On Image, Identity, and Improvisations; Or, The Continuing Education of Miss Hill
"Every single song is about me first," says a plainly clothed Lauryn Hill to her audience, as recorded on her new Unplugged, a live acoustic performance broadcast by MTV and now available on compact disk. She explains that she has been facing her own limitations and her new songs come out of that exploration; she’s not trying to correct others as much as she’s trying to correct herself. She, with guitar is hand, is attempting to grow up in public, and I suspected this after reading surprisingly unsympathetic comments about her performance and this disk. I approached the disk with a sense of privilege and trust. The truth about who we are, about our ambitions and anxieties, pride and pain, is not so common that the testimony of someone with so much to lose—public image, money, and career trajectory—is something I was inclined to listen to cavalierly.
I must admit that I have not admired her work, little I knew of it. I found the claims made previously for her beauty, talent, and value exaggerated—and I thought her songs were mundane and that she sang off-key. I did not listen to the whole of her previous recording, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, until after I listened to Unplugged. What I think is interesting about Miseducation is the atmosphere she creates—one that seems friendly, honest, speculative, and sensuous—as she raps and sings about love, values and life lessons, and neighborhood and camaraderie. Neither Miseducation nor Unplugged convinces me that she is a major talent, or even a significant one, though I find what she is trying to do now very interesting: she’s trying to grow and take her audience with her. Unplugged is a collection of thoughts set to music. I’m not sure most of what she calls songs actually are songs. Many of them lack melody or any charm (or wit or structure or…); and her voice is husky to the point of hoarse and singing off-key is common. She talks about having made sacrifices in the past to protect her voice, sacrifices she’s rejecting now, sacrifices that kept her from living fully or interacting with the people in her life, as she had to rest and not speak. However, her singing here seems honest—full of conviction and emotion, and yearning toward something, and I have little trouble listening to her voice; and I think her intentions are honest and that gives this recording value. (What kind of value? It stimulates thought, and encourages one on one’s own path.) The recording may prove to be an important transition in her development. If she does grow as an artist that development will have value not only for her but us as well, and that will be the value of art and possibly also philosophy. I regret that she hasn’t located better models for her growth.
Part of the problem is in how she is thinking about that growth. She uses generalizations such as "everybody else is just as empty" and "everybody knows that they’re guilty" and she says that one shouldn’t hide behind education. However, it is education and philosophy (the intellectual traditions that individuals and societies over centuries have been creating and questioning and changing) and it is the models of other artists that may offer her help—inspiration, solace, technique. Plato’s dialogs about virtues and the uncertainty of knowing, Nietzsche on morality, and Bell Hooks, Angela Davis, Hazel Carby, and Toni Morrison on race and sex might be particularly helpful to her. Instead, she refers often to the Bible, which she doesn’t seem to realize is simply another text, another tradition, another cultural product—and in itself it is now a static text, tradition, and product. Women musical artists as diverse as Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Sade, Tracy Chapman, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Sinead O’Connor have dealt with the complexities of personality, love, society, and politics, and dealt with them with more insight, originality, and grace than anything Lauryn Hill has produced. Why do some people think that writing second or third-rate songs is better than performing first-rate songs? When women such as Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, and Diana Ross wanted to sing about politics, they picked songs by people like B.B.King, Elton John, Stephen Sondheim, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, and Stevie Wonder, and thus produced intelligent statements equal to the concern or passion they felt. MC Lyte (Act Like You Know), Queen Latifah (All Hail the Queen), and Sister Souljah (360 Degrees of Power), to name three women affiliated with hip-hop, have produced better recordings than Unplugged and Miseducation. Hill, for the most part, produces mediocrity.
In Unplugged’s "Mr. Intentional," she says, "The only help I need to live is unprofessional." She’s wrong—a therapist might help, so might a call to a music publisher. Lauryn Hill is trying to forge a new language but doesn’t trust most established cultural references, not understanding that there’s a history of people who have addressed the issues she’s raising about justice, self-criticism, and honesty in love and the importance of real care. (If she knew this history better, she might not be so captivated by her own banalities.) That is miseducation.
"Adam Lives in Theory" indicates she’s drawn toward creating parables, but hasn’t mastered this. In "Oh Jerusalem," she sings, "Can I factor that I’ve only been an actor in a staged interpretation of reality?" I wonder: To what extent does taking up a social role, or artistic intention, involve creating an image, and is the image always false or deceptive? Is it inevitable that people will cast us in stories of their own making because of the way we look or something we’ve done? To what extent is it possible to convey a whole self, or a complex self, or a final (completely evolved) self? In the intro to "I Find it Hard to Say (Rebel)," which she says she wrote after the Amadou Diallo murder in New York (policemen shot him almost twenty times), she says, "I had to be a living example…I’ve become one of those mad scientists who does the test on themselves first." She says the spirit of freedom is taken out of all of us, and in the song there is a contrast between her light quick notes on the guitar and the long dark notes she sings. It is possibly the most melodic song on the album. She sings, "Rebel while today is still today, choose well."
"He’s just like the water…I haven’t felt this way in years…bathing in the fountain of his essence," she sings in "Just Like Water," a song about love and sex. How’s this for graceless: he’s "moisturizing me to satisfaction"? and for the mundane: "he’s been cleaning me and moving me around"? In another love song, she repeats, "I just want you around," and she sounds more dependent than loving. (She ends by joking about how she would fade out the song if she were in a studio, but how now to end she just stops.) "Touch my mouth with your hands," she sings in "I Gotta Find Peace of Mind," and these words—so specific, they covey passion and reality—and her struggle for love and spirituality is vivid, rendered artistically, with craft and meaning for others. She asks, "Will my devotion last?" These are the hopes and doubts at the beginning of a new love. She sings, "You are my peace of mind," then "please come free my mind." Sounding full of pain, she says, "I’m telling you it’s possible." There’s confusion here. "He’s my peace of mind," she says. "What a wonderful, merciful god," she repeats, crying, before taking a break.
Upon her return from the break, she asks the audience if it’s all right, and people clap, and she says, "I was asking a question and you’ll clap. A yes is okay." She says that her god told her she was the problem and could become the solution, and that "the point is to fulfill your passion…Music was a love that became a burden…You don’t have to fit a standard; you are already a standard."
Hill says that who she was during The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was more image than identity.
Absolute sincerity is a myth, as is absolute authenticity—and so is absolute disclosure. A glamorous woman is not automatically a liar, nor is a rich man in every case a crook. It requires perceptual vigilance, intellectual rigor, and emotional generosity to look at everyone as an individual and see who she or he is and to maintain an open sense of whom she/he might become. Many people expect the truth to look and sound a certain way—sometimes, however, the truth is not earnest but funny, and some of Hill’s most effective comments are funny and involve her contradictions. She talks about working to leave vanity behind, then says she told MTV they’d better light her better or people would think she’s a boy, and admits that during the performance’s break she went wild for a few minutes trying to figure what clothes to change into before deciding to put back on what she started with.
Often her spoken comments are more engaging than her songs. "Mystery of Iniquity" is a quick, rhetorical rap about law and injustice preceded by a few song lines, and it’s not bad, while "I Get Out" is her declaration of independence, in which she sings "I’ll get out of all your boxes" and "I won’t support your lie no more, I won’t even try no more" and "Who made up these schools I say? Who made up these rules I say" and "superstition [is] killing freedom." Neither political ideology nor religious belief is philosophy and what is religion but superstition tied to the hope for transcendence? "I’m yours to command," she sings in "I Remember" and one wonders how freedom relates to this vow. "I’ll never forget how they crucified Jesus Christ" she sings in "So Much Things to Say," reiterating very old lessons and older clichés, such as "The rain don’t fall on one man’s house." "She’ll break every chain," she sings in "The Conquering Lion," and that is certainly a hope, though now all we have are the proof of her intentions, not their execution.
We talk a lot about freedom in this country, but we don’t always recognize it, and sometimes women who pursue their own freedom are demonized—and so I welcome Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged as steps in the right direction. I hope she continues to grow. Meanwhile, I expect to be listening to Annie Lennox, Cassandra Wilson, and other favorites who sing good songs beautifully. Ultimately, most of us are forced to improvise our lives—some of us choose to improvise—and if we’re lucky we also can sing.