(2) meredith brooks, "bitch" defeats (15) Snow, "informer" 126-61
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchfadness twitter poll. The polls closed at 9am on Saturday, 3/4.
bethany barnes on "bitch"
I have always loved stories. Like many girls, mine was a childhood filled with fairytales and fables. The setting? The mid-90s. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” teachers asked. An ice skater, a ballet dancer, an artist, a pop star, I would reply.
What I meant, of course, is what most little girls who spend all day thinking about castles, dragons and magic mean.
I wanted to be a heroine.
The obsession girls have with princesses boils down not to glamour or beauty—but agency. Wanting to be a princess is about wanting a place in the story. Girls like princesses because they know that’s the best part. The trouble is the role often demands a damsel, not a protagonist. To have a place in the adventure you must stand in someone else’s story. It’s hard to be a heroine, to find power in a world where the price for a place in the story is passivity.
Reader, I am here to tell you Meredith Brooks is the true heroine of 90s one-hit wonders.
One-hit wonders are about collective desire. They burn bright because they express a latent longing in the current culture. This is as good an explanation as any for why they’re so often embarrassing upon reflection. How we desire to be seen often doesn’t match up with our own desires. Anyone who has ever looked down to find their hands covered in orange Cheetos dust knows this. One-hit wonders can be borne of frustrations, greed, rage. Pure in their wanting, they can be imperfect in their execution.
In 1997, what we wanted was a song called “Bitch.” We wanted a heroine.
This is, after all, the year that gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a female protagonist who paved the way for countless other strong female leads. Or to put it another way, a character who gave credence to stories about complex, powerful women. This happened through a subversion of the role women have typically played in horror films. The tiny blonde with the ditzy name we were used to seeing picked off by ghouls became our heroine.
Buffy was a rejection of the role, a rewriting of the story, a reclaiming of the very characteristics used against women.
The mid-1990s were a time for women to redefine, reclaim, and rethink. Third-wave feminism was happening! Women could vote, have jobs, leave the house alone. By the mid-1990s women have gained new ground and have time to consider where they’re standing and where they want to go next.
For our purposes, let’s go with Lindy West’s definition of third-wave feminism. She boils it down to this, “Third-wave feminism is the idea that women can and should define their own womanhood. Because there are one million different kinds of women, the third wave is big.”
That definition is a good description of the one-hit wonder at hand. The simple message of “Bitch” is that women have depth and are not flat, supporting characters.
Many women, myself included, found “Bitch” to be an empowering feminist anthem. For the uninitiated, the plot of “Bitch” is a woman explaining to her boyfriend that she is complex and often a contradiction. More bluntly, she is explaining that she’s human.
She does this through a list, which serves as the chorus:
I'm a bitch, I'm a lover
I'm a child, I'm a mother
I'm a sinner, I'm a saint
I do not feel ashamed
I'm your hell, I'm your dream
I'm nothing in between
You know you wouldn't want it any other way
The juxtapositions assert a simple, but appealing point: Women can be lots of things! In fact, women can be whatever they want!
The music itself is also a juxtaposition. It’s set to a poppy, sweet-sounding tune that belies its vulgarity.
Kicking off the list with “bitch” is key to what makes the song empowering. She’s reclaiming the slur that’s so often used to write off independent, and thus threatening, women. She’s rejecting society’s definitions in favor of forgoing definitions altogether. Brooks doesn’t want to play the part well. She wants to write the script. That’s important. Calling a woman a bitch is a means of stealing her story.
The song is light on substance. That’s why it works. I’ve always read the song as sarcastic. Formally, it’s an apology, but of the “sorry not sorry” variety.
It’s not unlike “Women in a Meeting,” a phrase that’s taken hold in recent years to describe how women speak indirectly in meetings to avoid being seen as, well, a bitch.
“You will think that you have stated the case simply and effectively, and everyone else will wonder why you were so Terrifyingly Angry,” Alexandra Petri writes when explaining the impetus for “Women in a Meeting” type phrasing. “Instead, you have to translate. You start with your thought, then you figure out how to say it as though you were offering a groveling apology for an unspecified error.”
