Ode to a Great Song Maker: In Praise of the Juliana Hatfield Three’s “Become What You Are”

Written by Music

Twenty summers ago Juliana Hatfield gave us her second solo album, a dozen grungy pop songs spouting her love for dead birds, deadbeat sisters, the Del Fuegos, and Henry Rollins’ neck. The follow-up to her post-Blake Babies solo debut Hey Babe, Become What You Are aimed to depart from the hyper-confessional jangle-pop that had inspired Sassy to crown Hatfield “queen of the unrequited-love song” upon Hey Babe‘s release. “I wanted there to be a lot of different kinds of songs,” said Hatfield of Become What You Are in a September 1993 interview. “Different kinds of lyrical ideas, rather than one bummer theme.”

Hey Babe came out in the spring of 1992, when I was 14, and the bummer theme was never a problem for me: I taped “Everybody Loves Me But You” off the radio and played it over and over, pretending I was Juliana and living the dreamy rock-and-roll life I’d imagined for her. Even if she was as lonely and brokenhearted as she claimed, it was in a romantic way that didn’t seem so bad to me. Her sadness was glamorous, and I was excited to be glamorously sad someday too.

“My Sister” was the first single from Become What You Are, and the first line of the song was “I hate my sister, she’s such a bitch.” I remember at least one of my friends laughing at that line as we watched the “My Sister” video on MTV: it was funny to hear song lyrics that were just like sentences we spoke in real life. I didn’t have a big sister, but the more wistful parts of the song had a relatability that I didn’t entirely welcome. Mostly I latched onto the premature regret in Juliana’s voice, the fear that — even if you were still just a kid — you might have already missed your shot at becoming infallibly cool. On Become What You Are Juliana owned up to all kinds of disappointment, none of them having to do with the lovely tragedy of a beautiful boy being careless with your heart, and that was confusing to me. I just didn’t see the point.

In 1993 there were so many bands and singers putting out records that filled my head up with starry-eyed notions of what life might be like once I got a little older. The Lemonheads lived in some goofball parallel universe full of boys who were childlike and wild, singing songs about cake and puzzles and Jell-O and drugs. Belly’s first album, Star, was a storybook full of beaches and forests and faraway cities that were both dangerous and magical. Liz Phair’s nerviness seemed unattainable when I was a teenager, but I coveted her lazy elegance, and the slyness of her bravado when shit didn’t work out like she wanted.

There wasn’t much opportunity for daydream or the invention of more extraordinary selves in Become What You Are. Instead Juliana showed you her reality and all the ways it let her down. Some of her angst was existential, like on “For The Birds” (the dead-bird one, the one where she finds a dying bird in the first chorus, and in the second chorus argues that “Humans only wreck the world/They’d kill your whole family for a string of pearls”). A few of the songs were painfully personal: “Addicted” was at least partly about her anorexia (“The skeleton trees remind me of me/They got no leaves/To make the air we breathe”), while “Little Pieces” was a breakup anthem stripped of any cheery delusions of romantic grandeur (“Feels like a heartbreak/But it’s nothing near that great”). And several tracks served as social commentary, taking on everything from rape (“A Dame with a Rod”) to the false promise of rock-star worship (“I Got No Idols”) to the emptiness of the fashion industry (the album-opening “Supermodel,” on which she warns that “Those magazines end up in the trash,” stretching out the lyric’s last syllable for eight weird and gorgeous seconds).

In the cover story from the March 1994 issue of Spin, Rob Sheffield describes Hatfield’s lyrics as “transcendentally wack,” and I think he means it fawningly. Because while Become What You Are‘s got plenty of clunky turns of phrase, there’s also so much strange poetry that ultimately lends the album an unlikely grace. “This Is The Sound” rhymes “Watching gases in the sky” with “I can’t stop thinking of that guy,” forming pop history’s most perfect couplet about having an obsessive crush in Los Angeles. In “My Sister,” a firecracker explodes in Juliana’s eyes, and it’s both devastating and exhilarating. And when she sings “I’m so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so bored” at the end of “Feelin’ Massachusetts,” it’s almost the same to me as Paul Westerberg shouting “I’m so unsatisfied” about half a dozen times at the end of “Unsatisfied” by the Replacements: a downer of a lyric that’s delivered so starkly, it goes past self-pitying and straight onto glorious. It’s like she transcending in spite of herself.

In her own cover story in an October 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, Liz Phair calls Hatfield a “great song maker,” which is a neat choice of words. There’s something very constructed about the songs on Become What You Are, despite their giving off too much warmth and shine to ever feel contrived. Every track hinges on a melody so bright and easy and infectious, it’s as dulcifying as a nursery rhyme. Most of the songs cut that sweetness with Hatfield’s sludgy guitar riffs, which in turn scrape against her honeyed vocals. But the boldest and bravest and maybe most powerful piece of Become What You Are is Hatfield’s insistence on laying bare all her uncool frustrations, defying any pop expectations of a winning narrative, and – in the end – finding her own tiny freedom in saying something really deep.