And She Moved Through the Fair


The song this column will cover knows only three or four first lines. Makes you high. Makes you sick. Sounds like 500,000 cash registers going ka-ching. Melts in your ears, not in your hands. You don't tell your friends you know it. Makes you feel like a natural woman. Makes you sing along when you should know better. Leaves you empty. "When I lick between your thighs, s-s-s-sugar high!" Lasts forever for three minutes. Leaves no aftertaste. These you loved most of all.

This month we drive around to the Lilith Sound as it red shifts from peer group to pure product, tearing up the Adult Alternative playlists and swooning into the summer festival season.

"Adia," Sarah McLachlan's new single, is not a very good song. But it's almost called "Aria" and spells Aida backward, as if to remind us that Sarah's an opera diva in reverse: a vocal exercise made flesh, but staged for the peasants, or at least the peasant skirts. She's Jessye Normal. But the triumph of "Adia" lies exactly in its thin obviousness, the way it invites copycats onto the playlists and lets them sound better than the original kitties. Sarah will need more than another hit single when the summer grows long and Lilith's second stages yawn.

According to my car radio, the best Sarah McLachlan song of the year is "Surrounded." It's by Chantal Kreviazuk, who's even posed like Sarah on her album cover--a neck model with indirect gaze. "I was there when they dropped the bomb, I remember the bomb, and I still hear the bomb," she says, warming like the good mentee she is into an octave slide precisely à la McLachlan, even as she drops the social science.

This being Fair play, there must follow a beautiful, neurasthenically romantic (and completely unrelated) chorus: "Now it's all around me, all around me, you surround me like a circle." Hey, it's not supposed to make sense. This is not your mother's feminism, and you don't need Ms. magazine to know the personal is the political. They share the same melody, and isn't that enough?

Supporting one's imitators (and having them support you) isn't exactly revolutionary, but apparently it's community girl style now. Meanwhile, McLachlan's trick of conjuring copy after copy also forces us to think of her as an original. Future ethnomusicologists will tag McLachlan lead auteur of the Lilith Lilt, flanked on one side by Jewel and on the other by Sheryl Crow (to her credit, Fiona's funk turns out to be much harder to fake, even as she grows into the Fair's 80-pound gorilla).

Patty Griffin probably dreams of drinking whiskey with Bonnie Raitt, but on her debut single, "One Big Love," she's Crow's tequila mockingbird. This is a little confusing, since one of the cool things about Sheryl is how she can't even imitate herself; she can't read her own handwriting. But Patty Griffin can, and stands in the bank forging Sheryl's signature. Every flourish is there, from martial rhythm pattern to the hoarsely wise-before-her-time winsomeness of the vocal. She can't cry anymore, and when she borrows on Crow's account, nothing moves but the money.

Jewel's vanilla daughter-of-a-preacher-man vibe is effortlessly scooped by Rebekah, who timed her pro-sex/pro-guilt strummer, "Sin So Well," just right: Made from 100 percent recycled materials, it sounds like microlite timeless pop. Timeless is the lie pop music keeps telling us. That is, songs seem to have no historical markers because they're perfectly time-bound; timeless is so similar to the surrounding atmosphere that hearing it is like having no experience at all. Or maybe like sitting in a warm bathtub drinking a glass of water. "Pop" is sort of another name for "room temperature."

That's also why Natalie Imbruglia can lie naked on the floor without catching a cold--she's the exact temperature of 1998. "Torn" has already been a single four times for three bands in five years, all without selling a single copy. The song remains the same; it's the times that changed. But Natalie's sound also transcends the calendar. For any given year there's only one certain song you can get over with, if you're an Australian daytime TV actress with the fever for the flavor of a single: In 1975 you'd be Olivia, pushing tender buttons with "Have You Never Been Mellow." In 1987, you'd be Kylie, getting lucky, lucky, lucky with Stock/Aitken/Waterman-produced blue-eyed house. This year you're Natalie, pouting ironically about your own simulation even while cooking the Lilith sound down to its purest pop potion and shooting it without hesitation--the new queen of Aussie Soap Diva Swing.

While Lilith owes its look and feel to Sarah McLachlan, it's equally indebted to Alanis Morissette, who mainstreamed trouble girls into the mightiest demographic on Planet Pop. Now, as the summer-festival bookers scribble and fax without even whispering her name, comes the first new single from Alanis since NAFTA took effect. Isn't that what's called the return of the repressed? Yikes, it's even named "Uninvited."

The song is basically the hidden a cappella track from Jagged Little Pill, redone as a goth-esque crawl with Alanis the stalked rather than the stalker. Or it's "Kashmir" rendered as a household drama, with tablas. Or it's the hardest Top 40 radio song to describe, for which I love her. With no bridge and barely a chorus, it weaves fibrillating trauma vocals--"But you, you're not allowed, you're uninvited, an unfortunate slight"--and ominous music which rises like water in a sealed room while she tries to think her way out. Three and a half minutes in she suddenly announces, "I need a moment to deliberate--" and walks right off the radio as the music falls apart behind her. Meanwhile, she's still thinking.

It's easy to mistrust singles that keep promising they'll matter later and that take themselves as seriously as these; you know they do from that minor chord the melody flashes like a wistful card trick whenever someone says the word "feel." And the songs will matter, but exactly because they won't matter at all--removed from their moment, they'll glow with pure historicity.

The first million times I heard Cornershop's "Brimful of Asha" I didn't get it at all. I was just waiting for Norman Cook's "Brighton" remix--how the opening breaks down the guitar part to primitive jangle and speeds it up to faster miles an hour, until you can hear that it's "Roadrunner," substituting Bollywood for American Top 40, accelerating endlessly around its own history, held in orbit only by nostalgia's gravity.

The sound these singles make transmutes into that gravity later--as we drive past the Stop and Shop one night in the future, they'll remind us that this is how the world sounded one summer--from the morning past the evening to the end of the light. And we'll forget the distracting spectacle of the Fair itself, the pretty maids all in a row exchanging Grammy photos.

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