On Music and Embarrassment

By Dylan Matthews

A little while back, a Twitter meme called #3albums started to spread, asking people to name the three most formative albums of their teenage years. I compiled a thoroughly defensible list: The Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album, Big Star’s #1 Record, and Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister. The list was honest; certainly, my junior year of high school I listened to all three an absurd number of times. #1 Record is my favorite album to this day. But it was also safe. There is no context in which I would not feel comfortable defending any one of those records, not even among the most obscurantist of rock snobs. They’re good, I know they’re good, and I’m secure enough in that judgment to not care if anyone bashes them.

But then our blogmistress had to go and put her list together. And one of the albums was the Indigo Girls’ Swamp Ophelia. In the interest of radical honesty, I just checked my iTunes playcounts, and one song from that album–”Reunion”–has a grand total of 215 plays to its credit. The last play was in September 2006–and the last play for the rest of the album was a year earlier–but still: when I loved that album, I loved it to death. But damned if I wasn’t too embarrassed to admit it on Twitter. Same deal when I just saw that Natalie Merchant is releasing a new album after six years. “Jealousy” from Tigerlily? 192 plays. In both 10,000 Maniacs form and solo, she was more or less my soundtrack to freshman year. Tweetable? Not even barely.

This is weird. Listening to them again, I certainly don’t enjoy Merchant or the Indigo Girls the way I did early in high school, but they’re not embarrassingly bad. What’s more, in terms of non-musical impact they’re pretty close to ideal. While other kids were listening to say, Nelly or Limp Bizkit and getting the sort of gender politics one would expect from those acts, I was listening to explicitly, forcefully feminist material. The Indigo Girls talked about suffragettes as though they were history’s greatest badasses, while 10,000 Maniacs recorded a track in praise of Jezebel. Hell, Amy Ray’s solo material had me screaming “Lucy Stone-rs don’t need boners / Ain’t no man could ever own her” at the top of my lungs. There are worse sentiments for a fourteen year old boy to absorb. Indeed, I doubt I would have gotten into The Blow, Sleater-Kinney, and other explicitly feminist indie acts the way I did had I not grown up on Merchant and the Indigo Girls.

So consider this a belated #3albums: Swamp Ophelia, Tigerlily, and 10,000 Maniacs’ MTV Unplugged. Not because I still love them like the way that I used to do, but because gateway drugs to feminist indie rock are things to appreciate, not to disown: