The Story Behind Abbagirl

As far as to what exactly “abbagirl” indicates, anyway – in case you are unaware, ABBA (with the first “B” written backwards) is the name of a Swedish pop supergroup from the 70’s and early 80’s frequently remembered most for their uber-cheesy disco outfits, platforms and all. My obsession/love for the group is fairly recent; it began maybe around 1993 or 1994 in early high school when I was exposed to them through the Australian film “The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert” and subsequently bought a copy of ‘ABBA Gold’ on CD, their popular greatest hits album. Their music, a captivating melange of disco and pop, had me entranced, and I was incredibly impressed with the vocal talents of vixen lead singers, Agnetha Faltskog & Frida Lyngstad.My status as an abbagirl was affirmed when I purchased more albums, video collections, and saw the hilarious & touching Australian flick “Muriel’s Wedding” in the theatre. I truly identified with lead character Muriel Heslop (played by the fantastic Toni Collette), a geeky outcast addicted to ABBA, and found the film to be brilliant and heartfelt, capturing the friendship between Muriel and the spunky Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) and their rejection of the snobby girls who snubbed them both in high school. I especially loved that MW was unique in being an “ugly duckling transformed” story that ended up having Muriel realize that she didn’t need the approval of the girls who hadn’t been able to appreciate her until she had found a man and conformed, and that Muriel learns that the storybook wedding she’d been pining after and the gorgeous guy she marries aren’t what she really *wants*, because she didn’t love him. And of course, MW introduced me to such fantastic ABBA tunes as “Fernando” and “Dancing Queen,” my anthem. 🙂 (I now have a page up on MW and my other favorite Australian films!)

So, I figured that “Abbagirl” would be a good nick as not only is it short and easy to remember, but it owns up to my devotion to those 4 wacky Swedes. Some people also figure it’s a reference to the 2 women of ABBA, that I’m emulating them, which is fine, I suppose. I feel a sort of kinship to Agnetha & Frida, I admit, being at least one-fourth Swedish (Dutch, too), a soprano singer who can do a fairly accurate Agnetha vocal imitation, and a tall, assertive gal to boot. (My height – 5’9″ or so – is largely a product of my Scandinavian ancestry; almost everyone in my family is super-tall.) And yes, I have blue eyes and long, blonde hair, although I’m not claiming to be any Agnetha twin or anything.

So, I figured that “Abbagirl” would be a good nick as not only is it short and easy to remember, but it owns up to my devotion to those 4 wacky Swedes. Some people also figure it’s a reference to the 2 women of ABBA, that I’m emulating them, which is fine, I suppose. I feel a sort of kinship to Agnetha & Frida, I admit, being at least one-fourth Swedish (Dutch, too), a soprano singer who can do a fairly accurate Agnetha vocal imitation, and a tall, assertive gal to boot. (My height – 5’9″ or so – is largely a product of my Scandinavian ancestry; almost everyone in my family is super-tall.) And yes, I have blue eyes and long, blonde hair, although I’m not claiming to be any Agnetha twin or anything

Revisiting the past on Abbagirl

I’m usually a big fan of most good female folk singers, and young Jewel Kilcher seems like the type I’d lap up with a spoon. However, I have decidedly mixed feelings about this gap-toothed Alaskan native, unfortunately most of ’em negative, and a lot of it isn’t even Jewel’s fault per se. Well, let me start from the beginning…

Jewel’s (only) debut album, ‘Pieces of You’, was released back in 1994. Yes, 1994, believe it or not! It’s only in the past year or two that she’s suddenly become one of the biggest stars on the pop scene. Back when all people knew of her (1995-96 or so) was her then-one hit single, “Who Will Save Your Soul?”, I thought I really hated her. Her voice on that song was just so unbearably whiny and the song itself didn’t impress me in the least. (The video is even cheesier.) I pegged her as this really vapid girlie-girl, with a voice that seemed like a deliberate attempt to sound cute and little-girlish. (Was I being prejudiced? Sure. I didn’t have her album, that song was all I knew of Jewel.)

Then, in 1996 I believe it was, her second hit single sprung onto the scene, “You Were Meant For Me”. Not only did I love the song, but the beautiful blue-toned video captivated me. I suddenly was converted to Jewel fandom. Sure, she still was kinda whiny, but the song (which was a much better song than “Who Will…”, I thought, with better lyrics as well) did highlight her sultry chest voice as well as her girlie upper range. I would happily sing along (doing my best Jewel impression; my mom agrees that I’ve gotten her trademark vocals down on that song) when “You Were Meant For Me” came on the radio, I’d watch the video multiple times.

Finally, it was in the very early summer of 1997 that I finally bought ‘Pieces of You’. I was spurred on by having seen Jewel perform “Foolish Games,” not yet released as a single, on some VH1 Crossroads special. That passionate performance got me hooked on the song, with its beautiful piano accompaniment, and I was especially impressed with her vocals. So, I bought the CD a little while before leaving for France in the beginning of July. “Foolish Games” was my favorite song; I quickly memorized the lyrics, and when I was alone in my dorm room in France that summer, I’d sit by my window sometimes and sing “Foolish Games” to myself. I thought it was a brilliant song, and more than that it felt like my song, like I’d discovered it or something, ’cause at that time it wasn’t on the charts or anything. I’d sing it from the heart like it was the coolest song I’d ever heard or sung.

