A Sinner and A Saint: Meredith Brooks and the Lasting Legacy of ‘Bitch’

Meredith Brooks

Whether you’re in the shower, car or karaoke bar, Meredith Brooks’ ‘Bitch’ is still the perfect tune to sing at the top of your lungs.

Remember that song that brags about being a bitch, a lover, a child and a mother? Good. Now, without peeking at the headline, do you remember who sings that song? Hint: It’s not Alanis Morissette, Sophie B. Hawkins or Paula Cole — although you’re forgiven for assuming any of those. Her name is Meredith Brooks, and while it may not ring a bell for anyone beyond music trivia fanatics, the song’s opening line, “I hate the world today,” might just do it.

Rife with self-assured lines like “Take me as I am” and “Don’t try to save me,” “Bitch” is viewed by some as a feminist anthem. Others have seen it as justification for being an unapologetic a—hole, set to a mellow, catchy melody. For others still, it’s a “well-intended yet misguided” tune sung by “a totally self-involved flake.”

Way harsh, Tai.

Regardless of where you think this song rests on the Feminist Spectrum, “Bitch” was a number-two hit in the summer of 1997. Meredith Brooks’ self-proclamations displaced pretty-boy-band Hanson’s “MMMBop” and rested just beneath “I’ll Be Missing You,” Puff Daddy’s tribute to the slain Notorious B.I.G.

Brooks’ angst was never enough to displace Puff from the number-one spot, but it was enough for her debut album, Blurring the Edges, to go platinum. She also appeared at Lilith Fair, the traveling music festival that championed female artists in the late ’90s, where she headlined alongside such memorable artists as Sheryl Crow, Missy Elliot and Lauryn Hill — on the main stage, no less.

It’s not too shabby of a way to begin a career. Still, many of these facts remain at the bottom of a rarely traveled rabbit hole, mostly because the general public’s memory of the song has lasted longer than our recollection of the singer herself. So, in celebration of the artist’s 60th birthday on June 12, here’s a quick refresher (and update) on the woman who was definitely, positively and absolutely not Alanis Morissette.

1. Meredith Brooks was 39 when “Bitch” came out.

When 1997 came to a close, “Bitch” was number 15 overall on the Billboard Top 100 chart — a fairly noble feat, considering the competition. Meredith Brooks wasn’t a pick-your-fantasy-girl group like the Spice Girls. Nor did she have the youthful glow of artists like Usher, LeAnn Rimes or Hanson (the average age of these particular musical acts in 1997, by the way, was 15). Of the year’s 14 other top music acts, Meredith Brooks was the second oldest, next to Elton John, who’d just turned 50.

So what was Meredith Brooks doing before she graced the top-20 charts and then the 40th Annual Grammys?

Naturally, she was in a rock band. The Oregon native moved to LA to join a short-lived group called the Graces in the 1980s. Comprised of Charlotte Caffey (once a member of the Go-Go’s) and Gia Ciambotti (who would eventually leave the band to sing with Bruce Springsteen), the Graces had that raw late-’80s/early-’90s-angst look and sound down pat. But despite their stellar lineup and catchy hooks, the Graces produced just one album, Perfect View, which in turn produced just one Billboard Top 100, “Lay Down Your Arms.” They disbanded in 1991.

2. Brooks cowrote “Bitch” with a Grammy-winning songwriting guru.

Half of the songs on Blurring the Edges are attributed to songwriter Shelly Peiken, who it’s pretty safe to say helped pen the sound of the early 2000s. Two years after she cowrote “Bitch,” Peiken cowrote Christina Aguilera’s second and third number-one hits, “What A Girl Wants” and “Come on Over (All I Want Is You).” Peiken left almost no genre untouched, penning songs for a range of artists including Celine Dion, Brandy, Reba McEntire and Smash Mouth.

According to her memoir, Peiken met Meredith Brooks when she was still trying to get a record deal and was impressed when she saw her perform. Soon after, Peiken was driving home, dealing with some serious PMS, when she sat at a stoplight and “had what turned out to be a life-changing thought: ‘I hate the world today… Adam is going to have to deal with my dark side when I get home. Poor guy, I can be such a bitch.’”

After an hour or so of collaboration between Peiken and Brooks, and a bit more time spent agonizing over the last line of the hook (“You know you wouldn’t want it any other way”), the rest was history. Peiken writes in her book that it was perhaps one of the best songwriting sessions she’d ever had.

3. Blurring the Edges was a pretty solid album — so solid it went platinum.

I’m old enough to feel nostalgic when I hear the song “Bitch” but too young to remember whether the word itself was bleeped out on the radio (as far as I can tell, it wasn’t). I was also too young to own a CD whose lead single was an expletive.