With that in mind, let’s go through the verses of “Bitch”:
I hate the world today
You're so good to me
I know but I can't change
Tried to tell you
But you look at me like maybe
I'm an angel underneath
Innocent and sweet
Yesterday I cried
Must have been relieved to see
The softer side
I can understand how you'd be so confused
I don't envy you
I'm a little bit of everything
All rolled into one
See? An overly-deferential apology. The opening line is an “I-statement,” a classic of conflict resolution.
So take me as I am
This may mean
You'll have to be a stronger man
Rest assured that
When I start to make you nervous
And I'm going to extremes
Tomorrow I will change
And today won't mean a thing
The line “This may mean you'll have to be a stronger man” is solid evidence she’s being sarcastic. This is also where the apology is revealed as a ruse.
Just when you think, you got me figured out
The season's already changing
I think it's cool, you do what you do
And don't try to save me
Although “Bitch” doesn’t ever address the princess problem, “don’t try to save me” is direct challenge of the demand that women be damsels, not heroines. What I like about this line is Brooks acknowledges that she will be in distress—but asserts that she will rescue herself.
The premise of the song does raise red flags. She’s defining herself—but she’s doing it for a man. Amanda Hess noted this in her reassessment of the song. She concludes that, as empowering as she once found it, there isn’t a lot to the song upon reflection.
Still, that the song is sung to someone who ostensibly cares about her and who she cares about underscores the problem she’s up against. It isn’t always the catcallers, the sexist coworkers, the sleazy bartenders who treat women as lesser. That’s what's insidious about ingrained sexism. Sometimes women are slighted or undervalued by people they trust and care about.
Consider that it is A Thing that independent women can, because of their independence, be seen as threatening and undateable. There are scores of articles about this. Many are insulting.
Exhibit A: “Society is creating a new crop of alpha women who are unable to love”
I’m not interested in whether or not it’s true educated, independent women have a hard time dating because they are educated, independent women.
I am interested in our obsession with this being the story about educated, independent women.
Consider the “Oscars Curse” that plagues married women who win Best Actress. It is true, many actresses’ marriages have crumbled after attaining their profession’s highest achievement. But the message here—and our obsession with it—is that playing the protagonist comes with a curse.
In 2011, researchers crunched the numbers on the Oscars Curse and found Best Actresses do divorce more than Best Actors. But, they noted, it’s possible we’re telling the wrong story.
On the one hand, the increased risk of divorce [that] women experience may be ascribed to a husband's discomfort with his wife's fame and success,” the researchers wrote, according to The Washington Post. “On the other hand, after a status increase, the wife may grow dissatisfied with her current marital arrangement either because she has outgrown the relationship or because she now has the confidence and opportunity to move away from a bad marriage.
All this to say, I think it’s OK Brooks’ assertion of her identity takes the form of an explanation to a boyfriend. It seems as good a venue as any for redress. She isn’t just reclaiming the phrase “bitch,” she’s challenging the notion that independence is a liability. When you get down to it, she isn’t explaining herself at all. In fact, she’s emphatically refusing to explain herself.
“Bitch” hit the airwaves during a year when the public was obsessed with an actual princess, a girl who not only married a prince—but who rebelled by divorcing him. Princess Diana didn’t just divorce Prince Charles. She detailed his infidelities, and admitted to her own, on television. She does all this while also talking candidly about her struggle with bulimia. This is subversive stuff for a royal.
“Nobody can dictate my behavior,'' Princess Diana said in what would be her final interview. She had for years been trying to take back her own story. Driving along the countryside one day in 1984, she was literally confronted with the fact that she wasn’t the author of her own life. Someone had written a book about her and she found out by seeing it on a billboard, according to the New York Times.
By 1991, “the people’s princess” declared she’d had enough.
“From now on, I am going to own myself and be true to myself,” she said. “I no longer want to live someone else's idea of what and who I should be. I am going to be me."
This doesn’t work. The public only grew more obsessed with Diana, a hunger that culminated in her death at 36 during a paparazzi car chase.
Diana is not a feminist icon, but she was a fascination. Our entire interest in her comes from her relationship to a man.
A depressing summation from supposed friend in a 1997 New York Times article:
The world probably would have heard little of Diana Spencer had she not married the Prince of Wales. "She would either have been a countrywoman, just like her sisters, and dissolved into the atmosphere," said a male friend who knew her from her teenage years, "or she would have married an achiever who offered more of a challenge but would have gone off and had an affair, and she would have divorced the husband in short order."
