February 26, 2016
We Oughta Know, by Andrea Warner
The very first real concert I went to (i.e. not with my dad) was to see Sarah McLachlan on tour for Fumbling Toward Ecstasy, a CD I’d recently purchased from Columbia House for a penny. This was in grade nine, I think, 1993 or 1994, with my best friends Britt and Jennie. Britt’s dad drove us there, to the theatre in Lindsay, ON, where we were part of the amazing, intimate performance, and I saw a girl with dreadlocks who kind of looked like a boy, which left me flummoxed. There is a connection, I think, between having seen Sarah McLachlan, powerful and awesome at her piano, on the guitar, and that Britt and I would spend all of high school performing at talent shows and low-rent concerts playing pop covers on our acoustic guitars, singing in harmony. We really took it for granted, all those amazing women who articulated our feelings so well, whose lyrics we scrawled in our scrapbooks. It was the times we were living in. It seemed inevitable that we’d see Sarah McLachlan against six years later at a much larger venue, us sitting high up and far away on the grass, watching her perform with Sheryl Crow, Deborah Cox. I think the Dixie Chicks were there. Biff Naked on a side stage. Women in songs were in the ascendence. “Women in Songs” was the name of a popular CD series here in Canada in the last few years of the decade, and that the collections were feminist or even that these were women at all seemed to use kind of incidental as we drove down the main street in our town singing along with Natalie Imbruglia as she bared her heart with “Torn.”
In her book, We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music, Andrea Warner articulates that whole scene, and the remarkable fact that four Canadian women were leading the charge of women in song: Celine Dion, Sarah McLachlan, Shania Twain, and Alanis Morissette. These four women too are (along with Diana Krall) are the only Canadians on Canada’s best-selling artists lists, coming in above the Beatles. And even more remarkably, they all made their mark during a five year period in the mid-1990s. What was going on exactly, Warner wonders? How did they do it?
Dion, McLachlan, Twain and Morrisette are not musicians usually linked together, more often viewed in terms of their differences—the good girls and the bad ones, the authentic musicians versus the manufactured ones. Warner makes the interesting point that as a teenager, she regarded these women as she regarded the members of The Babysitters Club, definitive types, not allowing for complexity of character. Making assumptions: how could Dion with her entrepreneurial skills be a Feminist with all her love schlock, and the same with Twain and her bared midriffs? Exhibiting the same narrow-mindedness that led critics to be baffled by Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” (which, incidentally, was the only album my husband and I ended up with two copies of when our CD collections merged):
‘The sweetness of “Head Over Feet,” the sensitive sprawl of “Mary Jane,” and the quirky landscape of “Ironic” were baffling to the easily confused, particularly to those who were committed to painting Morissette as a screaming, seething ball of rage. How can she be angry but so gentle here? Well, how can you have both a right hand and a left hand? It’s simple, provided you’re not someone who hates women. People contain multitudes and women are people; therefore women contain multitudes.’
In her book, Warner takes us track by track through the albums that rocketed these women to stardom, and also examines her own feelings toward them and how coming to admire Dion and Twain for their talent and hard work is a part of her coming to terms with her own notions of feminism. She also takes inspiration from 90s music heroines and blends the personal in with her cultural analysis, discussing how her parents’ separation and own ideas of love and marriage influenced her perspective on Dion’s music, or how McLachlan’s devastating Rarities, B-Sides and Other Stuff (which I always used to put on when I was at my most angst-full, just to feed the pain) intersects with her grief around her father’s death. She also examines how these four women were regarded by the music industry, by the media, the sexism and stereotypes and the system that is set up so that women are unable to succeed, for example, the rule against playing two songs by women in a row on the radio, which is what galvanized Sarah McLachlan to start The Lilith Fair to show that women aren’t merely to be pitted against each other, but can stand together. Fascinating too to consider the stupid Lilith Fair backlash, that it was reverse sexism. I remember being gibed about “lesbians” by certain morons in my company at the time who knew I was going to the concert, as though most rock festivals are not enormous cockfests (which are distinct from “enormous-cock fests”) and why don’t we ever talk about that?
Warner is a music critic for CBC Music and Exclaim, and a warm, engaging writer who celebrates the power of girls and women and their voices, and critiques the culture that made all this happen. An appendix in We Oughta Know includes a long list of other Canadian female acts who made their mark throughout the 1990s—Alannah Myles, Amanda Marshall, Jann Arden, and others—making clear that the four women spotlighted in her book are not merely some freak phenomena.
“The ’90s were a remarkable decade for girls like me, and ultimately, the woman we would become. When you come of age in a time when women have voices, take up space, are visible creators and entrepreneurs, it never dawns on you that silence is the rule and these women, your idols, are the exception.”