I’m not often tempted to cheat and see if re-shuffling my iTunes library will serve up a different musician to write about than the one that the random number generator has landed on. Even when it’s a band I’ve barely heard of or one where I can’t even locate a photo of them, there’s usually an interesting story behind how I came to have one of their songs in my music collection.
Juliana Hatfield, though, is a stumper. If you’d asked me if I owned any of her albums, I would have said, “Not that I’m aware of.” It turns out I do have one — How To Walk Away, which iTunes tells me was released in 2008 — but if I’ve ever actually listened to it, that occasion is lost to the mists of time.
I first heard of Juliana Hatfield the same way most people did: With her song “My Sister,” which was everywhere in late 1993. This was the early months of the Year of the Woman, when rock (or alternative rock, or indie rock, or whatever we were calling it then) radio was abruptly turned over to female singers and musicians: It was the time of the Breeders’ Last Splash, and Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, and Lisa Loeb and Melissa Etheridge and that Sheryl Crow album with “All I Wanna Do,” which apparently won a damn Grammy, albeit in the Record of the Year category that seems to mean “song you couldn’t escape all year no matter how hard you tried.” I have a vague but definite memory of listening to “My Sister” on the radio while driving around northern California on a visit there, and of it seeming, if not groundbreaking, at least like a historical shift.
(A shift for white women, at least: Hip hop had had its momentary gender awakening earlier, TLC having debuted in 1992, and Queen Latifah and Monie Love way back in 1989. But though I bought those albums, I first learned about them from MTV, not the radio stations I listened to, where racial diversity meant playing an occasional Lenny Kravitz song.)
That sea change didn’t last long, at least in terms of what was being played on the radio. By 1994, as I recall, WDRE, the modern-rock station (formerly WLIR) that my friend Carmen and I had taken to playing at work when not listening to They Might Be Giants cassettes, had switched over more or less entirely to post-Nirvana sludgy guitar dude bands like Stone Temple Pilots and Candlebox and Bush, none of which I could distinguish at the time and certainly can’t now. The female-fronted acts that had briefly dominated the radio carried on, but none would ever be designated flavor of the month again.
Juliana Hatfield, meanwhile, completely disappeared from my radar after “My Sister,” even more so than Monie Love. She only reemerged recently when my friend Andrew asked me to keep an eye out for live recordings of her shows, and it occurred to me that she must still be performing live. I thought maybe I’d picked up a cheap copy of How To Walk Away from the $3 bin at the WFMU record fair (where pretty much anyone whose name I’ve heard of ends up in my to-buy stack, since at worst it’s a $3 donation to a good cause), but I can’t actually find a CD, just ripped mp3 files, so the mystery endures. Maybe my computer just came with a Juliana Hatfield album pre-installed? Anything is possible.
Listening back now to “My Sister” — which I did via YouTube, since why would I have ever bought it back when it was inescapable — it’s hard to see quite why I remember it so much more clearly than other songs from that time. It has an R.E.M.-lite feel (which makes sense since it had R.E.M.’s longtime producer), and Hatfield sings it well enough, kind of like a punkier Suzanne Vega. And if the song also rhymed “sister” with “miss her,” it made up for it with a personal-is-political vibe that probably felt subversive in 1993.
The part of “My Sister” that mostly likely grabbed my attention was the last verse, which is the only part of the song I still remember:
She’s the one who would have taken me
To my first all-ages show.
It was the Violent Femmes and the Del Fuegos,
Before they had a record out.
Before they went gold
In reality, Hatfield doesn’t have a sister, and the song is mostly about her older brother’s girlfriend. But there was a story here that drew me in: Getting to go to all-ages shows and see bands before they were big, something that I, what with coming late to the small-club rock scene, had mostly missed out on, though I was trying hard to play catchup at the time. It spoke to the element of music fandom that involves wanting to be cool — legit cool in a “knows music history and how it all fits together and who’s worth listening to regardless of whether they won a Grammy,” not flavor-of-the-month cool — and trying to understand how one achieves that, a question I’m still trying to answer with, among other things, this website. That’s ultimately more interesting to me than Liz Phair breaking new ground in use of the word “fuck,” so it’s worth having a Hatfield record in my collection. Maybe one day I’ll even listen to it.