Jewel Gone Wild
essay by matthew webber
"That sounds like a horrible idea, Jewel. It sounds like a pickle and peanut-butter sandwich."--Jewel (or the voice of reason) discussing early responses to the dance-pop direction of her new album, on VH1.com
Every man who stares at you can see you're wearing nothing under
Although Jewel hasn't always offered her jewels for trade as cheaply as she peddles them in her new "Intuition" video (more on Jewel's wet T-shirt later) or on the cover of this month's Blender, she's always had this unhealthy lyrical food fetish. One of her earliest and biggest hits, "You Were Meant For Me," describes a continental breakfast with morning-after clarity -- "Got my eggs and my pancakes too/Got my maple syrup, everything but you" - only there is no morning after. Some man has left her - with her memories, her metaphors, her pancakes. Not even the act of "break[ing] the yolks and mak[ing] a smiley face" can cheer our heroine, who believes she is as "meant for you" as marmalade is meant for English muffins. It's the saddest high school poem you've ever heard set to music, the key words there being "high school poem."
Jewel's penchant for wearing her metaphors on her sleeve makes her at once one of today's most endearing and excruciating pop stars. I've never met an English major who has liked Jewel's poems, but I've also never met one who hasn't been interested in discussing them. That Jewel is one of America's best-selling poets and pop stars suggests that millions of fans love her -- millions more than love Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, Fiona Apple, Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, Lucinda Williams, Bjork, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and your favorite female underappreciated critical darling.
And there have been times when I have loved her -- enough to want to scratch J.K. + M.W. into a tree, except I never will because I think she loves the environment. She seems as naturally gracious as she is genuinely beautiful. Her snaggletooth (adorable!) snagged me. Her books of poetry, journals, acting appearances (Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil), Christmas albums, and increasingly glossy singles have been her honest attempts to please me as a fan and fellow human being. She has given more of herself than we demand of most musicians, because all we really want is an album every two or so years and the occasional concert in our hometown.
She should not be criticized for simply being nice, for wanting to give us what she thinks we want. But she is criticized. And she will be. The fickleness of fame in millennial America means that a little is never enough and enough is always too much. In other words, Jewel gives way too much. She is too direct. Or, all of her poems are too sappy and crappy.
Or, Jewel has no right to make a dance-pop album if she wants to because she once lived in her van and she plays the acoustic guitar and one convention of her genre is a straightjacket with "singer/songwriter, no dancing" written across the arms.
We fans have expectations. While we want our favorite artists to never change, we need them to evolve. A musician such as Jewel should reinvent herself often -- as long as her song remains the same exactly.
It's a phenomenon familiar to anyone who's ever been in love.
Did you ever have a celebrity crush? Did you ever refer to a pop star as your boyfriend or girlfriend?
Or, have you ever been in love with somebody who didn't love you back, somebody who could never love you back because he/she wasn't a real person to you but was instead placed on some pedestal of unattainable, inhuman perfection?
Of course you did. Maybe you still do. (Maybe you grew out of it. Maybe your boxes of New Kids or Paula Abdul paraphernalia are gathering dust in a thrift store or your attic.) We love these pop stars (and a cute, platonic female friend whose uncovered right knee touches yours at 3:33 a.m. as you're sitting on her couch and she tells you how much you seem to understand her) so much that we cease being fair. Every little thing they do is magic -- and magically, deliciously infuriating. We love an ideal. We hate the idea of our idol ever falling. Our loves can mutate however which way they want, as long as they transform into someone who won't break our hearts.
What I'm trying to say is, if it makes Jewel happy it can't be that bad -- unless she somehow makes us unhappy in the process. Then it's bad. It's horrible. And utterly unfair of us to think so.
See, Jewel likes to dance. Contrary to what we expect from serious musicians, she likes to have fun. In all of her interviews to promote 0304, she says she wanted to make a danceable and fun album that would blend her customary confessional lyrics and coffeehouse melodies with career-endangering dance grooves. What this one woman wanted was to make and enjoy a pickle and peanut-butter sandwich. She hoped her fans would enjoy it, too.
Enter "Intuition," Jewel's current hit.
This song has really grown on me, from its funky accordion to its sliding, hooky chorus. At once it sounds identical and unidentifiable to anything Jewel has ever done, which I suppose was the point. The melody is memorable; the beats somehow believable. Her decision to "follow [her] heart, [her] intuition" seems to have "lead [her] in the right direction" -- straight to the center of the dance floor. It's a surprisingly funky jam from someone who rides horses and is dating a rodeo champion. It's a sandwich I don't mind hearing everyday, which is good since the radio serves the same top four hits every hour.
But the key words in the above paragraph are "this song has really grown on me." The very first time I heard it, when I had no idea who or what it was, I thought it sucked. This must have been, what, three months ago? before I had heard the new Kelly Clarkson song, "Miss Independent." Before I ever heard "Miss Independent" (I would need another essay to discuss the titular irony), I had read about it, so I knew it was a rejected Christina Aguilera song, written for, but not used on, Stripped. Since "Intuition" had sounded more like a clean "Dirrty" than like a dirtier Jewel, I almost crashed my car when the DJ announced who it was. Jewel?! My Jewel?! But it sounded like tarty pop! You mean that wasn't Kelly Clarkson?
And then I saw the video, in which squeaky clean Jewel sells herself -- as a product if not a prostitute. As she drinks a "Jewel"-brand soda pop, the wind blows open and billows her top. As she dances in the street with firefighters, one of them sprays her white T-shirt with his phallic fire hose so it clings to her black-bra-covered breasts even tighter.
Jewel is following Christina after all, or at least a trend in videos for the female pop star to get so hot and bothered that I can't be bothered to listen to the song. She gets so hot she has to be cool, so the firemen get her wet, like Christina's cold shower at the end of "Dirrty" or the dancers licking Britney's face in "I'm a Slave 4 U."
But the video of "Intuition" is a parody -- of the commodification of pop music and also of women's bodies. Jewel explains this in her interviews, but she didn't need to. Subtlety, after all, has never been her forte. The video is way more self-reflexive than Britney looking into a mirror. In the video, Jewel is a soda, as well as a brand of blue jeans. The point of view switches from a camcorder- or even documentary-style of photography to a Madison Avenue orgy of slow motion and backlighting. I got it immediately: sex sells records and records sell sex.
Since there's only so much an MTV viewer can think about with our short attention spans and all, and since the video is only a few minutes long, it had better be fun to watch, and it is. (Of course it is! Jewel's so hot she's smokin'!) Is it really so terrible that Jewel is finally using her looks to sell records? If she can't beat Britney and Christina, why can't she join them? Jewel's musical "Intuition" -- and her voice, her writing, her down-home friendliness -- has always made her "Stronger" and more "Beautiful" to me than these Misses Dependent. She has earned the right to do whatever she wants, which isn't really a right that anybody should have to earn.
But this is why I always expected more from her -- more class, more covered skin, more me, me, me. I don't think I really love Jewel, and really, I don't always like her music. But I like her enough to demand too much. I love her enough not to be able to answer my own questions. She never had to use her looks to sell records before. Her intuition didn't allow her to. As she parodies the pop tarts, her imitation reeks of flattery. She looks much dirrtier than she ever did before.
And I can't say I completely approve.
Is "Intuition" a parody or porn? Do I even like it? I can't say. It's kind of like liking pickles and peanut butter. It's harder to admit than to do.
It's hard to accept a tarnished Jewel.
Most of all, unfairly or not, it's hard to forgive a girl you love for changing.
E-mail me your questions, comments, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.