Of course, then after I got back, “Foolish Games” became a national phenomenon. They started playing it on the radio a lot, and then the stylish video made its debut. I was happy at first. But then, I started to balk at the way the media was forcing Jewel down everyone’s throats. And not Jewel as a diverse artist, but Jewel as the 3-single wonder (“Who Will Save,” “You Were Meant” and of course, “Foolish Games”.) Suddenly Jewel was on the cover of every damn magazine, when her album had previously gone unrecognized for about 3 years!

You see, Jewel is a perfectly fine artist, and even cute for a while, but she does tend to annoy you after a lot of exposure. And of course, the media suddenly decided to put Jewel on 24-hours a day – on the radio, on VH1, on MTV, etc. After hearing “Foolish Games” 10,000 times, it started to irk me. It’s not like people still hadn’t heard it; practically everyone in the country who wants her album now has it, I’m sure. And, they had to completely overplay *only 3* of her damn songs, and completely ignore the less chartworthy ones, including some of the ones I like better, like the sweet “Angel Standing By,” “Near You Always” or “I’m Sensitive,” which in my opinion are probably her best songs along with “Foolish Games”. She also has some other songs with superior lyrics, like “Daddy,” which of course would be a little too controversial for the likes of VH1, who prefers to ignore anything but her most romantic, easy-listening songs (she’s not bad as a lyricist, and the few poems of hers in the CD liner are even better than most of her songs).

And, there’s also the matter of her voice. Jewel has a distinct vocal style that has a tendency of grating on some people’s nerves. While I feel she has a good voice, definitely some talent, she also has a whiny quality, to her head voice (upper register) especially – which makes her easier for me to imitate, in fact. I think she sounds much better when she uses her chest voice (lower register) and sounds a little more soulful, and certainly less cutesy-girlie, and the irksome thing is that she’s always switching back and forth between the two, and she always slides between notes, something I notice as a singer. (Which is ironic, because Jewel supposedly has some classical training; she once attended Interlochen Arts Academy here in Michigan for a while, majoring in opera, but decided opera was not for her, and relocated to San Diego, CA, to become a trendy little cafe chanteuse and live in her van. She certainly doesn’t seem to use much of the classical training she had as far as good vocal technique.)

Also, the way the media dotes on Jewel as the current trendy darling of pop kinda sickens me. They seem to love Jewel not because of her musicianship or even what she has to say as a woman, but because she’s a) cute (blonde and Caucasian, with long, feminine hair, pouty lips, and those bad teeth that supposedly make her even cuter and more “unique”. And she wears pretty dresses that show off her figure, etc.), b) an interesting story (born in Alaska, lived in Michigan and California, and, as practically everyone now knows, lived in a van with her mom or whatever) and c) is as far from controversial as you can get (her songs come across as more gentle and feminine, especially ’cause of her wispy vocals, even when she’s actually addressing issues like abuse or sexism), unlike more threatening, “angry” women artists. Not that all women singers need to be activists or anything – I mean, Jewel does what she does and it’s her thing and she’s great at it. But it’s so obvious that the media loves sucking her up because of some of these qualities whereas you don’t see the same kind of treatment given less cliche’d women…

Ack. I didn’t mean to get in such a slam of Jewel. I still listen to ‘Pieces of You’ and I don’t hate her or her music by any means, but she’s not one of my very fave artists, and like I said b4, a lot of it isn’t even her fault, but just the way the music biz has overexposed her to the point of annoyance – much like such groups as Hanson or the Spice Girls. I do think she has something to say, and I do admire that she writes her own music, plays guitar, etc., but I’m just kind of sick of her at the moment. And, I think a lot of it is due to the fact that she only has *1*album out, one with songs she mostly wrote years ago when she was a teenager. It’ll be interesting to see what her second release will bring; maybe I’ll come to love Jewel more again. We’ll see. For now, I’m just thankful that the “Foolish Games” video isn’t on MTV every five minutes that much anymore, because when it comes on I want to kick someone, probably a MTV executive (MTV is especially evil in my mind for their lack of sensible veejays, and willingness to succumb to evil trends and ’cause they never play cool obscure singers/groups that I like – and, they never pay much attention to David Bowie, a rock legend even more influential and current, musically, than the Rolling Stones.).

So, I’d like rather not to criticize Jewel so much (after all, she has her own niche), than as to rant against the people who insist on making her out as the biggest thing of 1997 and the best female singer and all that, when there are so many other talented women out there who deserve some time in the limelight. And, I would also like to add that I wish people like Jewel would come out with a second album already! (That means you too, Alanis; we’re all dying for a new album!) And that’s about all I have to say for now…