Monday, July 19, 2010

Juliana Hatfield: Miss Quoted (1993)

(As published in B-Side ... )

By celebrity standards, Juliana Hatfield’s inclusion of her mailing address on the sleeve of her 1992 Hey Babe album seemed like an uncommonly openhearted gesture. And for lots of the people who bought the album--teenaged guys especially--it was an invitation too openhearted to pass up.

So they’ve written her--and written her and written her. Not that Hatfield doesn’t appreciate their interest, but she has begun to wonder whether maybe their interest stems from something other than the Real Her.

“People think that my personality can be reduced to what’s in the songs on Hey Babe,” she says. “It’s not true. But people don’t realize that.”

Neither, apparently, do most music journalists, who, Hatfield maintains, consistently misrepresent her. And when they do so in such diverse and high-profile publications as GQ, Details, Interview, Sassy, and the Village Voice, the misrepresentations can become downright burdensome.

“My personality doesn’t come across in any of those stories,” insists the ex-Blake Baby of the many Hey Babe-centric articles that ran last year. “And I get misquoted all the time. It’s really crazy.”

She has two specific examples at the ready.

“There’s one example recently where I was talking about eating disorders, and I was talking about how I used to like to starve myself sometimes. And then I said, ‘But I never lost huge amounts of weight.’ You know, it wasn’t bad. And then in the article it says I lost huge amounts of weight.”

Her other example appeared in Interview and went like this:

(Interview) “When you’ve been obsessed about guys, has it been really painful?”
(Hatfield) “Yeah. That’s why I like telling the bastards so with my songs.”

“I never said anything like that,” says Hatfield. “Maybe their tape recorders didn’t pick up what I did say. Maybe their editors told them that they had to paint a certain picture of me. I don’t know.

“It used to upset me a lot, but now I take the attitude that it’s fine because you can’t describe a person or music in words anyway.”

Performers, of course, often find themselves puzzled by their public images, but Hatfield’s case
of mistaken identity seems more extreme. Her music, for instance, while promoted as “alternative,” defies easy categorization. And when you get down to a close examination of what she’s actually singing, the task of figuring her out becomes downright labyrinthine.

A case in point is her new album, Become What You Are (Mammoth/Atlantic), which has just hit the stores (and which, incidentally, does not include her mailing address). Credited officially to the Juliana Hatfield Three (Hatfield on guitar; Dean Fisher, bass; Todd Philips, drums), the album is a distillation of punk, sixties pop, and metal as heard from across an emotionally turbulent ocean by someone to whom it had never occurred that they might be separate.
Then there’s Hatfield’s distinctively crystalline voice. Whether cutting through power chords or hovering above them, it possesses a childlike quality that only enhances the complexity of her often structurally centrifugal lyrics.

The song “My Sister,” for example--in just three minutes and twenty-two seconds--develops from a gripe (“I hate my sister / She’s such a bitch”) into a plaintive admission of loss (“I miss my sister / Why’d she go?”), all within the context of Hatfield’s mysterious admission that she has never had a sister at all.

She does, however, have a brother.

“He says that the first time he heard me play it live it brought tears to his eyes,” she recalls with the satisfaction of someone who once listed moving people to tears as one of her goals. “It has the same effect on me, and I don’t even know what I was writing about. I made up the character in it.”

She credits such indirection in part to the intense interest in her private life generated by the explicitly confessional songs on Hey Babe, songs that many heard as pages from her diary whether they were autobiographically accurate or not.

“It made me write differently,” she explains. “It made me not want to write any kinds of love songs.”

But not writing love songs has posed challenges of its own. Take Become What You Are’s opening track, “Supermodel,” for instance, a song that sounds unusually superficial coming from Hatfield in that it trots out anti-glamour clichés to portray models as objectified victims instead of self-determining agents in the power game.

“I’m worried about the reaction I’m going to get to that song,” she says, “because I don’t think I articulated what I really wanted to say. It’s supposed to be a song about the public’s perception of models. I’m questioning that and trying to empathize with the model and know how she really feels.”

And Hatfield has a right: She has done some modeling herself.

She did not, however, enjoy it.

“I just felt really dirty,” she says. “I hated it. I wanted to cry at the end of the day.”


“People putting their hands all over you and pushing your body around and treating you like a piece of meat and just having to stand in one place for a long time,” she answers. “It’s uncomfortable.”

It's also, according to Hatfield, at least a little twisted. “It’s the public who exalts women for looking beautiful. And that’s fine. I mean, I love looking at beautiful girls and beautiful men. I’m just saying it’s such a weird nineties thing how people know all the models’ names when all they do is--be beautiful.”

“Supermodel,” she says, is “just talking about how fucked up that is that that’s one of the highest-paying jobs that a woman can aspire to.”

Still, her previous bad modeling experiences notwithstanding, she admits she might find a way to enjoy the job herself if she had to.

“I think I would,” she says. “I mean, to get paid so much money for doing nothing--with your brain.”

But only for awhile.

“I can imagine that after a few years of getting paid for being beautiful I’d be fucked up in the head,” she says. “What happens when you start getting wrinkles? Up until then you’ve been basing your worth on your looks. I think that’s all screwed up. Nobody cares about an over-the-hill model.”

The same, she says, does not go for over-the-hill rockers. “Neil Young’s still making great music, and it’s got nothing to do with the way he looks.”

She can say that again. But she doesn't. Instead, Hatfield lists Young at the top of her list of the performers whose songs she’d cover if she were ever to record an all-covers album. “I’d do a Neil Young song or two--or three,” she laughs. “And I want to maybe record that Leslie Gore song, ‘You Don’t Own Me,’ someday.”

And maybe something by Wilson Phillips, a group whom Hatfield confessed to liking last year and in so doing alarmed rock’s Hip Police.

“People think I’m a freak when I say that,” she says, “but it’s totally sincere. I like their music. They’re better singers than I am. I love the lush harmonies--all those different parts--and some of the songs are really good."

She has no desire, however, to meet the trio. “I’ve read interviews with them, and they sound like--weirdos.”

Some people think Hatfield is a weirdo because, at twenty-five, she’s still a virgin and doesn’t mind saying so. She’ll even say, “Yeah, me too,” if you tell her that you think the death of virginity has been greatly exaggerated.

But she denies that “I Got No Idols” from Become What You Are addresses the issue, even though it goes, “I don’t like to be touched / You might think we all need that stuff / But I don’t think about it much.” That song, according to Hatfield, is really “about how you should separate the art from the artist and leave the artist alone and not hold her responsible for everything because a lot of times the art is better than the artist.”

Her fans might be surprised to learn that she would also like to separate herself from Hey Babe..”

“It makes me want to cringe,” she said recently. “It just sounds sappy.” It doesn’t, but her attitude toward helps explain why its romantic brightness has been replaced on Become What You Are with a sound that’s darker and more ominous--sometimes subtly (as in the gently claustrophobic “Feelin’ Massachusetts”) and sometimes not so subtly (as in the Gena Rowlands-inspired “Mabel,” the rape-revenge fantasy “A Dame with a Rod,” and the self-explanatory “Addicted”).

Do not assume, however, that the album will cast a shadow over the Hatfield Three’s next project because it might not.

“I’m not letting myself write any songs for awhile,” she says. “I want the next record to have a distinctly different feeling, so I’m not going to write songs until I’m closer to recording it.

“I hope there’ll be a big change.”

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