I was 15 years old when braless, emphatic Paula Cole performed on Saturday Night Live in 1998 with her nipples blazing and pit hair in full effect. SNL was a show I always and only watched with my father, who had custody of my brother and I on the weekends and who had let me stay up late for episodes since I was a child. He was the type of man who regularly commented on women’s appearances whether those women were on the screen, on the sidewalk he drove past, or acquaintances in his personal and professional life. My impression of her hippie chick aesthetic couldn’t admit my own reaction; I was too busy anticipating his evaluation, which he would make known at any moment. To whatever extent my ancient memory of the moment can be trusted, I think he said something like, “she sure likes showing it off” when she threw her mic-free hand over her head during “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?”, flashing fur yet again. Though I was not a performer and barely a woman, I recognized even then that her movements, and her body, had less to do with provoking dour sexists than how she naturally existed.
Insecure, cosseted, teenage-me was obsessed with Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, and Paula Cole, with any woman who let her emotions make her ugly in public. Learning women flaunted themselves this way—grating, demanding, furious—was a shock that begat instant fascination; I wanted to understand how they did it, and why. Of course there were degrees of how displeasing certain artists allowed themselves to be. Amos’s ethereal looks, traditional femininity, and soprano voice kept her from becoming too threatening even when she sang about a gun and a man on her back, while Harvey channeled her brand of angular brutishness into an erotic dare, a challenge: het sex by way of Fight Club, with men and women bruising each other in equal measures. But Paula… On This Fire, her most famous album and the one that earned her a Best New Artist Grammy in 1997, Paula sang about wanting to forge a sexuality entirely her own, about the bitter battles of straight partnerships, and, above all else, about pledging to access her own power by tearing off the layers of shame and fear hemming it in. She was a rage-filled one-time prom queen singing about having the Amazon between her thighs and a tiger in her mouth. I couldn’t stop listening.
Cole’s singles only hinted at the mine of anger running through This Fire. “I Don’t Want to Wait”—if it wasn’t ruined for you by Dawson’s Creek (a show I blessedly never watched)—remains sweet and pretty. Its message of mindful urgency has an ache, but it’s accessible, familiar, inviting. How else could it have been selected as an anthem for teeangers in a soap opera? Power Paula surfaces only for a moment, to reject the imperative of patrilineage. (“And I don’t want to do what his father and his father and his father did,” punching each his with her breath.) Similarly, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” is only a small act of defiance, resentful but still wistful, with a narrator mourning an impossible fairytale that every other track on the album either rejects or ignores.
Those hits might have helped spur my curiosity about her music, but it wasn’t until after seeing Cole’s unshaven underarms that I bought the CD. And the opener, “Tiger,” piped through the headphones attached to my Discman like a secret, hypnotized me. “Where do I put this fire? This bright red feeling?” she asks against silence before launching into a rhythmic vow that lifts and dives like a bird as she disavows ass-grabbing teachers, shyness, hesitation. “I want to sit with my legs wide open/and laugh so loud that the whole damn restaurant/will turn and look at me,” she sings, describing a boldness I could not imagine claiming but wanted desperately to believe I would, someday—just like the song says. (“Someday I’ll be born.”) In its last minute, she yelps and scream-growls like she’s summoning a spirit, throwing powders into a cauldron. I loved that it didn’t sound good.
Initially delicate, “Nietzsche’s Eyes” builds to a similar twenty seconds of savage sound-making as she repeats “getting down this,” hurling “get” out of her throat in a combination bark and shout. It’s a beautiful, spare melody, though the arrangement unfortunately falls prey to the 90’s uilleann pipe craze spawned by Titanic. But reception of the song’s intrinsic elegance was usually overshadowed by Cole’s ending vocalizations. Predictably, these moments garnered plenty of complaints from male listeners at the time and continues to annoy them now, which only cements my sense of why the album was so valuable in my formative years. (The same song opens with: “How many times did I/have to hear you say to me/Self obsessed artist?”)
I can’t listen to This Fire now without recalling a Vivian Gornick passage about a diner party exchange gone wrong:
That night I saw coming, as though for the first time, the death of sentimental affection between women and men. The familiar arrangement between us was at an end. Our backing off, our silence, our turning the other cheek: it was over.
In sequence, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” ushers in the unflinching “Throwing Stones,” with a the chorus consisting of “you call me a bitch in heat/and I call you a liar/and we’ll throw stones until we’re dead.” A heavy, catchy chord progression drives the story of an utterly failed relationship to its conclusion, which reiterates only the same without improvement or reprieve. The songs’ absence of anyone’s approval, but particularly male approval, was what so enraptured me as a teen. In track after track, the narrator is prouder to be without approval; the lack of approval makes her more herself. “I’m know I’m big and proud all over,” says Cole in “Mississippi,” “not just on the stage.” She speaks from a place of self-assertion that felt inaccessible to me then, but thanks to the example of her music, at least not inconceivable.
“Me,” the album’s third and least popular single is still probably my favorite song on the record. It reminds me of Alanis Morissette’s “Thank U,” in its earnestness, its delivery of timeless wisdom, hokey aphorisms, or outright cliches (depending on who you ask, or your own mood that moment) with a melody that makes the words feel new and intuitively true. Many times I’ve bolstered myself in a vulnerable moment by recalling the final verse: “I am walking on the bridge/I am over the water/and I’m scared as hell/But I know there’s something better/Yes I know, yes I know, yes I know.” They’re the words of a woman with nothing to believe in but herself, and herself is more than enough.