The first thought I had about Michelle Branch, when I saw her video (which was suddenly all over the place), was how wide a stretch of ground she covers. She seems caught, as an artist, between two (usually) mutually exclusive genres of music: that of the plucky, go-it-alone female singer-songwriter, and that of the slick, overproduced überpop of the boy and girl bands that exert a habitual dominance on TRL. On one hand, she’s young. The marketing push on The Spirit Room is clearly behind her first big single (having it as the first track is the big giveaway). And she came onto the scene with a vengeance, making the playlist on both MTV and VH1, with her first single, “Everywhere”, before anyone knew who she was. In other words, the marketing machine seems solidly behind her.
But wait a minute. She writes her own songs. (She at least co-wrote all 11 songs on the album, and is the sole writer listed for half of them.) She plays an instrument, for pete’s sake! This may not seem like much to people who remember the alternative rock boom of the ‘90s that led to the resurgence of the singer-songwriter, to say nothing of the musical movements that preceded that boom, but for the teeny-bopper audience, it’s pretty big. After all, one can call Michelle Branch a musician with a straight face: something one couldn’t dream of doing for, say, Britney Spears or ‘NSync.
Still, after a couple of listens, the thing that jumped out about Branch’s songwriting is how young everything sounds. All 11 songs on the album are love songs of one sort or another, with a fairly simple emotional stance, and not a whole lot of subtlety. In other words, in the style of adolescence, when you feel each emotion completely and to the exclusion of all else, until the next one comes along. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are loads of masterful pop songs with that kind of emotional clarity (witness U2 or The Cure). But hearing one permutation of teenage love after another does get a bit old. There isn’t even really any anger; just happy and sad. And if we start comparing her to the likes of Tori Amos, or Liz Phair, or even Alanis Morrisette (whose voice Branch’s resembles at the higher end of the register), then things begin to look bad for Branch.
More to the point, the idea of finding love and having it solve all your problems (as in “I’d Rather be in Love”: “when there’s you, I feel whole”) is one that we eventually grow out of with the end of adolescence. And the imagery on parts of the album just seems incredibly dated to the early teenage years. Branch tells us about her “secret garden” where “all of my flowers grow” (on “You Get Me”), and that “she wanted to fly” so “you gave me your wings” (on “You Set Me Free”). One can only imagine that the song about wild horses that can’t be tamed, running free, was saved for a B-side.
That said, Branch knows how to write a catchy pop song. The chorus to “Everywhere” was enough to make me run out and buy the CD, associations with the boy bands be damned. Speaking of the boy bands, “Here with Me” sounds in parts like a Backstreet Boys song—studio effects in the background, overdubbed vocals (so it sounds like not one Michelle but a whole chorus of Michelles—for a sound that can only be described as “shiny”), and a chorus so catchy you can’t help singing along, even if you do hate yourself for it.
And for all my misgivings about the younger focus of the album, the ideas behind them still hold a strong emotional appeal. While the idea of love solving all your problems is one we all outgrow, there’s a part of us that never really does, just like there’s a part of us that never really leaves adolescence. Branch plays the ingenue well enough, and there’s a kind of earnestness to her work that won me over.
Lately, after realizing that there is an art all its own to writing pop songs, I’ve become obsessed with the question of what makes a great one. And while Michelle Branch may not reach into the realm of pop transcendence, she’s made a great cd to listen to while driving, or playing computer solitaire. I’m also interested to see what she’ll produce as she matures as a songwriter—that is, if she keeps away from the marketing guys.
And while it’s easy to dismiss a song (or album, or artist) because it appeals too strongly to the under-18 demographic, and the critical disdain for the boy bands and Britney may be justified, one shouldn’t be so quick to write off the listeners in that category as dumb, or easily led. They’re just young. I mean, hell, I used to listen to Paula Abdul.
When Michelle Branch was first coming into the public’s attention, America Online (that bastion of musical knowledge if there ever was one) hailed her as “the anti-Britney”. My brother was amused that, apparently, it will be a brunette woman with average-sized breasts who brings down the house on these overproduced assembly-line studio babies, but maybe they were onto something. I remember thinking, as the backlash to the Lilith-Fair crowd was in full effect, that whatever their weaknesses as musicians were, at least they were getting girls into bands. So while seasoned listeners might not find much in Michelle Branch’s debut, maybe at least a few of the 15-year-old girls who mob the set of TRL every day will get a taste for actual musicians, who play instruments and write their own songs and everything. And if even one-tenth of the people who buy The Spirit Room go on and get into Tori Amos, or Patti Smith, or even (dare I dream?) Sleater-Kinney, then it’ll all be worth it. We all have to start somewhere.