Songwriter speaks, sings her mind

Friday, March 20, 1998

Jill Sobule...
Photo by Scott Maclay
Jill Sobule

click this button to listen to webcastListen to Friday’s concert and conversation with Jill Sobule.

When Jill Sobule’s latest album, Happy Town, began hitting stores last year, Wal-Mart refused to stock it, saying the cover art portraying two hands pulling apart a pill capsule promoted drugs.

Faced with altering the design or the potential loss of tens of thousands of record sales, Sobule — noting she isn’t a blockbuster star like Sheryl Crow — chose to “sell out.”

The pill capsule became test tubes, and Wal-Mart approved the new cover.

“I kind of like the test tubes better,” laughed Sobule, adding that the minor change didn’t really alter the artwork and possibly pushed the drug image even more. “But we didn’t compromise the music.”

Sobule said such occurrences happen often for a singer-songwriter known for her frank musical takes on modern life, most notably for the alternative-rock hit, “I Kissed a Girl.” And she promised not to change simply because some retailers and radio programmers don’t like her songs.

On Friday, Sobule performed a topical concert at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., including a song about Linda Tripp and one about the death penalty. Before playing, Sobule spoke with Ken Paulson, the center’s executive director, about the often strained relationship between government and popular music.

Paulson observed that rock ‘n’ roll music in particular makes school officials and legislators uneasy, bringing up attempts to rate concerts and ban rock band T-shirts in schools. He recapped a number of government efforts to limit First Amendment expression through music.

For Sobule, the single “I Kissed a Girl” got her the most attention, particularly from conservative radio listeners who denounced the singer for promoting the homosexual lifestyle.

Although MTV included the song’s video in its playlist, many radio stations refused to play the record. Sobule said one Nashville radio station would only play the song after a lengthy disclaimer warning parents that the song contained homosexual references.

“That stuff just helped me,” Sobule said. “If they would have left it alone, it might not have been as big as it was.”

But at the same time the record gave her nationwide exposure, the experience placed her in a precarious position with her label, Sobule said.

“I think the label after that didn’t know what to do with me: Do we treat her as a novelty act or what?” she said.

While singing about kissing a girl might pass censors, Sobule said singing about two women having a baby probably wouldn’t. Sobule jabbed record executives, noting they would probably say: “As long as it sells records we’ll do it, so long as it doesn’t push the envelope too far.”

But Sobule, who peppers some of her songs with profanity, said she refuses to allow herself to be censored if the words promote her messages. She told students in the audience to stand by their work if they really believe in it.

“If you feel it’s important, and it’s not just to shock someone, I think you need to stick with it,” she said.