Jann Arden and I have a history, and she doesn’t even know it. As far as I know, Jann Arden is completely unaware of me (unless she realizes that I’m responsible for this), but since 1994, she and I have had this thing. It goes like this: anytime anyone in my presence so much as mentions her name—the name of a song, album, or makes any reference to her at all—my knee-jerk response is to say “I hate Jann Arden” with as much conviction as I can muster.
It wasn’t hard to spit that phrase out with vitriol and bitterness. Back in ‘94, I was a bona-fide music snob that looked down his nose at any artist with even the faintest whiff of North American commercial appeal. If it didn’t have a cheeky title or wasn’t sung in a cockney whine, I wasn’t the least bit interested, let alone tolerant. At the time, to me, Jann Arden and her ilk represented everything wrong with music: bland conformity, sentimentality, and mass appeal. I blamed CanCon requirements for making “Insensitive” the insidiously catchy ear-worm that seemed to be streaming out of every one of my female dorm-mates’ stereos. For the next fifteen years, I fought and resisted anyone’s attempts to recruit me into Arden’s army.
But love, as we know, makes you do some crazy shit. When love is involved, what once seemed impossible suddenly seems entirely plausible. At least that’s the excuse I kept telling myself as my partner and I settled into our seats at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines on October 4th for an evening with Jann Arden and her stripped-down band (guitarist Graham Powell and multi-instrumentalists Allison Cornell and Darcy Phillips). I’d be fibbing if I made it sound as if I’d been dragged kicking and screaming to the show—I bought us the tickets, after all. But even with all the affirmations and declarations I’d heard over the years (“Jann is such an amazing performer,” “Her shows are so entertaining,” “She’s so hilarious!”), I went into the auditorium with a cynical chip on my shoulder: “Go ahead, Jann Arden, just try and make me not hate you anymore.”
And then, she did it. She fucking did it. You know how? She stood on that stage and told the story of how she goes to concerts with friends, to shows of artists she doesn’t know or never appreciated and she sits in the audience before the lights dim and basically has the exact same attitude I had that night: “Just try and make me like you.” Then she and the band launched into “Insensitive” (third song of the set!) and suddenly I got it. Bland conformity? There isn’t an artist in this country whose career over the past two decades compares with hers. Sentimentality? Mass appeal? Arden has only ever sung in her authentic voice, and she has always owned her shit. She proudly declared hers is the kind of music that gets listened to alone in people’s bedrooms with the lights dimmed, and owes her career to an A&R rep that accidentally turned on her demo cassette in the aftermath of a break-up.
I laughed my ass off at her quick wit and sharp humour; I cried my eyes dry when she and her tour manager brokered a surprise marriage proposal that had the audience cheering for Jonathan as he got down on his knees and asked Kyle to be his spouse for life; I got a lump in my throat watching images of Arden and her mom (whose journey with Alzheimer’s Arden has chronicled in her Facebook posts) projected on the triptych of backdrops behind the band as they played “A Long Goodbye”.
I stopped hating Jann Arden that night, and I came to understand that she and I do have a history, but it wasn’t the one I thought: We have the same sense of humour, we love our moms, and we both believe in the healing and restorative power of song.