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Sheryl Crow Is Punk, and Always Has Been

A reappraisal of the singer-songwriter’s early career — and her charming, if occasionally corny, new album

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

“It’s an honest affection for this song?” an interviewer asked New Jersey punk heroes Screaming Females in 2012, as they were about to play their blistering cover of Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy.” “Oh, yeah,” frontwoman Marissa Paternoster answered, as if the interviewer were foolish to suggest otherwise. “It’s a rocker.”

She is not alone in believing this. There was a time, several years ago, when I felt like I couldn’t go to a punk show without hearing a gleeful, scream-along cover of “If It Makes You Happy.” I saw Screaming Females play it live several times, and I also saw Paternoster give it a slightly different treatment with her side project, Noun. A little while later, an L.A. punk band called Fidlar recorded their own pummeling, throat-shredding rendition of the song (to which they’d added a cheeky parenthetical, “(ft. cheryl kro).” Sick riffs, stage dives, and a band whose name is an acronym for “Fuck It, Dog, Life’s a Risk” — these are probably not the kinds of things you associate with the woman who sang the infernal mall-playlist staple “Soak Up the Sun.”

But I am here to argue otherwise. Last week Sheryl Crow released a new studio album, Be Myself, her ninth in a career that’s spanned almost three decades, and that’s seen her transform from the fun-loving day drunk peeling labels from her bottles of Bud to the tanned flower child to the twangy crooner put in the unfortunate position of having to feign romantic chemistry with Kid Rock. It’s been a winding road indeed. But Be Myself finds her teaming up once again with some of the people who helped her make her first few albums, which seems like a perfect occasion to revisit them and give them their critical due. It’s unfortunate that some of her blander later albums have cast something of a pall over her reputation, but the punks know it’s true: Sheryl Crow is much more of a badass than she gets credit for.

Sheryl Crow’s first major gig as a recording artist was providing vocals for a McDonald’s jingle in the late ’80s. Not a bad side hustle for a Fenton, Missouri, elementary school music teacher. She occasionally played in divey bar bands on the side, too; one night in St. Louis a waitress lost her balance and an armful of mugs hit Crow in the mouth and knocked out her front teeth, “Hee Haw style,” Crow’s recalled. But after paying these sorts of dues, a local producer got her hooked up with writing and singing jingles, for such illustrious clients as In-N-Out Burger and, conversely, Lean Cuisine. Even this kind of small-time showbiz life quickly became more lucrative and exciting than teaching. And so, at age 24, she decamped for L.A.

Crow sang backup for Don Henley and, famously, Michael Jackson. (She later remembered him as being “very professional” but “childlike, with probably an extreme case of arrested development.”) She wrote songs and played gigs and eventually secured a deal with A&M, though her first attempt at a solo album was scrapped; it was too slickly produced, and nothing was clicking. A musician she was dating at the time, named Kevin Gilbert, linked her up with a group he sometimes jammed with that came to be known as the Tuesday Night Music Club. The TMC’s leader, David Baerwald, said that as an antidote to “the increasingly macho atmosphere that was developing in the room, it would be nice to have some female energy around that wasn’t so blockheaded.” Crow came in, and something clicked. The result of this fateful chemistry was Crow’s 1993 solo debut, Tuesday Night Music Club, which has sold 7 million copies.

Tuesday Night Music Club is stacked, for what else can be said of an album that begins with the stirring, self-mythologizing sweep of “Run Baby Run” and then segues into one of ’90s rock radio’s most immaculate one-two-three punches: “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Strong Enough,” and “Can’t Cry Anymore.” There’s a weary grit to these songs (what an iconic opening line, sold so convincingly: “God, I feel like hell tonight), sung by a woman whom the industry had already put through the wringer. Crow was 31 at the time of her debut album’s release, one of many things that now make Tuesday Night Music Club feel like a pop relic from another era. But it also meant there was a wisdom in her voice that brings a particular swagger to a song like “Leaving Las Vegas,” on which she sings, knowingly, “Such a muddy line between the things you want and the things you have to do.”

