“Speaking Freely” show recorded March 27, 2001, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression, the arts, and America. I’m Ken Paulson, the executive director of the First Amendment Center. Joining us today is a unique voice in American music, a woman whose inspiration comes from many places, including the daily headlines. Please welcome Jill Sobule.
Jill Sobule: Thank you.
Paulson: Jill, you’ve had a remarkable career, and early on in your career you had your first taste of censorship, and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you here today. And a lot of people know you for your most controversial song.
Sobule: Right. “Kissed A Girl.”
Paulson:“I Kissed A Girl.” And I have to ask you, why in the world that … or how in the world that ever got released sort of a single, a radio single? Did you think America was ready for that song?
Sobule: You know, I … I had no idea. It was just one of the songs on my album, and I think it was the label’s choice to put that out. And … I think it was … they thought like, “Ah!” You know? “Lesbian! This could be a trendy thing!” Or something. But, you know, it was just one of the songs that I’ve written and I … an important song for me, too.
Paulson: But it wasn’t your idea to break barriers at the time.
Sobule: I thought just putting it on …
Paulson: Broke some barriers.
Paulson: And what kind of reaction? I mean, clearly it got airplay, it became a radio hit, sold quite a few copies and —
Sobule: Yeah, I wasn’t expecting what happened. I mean … everything from … well, in Nashville, where there was a station, among other ones in the South, that had a disclaimer at the beginning of it. This has, like, homosexual content. If you have children … which I thought was awesome. I thought it was like Ice-T and “Cop Killer,” you know? And …
Paulson: If you value your life at all, turn off the radio.
Sobule: Which is so amazing ’cause I said, you know, I kissed a girl. I didn’t say “I strapped it on” or anything. You know? I mean, I’m just like it was … to me, it was sweet and … and very innocent and … so I … I wasn’t ready for that and I think also I wasn’t ready for, you know, the … the censorship, that there were stations in the South that banned it. But as always happens, it always helps the artist.
Sobule: I was used to going to public stations and playing and then I would … all of a sudden “Kissed A Girl” happened and I’d be going to these Top 40 morning DJ shows and they would be all, you know, they’d introduce me like, “Hey, we have something in common. I kissed a girl, too.” You know, that kind of like …Oh … So ..
Sobule: (Sings) Genny came over & told me about Fred/He’s such a hairy behemoth she said/Dumb as a box of hammers/But he’s such a handsome guy/And I opened up and told her about Larry/And yesterday how he asked me to marry/And I’m not giving him an answer yet/I think I can do better/So we laughed, compared notes/We had a drink, we had a smoke/She took off her overcoat/I kissed a girl/I kissed a girl/She called home to say she’d be late/He said he’d worried but now he feels safe/I’m glad your with your girlfriend/Tell her “Hi” for me/So I looked at you, you had guilt in your eyes/But it only lasted a little while/And then I felt your hand above my knee/And we laughed at the world/They can have their diamonds/And we’ll have our pearls/I kissed a girl/I kissed a girl/I kissed a girl, her lips were sweet/She was just like kissing me/I kissed a girl, won’t change the world/But I’m so glad I kissed a girl/ And we laughed at the world/They can have their diamonds/And we’ll have our pearls/I kissed a girl for the first time/I kissed a girl and I may do it again/I kissed a girl/I kissed a girl/Kissed a girl, her lips were sweet/She was just like kissin’ me, but better/I kissed a girl/Kissed a girl, won’t change the world/But I’m so glad I kissed a girl/For the first time/Kissed a girl/Kissed a girl.
Paulson: You … you then surfaced from this controversy and … and you are … you’ve got a great new album, “Happy Town,” and a bright future. And you put out an album that you listen to it and you don’t hear anything that says, OK, this is gonna lead Nashville stations to ban it. And yet you find yourself in another controversy, and this time it involved the cover art.
Sobule: Oh, yeah.
Paulson: What happened with that?
