In seventh grade I was sent to the principal’s office for making posters and taping them up in the hallways of my school. The posters deplored sexism in some way; maybe there was some school policy that I found sexist. I wish I remembered the details. I do remember finding it maddening and a little bit funny that the “reason” I got in trouble was that the posters hadn’t passed through the correct bureaucratic process before I’d put them up: it turned out that if you wanted to put up posters, you had to ask permission from some arm of the Student-Teacher Association or the Student Council, some puppets or other of adult authority. The real reason of course was the posters’ content, which was a mean joke at the expense of whoever or whatever the “sexist” thing was. I think ankhs were involved in the design.
I was so upset about this sexist thing, whatever it was, because it affected me personally. I was pretending to be angry about the larger implications of the person or policy, on behalf of all my fellow oppressed seventh grade girls, but really I was angry that there was something I wasn’t allowed to do or someone who was getting something I wasn’t getting. In other words, I was jealous. And I knew that I could make other people pay attention to my jealousy by calling it feminism. In this respect, if no other, I was a bit of a prodigy.
Taking everything super personally remains my métier. Lately, however, I have begun to doubt its effectiveness as an activist strategy. I still believe with all my heart that the personal is political, that privacy is a patriarchal construct designed to keep women from telling the truth about their circumstances, and that “when a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” And I also think anger can be a powerful engine of action and change. But finally I’m realizing that walking around all the time feeling overwhelmed with anger and jealousy can interfere with your ability and your will to tell the entire truth, in ways than my 12 year old self could never have imagined.
Last night when I was taking out the trash I heard the song “You Oughta Know” spilling out of the bar downstairs. People in the bar were singing along, as people often do when this song is played. It was a rainy, gross night but I stood under the awning for a moment and listened. Okay, I was smoking a cigarette, which I almost never do anymore, but I’d had a couple of glasses of wine. I blame Mad Men. Because I almost never smoke (and because of the wine) I felt high from the first hit of nicotine, and all my limbs felt heavy all of a sudden and I realized how tired I was and I became glued to the spot, leaning against the building and feeling the thrum of the music coming through the wall. The words of the song were just an indistinct buzz from that distance but it didn’t matter; like everyone my age, I know them all by heart.
Well I’m here
To remind you
Of the mess you left when you went away
It’s not fair
To deny me
The cross I bear that you gave to me
You, you, you oughta know
If you’d asked me whether I loved this song when it was dominating the airwaves, a few years after the poster incident, I’d have told you NO FUCKING WAY! I HATED this song, man. I knew that MTV thought it was speaking to me via this person. But I was so much smarter than that, I knew this music was a commercialized, manufactured, dumbed-down version of the riot-grrrl real thing. I wasn’t buying that Lilith Fair crap. I loved Liz Phair, not Sheryl Crow. I loved Bratmobile, not the Indigo Girls or Sarah McLachlan.
It wouldn’t take long, of course, for such fine distinctions to start seeming petty: after Britney hit, Alanis and Bikini Kill alike were relegated to the miscellaneous yesterday’s-news rack at Tower Records, and girls like me, if we had a shred of self-awareness, started feeling maybe a little guilty about how we should have reveled in our cultural moment while we had the chance. Why hadn’t I embraced Alanis and her mainstream girl-power ilk? Mainly for the simple reason that there’s almost nothing more irksome than seeing a writ-large version of yourself that, inevitably, gets the portrayal just slightly wrong.
Ironically – or, ahem, Alanically – You Oughta Know actually addresses this kind of narcissism-of-small-differences directly. The singer imagines her ex’s new lover:
Another version of me?
Is she perverted like me?
Admitting to being jealous of someone who you then accuse of being “another version of [you]” is really not a cute look. This line pulls off the neat trick of being both super pathetic and incredibly self-aggrandizing. I wish I could say that it describes a sentiment that is totally alien to me, but unfortunately I have been feeling exactly that icky strain of jealousy lately – not in my personal life, but in my professional life. I know this is ridiculous, but at 30, I feel usurped by young comers. I feel like I wrote and said a lot of unpopular things, things that I took truckloads of shit for, that are now accepted as commonplaces.
I try to curb these feelings by reassuring myself with a rotating assortment of pep talks, some of which can temporarily seem to work. One of them goes: “a rising tide floats all boats!” Another one goes: “put your head down and do your work. No one can be better than you are at being you. “ Above all, I try to convince myself that the idea that there are limited opportunities available to women is a big fat lie that the men who control most culture industries would love to have us believe, so we’ll keep ourselves occupied getting into Twitter wars instead of making art. There are as many spots available as we create for ourselves.
But then there’s this other part: this feeling that I have lost the impulse described by the song I heard last night. For the most part, I no longer feel like You Oughta Know. I feel like: I have sort of forgotten what I ever thought the point of telling you anything might be. Did I expect you to be forgiving, understanding, sympathetic? Did I think you’d feel guilty for being so mean and making me feel so bad? Was I fucking retarded? You never really cared. You just wanted a distraction, and maybe someone to compare yourself to, so that you could feel superior. Well, someone else can be that for you, now. Does she speak eloquently? Seriously, fuck you both.
This morning I woke up with another song in my (throbbing) head: the Liz Phair song “Money,” an early demo that became the Whitechocolatespaceegg track “Shitloads of Money.” In both versions this song goes: “It’s nice to be liked, but it’s better by far to get paid. I know that most of the friends that I have don’t really see it that way. But if you could give ‘em each one wish, how much do you want to bet/they’d wish success for themselves and their friends, and that would include lots of money.”
Liz’s career path is instructive in complicated ways. First she made three albums that sounded like the fulfillment of a totally uncompromised creative vision. I love them more than I can say. A lot of women and even some men say that these albums changed their lives. (“It’s nice to be liked.”) But they didn’t make Liz rich, so she made three more albums that had radio-friendly hooks and slick production values. They had just enough real Liz in them to prevent them from being really hugely popular, but they did have movie-soundtrack hits on them, and if Liz’s true-blue fans made fun of their weak, unworthy songs and wrote about how betrayed they felt, Liz made, one hopes, enough money from them that she didn’t care. (“It’s better by far to get paid.”)
The dream, of course, is to somehow pull off the trick of doing both of those things simultaneously. Right now I’m not doing either. But I haven’t given up hope yet of someday being able to do at least one or the other. I know/hope/imagine that I’ll get there by learning, finally, how to zoom out past personal resentment and see the big picture, and not only how some aspect of the unjust world affects me me me.