For Fefe Dobson and love for the Black alt girl
Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.
Music is a necessary art form. There — I said it.
This idea isn’t a completely unique one. We’ve been exploring this since the beginning of time. Yet, it keeps coming back around because music is this great unifier. It has a purely present way of bringing forth exactly what you’re feeling and pushes you to look past that. It’s essential to understanding how to communicate with the world, with finding your own identity. In finding music, you find yourself.
I felt all of this and more the first time I heard Fefe Dobson. The revelation that sparked within me was a simple, yet necessary one: That I was valid and not alone. To me, a lonely Black girl, Fefe was like a lifeline to this far-off world where I could be unabashedly myself and still make it out okay. That I could break down the walls of my shyness to follow my dreams, and didn’t have to answer to boxes and labels that didn’t fit me.
For those of you who blocked off memories of the early 2000s, here’s a bit of a refresher: At a time when alt-pop was a thing, Fefe Dobson emerged quietly from Toronto to give us teen angst in a new form. Two of the four singles she brought out from her debut album were used in a movie called The Perfect Score, but that’s not important. What’s important here is that her album made its way to the tiniest of Best Buys and into my hands. When I clicked open the CD case and pressed “play” on my Walkman for the first time, magic erupted.
For me, “Revolution Song” was the track that I found myself constantly drawn to. With the calming melodies and soft guitar in the background, Fefe sings of the moment of finding peace after fighting a battle. In the lines that stood out most to me, she sings:
Amidst the chaos that comes with trying to navigate multiple conflicts at once — school, parents, relationships, my own emerging identity — this song stood out to me in its urging to embrace softness and vulnerability. That sense of peace surrounding conflict and struggle was appealing; it still is. Fefe’s singing was enough for me to begin looking at my softness not as a liability, but as an underutilized strength to shape the world around me to how I wanted it to be.
The charisma of Fefe wasn’t that she was saying anything remarkable or earth-shattering. Quite the opposite — she sang about boys and lost love and wanting. She sang about absent fathers and peer pressure and silver linings. But what struck out to me, as I felt each song become etched into my memory, was the quiet revolution of seeing a girl that looked just like me have a platform big enough to bring these issues to light. Even if she never explicitly sang about her Blackness, seeing her presence was enough to quench my thirst for representation in the alt-pop scene.
While representation is something that is a struggle to get right these days, it was even harder over a decade ago. The alt-pop scene was filled with white boys, learning to play their instruments in their basements or garages and singing about how hard life is. And even the few women that were able to make a mark in the public eye — Avril Lavigne and Skye Sweetnam come to mind — couldn’t touch on parts of my life in the same way that Fefe did.
It always saddened me to know that Fefe never did get the love and support from the public eye that she deserved. Her second album was released digitally after she was dropped from her label just days before it was scheduled for a physical release. She’s since released a third album, and is in the process of finishing up a fourth. But while the public barely gave Fefe much of a chance, I’m filled with the urge to say what so many have said in private corners of the Internet: Thank you. Thank you for showing the world that there’s more complexity in the lives of Black girls than they give us credit for. Thank you for helping me learn how to be brave. And thank you for always, always choosing to be yourself.