Crow didn’t write those lyrics, though, and this seemingly inconsequential fact would go on to destroy her relationship with the Tuesday Night Music Club. In 1994, visibly nervous, she performed the song on her first David Letterman appearance, and in a quick interview afterward, when Dave asked if the song was autobiographical, she blurted out, “Yes.” The more successful the album became, the more contentious various band members got about songwriting credits — what they perceived as Crow taking credit for “Leaving Las Vegas” was the last straw. Like a real-life and even nastier version of No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” video, the attention Crow was getting made her backing band turn on her. She and Gilbert broke up; Baerwald publicly turned against her, even writing a screed against her in LA Weekly. In a 2008 interview, TMC producer Bill Bottrell sounded slightly more forgiving, though with lingering spite, “It was all very vague and very complicated,” he said. “She wrote the majority of the album. The guys and I contributed writing and lyrics, including some personal things. However, the sound was the sound that I developed.”

As Crow’s star rose, a dark cloud settled over her collaborators. Baerwald’s friend John O’Brien, who’d written the eponymous novel that inspired “Leaving Las Vegas” the song (and later the film) died by suicide in 1994. Then in May 1996, while Crow was working with new collaborators on her next album, her ex-boyfriend and -bandmate Kevin Gilbert died at age 29.

And so Crow’s next album — the one that would contain some of her signature songs, including “If It Makes You Happy” — was written not only under such fraught circumstances, but also as a kind of defiant statement of self, to publicly take credit for her own voice and to prove to the naysayers that she wasn’t just the creation of her former backing band. “My only objective on this record was to get under people’s skin,” she said in retrospect, “because I was feeling like I had so much shit to hurl at the tape.”

In the company of such albums as Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals and Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown, Sheryl Crow’s 1996 self-titled release had the great honor of being banned from Walmart. The reason is a lyric on the biting Americana number “Love Is a Good Thing,” which begins, “Watch out sister, watch out brother / Watch our children while they kill each other with a gun they bought at the Walmart discount stores.” When the corporation asked her to change the lyric, Crow vehemently refused, and was so defiant about the whole thing that she started introducing it as “the Walmart song” in concert. It probably did her more good than harm. Several local radio stations handed out copies of the album in their local Walmart parking lots, according to a 1996 article in Rolling Stone.

Sheryl Crow is a better, weirder, and much more barbed album than anything else in Crow’s catalog. “If there’s such a thing as a professional lo-fi album,” Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Sheryl Crow is it.” That’s not far off the mark. The production (credited to Crow herself) on this album is patchy, inventive, and odd: It sounds today like a sonic sister to Beck’s Odelay, which was released only a few months before. What separates these two albums’ retrospective reputations is that elusive cool factor, which is always a little trickier for female artists to achieve. (The veteran rock critic David Fricke, writing an alternate take on Rolling Stone’s official review, compared Crow unfavorably, and inexplicably, to Janis Joplin.)

Time has been kind to Sheryl Crow, though — almost too much so. The biggest hits off this record are so familiar and entrenched that it’s easy to take them for granted, so please just pause for a moment to appreciate how much story there is in this masterfully concise lyric: “He’s got a daughter he calls Easter, she was born on a Tuesday night.” This is the album on which she found her voice, and it’s nothing less panoramic as a true American tragicomedy. Crow’s lyrics on this album are delightfully cluttered, like the shelves of the thrift-store jungles she memorably evokes on “If It Makes You Happy,” peopled with strange, dusty artifacts: Geronimo’s rifle, Marilyn’s shampoo, Benny Goodman’s corset and pen. It’s also got characters for days: tough, sneering women and men with sad, grand names like James Dean Monroe. That last one’s from one of the best songs, “Hard to Make a Stand,” which also generated a bit of controversy for this second verse:

