Why Jann Arden should have been an even bigger breakout pop star
25 years after Living Under June, Anne T. Donahue makes a sensitive case for our girl Jann
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
In fifth grade, our class held a lip-syncing competition. Students were paired up, got to pick their own songs, then choreographed dance moves or elaborate hand gestures to accompany lyrics to the likes of Weird Al's "Amish Paradise" or Alanis Morrisette's "Head Over Feet."
My friend Julia and I teamed up to take on Bonnie Raitt's "Something To Talk About," where we dressed up like Dennis Quaid and Julia Roberts. Heartbreakingly, I had to be Dennis because I had a mushroom cut — a tragedy that will forever prevent me from cutting my hair any shorter than chin length.
However, the coolest girls (or ones whose parents let them borrow CDs), lip synced to songs from Jann Arden's Living Under June. And I sat there wearing my dad's suit jacket, suddenly self-conscious of how childlike I looked, and thought, "this is what grown-ups listen to!"
Of course, as a super-sheltered suburban-dwelling ten-year-old, I was obsessed with whatever I thought adults did. Years from puberty or any awakening outside of the revelation that if I looked more like Christina Ricci, Devon Sawa would want to kiss me, I envisioned grown-up life as a mix of wearing clothes I wasn't allowed to buy, knowing how to do my hair, and channelling the drama of the characters starring in my Nana's soap operas.
To me, growing up meant experiencing an endless source of feelings (true), all of them great (absolutely not), and being able to articulate my emotions in the poetic style of my favourite singers (I wish). Jann Arden's "Good Mother", "Insensitive", "Could I Be Your Girl" — I was absolutely unsure of what they actually meant, but I remember looking across the aisle at one of my crushes, and thinking, "I was one of the chosen few who went ahead and fell for you."
He did not notice. But I, with a burgeoning God complex only a decade into my young life, thought, "ugh, you just don't get it yet."
The thing is, the further away you get from the music that ushered you into your grown-up tastes, the more you begin to realize that you weren't as embarrassing as your teen and twenty-something selves thought you were. In fact, Jann Arden ruled. And while Living Under June populated every grown-up's music collection I seemed to stumble upon, it wasn't merely a testament to the mid-nineties' affinity for adult contemporary. In fact, it was quite the opposite: it was radical in its capacity for emotion and poetic imagery, joining the ranks of albums released by Sarah McLachlan, Lisa Loeb, Aimee Mann, and Tracey Chapman. So frankly, Jann Arden should've been one of the decade's biggest breakout stars.
I'm right, and you know it. One of the best parts of the nineties was how it championed so many genres of music from so many artists, and began to make room for female artists. Many of the most prominent were featured at Lilith Fair between 1997 and 1999 and in that cultural moment there should've been more of a celebration of Arden.
Especially since in the years after the release of Living Under June, Canadian contemporaries like Celine Dion, McLachlan, and Shania Twain rose up to dominate the mainstream pop charts with ballads that were expressive, vulnerable, and declarative of their thoughts, feelings, and why their versions of love were either succeeding or going terribly wrong. (You know, like the music Arden built her career on.) But it also set up rising teen stars to channel the same variations of same, only set to livelier beats and choreography. Hell, even Britney Spears used her debut single to tell us how lonely she was, even if she wasn't entirely responsible for the lyrics we heard her sing. Vulnerability, arguably, was cultural currency.
And Living Under June was a celebration of what it means to be human and complicated and sad and in love. Even at 10, my sweet baby angel brain knew to equate Arden's prose and tone of voice with the way I felt about Steve or Chris or Jonathan Taylor-Thomas ("Could I Be Your Girl"?) and I revelled in her call to "be yourself" in "Good Mother," despite not yet having lost enough confidence to realize that wasn't what I should necessarily be. (Because it turns out: being loud and weird in fifth grade is a lot more acceptable than it is in sixth.)
Of course, critics of Living Under June might chalk it up to being an example of mid-nineties melodrama thanks to sweeping melodies and a powerful voice. And they wouldn't be wrong. But that's what also made mid-nineties music so good: it's not like Nirvana was subtle, nor was it like the Smashing Pumpkins stayed clear of passionate poetry. In fact, the artists we look to the most were the ones who shook us loose from the bright, shiny eighties and stripped away all poppy pretences. They dared reflect back what they saw and heard and felt themselves, then delivered it back in ways that forced us to embrace our own feelings.
Which makes it even more unfair that we don't pay the Arden the necessary dues for her work on Living Under June, and that we don't name her in the same breath as the Canadian artists who left an indelible mark on the decade. Because she, like them, left her mark too.
Plus, I was right: the cool grown-ups in my young life all owned Living Under June. And the coolest ones didn't skip over the part where she said "goddamn" in "Good Mother." Nor did they ask why I was trying to come up with choreography like the cool girls in fifth grade who performed it.