(7) deep blue something, "breakfast at tiffany's"
(2) meredith brooks, "bitch"
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, 3/11.
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.
katie jean shinkle on "breakfast at tiffany's"
My brother’s homeboy has his skinny, crusty, white dick in his hand underneath the urine stained My Little Pony comforter made for a child’s bed, not large enough for two teenagers, too short for even one. We are at my friend’s house and I was trying to sleep in this room by myself until he stumbled in and asked to share this bed with me. I only agreed if he stayed on his own side, which lasted all of five minutes. I’m not sure why he is here to begin with, or why he stayed. The air is dank, mildewy, and dirty. Through the doorframe, the stark florescent lighting of the hallway highlights swirling air from the ceiling fan and reflects a kind of dirt that only old houses with more than two stories can contain, a dirt that no one has touched because no one has been in this room for so long. There are old calendars tacked onto the bloated, wet walls of years gone by: half-naked women in thong bikinis bending over, ass to the camera; a singular red corvette; striped kittens in a basket of spools of multicolored crochet thread; of Stonehenge where my friend’s grandparents went last year. The Stonehenge calendar is the newest addition to the forgotten calendars, but, like the rest, not turned to the correct month.
“Come on,” my brother’s homeboy says, “Suck it.”
I remind him that if my older brother knew what was going on in this room, he would beat his ass. My brother’s homeboy looks at the ceiling in defeat.
“But he ain’t here, ain’t he,” he mumbles to himself, as if I am invisible.
The sun is beginning to rise but only in the way the sun rises in winter in the Midwest: darker grey until it is a brighter grey. We have been up all night long smashing mini-thins and snorting them up our noses. Mini-thins are a dietary supplement made of ephedrine, which is now illegal to sell in such a form because meth can be made from it. In the 1990’s, however, you could buy it freely if you were 18 years old or older at any gas station or party store. We were not 18 years old but could buy them anyway because our friends worked the counters at these gas stations and party stores and sold us the pills and anything else we wanted. We are swimming in legal speed.
It is January of 1996 and Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a popular song, landing at #5 on the Billboard Top 100, the highest ranking the song will ever achieve. It is in competition with “Missing” by Everything But The Girl and “Hey Lover” by LL Cool J. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is played on Adult Contemporary Radio, Top-40, and Alternative Radio, too, so the song is everywhere and we mini-thin loving kids are inundated by it.
My brother’s homeboy starts humming “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” dick still in his hand. “And I said/What about Breakfast at Tiffany’s?…” He is rubbing his dick against the top of the blanket, inching the flaccidness closer to me.
“Are you singing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s?” I laugh.
“Naw, I wouldn’t sing that fag shit,” he says. It is the first time I hear the word “fag” in such a way. I know of this derogatory term but never equated it with a song. It doesn't make any sense to me. I feel offended, even though I have no context yet as to why, except this word coming out of this kid’s mouth in this way makes me want to murder him. All I feel is rage. I ball my hands into fists. I go to punch him, but my balled hands are too jittery from the mini-thins.
“Do you have any cigarettes?” I ask.
“Only if you suck it,” my brother’s homeboy says.
It is completely bright, grey light outside, streaming through the caked, icy windows. I can hear my friend getting up in the other room, I am sure she is wondering where I was this entire time, why I didn’t join her in her room, why I am in this abandoned room alone. Or maybe she knows my brother’s homeboy is in here. Or maybe my brother’s homeboy went to her room first. All of these scenarios fill me with fear. I have no interest in his gross dick. I want to go home. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is reeling in my brain. It is Sunday morning and my mom will be here soon to pick me up and take me to church. My brother will not be pleased to know what has happened here. I tell his homeboy again, “You know my older brother is going to whip your stupid ass for this, right?”
He takes my hand and puts it on him, moves my hand up and down with his hand on top and my hand on bottom. I jerk my hand away but he forces my hand back to him. This is clumsy and awkward. I feel like I am going to throw up. I rip my hand away from him for good and get up from the mattress that is in the middle of the room, on the floor, and broken so it is sinking in the middle.
“Man,” he says “I thought you were different. Shit.” He turns over, his back to me. “You can go on,” he says. “Fuck you,” I say. I steal three cigarettes and a $20 dollar bill from his jeans pocket draped on a half-broken chair and slam the door on the way out.
I go across the hall to my friend’s bedroom, climb into her bed with her. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is stuck in my head: “You say/we got nothing in common/no common ground to start from/and we’re falling apart./You say/the world has come between us/our lives have come between us/still I know you just don’t care.” I light a bent cigarette, smoke it lying on my back, blowing smoke rings up to the peeling floral wallpaper. I can’t wait to tell my brother what just happened. I can’t wait for him to beat his homeboy’s ass to oblivion.
Katie Jean Shinkle is the author of The Arson People (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015) and Our Prayers After the Fire (Blue Square Press, 2014). Other work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Washington Square, Booth, Barrow Street, Flaunt Magazine, and elsewhere. She serves as co-fiction editor of DIAGRAM and creative nonfiction editor of Banango Street.