In other words: Diana would never have had a place in the story without her marriage. Diana was barred from being a heroine.
In 1997, 2.5 billion people watched Princess Diana’s funeral. One of them was me.
After 20 years, what remains remarkable and memorable about Diana is the magnitude of our obsession with her. We were spellbound by a princess challenging the limitations of her role and who struggled to control and craft her own story.
This is the cultural moment in which Brooks’ anthem took hold.
The reason Brooks became a one-hit wonder speaks to why her song was so needed. In writing a song about controlling one’s own identity, Brooks erased her own. People loved the song, but didn't know she wrote it. Everyone assumed “Bitch” was another catchy Alanis Morissette song.
There is a 1997 Los Angeles Times article on this that's so well done it's heartbreaking.
The headline is “Isn’t Ironic?” after Morissette’s hit song. The piece opens using the lyrics of “Ironic” to spotlight the comparison that would go on to haunt Brooks:
Displaying the same raw energy that infused Morissette's breakthrough single, "You Oughta Know," Brooks defiantly celebrates her multifaceted personality in the catchy chorus:
I'm a bitch
I'm a lover
I'm a child
I'm a mother
I'm a sinner
I'm a saint
Just don't call her a clone.
Amazingly, a higher-up at Brook’s record label cops to concerns about the comparison by noting, “I felt a degree of anxiety because I thought she would get compared to Alanis—or rather this song would—because there are some aspects that are similar. First, she's a woman, and second, it has a lyric that compels you to pay attention."
Seriously? The music industry of 1997 could only handle one female artist who had something compelling to say? No wonder a song rejecting labeling women resonated.
Brooks goes on to endure years of interviews that require her to pretend to find humor in how people can't distinguish her from Alanis. I say pretend because I can't buy that she was actually amused. This amusement reeks of the sort of stance you have to take if you want to avoid being seen as...bitchy.
It’s the sort of bind that makes you want to mutter “I hate the world today.”
Some sociologists took a moment to knock the notion that Brooks’ hit song could be empowering in a paper titled “Reclaiming Critical Analysis: The Social Harms of “Bitch.” The paper argues women can’t reclaim the word bitch. Thinking they can is a form of “false power.” The idea is that the term is always demeaning and using it won’t convince men to treat women differently.
“Women who feel good about calling themselves “bitches” are not protecting themselves from men’s harm,” the sociologists wrote.
That sentence states—but misses—a crucial point: Women feeling good.
What’s magical about Brooks’ song is that it isn’t about mounting a convincing argument. “Bitch” is pure empowerment. It’s a sarcastic rejection of having to make an argument for one’s equality in the first place. In the end, the song is not an apology or an explanation. It’s a declaration.
The salient line of the song isn't “I'm a Bitch.”
It’s the provocation that underscores Brooks’ list: “I do not feel ashamed.”
Brooks did not become a pop-princess, but her life does have a magical quality to it. She now raises and rehabilitates wolves.
The year after Brooks’ one-hit wonder did give us a princess. In 1998, Britney Spears made her mark with “…Baby One More Time” For Spears, becoming a pop princess came at the price of her own independence. Legally, Spears no longer controls her life. After a mental breakdown a judge found Spears unfit to care for herself.
“Her most mundane purchases, from a drink at Starbucks to a song on iTunes, are tracked in court documents as part of the plan to safeguard the great fortune she has earned but does not ultimately control,” the New York Times explains.
This is a woman who has a hit show at Planet Hollywood on the Las Vegas Strip. More than 700,000 people have seen this show. This month it was reported that ticket sales topped $100 million.
On a recent night in Vegas, Spears went off script. She bucked the set list for a moment to give a surprise spoken word cover of a 90s one-hit wonder.
It was Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch.”
