"The qualities [Juliana] Hatfield hated most about Hey Babe [her first album] — that quirky, childlike voice, the vulnerability and fragility of the songs, the deep self-loathing they evinced and therefore seemed to forgive in their hearers — were the things I would connect to most strongly. When I first encountered the album in 1996 at the age of 13, it struck me as a concept album on longing and insecurity, each song analyzing a different dimension of the desire to speak, to find a self, to be recognized as a self, delivered in a voice that skidded from soaring, girlish wail to a kind of shattered mumble, not much more than a whisper. She vacillated between viciousness (“There’s a lump in my throat that won’t go away / I’m gonna rip it out!”) and resignation (“My tiny screams don’t make a sound / ‘Cause I’m ugly with a capital U”). She built entire worlds out of the state of feeling small.
Hey Babe’s landscape of feelings — self-disgust, second-guessing, depression, cautious optimism — have no place in a reception model that hinged strictly on “empowerment.” If Hey Babe’s tone of general malcontent has endeared the album to alienated listeners over the past 21 years, it has also kept the album from wider recognition. This reflects our cultural preference for “vehement passions” over “minor feelings.” As theorist Sianne Ngai notes of the Western literary tradition, “something about the cultural canon itself seems to prefer higher passions and emotions — as if minor or ugly feelings were not only incapable of producing ‘major’ works, but somehow disabled the works they do drive from acquiring canonical distinction.” This explains a lot about Hatfield’s disappearance from the alternative rock narrative.
Yet there is strength in Hatfield’s willingness to engage the push and pull of confession, the urge to tell and to withhold. Hatfield’s voice is sweet, high, almost impossibly luscious; it wobbles on a dime and cracks when pressed. She sings phrases so wordy they leave her gulping for breath, as though she can scarcely keep up with her thoughts and feelings, but these long lines reflect the state of feeling silent, contained, and small. The most up-tempo songs are usually the most thematically excruciating, plumbing depths of obsession and codependency: “Why are all those other people always saying things about me? I’m not a loser, I’m just lonely,” Hatfield sings in the bouncy “I See You.” In “Forever Baby,” the key shifts progressively higher and higher, going off the rails in its desperation to stay connected before breaking abruptly into the next track, “Ugly,” an acoustic instruction manual on living with low self-esteem. “I’m pretty lost but I don’t want to be found / My tiny screams don’t make a sound,” she sings, chillingly matter-of-fact.
To make confessional art about the feeling that your “tiny screams don’t make a sound” is to revise the meaning of self-expression altogether. The silent scream, the open wound-confessional who can’t communicate with others, the frankly gorgeous young woman who sings of being loved by almost everyone but also about being ugly are affective contradictions at the core of Hatfield’s legacy. Hey Babe reverberates in the space of not rising above, and owning up to it. “Ugly feelings,” Ngai contends in her 2005 book Ugly Feelings, are those negative but ultimately weak emotions that do not lead to action, including envy, irritation, and paranoia. Ugly feelings never culminate in catharsis, which makes them especially adept at diagnosing social conditions in which action too is blocked, like powerlessness and frustration. Irritation deferred rather than anger purged. Hey Babe bypasses the vehemence of anger, jealousy, and fear to engage with the struggle to connect and be heard, the condition of being suspended between alienation and attachment.
And yet there was power in the way Hatfield remained both emotionally labile and meticulous as she measured the distance between the self and another person, who held out the promise of recognition without ever fulfilling it. The only thing that approximated fulfillment in these songs was the music itself. At the brink of suicidal ideation, Hatfield would turn a corner: “Here comes the song I love so much / Makes me wanna go fuck shit up / I got Nirvana in my head / I’m so glad I’m not dead.” The idea of music as a resource for the solitary fuckup seemed precisely the point of Hey Babe. All the better, I would come to believe, that these lonely songs, so true to the emotional landscape of female coming of age, felt like my own secret possession.
…Unlike traditional Bildungsromans — which depict their (typically male) heroes overcoming emotional and social losses to achieve a unified, agential adult self — Hey Babe holds out the possibility of finding strength in the condition of weakness. It portrays coming of age not in terms of claiming power but rather as a process of navigating ongoing crises of attachment: to a love object who treats her shabbily (yes, it’s Evan Dando); to a social world that offers few pleasures; to a sense of self constantly and painfully in flux. The album aestheticizes powerlessness, dredging up the dolor of female coming of age without glamorizing it or resolving any of its emotional complexity. By the end of the album’s final song, “No Answer,” the narrator jumps into a car and leaves town in a culmination of sorts, but she offers no promise of self-actualization. If there is a quest narrative at work in the album, it’s ongoing and introspective, non-teleological. (Hatfield would name her next album Become What You Are.)"
"Minor Feelings" by Laura Fisher at The New Inquiry
OMG SOMEONE VENERATES JULIANA HATFIELD FOR THE SAME REASONS I ALWAYS HAVE
I really need to check out Sianne Ngai. Also, JULIANA WROTE A MEMOIR WHY WASN’T I INFORMED
The memoir is really good, you gotta read it! Also, Sianne Ngai is a genius. So basically #summer reading.