SOPHIE B. arrived in a flurry of breathless press, hype and a little bit of name dropping; David Bowie or Bob Dylan, I can't remember, being a family friend or for whom her mother had been a percussionist. Don't test me on the details, they are not important here. The point was that she came onto the scene with a pedigree. More importantly, she had a stellar debut single that she wrote all by herself: Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover, an instant classic that was, let's be real, one of the greatest songs of the 1990s. Those cheeky munchkins at Slant agree with me. Just.
But Sophie was more prodigious musical talent than pop star in the making. She had a way with words, and such a complex musicality that her ability to coo in a poppy way was the red herring in her pop makeup. Although she sang in Madonna's register at times, she bore no other resemblance.
Her debut album, Tongues and Tails (1992) offered proof of how she was already on a way more sophisticated plane, which instantly made her a critic's darling; but her sexual ambiguity and bohemian styling made her more difficult to market as anything other than a singer songwriter. While Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover was a heady, hypnotic mix of dirty beats, sexy spoken and sung parts, complete with sapphic references, much of the debut was less textured; more the sound of an urban hippy teenager growing into a singer songwriter.
In the hands of Madonna, Right Beside You, the first single from her sophomore effort Whaler, would have been a monster hit; ironic that the vocals on that track often are reminiscent of Madonna. In Sophie's hands, although it was a major pop accomplishment, it was a minor moment for pop lovers. On the other hand, fellow second album track, As I Lay Me Down To Sleep, was one of those radio staples at a time in which we preferred our music a little plaintive, sad, lilting. The mid 1990s were the time of the Cranberries and Prozac, critical elements of mainstream culture that were later proven to offer nothing but a placebo effect.
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It's no coincidence that Sophie B. Hawkins and Meshell N'degeocello (who originally arrived via Madge's Maverick boutique label), both artists who could not be pigeon holed nor faulted for their musical abilities, couldn't compete with their more anodyne peers Jewel and Alanis Morisette (who both arrived on the scene just a couple of years after Hawkins and N'degeocello did). While Sophie B. managed a handful of hits from her first two albums, and N'degeocello pushed the boundaries of rap, hip hop and soul just enough to lay the foundation for an enduring career outside of the mainstream, the surprise is that both of these artists were never really given their dues.
Hawkins and N'degeocello were hard to market to the mainstream; they were labelled for their sexual preferences as often as they were cited as being talented, as if a bisexual or sapphic identity even mattered.
In the case of Hawkins, who would have seemed the more naturally inclined pop act, the failure to fully fire her career on all cylinders led to some disagreement with her record label, Sony, who effectively failed to promote her third album due to artistic differences between Hawkins and the label. Geez, Sony had a nasty time with its artists in the 1990s...
By the time she parted ways with Sony, Hawkins seemed to pick up the urban hippy thread she had dropped after the first album, and she continues to release music on her own label. Fighting the fight for Sophie B. Hawkins' first two albums is something I am happy to do. They were killer pop albums that remind us that the non Seattle 1990s weren't the artistically bereft period that some people would have you believe.
Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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