Ought You To Know?

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.

19 comments to Ought You To Know?

  • There’s something in the water lately. I swear. Some kind of weird energetic crossroads that is causing everyone to question everything and feel pretty out of control. Thanks for this. I enjoyed reading it.

  • jh

    whenever i read things you wrote like this, i don’t have anything interesting to say but just think about how grateful i am that such manifestations of youness in process as this exist so that i and other people can experience them. which maybe is not so simple and nice and easy of a thing as that sentence makes it sound, as your italics feelings illustrate, or particularly meaningful or whatever and maybe even a phrase like “youness in process” sounds condescending in terms of the complex things you’re feeling now but, anyway, like i said i don’t have anything interesting to say but it’s hard not to read this and not want to say something to someone you care about (don’t need to publish this but i’m too lazy to open gmail)

  • jh

    *”hard TO read this and not want to say” jdfklafjdklsfjadsfads

  • KG

    Oh man, I’ve been feeling this way too. Thanks for articulating it. Bleh but also yeah!

  • yes, on a lot of levels. first of all the most petty one: i love that liz phair demo! the whitechocolate version annoyed me because i loved that original so much. (but of course after reading this whole essay, i do also feel a little silly pointing out my knowledge for the obscure… im sooo special to know about this alsoooo… ha).

    i do agree w/ the previous commenter who pointed out that something seems to be in the air lately. im kind of an astrology dork (when im in the mood to be) so i’m aware that there’s def some planetary stuff happening that “explains” all this, etc etc. but on a wider level, you’ve def articulated the weird jumble my brain has felt like upon turning 30, too. i’m hitting 7 years in nyc (mindblowing in itself) and really feeling like i’m wrapping up one chapter, and designing the next. so reading this made me feel a lot less alone with all the “sorting out” ive been doing about my feelings on life — from plans for my own to more ‘big picture’ stuff i’m only making tiny dents of thoughts in.

    2012, man. maybe the apocalypse is real, but a totally different, more mental/emotional thing that we thought!! <3 thanks for sharing your brain

  • It occurred to me recently that Adele’s smash “Someone Like You” is essentially the same song as “You Oughta Know.” One’s sad, and one’s angry, but they’re both telling one story. Compare:

    I hate to turn up out of the blue, uninvited
    But I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t fight it
    I had hoped you’d see my face and that you’d be reminded
    That for me, it isn’t over


    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

    Now “Money,” I don’t know another song that makes *that* point (except some great old-skool Ani). But that’s why Liz Phair remains timeless.

  • Becky

    I’m so glad you’re here and writing. Thank you!

  • I think a lot of people have assumed that there is equal opportunity between the sexes, but I don’t think we are 100% there yet and we’re totally in danger of going backwards. It’s a really big person who can view the world through the lens of “this is injustice to my neighbor” and not “this is injustice to myself.” Great post!

  • jamie

    privacy is a patriarchal construct designed to keep women from telling the truth about their circumstances

    This is a pretty self-serving conspiracy theory Emily…
    You really don’t think that privacy serves any other purpose?
    Maybe you should apply for a job at Facebook.

  • jamie

    Thank you so much for writing this! I’ve been trying to find the words to express exactly these very same emotions but I just couldn’t get them down on paper. I love you emily.

    There… is that better?

  • Unico

    Hey Emily, what did you think of “Girls”?

  • Unico

    ^^ I just want to hear your opinion, it has nothing to do with your current post. “Girls” and “Tiny Furniture”.

    P.S. Read your Sylvia Plath essay and really loved it!

  • jill

    Great post! Also, on kind of an unrelated note, which albums would recommend as a good place to start for someone who is not super familiar with Liz Phair?

  • Unico

    Hey Emily,

    You didn’t publish my comments yet and I saw on your twitter that you don’t want to watch “Girls” because of “jealous rage”. I just wanted you to know that the reason I asked was because I was genuinely interested in hearing your opinion. I’ve been following your writing for a while, and I think you have nothing to be jealous of in Lena Dunham. She may have the fame right now, but you and your material are infintely more interesting and insightful than anything Lena has done. You’re an excellent writer, especially when you review literature. I always learn something and discover a perspective I hadn’t thought of before. I think you should apply for graduate school and get a bunch of funding and write lit-crit/journalism essays! If you want to.

    Lena’s material, for all its attempts to be “honest”, comes off as just really petty “negative attention getting”. I could never imagine her writing anything that truly apllies to young women and especially young creative women, the way your More Intelligent Life articles do, or the way you talk about Sylvia Plath’s struggle between wanting to be nice and popular, and also wanting to be extremely selfish for her art. I know it’s frustrating to see her being acknowledged in such a public way, but I feel like it’s the result of our culture praising mediocrity and embracing the slave morality of being pathetic. We’ve gone from flawed heroes or even anti-heroes to just lavishing praise on whoever offers the most Christ-like “sacrificial” example of their abject humiliation. Western culture has been heading that way for a long time, and these are the results. It’s so cool to be awkward, graceless and pathetic. It’s the age of Salieri.

