An exclusive excerpt from the forthcoming We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the '90s and Changed Canadian Music.
Of feminist heroes, vapid wonders, Madonnas, and 'whores'
Most youth and media share a certain similarity: an obsession with classification and articulating what should be obvious differences or similarities. It’s a quick and dirty way to establish parameters and make things easily identifiable, but it doesn’t allow for nuance or anomalies.
There’s a rigidity to partitioning off what’s cool and what’s not, who ascribes to your ethics and morals and who doesn’t. Parsing characteristics feels critical to your identity when you’re 14 or 15 and even if you’re not always conscious of it, there’s some intense truth-sorting that happens in those high school years as you begin to reject the inherited beliefs that have shaped you thus far and create your own philosophy.
In 1993, I was 14 years old and in the eighth grade. I lived with my family in an apartment above a drug store in a building we called the Yellow Submarine. It was cramped quarters for four people. My 13-year-old sister and I shared one bedroom, which my father had to walk through to get to his, and my grandmother slept in the living room. Our kitchen had black-and-white checkerboard linoleum. We had lived there since my parents split up a little more than two years earlier. Every night I opened the heavy curtain that covered my bedroom window and wrote novels (soapy, racy teen stories) by hand under the light from the street lamp.
I had already decided I was a writer. Poetry came easily to me. My first poem was an ode to the keyboard I got as a Christmas present after my parents’ split. In school, English was my preferred subject thanks in part to our eighth grade textbook. It contained short stories, grammar lessons, poetry, essays, and song lyrics from musicians.
Before I’d ever heard Leonard Cohen’s music, I fell in love with his poetry. Before I had a real sense of Joni Mitchell the singer, I cherished the unusual cadence of her words in my head. I didn’t know that Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” was a song, not a poem. It was a revelation.
Though most of my friends at the time were losing their minds over the New Kids on the Block, I had been devoted to the sweet pop sounds of Swedish duo Roxette since the age of 11. But as most teenagers can attest, loving one thing often means hating another—enter Céline Dion.
She was the first female musician I found myself vehemently rejecting. In retrospect, there’s not a huge gulf between the two acts, but I was embracing my first feminist inclinations and rebelling against the notion that a woman needs a man and that love is the be all and end all. Romance was dead.
Matters of the heart were meant to be existential, devastating, and full of fire.
The sound of going backwards
Dion’s very existence as an artist was everything that was wrong with the world. I considered her weak and ridiculous. I didn’t know the word “agency” at the time, but I knew she lacked something significant. With Cohen and Mitchell and all the artists in my textbook, I had figured out what “real” music was and Dion’s vapid musings couldn’t compare. Dion had no place in my heart or my mind, particularly in contrast to Sarah McLachlan, who came into my life around the same time. I was introduced to McLachlan when my friend, Katrin, made an appearance in one of her music videos, gallivanting in a field. Soon I was playing McLachlan’s music on repeat.
There was a sense of urgency in her words and a tension in her vocal range. She conveyed a desperate honesty, a darkness, and a sensuality that connected with every fibre of my 14-year-old self.
When Shania Twain broke out in 1995 and her songs became inescapable, I found myself rolling my eyes and wanting to rip my ears out. She needed a man; she was so obviously and overtly sexual.
Twain was Dion with a twang and fewer dramatics, but no less inauthentic in my eyes. Her songs were empty and fluffy and encouraged girls to think only in terms of fairy tales and fantasies.
They had nothing to do with real life. They felt like a “fuck you” to the burgeoning feminist in me. They were the sound of going backwards.
The arrival of an alt-rock queen
Alanis Morissette burst into my consciousness shortly after Shania. A cyclone of long, dark hair, Alanis was fierce, vulnerable, and empowered. For the lost Canadian girls of the ’90s who demanded more progressive role models, she was the alt-rock queen we’d been waiting for.
Morissette was the one who would lead the revolution. She sang about men and love, too, but not in the same wimpy, cloying way of Dion and Twain. She spat out the twisted truth, hiding nothing, leaving nothing out, holding nothing back. We wanted somebody who would acknowledge how fucked up everything was and that’s what Morissette gave us.
Even in their archetypes, which were reiterated over and over in every Baby-Sitters Club book, the traits that distinguished Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, and Stacey blended, criss-crossing into each other the way influences bleed between real people. From the beginning I instinctively understood these characters represented aspects of humanity.
When I was older and women would debate their Sex and the City alter egos—“She’s totally a Carrie. She’s definitely a Charlotte. Slut, you’re totally a Samantha! You? You wish you were Miranda.”—I always knew they were all of us and we were all of them. The Breakfast Club taught us that, wasn’t anybody paying attention?
Blind to my own complicity— and everybody else’s
But I didn’t afford that nuance to these four artists. In fact, all musicians were divided into those I liked, those I didn’t like, and those I didn’t care about.
Perhaps it was because music felt so personal to me, while their images were outsized, magnified, and extreme. I could see the common ground that McLachlan and Morissette occupied, as well as that shared by Dion and Twain, but in no way did I see any overlap across the enemy lines I’d established so definitively.
Most emotionally intelligent people grow up to appreciate and recognize the ways in which rigid classification fails us with regard to the human condition but my younger brain needed to divide people into good and bad.
A substantial amount of pop culture media does its best to reduce every celebrity to his/her/its lowest common denominators as well. Great journalists colour in the space between the labels, but all too often it comes down to the most simplistic terms with which to describe (and judge) people: gay or straight, fat or thin, crazy or sane, and so on.
The Madonna and Mary Magdalene are still the most universal stereotypes women find themselves consigned to at some point in our lives. Good girl or bad girl; virgin or whore. Most women even buy into it at least once. I have. And though intellectually I realize it’s crap, the duality has seeped so far into female identity that we can’t divorce ourselves of it without concentrated effort.
But the concept is tired as fuck and the terms need to be tossed back thousands of years and put to death in one of those time machine incidents where the repercussions fatefully alter the course of history. Though I suppose if you’re a biblical sort and you believe that wily women just can’t do what they’re told and the poor men they seduce into complicity are blameless (because how could they take responsibility for their own behaviour in the face of the naked ladies?) well, okay/not okay then.
This division that I’ve grown to despise so much was the one area that I couldn’t square with my ability to pit McLachlan and Morissette against Dion and Twain. It was a reckoning, really, because everybody knew that McLachlan and Dion were the “good girls” and Twain and Morissette were the “bad girls.” The enemy lines were breached, the tables were overturned, and everything was out of balance. Morissette singing about blow jobs didn’t phase me. I was excited about the reality of it all.
Twain’s bare midriffs, on the other hand, struck me as cheap and un-feminist. I saw nothing hypocritical in my assessment. I called it as I saw it. Twain had to take her clothes off to make a point. Her looks and her sexuality were as integral to her success as any actual talent. Morissette was the real deal, the antithesis to Twain in every way—except she wasn’t.
I didn’t know then that we were witnessing a seismic shift and these four women were going to change Canadian music forever. I didn’t know that all four would ultimately come to occupy the same space in the country’s pop culture: icons, best-selling artists, punchlines.
I didn’t know that I was part of the problem, but I absolutely was.
Andrea Warner writes about music, culture, and feminism. She lives in Vancouver. We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the '90s and Changed Canadian Music is her first book. It's published by Toronto's Eternal Cavalier Press, an independent publishing house dedicated to quality Canadian music writing. We Oughta Know hits bookstores in April.