When All Else Fails, There’s Sisterhood

Kimberly throws Jane a curveball harkening back to her 20’s with favorite singers Liz Phair and Alanis Morissette who literally didn’t exist when Jane was in her 20’s but exist now as if they’d all read the same book about being women in 2020.  

KC: I recently stumbled upon an interview in the Los Angeles Times that singer Liz Phair conducted with her peer-singer Alanis Morissette over Zoom, where the headline touted them talking about “songwriting during an apocalypse and rock-star self-care.” I hadn’t heard either of these names since the late ‘90s when I was a big fan of both. As I read the interview, not only was I sent back via nostalgia toward a time in my life when both singers were on regular rotation in my CD queue, but I also caught a whiff of the sisterhood they’d provided me back then and realized they were right here now providing me just what I needed in the midst of a global pandemic. It made me think about how much music is not just a great comfort but provides me with artistic insight. I was inhaling the interview as one might do soul food. Do you find yourself turning to any specific movies, films, or other pieces of creative output to get you through your days these days?

JAS: I don’t really know these two singers but I share the feeling of support from music that’s been in my life since the time I was twenty something.  I might’ve been saying some of the same things you’re saying when we recently ‘rediscovered’ Patty Smith.  When I read that she sang at the Pulitzer Prize award ceremony for Bob Dylan, I was swept back to the support I felt from Bob’s lyrics at a time when no one needed to explain to me that things ‘were blowin’ in the wind’. The significance of feeling the culture reflect you back at yourself when things are so wobbly cannot be underestimated. I do have a poet I turn to. Diane Wakoski never lets me down, same for Mary Oliver and to take me elsewhere, I never miss a new Louise Erdrich book.  As for movies, too many to list but the immersive quality associated with watching a movie with a mythic dimension is, as it has been for a very long time, essential to my well being.  When I read the LATimes interview you’re talking about I loved how much Alanis and Liz loved talking to one another.  More women are talking to one another these days on big and little screens but female friendship, in my opinion, has still not gotten enough attention in our storytelling mediums for its significance and relevance to the culture.      

KC: An excerpt from the article goes right to your point. “Alanis Morissette wants to change your mind. She’ll do it too. Spend an hour talking to her and you’ll realize that you like yourself more than you did before your interaction. She makes gifts of her observations. She never lets you over-share alone. Your life path might diverge from hers, but you’ll come away from a conversation with her feeling strengthened and understood. She listens; maybe that’s the rare thing.”

JAS: “She (Alanis) listens, maybe that’s the rare thing.”  Really, Liz finds this a rare thing with another woman her age?  Surprised me. The thing I could always count on with my women friends was that they would listen to me.  She’s not talking about having low expectations because Alanis is a big star.  She’s just sayin.’ And I agree with her; when a woman listens, a feeling of recognition and validation happens that leaves you feeling sound to the core.

KC: I agree that listening is a rather common trait between my good women friends. But I have to take this one step further and say, the reason I really loved Alanis back in the ‘90s was the same as what Liz is saying.  I felt that they actually were, in their music, listening – listening to the experiences they’d heard from young women and presenting them in songs that weren’t about being a pretty rock star or an amazing artist. They were highlighting the idiosyncrasies of being female in a way that shone light on not just the idealized parts, but the ugly ones too. Back in the day, I actually liked Liz better than Alanis. But I really like them both — their music and as women. Liz Phair’s album WHIP SMART blew my mind open when I heard it … this wee little lady in her prim skirts and polo shirts and drab blonde hair was singing all this poetry in monotone and using words like FUCK that I never expected to come out of a girl who looked like she was about to attend a tea party. They both were popular when I was 21, a single mom and struggling big time to survive and pay bills. Their honesty and angst helped me feel ‘whip smart’, see what it actually took to be doing what I was doing. They were ordinary women, not glamorous, not wearing lots of fancy clothes and jewelry, they were just singing what I knew to be raw truths. I listened to Alanis’ Jagged Little Pill non-stop. I felt like I had sisters. They sang about ordinary, ugly, insecure things that I’d been told not to express. Liz reminded me a lot of Erica Jong. Alanis’ anger turned me on. They didn’t aim for perfection and they didn’t look perfect. The feeling of sisterhood with them soothed me when nothing else did. It was so nice to see them reunite in conversation all these years later and, especially, to learn Alanis’ inspired a Broadway play. I will never forget my favorite Liz Phair line: “I’m gonna lock my son up in a tower till I write my whole life story on the back of his big brown eyes.”