Bethany Barnes is a journalist at The Oregonian in Portland, Oregon. She has never written about music professionally, but in the course of her reporting she has rankled Coolio and been hugged by Flavor Flav.
denry winter willson on "informer"
“Your voice type is determined by the weight and color of your voice, and how fast it can move.” —Eula Biss from “The Voice Box: Our Opera of High and Low”
“Informer. Again with Informer.” —Snow on MTV Cribs
I remember “Informer” very well but don’t really remember my experience of it during its time as a hit. I was nine during the song’s marathon radio play. Outside of my parents’ copy of 1987’s A Very Special Christmas with Run DMC’s “Christmas In Hollis” on it, I didn’t have a lot of rap music in my life at the age of nine. I imagine I liked “Informer” because rap music would go on to become a very special part of my life and “Informer” sounded close enough. I can also imagine myself as being shy about the song, however, due to feeling like I was supposed to be able to easily tell what Snow was saying, that probably everyone else knew what Snow was saying, but that I alone did not know what Snow was saying.
From the beginning of my time revisiting “Informer,” I felt disinclined to look up the lyrics. I also thought that if I spent some time with the song that the lyrics would reveal themselves to me. Some key words from “Informer” that I was able to pick out in the early goings of the revisit were: ‘informer,’ ‘tornado,’ and ‘Jamaica.’ “Informer"-filled days passed. I began to ask around. I learned that if you asked people about the song, they would almost inevitably say “gibberish,” and then something that sounds like “lick your boom-boom down.” In the following days, I became aware that “lick your boom-boom down” had become a resilient ghost in the life of Snow.
There was some backlash with “Informer.” The backlash is probably best summed up by the music video parody “Imposter” from In Living Color. The gist of “Imposter” is that Snow is an imposter, someone who makes “watered down” reggae for profit, someone who, at the end of the video, will get tracked down and beat up by men who look like American Stereotypes of Jamaican people. The backlash resembled some of what Vanilla Ice went through a few years earlier but with reggae instead of hip-hop (“Informer” was more pop than reggae but reggae’s influence on Snow is undeniable. Some of Snow’s music I think is technically called dancehall. Part of what made “Informer” a hit was that it was hard to classify).
It was easy to associate Snow with Vanilla Ice: they both came out of the early 90s and both looked like somebody else’s troubled older brother, somebody else’s so that there was an aura of the unknown shrouding them and their troubled ways. Beyond their looks, the similarities between Ice and Snow dip considerably.
A QUICK REFRESHER ON MTV CRIBS
In case you missed it, MTV aired a show called Cribs which is like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous for the aughts. It’s an entertaining-the-fantasy show where celebrities walk you around their houses and show you what they’ve got. Then you get to decide if you think what they’ve got is tasteful enough to maybe someday be included as part of your big someday house. Cribs caught controversy, however, over the idea that some of what it portrayed wasn’t real. People showing houses that weren’t their houses, cars that were not their cars.
Cribs is probably best remembered for the Redman episode. The whole thing with the Redman episode is that Redman’s house was in straight-up disarray during the shoot. Its popularity is due to the fact that most people cleaned their houses to death before letting the cameras roll, meanwhile Redman’s house featured rolling hills of clothes, X-rated VHS tapes, his cousin Sugar Bear, and a shoebox full of crumpled cash.
Cribs has many pleasures. Please consider the following examples:
It could be cool: Big Boi has a shark and a surveillance system. Big Boi admits to having never eaten a single meal in his dining room. Not ever in his entire life. One of his rooms is painted in a color that Big Boi describes as “Player Orange.”
It could be boring: Manny Pacquiao states that there are two beds in his kids’ room because he has two kids.
It could be sad: Ludacris says that the TV in the steering wheel of his Cadillac is “the dopest thing you could ever imagine.” The number of TVs proudly displayed on the show in general is just ridiculous, even if oddly apt.
