Fair Maidens

“Adia,” Sarah McLachlan’s new single, is not a very good song. But it’s almost called “Aria” and spells Aida backward, as if to remind us that Sarah’s an opera diva in reverse: a vocal exercise made flesh, but staged for the peasants, or at least the peasant skirts. She’s Jessye Normal. The triumph of “Adia” lies exactly in its thin obviousness, the way it invites copycats onto the playlists and lets them sound better than the original–kitties Sarah will need more than another hit single when the summer grows long and Lilith’s second stages yawn.

According to my car radio, the best Sarah McLachlan song of the year is “Surrounded.” It’s by Chantal Kreviazuk–“I was there when they dropped the bomb, I remember the bomb, and I still hear the bomb,” she says, warming like the good mentee she is into an octave slide precisely a la McLachlan, even as she drops the social science. This being Fair play, there must follow a beautiful, neurasthenically romantic (and completely unrelated) chorus: “Now it’s all around me, all around me, you surround me like a circle.” Hey, it’s not supposed to make sense. This is not your mother’s feminism, and you don’t need Ms. to know the personal is the political. They share the same melody, and isn’t that enough?

Supporting one’s simulators (and having them support you) isn’t exactly revolutionary, but the trick of conjuring copy after copy also forces us to think of Sarah McLachlan as an original. Future ethnomusicologists will tag Sarah lead auteur of the Lilith Lilt, flanked on one side by Jewel and on the other by Sheryl Crow. Patty Griffin probably dreams of drinking whiskey with Bonnie Raitt, but on her debut single “One Big Love” she’s Crow’s tequila mockingbird. This is a little confusing, since one of the cool things about Sheryl is how she can’t even imitate herself; she can’t read her own handwriting. But Patty Griffin can, from the martial rhythm pattern to the hoarsely wise-before-her-time winsomeness of the vocal. She can’t cry anymore, and when she borrows on Crow’s account, nothing moves but the money.

Jewel’s vanilla daughter-of-a-preacher-man vibe is effortlessly scooped by Rebekah, who timed her prosex/proguilt strummer “Sin So Well” just right: made from 100 per cent recycled materials, it sounds like microlite timeless pop. “Timeless” is the lie pop music keeps telling us. That is, songs seem to have no historical markers because they’re perfectly timebound; “timeless” is so similar to the surrounding atmosphere that hearing it’s like having no experience at all. Or maybe like sitting in a warm bathtub drinking a glass of water. “Pop” is sort of another name for “room temperature.”

That’s also why Natalie Imbruglia can lie naked on the floor without catching a cold–she’s the exact temperature of 1998. “Torn” has already been a single four times for three bands in five years, all without selling a single copy. The song remains the same; it’s the times that changed. For any given year there’s only one certain song you can get over with, if you’re an Australian daytime-TV actress with the fever for the flavor of a single: in 1975 you’d be Olivia, pushing tender buttons with “Have You Never Been Mellow.” In 1987, you’d be Kylie, getting lucky, lucky, lucky with Stock/Aitken/Waterman–produced blue-eyed house. This year you’re Natalie, pouting ironically about your own simulation even while cooking the Lilith sound down to its purest pop potion and shooting it without hesitation–the new queen of Aussie Soap Diva Swing.

While Lilith owes its look and feel to Sarah McLachlan, it’s got an unpaid debt to Alanis Morissette, who mainstreamed troublegirls into the mightiest demographic on Planet Pop. Now comes the first new single from Alanis since NAFTA took effect. Isn’t that what’s called the return of the repressed? Yikes, it’s even named “Uninvited.” The song is basically the hidden a cappella track from Jagged Little Pill, reset in “Kashmir” as a gothesque crawl, with Alanis the stalked rather than the stalker. Or it’s the hardest Top 40 radio song to describe, for which I love her–no bridge and barely a chorus, fibrillating trauma vocals. Three and a half minutes in she suddenly announces, “I need a moment to deliberate,” and walks right off the radio as the music falls apart behind her. Meanwhile, she’s still thinking.

It’s easy to mistrust singles that keep promising they’ll matter later, that take themselves as seriously as these; you know they do from that minor chord the melody flashes like a wistful card trick whenever someone says the word “feel.” And the songs will matter–removed from their moment, they’ll glow with pure historicity. The first million times I heard Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha” I didn’t get it at all. I was just waiting for Norman Cook’s “Brighton” remix–how the opening breaks down the guitar part to primitive jangle and speeds it up to faster miles an hour, until you can hear that it’s “Roadrunner,” substituting Bollywood for American Top 40, accelerating endlessly around its own history, held in orbit only by nostalgia’s gravity.

The sound these singles make transmutes into that gravity later–as we drive past the Stop & Shop one night in the future, they’ll remind us that this is how the world sounded one summer: from the morning past the evening to the end of the light. And we’ll forget the distracting spectacle of the Fair itself, the pretty maids all in a row exchanging Grammy photos.

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