Published Jun 02, 2015Fierce. Feminist. Angry young woman. These words tessellate on the front of Andrea Warner's We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the '90s and Changed Canadian Music. The cover art is a mosaic of phrases, pieced together with bits like "fragile young flower," "jilted Goddess" and "girl-friendly." The clippings could have been cut from a glossary of key terms used in feminist criticism pieces. One might expect the contents of the book to be cultivated in this method; a cut-and-paste project, with pages composed of shredded and reassembled fragments from poppy girl-power 'zines. This is not the case.
Warner's essays are intimately inspired and carefully crafted, resulting in a unique piece of critical artistry. Through evaluating their merit as musicians and powerful female icons, the book accomplishes a conscientious criticism of Canada's top female artists: Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain and Sarah McLachlan. Above all the effort reads as Warner's coming-of-age memoir, through which she dismisses her past complicities and claims her own position of power.
Although We Oughta Know is Warner's book debut, her insights hold the merit of a seasoned critic. [Ed's note: She's a longtime contributor to Exclaim!] Her credit as a writer is earned in part by her portfolio, which boasts well-respected names like The Globe and Mail and CBC Music, but more importantly, her perspective proves valuable because she has been an active music critic from a young age.
She explains the youthful lens through which she once observed Dion, Morissette, Twain and McLachlan, declaring them "real-world manifestations of [her] favourite children's book series, The Babysitter's Club." She related each woman with the storybook character they resembled the most: Dion shares Kristy's drive for success; Morissette possesses Claudia's tendency to rebel, and so forth. However, the progression of the memoir sees Warner's relationship with these woman maturing from her early attempts to classify them as tropes. She explains, "a substantial amount of pop culture media does its best to reduce every celebrity to his/her/its lowest common denominators... all too often, it comes down to the most simplistic terms with which to describe (and judge) people.
"I didn't know I was part of the problem, but I absolutely was," she admits. Here, she dismantles the notion that these four women can be categorized, despite their seemingly distinct genres. While Dion, Morissette, Twain and McLachlan present very different skills and images than one another, they are united by their ability to use their respective assets to achieve chart-topping success. Their ambitions and achievements can not be limited by a trope.
Warner continues to celebrate the uniqueness of each woman by critiquing their performance and public image. She once again provides an autobiographical narrative that details her childhood perceptions of Dion, who she viewed to be weak because she projects such emotion and vulnerability. However as she grew, Warner began to understand the strength required to stand exposed before an audience: "She places herself in the middle of our weakest moments, singing about our deepest fears and wildest hopes" she suggests, "love is her business."
Warner places Dion's demeanour in contrast with Twain's overt sexuality, Morissette's "fuck-it" attitude, and McLachlan's darkness. As a teenager, Warner admits that she praised the tenacity of the latter two, who, she predicted, would "lead the revolution" as progressive female role models. However, they all remain comfortably positioned in Canada's top four best-selling artists. In response to this statistic, Warner poignantly writes: "holy shit." While many feminist critics favour strength over vulnerability, and "fuck it" over love, Warner empowers women to embrace all of these. Here again, Warner's development as a feminist has allowed her to dismantle long-held standards and celebrate the diverse offerings of great women musicians.
As Warner's collection of essays comes to its conclusion, the reader is left understanding the great accomplishments of these four women. Their sold-out shows and unfaltering chart standing make their fame indisputable, but Warner is careful to reinforce that "women's success can't simply be measured in their chart performance." It's Dion's bravery and commitment to following her heart that has earned her happiness; Morissette's unapologetic tenacity; Twain's unfaltering determination, and McLachlan's embracement of emotion. A thorough reading of Warner's We Oughta Know will further highlight the achievements and success stories of these incredible Canadian women.
Finally, it is important to recognize that should this book be interpreted as a memoir of Warner's youth, it still reads as a success story. She articulates the thorough questioning and increasing critical thinking that she has applied to feminism and culture, and most of all, to her own views. Through this, the reader is able to see how her thoughts have grown more progressive, and how she has found the power in her voice as a female journalist. (Eternal Cavalier)