JAS: That IS a great line. Oh, my, Alanis has been around since the 1990’s. I’m really embarrassed I don’t know her music.  Of course I wasn’t really into pop rock. I think of Taylor Swift as “being a spokesmodel for a generation of young women hoping to claim their power when they’re barely out of their teens.”  Sisterhood indeed. Sounds like they’ve all taken pretty and turned it on its head!

KC: I too LOVE the sisterhood that Taylor Swift actively promotes but I have to say her sugary pop songs and love stories are way too naïve and innocent for the reality of my life. She is like the popular and pretty mainstream vanilla girl, the role model class president. And I am glad that exists for mainstream vanilla girls. We all need our connection to sisterhood.

JAS: Funny, you make me think of Reese Witherspoon in Election. Reese is an actress and filmmaker who put the spice back in pretty. Her work with other actresses and female directors has set a new pace in Hollywood.  I had Katharine Hepburn breaking through ceilings and barriers of consciousness for me.  She never met a barrier she didn’t want to leap over.  Clearly Liz and Alanis were part of a cultural wave I barely noticed, a girl power movement of the 90’s for 20-somethings when I was a 50-something.  Even my daughter was 30. Was this the era of Hole?  Weren’t critics decoding the misogynistic sexual references in the songs of male singers? 

KC: You nailed it! It was the era of Hole. Girls in lingerie and baby doll dresses singing raw and real. Co-opting sexual fetishes as a vehicle to make you pay attention and when you did, you were forced to listen to their truths. I was also a fan of Hole. Especially Courteney Love’s “Doll Parts.” This was also the era where porn stars were turning into celebrities, showing up at motocross rallies and other events that would normally tout actresses. It was a weird time. When I turned on these two ladies, I was fed an elixir of commonality that was akin to a cup of tea at the end of a stressful day.

JAS: I’d like to hear one of what Liz describes as her  “soulful and stunning” songs.  There’s a lot I don’t know about either one of these women.  They’re both in their 50’s now I think, maybe Alanis a little younger than Liz, 45ish but sort of the age I was then. I wonder what it would be like to ask them to look back on themselves from the vantage point of 50?  Professionally, they were coming of age in 1990’s when songs about women’s anger and anxiety definitely had more than you for an audience. Thelma and Louise came out in 1991. 

KC: Yes, it was a really interesting time of women being restless and expressing rage, getting on stage and bashing things around like the men always had, throwing the guitars, getting sweaty and primal, releasing emotions in a very physical and guttural way. The music scene during this time was one of the few places where women were actively engaging in the grunge aesthetic, joining in on the chorus of life being riddled with angst. So, as we are all sitting here now, joining together in a new kind of communal angst, dealing with a pandemic and social distancing and an unknown future, I’ve felt soulful  reliving memories with these two singers, to be reminded of how differently I felt twenty years ago alongside them. This article also being reminded me that we’ve evolved together as women from the craziness of youth and emotion that accompany growing up, to the wiser and more “with it” women we are today. They really do feel like sisters.

JAS: I get their sisterhood alliance, both being breakthrough women entertainers at a time when there were so few.  And their issues in the music business were widespread – women were underestimated, dismissed, harassed, maligned. I guess they’re reminders of women winning against odds in any other genre so I’m not sure how I missed them.  Reminds me of how small our large world really is.  It’s like going back to your childhood home and being surprised at how small the rooms are!

KC: I’m not even sure their old songs hold up today, not sure I’d be as captivated as I was, maybe not even as interested.  My days, my life is so different now and even though these stay at home days foster a lot of reflection …I’m so different. I find as I am weeding, editing, and cleaning through things in a perpetual sea of project, I remember my best artistic years spurred by me working out the angst-ridden emotions and life experiences. Finding these two women again, these old “friends” was fun, and as I read through their interview it strikes me how normal they seem today, how wise, how tempered, how mellow. Though they have reason to return to their early songs, I’m looking for what they’re going to be doing next. I found myself resonating more with what Alanis was discussing around raising children! Maybe that’s the deal, maybe we grew up together. For sure, I was drawn to reminisce and remember their comfort midst times of great turmoil

JAS: And I’ve been Double-Mirror thinking as we talk, seeing how we reflect for one another how today brings a fresh eye to our yesterdays and a vigilant eye to today.    

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