Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Listening to Jill Sobule

“Dude, she kissed a girl.” Ten years ago, Jill Sobule must have been flabbergasted to find herself the icon of lesbian chic with a song displaying a sense of joy at the discovery of sexual options hitherto unrevealed. How did that become a hit? Well, the boys were getting off on the frisson of lesbian sex for their amusement, and the girls were thinking, hey, maybe that might be something I could try. At any rate, Sobule was on her way to one and a half-hit wonderdom.

The other half a hit was “Supermodel,” but really, I don’t even remember that one. After all these years, mention Sobule’s name and you get a reference to “I Kissed A Girl.” She’s viewed as a novelty performer, which is funny because the song itself was only novel by virtue of having no predecessor in pop. It wasn’t novel because it was meant to be a goof. It was a delightfully catchy dream of a chorus propelling a tale of wonderment, delirium, openness to new possibilities. Suddenly, the world changed, and the rules of sex were tossed out the window.

It probably didn’t convey a serious impression that she has such a wisp of a voice. Sobule is 42 years old – she was 31 when “I Kissed a Girl” hit – yet sounds like a teenager on the cusp of adolescence. She breathes lightly, and lands directly on notes without any hint of bravado, coloratura, or any adult vocal technique. She’s learned to write effectively for her basic vocal package, but that’s not apparent unless you listen to her songs closely. At first, you think you’re getting an underdeveloped performer.

All of this is cultural baggage. My own reasons for avoiding her for too long are wedded to them. I certainly liked the fact that she wrote a song about what I heard as supporting bisexuality, but I didn’t pay enough attention to it at the time to realize how sweetly she described the thrill of it. I saw her play a few years ago, opening for Lloyd Cole (and performing in his band), and was only impressed enough at the time to think she was pleasant. If you don’t devote full attention to Sobule, her songs will float right past you; you’ll hear hooks, but her delivery isn’t going to force you to feel anything more than the equivalent of a light breeze against your face.

Finally, a few months after its release, I slapped Sobule’s 2004 release, “Underdog Victorious,” into the car CD player, and found myself fully engaged with a songwriter of simple, yet firm melodic and descriptive abilities. Nothing on this album is overdone, nothing is underdeveloped. Sobule puts light guitar strumming when a song needs to be quiet; she builds thick slabs of beats, vocals, piano, and more when the song calls for a deeper bed upon which to rest its soul. She’s funny, poignant, nostalgic, strident, sorry, proud, and in love. Sobule is examining the pieces of the life which formed her, whether they were thirty years ago or last week. There is a sense that it’s all worthwhile, the good and the bad, the times she laughed and the times she acted like an asshole.

Every time I’d get out of the car, a different song would be humming in my head. First it was “Jetpack,” a cute, light fantasy about wanting to get to her lover on the other side of town, with side-trips to hover over the stadium to watch her team win. “Underdog Victorious” is a big, rolling chorus, with lots of background vocals and as close as Sobule will ever get to a wall of sound; the song tells the tale of a little boy who grows up gay. “Joey” is a haunting number, with an effective placement of the title character’s first name as hook; oh, yeah, I guess it’s pretty important to point out the title character is actually Joey Heatherton, and that her tale is particularly sad. The un-named bonus cut is a fun, rumbling country number with the incredible tag line, “I met a cop and she pulled me over/Now I’m really finally over you.”

But the song that really gets me is “Tel Aviv.” Unlike the other songs, which all lend themselves to one-line descriptions, this one is complex, mysterious, inordinately sad. Is it autobiographical as so many of her songs seem to be? The narrator is in Israel, and is apparently desired by a man who wants her virginity, and who may actually get it (or at least the illusion of it). She is lying to her family about what she is doing in Israel, and disappointed at the lack of the excitement she’d been promised. During what seems to be a rape, she’s thinking of better times, and wanting desperately to go home. All of this occurs to a matter-of-fact melody, with a nearly winsome chorus of forced hope. “Somebody’s missing me/Somebody’s missing me/Somebody come get me.”

Jill Sobule is so much more than what I had thought she was. I’d had opportunities to discover this before, but sometimes, as when she kissed that girl, everything just falls into place at the same time. “Underdog Victorious” is a record worth devoting 45 minutes of attention to. I’m sure glad I did.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

ah, the wonder of bi-sexuality and lesbian love...why does it turn guys on?and yet, the merest mention of bi-sexuality in a guy or gayness is unacceptable (unless of course you are a fellow gay)...explain, please. write me at davidstill@37.com I have often asked this and have never been given an answer I found fully convincing. What think?

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