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Pop Music

Jewel’s second is nearly perfect ... maybe too perfect


I am not in a good space now. I am midway through my second year away from teaching, my second year of carving out a life as a freelance writer, my second year as a part-time waitress.

A year ago, I had dreams of where I would be by now. I would have a finished manuscript for every month of my writing life. I would have a rough draft of my novel completed. I would rise every morning with the sun, regardless of how late I worked the night before, and would begin the day with prayer and meditation before going to the computer to write.

I would never do the laundry first, put last night’s dishes in the dishwasher, fill the bird feeders. No, I would be so committed and efficient that nothing would keep me from the page, from this simple process of stringing words together.

This is not my reality. Occasionally I come close. Generally, though, I sleep later than I should, ignore my journal until midmorning, waste time on the Internet and am still in my pajamas when my husband calls at lunchtime to say hello. It is embarrassing when the postman comes with a package or the Federal Express lady drops by. When I do write, it’s usually for an hour or so, rarely more. I disappoint myself again and again.

It’s in this spirit that I have been listening to Jewel lately. Her second CD “Spirit” debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard album charts last November, an impressive showing considering it was released the same time that powerhouse Garth Brooks had a new album on the market. Jewel’s album has already sold more than 3 million copies and months after its release is still up near the top of the charts.

The album is nearly perfect. From the jacket design to the lyrics, it is lovely. Jewel dedicates it to her mother, Nedra Carroll, who “gently inspired and nurtured” her desire to “be a human being in the highest sense.” It quotes Plotinus who said, “We are not separate from spirit; we are in it,” and James Allen, who promises that if you cherish your vision and ideals, “your world will at last be built.” It features a golden seal that exhorts listeners to “be the difference that makes a difference” and reminds them that “you are the difference.” All this before the first notes are heard.

“Hands,” the first single that peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, celebrates our power to work for change. “I won’t be made useless,” Jewel sings. “I won’t be idle with despair.” Instead she vows to use her gifts, regardless of how insignificant they seem. “My hands are small I know/But they’re not yours, they are my own/And I am never broken,” she says.

Later she makes it clear there’s a social consciousness at play. She sings, “We’ll fight, not out of spite/For someone must stand up for what’s right/’Cause where there’s a man who has no voice/There ours shall go singing.”

Other parts of the gospel according to Jewel? We’re all OK and we shouldn’t worry, “ ’cause worry is wasteful/And useless in times like these.” It’s kindness that matters most, and always good to get down on your knees to pray. Along with this, we are “God’s eyes, mind, heart and hands” on this earth.

That’s a lot of light theology for any pop song. The rest of “Spirit” continues in a similar vein. The first song, “Deep Water,” echoes St. Paul’s words from I Corinthians. “It’s nothing without love,” Jewel sings. There are hints of Jesus here, too, with his pesky example of loving the unlovable, the tax collectors and demon-possessed. “Let’s run with the hunted, the untamed/embrace the faceless, the unnamed,” she sings in “Kiss the Flame.”

The song “Barcelona” turns to prayer, with the lyrics, “God, won’t you please hold me, release me/Show me the meaning of mercy” and “I won’t be held back/I will lead with my faith.”

“Spirit” also features a protest song, one that easily could have been sung by the flower children of the 1960s. “There is a new army coming and we are armed with faith/To live, we must give/And lend our voices only to sounds of freedom,” she sings in “Life Uncommon.” The song has a practical edge as well: “There are plenty of people who pray for peace/But if praying were enough it would have come to be.”

The answer? “Fill your lives with love and bravery/And we shall lead a life uncommon.”

I confess that I am jealous of Jewel, of the uncommon life she seems to lead. It’s hard to imagine that just a few years ago the 24-year-old was living in the back of a van in San Diego, surviving mainly on carrot sticks and peanut butter, writing songs, playing gigs, biding her time until she made it big. I am jealous of the faith she must have had in herself, and of her idyllic relationship with her mother, who is the only vocalist other than Jewel featured on the album.

I wish I didn’t like “Spirit’s” final song, “Absence of Fear,” so much. Though not an outright prayer, it invokes the passion of the mystic saints who longed to be ravaged by God. “Inside my skin there is this space/It twists and turns/It bleeds and aches/Inside my heart there’s an empty room/It’s waiting for lightning/It’s waiting for you,” she sings.

As I struggle every day with writing and not writing, I too ache for that place “inside the absence of fear.” I wonder what life would be like there. Maybe more like Jewel’s life, which seems to go so well now.

That’s my problem with the album -- the fact that it’s so close to perfect, that Jewel seems so perfect, annoys me. Though she sings in “Absence of Fear” about restlessness, desire and need, I’m not convinced that she suffers from any of these problems. Maybe it’s because the majority of her lyrics are so self-assured and confident, full of answers and pronouncements.

“I am never broken,” she sings in “Hands.” Good for her.

That’s not me, though. I am broken all the time. I am a whirling mass of confusion and despair that occasionally bobs out of this whirlpool of daily life for breaths of holy air. The music that touches me most recognizes that. It doesn’t continually urge me to “make a difference,” something I already feel guilty about. Instead, it holds my hand and makes the nights less lonely.

There was a “Saturday Night Live” sketch the other night poking fun at Jewel and her poetry. I admit that I laughed longer than I should have. It felt good to tear her down, to make her words seem trite. I’m not proud of this, though I understand why she made such a satisfying target. Jewel’s music makes her larger than life, setting her up as someone to follow, someone who will lead us into the best way of making a difference, something she surely knows because she lived in a van once.

Even in the songs that hint at deeper issues, she trips along past the pain. “Fat Boy” takes the viewpoint of a youngster struggling with a weight problem. “Fat Boy says ‘Wouldn’t it be nice/If I could melt myself like ice/Or outrun my skin and just be pure wind’ ” she sings. “Oh fragile flame/Sometimes I feel the same.” If Jewel struggles with weight, you couldn’t tell it from the pictures on the CD jacket. Maybe she starved herself before the photo session.

The song’s last line, though, with its confession and self-doubt, is the stuff of real life that would have helped me connect with her. But it’s just a glimpse, one that fades away with the next track.

Maybe I’m too hard on her, too hard on myself. I would love to do things differently, better, to gain the success that Jewel has, to make a difference the way she suggests. I can’t fault her for encouraging people in that direction. It wouldn’t be a bad thing for everyone to do more to make things better.

It’s a long road, though, and I have a sneaking suspicion that all that is good in the world is less about us -- our spirits, hands, faith, album covers -- then it is about God’s grace. The fact that God works through us, that somehow, every once in awhile, things get better, and ordinary people do extraordinary things -- that is a miracle.

It’s something I pray for every day.

Robin Taylor writes from Dayton, Nev.

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 1999