A thank you note to Jewel

Recently, on a work trip to Las Vegas, I was lying in my hotel room, flipping channels. I landed on a late night talk show, and stopped. A female folk singer was standing with her guitar, plucking a gentle melody and singing. It was instantly catchy, even beautiful tune. I listened, half-paying attention, until I noticed who it was: Jewel. Jewel? I thought, I’d better keep flipping around. And yet I didn’t. I caught myself—why the knee-jerk reaction to Jewel, when only a second ago I sat spellbound by her lovely song?

We’ve all been there, those of us who “used to” like Jewel back in the ‘90s when, we now claim, we didn’t know any better. We’ve been caught singing along with “You Were Meant for Me” when it comes on the radio, lost in it until someone breaks the spell: “Wow, Jewel. Remember when she had that book of poetry?”

Jewel (née Kilcher) just released a new record last month, entitled Picking Up the Pieces. Though she’s had a long and varied career in folk, pop, and most recently country, Picking Up the Pieces is notable because it’s intended as a bookend of sorts to her 1995 breakthrough Pieces of You, and thus a return to the confessional storytelling and gentle acoustic ballads she became famous for. She told The View in September, “I wanted to peel back the veneers and have a raw emotional experience, so if you listen to this album it would be like a line from my vein to yours,” which is just so Jewel.

Pieces of You was a touchstone for a lot of us who were kids in the ‘90s; I was in junior high at the time, which I realize now was the perfect age to hear that album. I tend to file Pieces of You alongside Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) when I consider my early teenage favorites. Though not necessarily targeted at an audience of thirteen-year-olds, this record and this film hit us squarely in our fevered, overly emotional adolescent brains. We were heartbroken, star-crossed, lost souls. We were sensitive and we wanted to stay that way.

We dreamed of future lovers and dramatic romances. “You were always the mysterious one / with dark eyes and careless hair/ You were fashionably sensitive / But too cool to care,” Jewel sang, and I swooned. (Of course, now I realize that “Foolish Games” was about the worst kind of emotionally manipulative, hipster nightmare boy.) Jewel sang slightly awkward poetry that was better than what any of us could write at thirteen, but felt like the kind of thing we might write if we had the words. Pieces of You was really dorky at times (with lines like “We’ve gotta start feeding our souls,” and don’t get me started on “Adrian”) but it was also undeniably catchy and singalong-able, and popular, which rendered it okay and not embarrassing. And at thirteen, everything is embarrassing.

The strange thing is the way Pieces of You aged for many us, which is that it became embarrassing. In pop culture parlance, Jewel become shorthand for a certain ‘90s female type, a coffeehouse journal writer, a slam poet with a nose ring, a college-student activist reading Sylvia Plath (none of these bad things, but for some sexist reason, cast as worthy of scorn). See also: Phoebe Buffay (who I like very much, and I would totally buy her album). But as I grow older, I still continue to listen to Pieces of You annually, when winter recedes into spring, when green on trees and young lovers on streets start to bring out that fevered adolescent within. And I do it when no one else is around, and I let my cheeks burn red when Jewel sings “It’s you that I adore / I’m gonna give you some more” and “Every day we starve / while we eat white bread and beer / Instead of a handshake or hug.” Be cool, I want to admonish her, but I know that she won’t. And that’s why we liked her, and why we still like her.

Those who haven’t followed Jewel’s career much since her debut will be struck by how much more mature the writing is on Picking Up the Pieces than on Pieces of You (which was, to be fair, mostly written when Jewel was a teenager herself). Jewel’s been through a lot since then, and the record is mainly a raw reflection on her recent divorce. It works as a bookend to Pieces of You because here still is that unflinching sincerity, that flowery language, the slightly embarrassing, emphatic divulging of feelings. But it also perfectly pitched to meet us, her adolescent fans, where we’ve landed in our thirties, trying to make our way, trying to be stronger and smarter than we used to be. In “Here When Gone,” the song I heard in my hotel room, she sings, “Sometimes I wish I were more like rocks and stones and things / Sometimes I wish my heart were not like flowers at all / That way I wouldn’t get butterflies when you call.” And she speaks equally to parts of us that have changed and parts of us that haven’t.

And when listening to Picking Up the Pieces, I don’t feel a need to say be cool. I don’t feel that same self-consciousness about listening to Jewel; I don’t feel reduced to the same seventh grader writing bad poetry in coffeehouses. I don’t feel these things because duh, she hasn’t stayed the same either, like I somehow thought she would, but rather aged with us. Instead of society and souls and manipulative hipster boys she now sings of family, and womanhood, and struggling not to lose yourself when you become a mother. And though there are still those lines that make me smile because they’re slightly goofy and heavy-handed (from “His Pleasure is My Pain”: “she gets out of bed and looks at her feet as though they were the wings for her freedom”), I would expect nothing less. Because Jewel’s particular talent is the ability to tap into that awkward, emotional girl inside, while still holding her own as a strong adult woman. And though many of us tap into this girl, cheeks burning, in the privacy of our headphones, Jewel has the courage to do it on a stage, on a record, in a collection of poetry with a regrettable title. She’s always embraced that girl, and encourages us to forget being cool for a second and do the same.

[Image via Atlantic Records]

Filed Under