Sobule: Well, originally it … it was like a takeoff on a Saul Bass, like “Man with the Golden Arm” kind of cover, but it was this … these two giant arms opening up a Prozac capsule on this town. And Wal-Mart said that that was too much of a drug reference, although, you know, it’s a legal drug and they sell it. But they also thought that the white sparkle was … looked like cocaine. So they made me change it. And it was a big thing for me to decide on whether I’d change or not, so I just made it test tubes instead. But it would … still it bothers me, to this day, that I … I did that.
Paulson: But for those who don’t know the record business, why is Wal-Mart important?
Sobule: It’s huge for … I don’t know if it’s so huge for … an artist like me who gets more of, you know … I don’t sell that well in Oklahoma. You know? But it’s still important.
Paulson: Now keep in mind, this show will be in Oklahoma. This is your chance to break through that audience.
Sobule: I’m … Colorado’s right near Oklahoma. Love that state.
Paulson: The … but you had to compromise, really.
Paulson: How’d you explain it to the artist? Did you work with the artist to try to modify it?
Sobule: Yeah, Brad who lives in … in Nashville, Brad Talbot, he just … we worked the next day trying to … to figure out what we could do that still looked good and made sense and still had the same concept.
Paulson: So was there a big meeting with Wal-Mart executives? Or you just send it over and say —
Sobule: No, I guess … they just said, “That’s fine.” I mean, I probably sold two records at Wal-Mart with all that. But …
Paulson: And so there was only one version of that. So Wal-Mart actually dictated the album cover for —
Sobule: Right. Yeah.
Paulson: … for everybody. Could you play something from that fine album?
Sobule: Sure. This song is called “Bitter” after being compromising and then being dropped from that label. (Sings) I could slip, I could fall/In that mean and awful hall/With the other jealous bitches and the bitter grumbling men/I could sneer, I could glare, say that life is so unfair/And the one who made it, made it `cause her breasts were really big/Well, I don’t wanna get bitter/I don’t wanna turn cruel/I don’t wanna get old before I have to/I could bitch, I could moan/Say I want to be left alone/But that’s not really true because I like my time with you/Till you rant and you rave wishing fat folks to their grave/ I feel sorry for them/You say they get what they deserve/Well, I don’t wanna get bitter/I don’t wanna turn cruel/I don’t wanna get old before I have to/And I don’t wanna get jaded/Petrified and weighted/I don’t wanna get bitter like you/Like you, with the darts in your eyes/Like you, with disdain for mankind/I was charmed, now I wonder/ I don’t wanna get bitter/I don’t wanna turn cruel/I don’t wanna get old before I have to … (Speaks) So this is the last verse. Should I do the nice version that’s on the album or my bitter version?
Audience: (Variously) Bitter.
Sobule: (Sings) So I’ll smile with the rest/Wishing everyone the best/And know the one who made it, made it ’cause she’s a slutty Mouseketeer … (Sings) I don’t wanna get bitter/I don’t wanna turn cruel/I don’t wanna get old before I have to/And I don’t wanna get jaded/Petrified and weighted/I don’t wanna get bitter like you.
Paulson: One of the things that’s so distinctive about your work is that you do draw from the headlines. And there are examples of that on Pink Pearl. And yet nobody does that anymore. I mean, there’s a history of that. Troubadours and … and Woody Guthrie and … and Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs. But there aren’t a lot of people out there doing what you do. Were there people who inspired you to do the kind of topical music you do?
Sobule: Well, I think there’s like, uh, Phil Ochs and the John Prines and the Bob Dylans and that genre. I think what … what helped me a few years ago, I … I think I was having … writer’s block. And I remember reading something where Bob Dylan said that he would read the newspaper and then write something. This was years ago. And so I thought I’d write it and … you know, it … it’s great because you don’t have the pressure of, “I’m writing a song for my record.”
Sobule: And then once in a while it can be actually a song that goes on a record.
Paulson: Why don’t we play one of those?
Sobule: Okay, sure. Which one would you like?
Paulson: How about “Mary Kay?”
