The 1990s, with the popularization of the Internet and Starbucks coffee among other things, represented an economic boom that oversaw a five-fold increase in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. With this ballooning of production came a mirroring process in the music industry of myriad record labels positioned for fostering a wealth of music that represented a diverse landscape in style and culture. And so while the ’90s were a flagship period in rock, with grunge; in rap, with gangsta and in electronica with the genesis of IDM, drum and bass, trance and God knows what else, they also bequeathed a genus of new pop musicians, from Fiona Apple, to Sarah McLachlan, to Alanis Morissette and beyond, that represented their own sort of chronically heartbroken army, of sorts.
Somewhere within the mix ran Australia’s Natalie Imbruglia, a slender, almost obnoxiously innocent-looking girl-next-door type, and her smash hit “Torn,” which topped the Hot 100 Airplay charts for 11 weeks in 1997. What’s ironic about this is that like “Angel of the Morning” it’s sort of a hand-me-down: it was originally written in 1993 by Scott Cutler, Anne Preven and Phil Thornalley and recorded by three other artists before Imbruglia, a comely, marketable actress doubling as an RCA cash cow, got around to it.
As a singer and musician, I must say, Imbruglia doesn’t make too much impression: in fact she reminds me of an actress masquerading as a singer in that she never seems to make a verbal or aesthetic mistake of any kind. She knows how to be in the spotlight, in other words, and avoid disaster, and probably within that plight also avoid meaning all that much to anybody.
Well, wait a minute, because even for how uncannily this song seems to mix blandness and an annoying, Fiona Apple-like penchant for complaining about things that aren’t even unpleasant, let alone disastrous, you still hear it, and hear ABOUT it, with puzzling regularity to this day. And just to defend myself against claims of misanthropic chastising of female pop musicians, please let me profess my ardent fandom for Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan, and maybe that Robyn song “Show Me Love,” while we’re at it. Morissette seemed to transcend gender with an infectious tomboyish charm in “Hand in My Pocket” and “Adia” by Sarah McLachlan is a beautifully mournful love song to her grandmother with whom she’s trying to repair and patch a friendship.
But over and over, we get “Torn.” Granted, I heard this girl KILL it at karaoke a couple weeks ago. Howard Stern had Anne Preven, one of the original songwriters, on his show, to discuss the song’s meaning in 2000, long after the cultural efficacy of Sarah McLachlan and maybe Merrill Bainbridge should have completely worn off.
On the show, Preven gazes narrow-eyed, straight and dead serious into Stern’s eyes, with this sort of manufactured sense of poignancy and gravity. It’s probably the epitome of an artist’s pompousness and inflated sense of importance of their work. But what I’m primarily concerned with right now is the fact that this song is indeed so popular still among the masses at large, to where we’re still hearing it in karaoke.
Indeed, it must be singular in some way and here’s my take on it: it perfectly encapsulates the complete futility of the human quest for happiness. I mean, it’s almost like meaningful BECAUSE it’s so stupid: this woman, as far as we can tell, is in perfect health, is in a relationship that features visceral sex, has full working order of her mind and certainly her ability to produce complaints about life. She’s not happy with her relationship and, in what might be true 1990s fashion in light of the increasingly individualized culture of casual dress, tattoos and an iconic “grunge” scowl, blames her own unhappiness on her partner.
The complaints she levels against him are hilarious to me, too: “You don’t seem to know / Seem to care / What your heart is for”. Aww! So while there are women out there who are getting beaten, who are living in poverty and who are in relationships with drug addicts, this little princess would really like a man who “knows what his heart is for,” if it please you. Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” will forever stand as a viable cultural portal for women who are unhappy in their relationships, and maybe in their own skin, as well, and are searching for the foggiest clue as to why.