What a somber, lyrical, bleakly comic image. The song was released as a single only in Europe, because American audiences found the abortion reference too risqué. Due to a few laughable missteps in later years — the comment about using one square of toilet paper per wipe, the well-intentioned but sorta-cringey song “Woman in the White House” — it’s easy to undermine Crow’s liberal crusader role. It all becomes more admirable, though, when you look back to this earlier moment in her career and see how naturally this kind of political engagement came to her. In the early and mid-’90s, Crow was a former Paperdoll Queen from Kennett, Missouri, aiming her message straight at the heart of mainstream Middle America. If she thumbed her nose at the notion that it was easier to buy an assault rifle than a CD with explicit lyrics at Walmart, or that a woman doing something as simple as “taking care of her own body” put her in danger — well, she wasn’t exactly preaching to the choir, so that took some courage. She said it herself: It’s hard to make a stand.

“It’s better to have three broken engagements than three divorces,” Crow joked in a surprisingly candid 2014 Good Housekeeping profile. She went on, reflecting, “I had always gone out with guys who were highly successful, which would seem like it would put me at an equal level. But what ends up happening is that one of you becomes smaller — and it was always me. It’s always the woman. I mean, I don’t know if it’s always the woman, but I do think that sometimes in order for one person’s light to shine, everyone else has to dim theirs.”

Shortly after she broke off her engagement from Lance Armstrong, Crow underwent treatment for breast cancer. As she recovered, she learned a cliché but true lesson: Life is short, do what you want. “I want to be a mom,” she recalled thinking, “and I’m not going to limit it anymore by saying I have to be married. Perhaps my life will unfold out of the order I’ve been told it was supposed to be in.” She adopted a son named Wyatt in 2007, and another, Levi, in 2010.

In a recent chat with The New York Times, Crow described her new album, Be Myself, as “punky, but made during school hours.” It’s being promoted with a “back to basics” narrative that is not completely unwarranted, given that it finds her reuniting with Jeff Trott, her collaborator from Sheryl Crow and its follow-up, the slightly more polished The Globe Sessions. But the fact that Crow and her team have admitted that “sounds like the first few albums” is what people want from a Sheryl Crow album says all that needs to be said about her last few releases. She’s said herself that she’s seeking most distance from her last record, 2013’s Feels Like Home, an attempt at the country format that she’s honest enough to admit didn’t work for her. “I grew up loving country music and feeling like there was a pretty sturdy country influence in my music, but the format itself was really taxing for me,” she told The New York Times in a second interview. She added, of notoriously rigid country radio, “And they don’t really play women.”

Thus: Be Myself, on which she’s free to do just that, genre formats be damned. There’s a sense of well-being emanating from these songs, a desire to please herself before anybody else. The record opens with the punchy kiss-off “Alone in the Dark,” ridiculing the faux-optimism of a former flame (“Here you come walking down the street, with your fake sunshine pouring down on me”) and eventually deciding, with that signature ’tude, “I’d rather be alone in the dark.” “Soak Up the Sun” this is not. But there’s still a light, unabashedly silly quality to some of these songs that make them feel personable; the catchy title track recounts a humorous conversation with her shrink (he concludes, “You’re terminally normal, I’m sorry to say”) while the chorus of the poppiest song on the record implores, “Put your phone away, let’s roller skate!” Be Myself is peppered with commentary on technology and social media that, by some miracle, comes off as more endearingly funny than preachy. (The only exception is the unfortunate closing track, “Woo Woo,” which contains the lyric, “Every time I check my Twitter, somebody’s butt is in my face.”)

By and large, Be Myself is an album on which Crow is not afraid of looking deeply uncool, and there’s something liberating — and even kind of punk — about that. She’s still chronicling the American landscape with that sharp eye for detail, so of course she’s right to notice that things have changed a bit since the days of the Tuesday Night Music Club. The title track finds her “taking an Uber to a juice bar” to check out a hot new band, feeling out of place, and saying to hell with it and heading back to her favorite bar. It’s a familiar stance for her: Not exactly hip, but hers. You can just about picture her taking her seat with that view of a car wash, peeling the labels from her beer bottles just like always.