it a bittersweet listen now. Just look at all those isolated “I don’t want”s:

I don’t want to be the filler if the void is solely yours
I don’t want to be a bandage if the wound is not mine
I don’t want to be adored for what I merely represent to you
I don’t want to be your babysitter
I don’t want to be your mother
I don’t want to be the sweeper of the egg shells that you walk upon
I don’t want to be your other half
I don’t want to be the glue that holds your pieces together
I don’t want to be your idol
I don’t want to be lived through
I don’t want to be responsible for your fractured heart
(And its wounded beat)

(There are a few more, but those were the ones most identifiable to me now as things that became far too familiar to me as more than just concepts, later in life.) It’s such an adamant refusal of being the dependable dumping ground so many men casually expect women to always be.

The killer one-two punch between the two of them: Fuck you. I don’t want this. (Do better, be better. God, but the bar for men is so pathetically low.)

It’s been comforting, too, listening to these again, despite the bittersweetness. Those angry girls were everything to me then. I was still small, still shy, but when a pack of boys descended on me one late afternoon when I was 13, I finally recognized I had the freedom to be angry. I broke one of their noses even with his fingers crushing down on my trachea and his knee in my chest. He said he would kill me and I thought, I’ll claw your fucking eyes out while you do it. I screamed so loud at him it felt like my throat would tear — I sounded like a wild animal; the sound carried so far belated help finally came running from the other end of the campus — and it was not because I was afraid: I had never been more consumed by fury in my life. I was so angry there wasn’t any room left for fear. Before those girls and their songs, no one had ever really told me what hardly anyone ever tells little girls:

Own your anger. Unleash it even as they slam you into concrete and make you bleed. It will save your life.

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