Sobule: Sure. This one was … well, there’s kind of the highbrow politics that I’ll write about and then I’m … I was addicted to Court TV for a while. So I … I also like … what I do is I get up in the morning, I get the Times and I get the Post. And I’m ashamed to say … but this one came from the Post. And … and it was about Mary Kay LeTourneau, the … the teacher that had the … the affair with her … her student. And had two babies, I think. (Sings) Mary Kay, she’s got it bad/Thinks no one understands/You can’t keep a good man down/You can’t stop when love’s around/You can’t close your lonely eyes/Though he’s way too young to drive/But he’s old enough to please you/Love-me-nots and daisies, Mary Kay/Spin the bottle crazy, Mary Kay/Little John Doe’s got it bad/When he first walked in her class/He never had a crush like this/Except for Susie’s mother … (Sings) She wasn’t like the other girls/In their trite and silly world/He’d never seen someone so beautiful/Second base and better, Mary Kay/In her soft blue sweater, Mary Kay, Mary Kay/Under the bleachers, deeper and deeper/Oh teacher/Mary Kay was on the run/With the father of her son/She didn’t know she was a star/As they were steaming up the car/Now in your orange jailbird suit/I wish the best for you/You were in my heart and living room/Seven years and counting, Mary Kay/All the inmates wanting Mary Kay/Love-me-nots and daisies, spin the bottle crazy/Love can be amazing, Mary Kay. Thanks.
Paulson: The … the whole controversy about music and censorship, especially recently, has got to be of interest to you. I mean, you’ve had some firsthand experience with being censored. What is your take on Eminem?
Sobule: He’s so gay. No, I mean, it’s … you know, it’s angry, it’s … it’s almost like a parody on … I mean, actually, like, I love the production. I think Dr. Dre’s genius. And I think it’s actually some really great stuff. I just think it’s … it’s almost using bad words and … and hateful things to sell, you know.
Paulson: I’ve gotten to know Jill pretty well over the last few years and she’s been a great supporter of First Amendment work and … and discussions about free expression. And we had an event in Memphis where we had probably 250 newspaper editors in the room, and it was our chance to sort of make the case that free expression in music needs to be protected, not just in the press. And we had a nice panel there, a terrific panel. We had Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis, and … and can talk your ears off, a charming man. A guy named Sir Mack Rice who wrote a song called “Long Tall Sally,” and talked about the oppression he faced as a black artist in the … in the ‘50s. John Kay of Steppenwolf.
Sobule: Yeah, he was great.
Paulson: Song called “The Pusher,” which was widely banned because even though it was an anti-drug song, it said, “God damn the pusher,” literally. And … and at one point, they threatened with him with arrest in a … if he sang it in a southern town and …
Sobule: Didn’t he have a great story where he said …
Paulson: What he did in the end, John … John actually … he told the audience that he’d promised not to sing the song under promise of arrest. He said, “I promised not to say these words. But you didn’t promise.” And so as he reached the chorus of … of “The Pusher,” he held the microphone out and … and rather than having John Kay be profane, they had 20,000 people being profane. Oh.
Sobule: It was great.
Paulson: But the highlight of this event was Jill. And we had challenged her that morning to write a song out of the headlines to make the point that songs can be topical. At the time, the big story in New York City was the … “Sensation” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. And … and so Jill and Bill Lloyd, a very talented musician from … from Nashville, sat down and spent several hours or minutes, I’m not sure how long you spent on this, to write this song about this … this headline story. And I did not know if we would ever hear it again. But I thought in honor of the recent controversy at the Brooklyn Museum of Art we might ask you to resuscitate that.
Sobule: Oh, there it is.
Paulson: We’ve got it right here.
Sobule: OK. And just remember, I haven’t played it since then. I just heard it in … in his room, so … (Sings) If that snooty gallery owner won’t call you back, feel like a hack/Fall in the cracks where no one sees your genius/Don’t give up hope, there’s still a chance to make the scene/To live your dream, to paint the Virgin Mary with a penis/With a little piss and a little dung, just call the Mayor, you’ll be well hung/He’ll rant and rave, say you’re depraved, he’ll be your Holy Ghost/You’ll make the New York Post/Call Rudy if you’re art’s a little queer/Call Rudy, election year is near/Don’t call the Whitney, don’t call the Met/Don’t call MOMA, least you forget/You can be a sensation on every news station/Lines round the block see your degradation/It’s your duty/To call Rudy.