    Obviously, “Girls” is getting a lot of negative comments and reviews now. And a lot of the defense goes like this: “y’all are just jealous”. That might be true, but people are jealous of her fame, not her talent. They are jealous precisely because she is mediocre, yet is getting attention. There’s room for “why her and not me” in the Lena Dunham phenomenon. Can you imagine someone saying “why her and not me” when talking about Jhumpa Lahiri or Rita Dove or Mary Oliver or J.K. Rowling? Doubtful, because while we may all harbour secret quiet envy of real talent, we would never dare utter it, lest we be thought delusional. We also accept that talent is some sort of organic miracle, indifferent to nepotism, fads or circumstance. What do you think?

    Anyway, I’m not sure if you should publish this comment (definitely please publish it anonymously for me if you do), but I just wanted to share my thoughts with you.

    Looking forward to hearing and reading more of your voice.


  • jill

    @Unico I think you make an interesting point but I can’t help but disagree here. Not because I don’t think Emily should be more recognized for her talent (i totally do! She should! I’m actually really confident that she will!) but I think it’s unfair to compare her and Lena Dunham.

    Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that Dunham is an untalented fame-seeker whose success is based on mass appeal and the fact that she has a famous parent (for the record I don’t think that’s true! although I’m sure having Laurie Simmons as a mom didn’t hurt) — Okay. Fine. So what?

    What’s even so bad about that? If just a fraction of the existing nepotism in the world was re-allocated for women, I would be totally okay with that. There is a fucking ton of awful television out there, and mostly it is being written and produced by men; one undeservedly successful female writer taking a stab at it wouldn’t trouble me in the least.

    But you also seem to take issue with Dunham’s writing itself, and the fact that there’s a prominent strain of pathetic trendiness in all their awkward/graceless foibles. To that, all I can say is that I don’t think Dunham is the first person to zero in on this, but I think she’s the best at doing it. And while from the first episode of Girls, her characters don’t seem like the most admirable or morally upright people, they still, to me, feel like some of the most realistic depictions of young women that I’ve seen anywhere else on film/tv recently.

    Anyway, to move this along, I totally agree that there’s too much of the “there’s-room-for-her-but-not-me” attitude surrounding Dunham, and it’s petty and begrudging and mean-spirited, but I have also heard those things said of Jhumpa Lahiri and J.K. Rowling. Being genuinely talented doesn’t exempt you from having mean things said about you, but things that can make you especially prone to it are: being in the public eye, being a woman, and (surprise!) using your real life as fodder for your art/writing/whatever.

    I don’t mean this to come off as super we-have-to-stick-together-y, but I think the question of who is more talented, Lena or Emily, invites invidious comparison where it’s not really called for; instead we should be focused on creating more spaces for women, so that a wider scope of talented voices can be heard.

  • Unico

    @ Jill

    I hear what you’re saying about needing to support (or at least, not attack) Lena ‘just because she’s a woman in the public eye, if nothing else’, but I guess when I watch her work I don’t hear “Sisters are Doing it for Themselves” as much as I hear Pulp’s “Common People”.

    Maybe I’m just one of those mean spirited third-wave feminists who thinks class inequalities are a more insidious threat to a free society than gender divisions. I’m not supposed to relate to Lena Dunham just because she has a vagina, and I too, have a vagina, right? That seems just like the kind of bio-sexual essentialist determinism that I wish to be liberated from. I would love to see more strong smart women in politics, for example, but I certainly didn’t have even a modicum of respect or support for Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman, no matter how much they griped about being unfairly attacked for “being women”. I am much more of an Obama girl!
    Hell, I feel like chauvinist Joe “No Impulse Control” Biden is closer to my heart and mind than some insensitive Republican dolt with a vagina.

    Yup, I do think the writing (and the editing) is really amateur and not much different from your regular embarrassing/awkward sex romp ala “Superbad” or “American Pie”. That’s great that she’s fighting the good fight of being allowed to be as gross as the boys are being, but it’s not exactly the last frontier of feminism, politically or culturally.

    I guess we all just naturally identify with aspects of ourselves in different ratios, and then feel an affinity to others based on those ratios. I’m more of “a super-pretentious aesthete with annoyingly high standards who demands intellectual curiosity and the subtle and elegant depiction of real psychological conflict in my dramas and dramedies”, than I am “a young woman” (which I also am).

    Sorry if I came off as slightly irritated, but there’s nothing I hate more than feeling chastised by other women for not being womanly enough. Not that that’s what you were doing! Just what it feels like when I read a defense of “Girls” that tries to suggest that I should be happy it exists because I, too, am a “Girl”.

    Anyway, as a piece of trivia, who do you think is behind this finely cultivated sentiment:

    “I wish there was a way to have read a bunch of feminist theory without having to read any feminist theory.”

    OMG, she says just what we’re all thinking!! I fucking hate reading! Especially books by women and about women!

  • Unico

    “If just a fraction of the existing nepotism in the world was re-allocated for women, I would be totally okay with that.”

    I totally know what you mean. I hated how all slave owners were male. It was so sexist.

  • I dig the Jagged Little Pill album. I’m not a woman, but Alanis’s honesty and standing up for what she believes in is inspiring to me even as a male.

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>