Thanks to the internet, I’ve had ample opportunity to revisit Blurring the Edges — and I’ve discovered it’s a fun album, especially for a summer morning. “I Need,” the opening song, hits a similar chord to “Bitch” — it’s defiant in some places but vulnerable, almost confessional, in its tone: “I need some money, more money, and more time…. A stranger to trust me, my father to love me. “My Little Town,” while somewhat predictable lyric-wise, has a sunny, catchy melody.

But the best track on this album, I would argue, is “What Would Happen,” a slow, sexy song about longing and infidelity that would fit snugly on an episode of Dawson’s Creek. Its opening sounds a lot like the verses in “You Oughta Know,” perhaps supporting the well-shared belief that Brooks’ debut album was “one of the most blatant examples of post–Alanis Morissette marketing by the record industry.” But hey…if the commercial algorithm ain’t broke, why fix it?

4. Argentinians didn’t like her very much. Or they just liked the Stones a whole lot more.

Meredith Brooks

Meredith Brooks at the 40th Annual Grammy Awards in 1998. “Bitch” was nominated for Best Female Rock Vocal and Best Rock song. Photo by KMazur / WireImage

In the spring of 1998, still riding high from the success of “Bitch,” Meredith Brooks made the mistake of opening for the Rolling Stones in Buenos Aires. It didn’t go well. Audience members booed her, throwing rocks, tampons, bottles, batteries and other items at the singer, even when she tried to win over the crowd with an Argentinian soccer jersey. “I just keep thinking that God didn’t bring me down here to play for the Stones,” Brooks told MTV News of the incident. Terrible as it was, the experience didn’t stop her from opening for the Eurythmics the following year.

5. Queen Latifah appeared on Meredith Brooks’ sophomore album, Deconstruction.

For her follow-up to Blurring the Edges, Meredith Brooks joined forces with a high school choir and Queen Latifah to sing “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” a folksy gospel tune that was first a hit song in 1970.

I can only imagine how this collaboration with Queen Latifah happened (and oh, am I glad it happened), but I like to think the through line was the word “bitch.” Six years earlier, 23-year-old Queen Latifah had released her third album, Black Reign. Not only did it go gold, but it also produced one of her most well-known songs to date, “U.N.I.T.Y.” — an uplifting jazz-rap song whose bold hook, “Who you callin’ a bitch?” often went uncensored by radio stations because of its still-very-relevant message about toxic masculinity. “Instinct leads me to another flow every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho,” she raps in the first verse. “Trying to make a sister feel low. You know all of that gots to go.”

6. Meredith Brooks seems pretty happy to be a resident “bitch” expert.

Meredith Brooks

The fateful “Imma let you finish, but…” moment in 2009 that started it all. Photo by Christopher Polk / Getty Images

The year 2016 saw a resurgence of the evergreen spectacle that is the drama between Taylor Swift and Kanye West, this time brought about by a couple of controversial lines from Kanye’s Yeezy album: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” Long story short: Taylor spoke out against the “I made that bitch famous” line; Kanye said he had called Taylor to approve it first during one of their few détentes.

Interestingly enough, the New York Daily News consulted Meredith Brooks to speak on the situation…and she did. “All I can say is, no woman wants to be called a bitch,” she said, rather diplomatically. “If somebody called me a bitch, I would laugh…. But you know, in her case, she doesn’t have an anthem like that. That’s not her deal.”

7. She’s also quite happy to share her (controversial) views on Hillary Clinton.

Meredith Brooks

Meredith Brooks at Melissa Etheridge’s ‘Live…and Alone’ Movie Premiere in Hollywood, 2002. Photo by Chris Polk / FilmMagic

You probably weren’t expecting this one. I know I wasn’t, which is why I saved it for last.

Meredith Brooks really, really hates Hillary Clinton. Brooks has tweeted about her dislike for the politician more than once — sometimes ruthlessly. At risk of evoking Alanis Morissette, it’s ironic that a female artist who once sang unapologetically about acting however she wanted has also publicly shamed another female for “emasculating” Donald Trump.

Or is it? Depending on where you fall in the “Is the song ‘Bitch’ feminist or not?” debate, Meredith Brooks’ treatment of Hillary Clinton isn’t really all that surprising. After all, the singer herself rejects any classification — “Just when you think you’ve got me figured out, the season’s already changing” — so perhaps it’s not worth trying to understand Brooks’ personal politics, or the politics of the song. Perhaps “Bitch” is simply meant to be cranked up to full volume and scream-sung at the end of a long, hard day. end

 

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