Paulson: That’s pressure. You play a song once every two years. We’ll meet all of you back here in 2003, yeah.
Sobule: I didn’t think it would happen again.
Paulson: (Laughs) Well, it was a cycle.
Paulson: It’s a … it’s a cycle here in the city. What is your take on that, in terms of censorship, the impulse to censor other people? And you live in Brooklyn, right?
Paulson: So you see the New York culture wars going. And … isn’t this supposed to be the freest city on the planet?
Sobule: But what’s so funny, and it’s the same thing where you’re saying with the Eminem thing, is that people that want to censor, just like the “Sensations,” probably they wouldn’t have gotten a hundred … they wouldn’t have gotten … as many people coming in if it hadn’t been for Rudy Giuliani. So the people that want censorship, and I can understand someone not liking someone’s lyrics, but the censorship just helps them.
Paulson: I’m sure you’ve been watching the new administration with interest.
Sobule: Oh, yeah.
Paulson: What’s your take on the new president?
Sobule: He … he’s not that inspirational to write about. But I did write one song. Should I do it?
Sobule: OK. This was written … I actually had to write … this was before the election, about the drug laws and … and how George W. said as a kid he had “youthful indiscretions.” And I thought, you know, it was some poor kid, you know, to be in jail still to this day. But would you hold this up for me?
Paulson: Do I have to be a member of a union to do this?
Sobule: Yes. And for some PBS stations we can’t say the F-word, right?
Paulson: You can say whatever you want, but … but we will get on more —
Sobule: Well, we want them —
Paulson: … more stations if you — (Laughs)
Sobule: How ironic.
Paulson: It is, isn’t it? Say whatever you want. Go for it, Jill.
Sobule: No, I’m not gonna say it. I’m gonna say, OK.
Paulson: I want to be clear. This is self-censorship.
Sobule: I’m self-censoring.
Paulson: And that’s OK.
Sobule: I’m gonna say, “What’s messed up.”
Paulson: And then go to her Web site and get the correct lyrics.
Sobule: (Sings) George was at the party at … (Speaks) OK, I’m gonna start over. (Sings) George was at the … (Speaks) See, not using the F-word is just F-ing me up. (Sings) George was at the party in the bathroom with the mirror/Making lines for all that frat boys all messed up on German beer/Driving on his way home he saw the red lights flash/The cop gave him a warning, said, “Say hi to your Dad”/Twenty-two years later just across the tracks/There’s another boy named George on the corner selling crack/Walking on his way home he saw the red lights spin/The cop pushed him against the car and bashed his head in/Youthful indiscretions, we all make mistakes/We grow and learn life’s lessons/Youthful indiscretions/George went on to college, continued on his way/Still got high and stinking drunk, got very average grades/Then he saw a bright light, he said that it was God/I think it was his family and a fancy job/Now back to our other George who’s sitting in a cell/In the company of murderers and rapists bound for Hell/And when I light a big fat joint, I thank the Lord up high/That I was born bleached blonde and white/Youthful indiscretions/We all make mistakes/We grow and learn life’s lessons/Youthful in-de … youthful in-de … youthful indiscretions.
Paulson: It’s been fun.
Sobule: Thanks again.
Paulson: It’s always great to have you here. Our guest today has been Jill Sobule. I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about free speech, the arts, and America. I hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”
Jill Sobule:M (Sings) Sometimes I wish that I was an angel/A fallen angel who visits your dreams/And in those dreams I’d blow you a message that says/You really want me/Sometimes I wish that I was a wrestler/A Mexican wrestler in a red vinyl mask/And I might grab you, and body slam you/And maybe cause physical harm/But when we would land/I might take pity on you/I can crack all your ribs/But I can’t break your heart/You will never love me/And this I can’t forgive/That you will never love me/As long as I will live/Sometimes I wish that I was a beauty/A beautiful girl who was still 21/And I’d turn your head, as well as your buddies/And I could afford to play hard to get/And we’d go to parties and you’d show me off/And I’d go home with someone else/You will never love me/And this I can’t forgive/And it will always bug me/As long as I will live/You will never love me/And why should I even care/It’s not that you’re so special/You’re just the cross I bear/You will never love me.
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