When Steve Earle dubbed Shania Twain “America’s best paid lap dancer,” one wonders whether even he could have anticipated the music industry’s latest conversion. As if there weren’t enough “singers” on the scene turning pop music into a boozy night at Hooters, here comes Jewel, the once quasi-sincere folk artist turned “rock’s sexiest poet,” as a recent issue of Blender Magazine tags her. Anyone unaware of the bottomless depths to which the pop music machine is willing to sink for an extra few bucks might consider that particular rag’s cover, showcasing Jewel’s celebrity makeover as she smirks and leans against a wall in as lascivious a pose as the Alaskan-born “songwriter” could conjure, clad from head to toe in leather and sleazy lingerie. If that isn’t enough of an education, then the leather glove on her right hand exposing a few bare, tan fingers is sure to strike you as oh-so-irresistible. If you do actually pick up a copy of the magazine, don’t blame yourself for expecting a story on Jewel’s favorite S & M maneuvers. And, just in case you were wondering, each photo accompanying the article itself is captioned by a list of all the fancy fashion designers whose fishnets and high heels she’s wearing. Some of the brand names, such as New York’s “Trashy Lingerie,” whose products can be found on the Web at — no joke — www.trash.com, and L.A.’s “Retail Slut,” seem hysterically appropriate.
Apparently, Jewel’s 11-million selling debut album of refreshingly understated and heartfelt folk tunes, followed by a few more platinum collections of largely similar material, wasn’t providing enough of a financial cushion. After all, if you think you’ve got problems footing that mortgage bill and car payment, try keeping up with a mansion and insatiable wardrobe. It’s tough being Jewel. Really. Indeed, this is only the latest of several conspicuous leaps taken by talented artists into the surely profitable realm of pop trash and veritable prostitution, Sheryl Crow’s abysmal C’mon, C’mon being the most notable example in recent years. Panicking at comparatively “weak” record sales as of late, Jewel’s entourage put together a recipe for renewal. It goes something like this: extract any semblance of intelligence or tact, dumb down the lyrics because, you know, most people are just morons anyway, and, oh yeah, take her clothes off, and voila! You’ve got sales! As Petty put it on his bitter The Last DJ: “Some angel whore who can learn a guitar lick! Hey, that’s what I call muuuusssiiiicc!!”
One wonders whether Jewel’s billed persona as a once-homeless songwriter risen improbably to the top of the world with no more assistance than a guitar, a voice, and a few good lines, has ever really been much more than a pose. The wistful and phenomenally successful Pieces of You offered some reason to believe that Jewel was indeed representative of the proverbial starving poet gone from rags to riches, but creative efforts that followed did little to further that image. In the introduction to her million-selling book of verse, the poetically titled A Night Without Armor, Jewel cites increasingly legendary American poet, Charles Bukowski as an influence on her own work. But is it any wonder, really, that Bukowski’s name appeared misspelled? Universally panned in countless reviews, A Night Without Armor serves as poetry’s equivalent to Daniel Steele and is the butt of many a joke in classrooms of MFA programs around the country. “I miss you miserably, dear / and I can’t quite manage / to face this unbearably / large bed / alone,” Jewel writes in one of the book’s many prosaic self-indulgences. Surely, this is no Patti Smith.
Now, though, we have 0304 to consider, a fabulously mindless foray into precisely the kind of soupy production and vacuity to which Jewel’s former self seemed the ultimate antithesis. Apparently impressed by fellow pop product Avril Lavinge’s knack for clever song titles, i.e., “Sk8er Boi,” Jewel serves up one hell of a track listing, with songs like “Run 2 U,” “2 Find U,” “Yes U Can,” 2 Become 1″ and the award-winning “U & Me =Love,” the mathematical spelling for “sell out.” To cap it off, the album’s title, reminiscent of Billy Idol’s 1993 bomb, Cyberpunk, is a rather less than subtle nod to the “simple girl in a digital world” (uh, Madonna, is that you?) about whom Jewel sings throughout the album.
Just as Idol attempted to capture in music the early-90’s cultural phenomenon coined by William Gibson, Jewel’s newfound gig is an utterly hip Internet age image being sold to an exclusively teeny bopper audience. It is likely to sell far better than Idol’s tragic swansong, but if it does, the success will be attributable to nothing more than keen marketing.
The writing here demonstrates no interest whatever in disputing the ill reception with which A Night Without Armor was met. Granted, lots of boys will be drooling for Jewel while reaching for the Vaseline jar before long, but even they are unlikely to mistake the monotonous and desperate single, “Intuition,” for the work of a “poet.” Lines such as “just follow your heart baby” and “If you want my love, you can try my love, you can buy my love, just take my hand” aren’t exactly Byron.
Amid Jewel’s newfound cloak of sex and glitter, attempts at political observation like the opening track, “Stand,” seem as incongruous as they are stale, turning in clichés for cash. “Together we can make a stand,” she reminds us. One can almost envision David Crosby hurling into his coffee. Suddenly, it seems so long ago that the charming rookie songster, Tracy Chapman, was Takin’ ‘Bout A Revolution. “Kate Moss can’t find a job,” Jewel croons on “Stand.” Well, here is an “intuition” of my own: any self-respecting listener who makes it beyond the first half of this album will likely be wishing something worse than unemployment on Jewel, America’s most literate lingerie model.
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