It could be Snow’s: Snow’s house is covered with snow. Snow wears a white Nike jump suit and the first thing he does is show off three all-white, all-bullet-proof cars. The idea that all of Snow’s cars are bullet-proof leads me to believe that Snow believes that people want to shoot guns at him. There is someone in Snow’s studio playing a piano. I don’t believe that there is any way that what the guy is playing is as bad as it sounds on the recording. The recording I found looked and sounded as if it were a recording of another recording so there is just no way it’s that bad. There must have been some negative echo. Snow has a “Grammy” that he got in Japan. He has a framed white hockey jersey that he wore while accepting a Juno award. It says ‘SNOW’ on it, the jersey does. It is while showing the jersey that Snow first sings a bit of the chorus from “Informer.” Snow explains that “Informer” came about while he was in jail with his brother and his uncles over a stabbing that took place at a hotel. He sings the bit from “Informer” again. He has a leather couch and a fireplace. He has a—wait for it—a TV. He has a 1999 Guinness Book of Records which lists “Informer” as the top selling reggae single of all time. The Guinness serves as a launch pad for a toy helicopter which Snow claims to only launch off the Guinness. I can say that I imagine playing with a toy helicopter could be fun but that watching someone else play with a toy helicopter is not. His fridge is full of Arizona brand Grapeade and Snow claims that the drink is “ghetto,” and, “the only drink you need.” In one of the episode’s warmer moments, Snow shows a picture of his daughter and then a painting that he painted for her. The painting is of characters from The Wizard of Oz. Snow shows us his custom suit tailored by Canadian custom-suit legend Lou Myles. Snow shows us the funky shirt he wore for the “Informer” music video. It’s at this point that Snow breaks out with the chorus to Informer for the third time, this time abruptly shutting it down right after singing the word ‘informer’ by saying “again with Informer.” The thing I can’t quite figure out is whether Snow regularly bursts into “Informer” or whether the camera crew asked him to do it multiple times. I can’t tell if “again with Informer” is a self admonishment or an I-can’t-believe-you-keep-asking-me-to-sing-“Informer” comment meant for the production crew of Cribs. The episode cuts to the part of the music video for “Informer” in which Snow is wearing his funky shirt and singing the line that sounds like “lick your boom-boom down.” Snow has a magical staff that keeps the bears away. Snow shows us his lake which he dubs “Deep Informer” and warns us that people who talk too much end up in “Informer Lake.” Threats of violence are not uncommon on Cribs. Cribs is a show where rich people let camera crews come record footage of the insides of their houses. Snow threatens violence too, but because someone might be informing and not because people might use the footage to, like, rob him. Armed robbery seems to be the more common concern of the rappers especially. At the end of the episode two previously unseen but menacing looking men appear to push the cameras away, away from the crib that “Informer” built.
I know that simply listing stuff that happens on Cribs makes Cribs sound stupid but Cribs is stupid. Some of my favorite artists did it anyways. Snow claims to have sold the house he showed on Cribs because it was too cold.
But so it turns out that what Snow said about being in jail while he was coming up with “Informer” is exactly what he is trying to inform us about in his lyrics to “Informer” (I broke down and looked them up), and that that was why he was in a stagey jail cell during parts of the music video (why is he in jail, I kept asking myself). As in, this is what Snow was trying to inform us about the entire time. To inform us that he had a rough and tumble youth, and that a man had recently informed on him and implicated him in a stabbing and that the—presumably false—informing on the behalf of the informer landed him, Snow, in jail.
When I first came back to “Informer” the fact that the person who is Snow had continued to exist after “Informer” quit being a hit dawned on me rather slowly. Snow was poised in my mind as a ball of yarn for me to have my feline ways with. But my desire to hate Snow faded. He quit drinking in 1997. His wife died from cancer in 2009. Worse things than early success have happened to the man. On one of the radio shows I watched, Snow shares with the hosts that he had been with his wife since he was fifteen. After this one of the hosts nods and says “she stook with you.”
In another one of the interviews I watched, one of the hosts makes a joke. She says that if you are a tourist visiting Jamaica, you probably have some idea that there are parts or neighborhoods of Jamaica that you as a tourist should steer clear of. The joke is that if you see Snow walking around, you can assume that you have wandered into one of those areas and that you should collect your belongings and head back to your hotel.
Snow claims to have gotten into reggae by listening to it and trying to figure out what the artists were saying. If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Snow’s 1995 album Murder Love never hit in the United States but did hit in both Jamaica and Japan. Over the course of this project I’ve listened to more Snow than I realized even existed and I can honestly say that the experience leads me to believe that Snow truly loves reggae and that reggae does in fact dwell in Snow’s soul.
I don’t know why my first impulse was to clown and hate on the song or what this says about me. At worst it seems to say that I am a perpetrator of small-time hate and that, by definition, this makes me a small-time hater, although I won’t deny the fact that small-time hate can be delicious fun though.
Does “Informer” get more fun if you know the lyrics and can sing along with it? Yes, but you will probably have to practice. Try it out some day in front of your friends. It takes brass.
Denry Willson is a student at the University of Arizona. Go Cats.