'Supermodel' Singer Jill Sobule Remembers Nineties New York
Courtesy of UMG
If culture moves in a twenty-year cycle, the current Nineties revival is right on schedule. Mini floral print dresses abound, as do grunge- and riot-grrrl-influenced bands. Obscure pop culture nuggets like the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal are now the subject of adoration. People who grew up in the Nineties are feeling a collective pang of nostalgia watching their youth replayed in tastes of the currently young, and they often don't seem too happy about it.
One person who isn't complaining, though, is Jill Sobule. The L.A.-based singer-songwriter wasn't just there the first time around: She performed "Supermodel," the signature track of beloved 1995 movie Clueless, and in doing so became a quintessential part of the Nineties canon. The film turns twenty this year, and in celebration the soundtrack is getting a vinyl reissue on April 7: a picture disc printed with main character Cher Horowitz's signature black-and-yellow plaid. Sobule couldn't be happier about it.
"I love Clueless!" she exclaims. "It's a great movie." We're sitting in the lobby of a Soho office where she's just finished a photo shoot tied to the soundtrack reissue. She's in town for a few weeks, visiting friends from her years spent living in New York City. Pre-Giuliani Manhattan was her creative home, and today she's taking me on a walking tour of her old haunts. We're headed to the Rubin Museum, previously a Barneys where Sobule worked in the shoe department. "Since Clueless is all about fashion, I thought we'd start there," she says with a smile.
After a short ride on the F train we discover the Rubin is closed Tuesdays, so we peer into the lobby window while Sobule reminisces about keeping wealthy women, including Cher and Barbra Streisand, well-heeled. It was the late Eighties when she began working there; a friend got her the job, and she was sure the manager kept her on out of pity.
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"I was completely incompetent," she says. "I couldn't get excited about a pair of thousand-dollar loafers, and everyone knew I was from out of town" — she's from Denver — "because I was too nice." But it was an unforgettable experience, due partly to her boss Karen, a model saleswoman who at night dressed in drag and frequented leather-daddy bars. She applied a fake gold cap to one of her teeth, and Sobule found her fascinating.
Karen wasn't the only one going to shady gay clubs; in addition to working at Barneys, Sobule also picked up shifts at the Cubby Hole, a Greenwich Village lesbian watering hole now called the Henrietta Hudson. As we make our way there, Sobule admits this job wasn't a great fit for her, either: She has shaky hands, inauspicious for a cocktail waitress. But she looks back on that time as a thrilling one, split between her odd jobs and countless shows played and seen around the lower half of the city.
"In New York City, everyone lives in a shitty hovel," she says. "So you had to go out and see bands or you'd be stuck in your terrible apartment." She frequented CBGB and the old Knitting Factory, and the Bottom Line was the home base where she booked a yearly Christmas revue featuring Patti Smith and Phoebe Snow. All three clubs are now closed, though other haunts like the Mercury Lounge and Bowery Ballroom have stuck around. She was fortunate to circulate in such a tight-knit, supportive community of musicians.
Her friends in the scene, far from being jealous or calling her a sellout, were excited when she signed to Universal in 1994. The label approached her the next year to record "Supermodel" and she balked instantly at the idea: a song that wasn't hers, for a movie she wrote off prima facie as another mindless, misogynist teen comedy. But watching Clueless changed her mind. It was well written and well cast, with a deeply human streak that resonated with her. "And it had Wallace Shawn," she laughs. "That's always a big plus."
Still, she needed to make the track hers before putting her name on it. Universal had turned her first single, "I Kissed A Girl," into a novelty rather than the subversive queer love song Sobule wanted, so she felt strongly about keeping "Supermodel" hers. She added a bridge in which the supermodel-wannabe subject decides not to eat for three days, a serious acknowledgement that "maybe that's not the best role model." She also insisted on shredding on her guitar. She revels in the fact that she got her friend Wayne Kramer, the guitarist for the MC5, to play with her. To this day, she's happy with how it turned out and has recently added it back into her live set.
She recounts this recording process as we walk up to Henrietta Hudson's, which Sobule says looks almost identical to its previous incarnation as the Cubby Hole. One notable difference emerges, though: "It's so clean!" she chuckles. "This place was filthy when I worked here." Her eyes sparkle as she takes stock of the space: the same coat-check counter, the same pool tables where some "very serious ladies" cued all night. Everything is better-kempt, though, and better-smelling (Sobule emerged from every shift reeking of the cigarettes smoked inside). Being gay in the Village was harder when she worked there, Sobule says, and the Cubby Hole was a welcome respite for locals of every generation.
We cross the street to the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, where Sobule drank with friends whenever she wasn't at work or a show. We step in and she gasps. "It hasn't changed a bit!" she whispers in hushed awe. "The art, the pinball machines. Wow." We stop by the candy counter and she buys a black licorice in the shape of a pipe, which the bar still sells 25 years after Sobule snacked on them before work. She's a grown-up Village kid in the candy store of her youth.
Her move away from New York coincided with the city's conflicted transformation into a shiny tourist destination. Sobule is less bitter about it than many of her contemporaries, but she agrees that there was something special, sexier, about those fabled years of cheap rent and shady streets. She brings up LCD Soundsystem's "New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down." The classic lament of a jaded New Yorker resonates with her, although she notes that every generation of the city will always bemoan its inevitable change. She misses the New York she knew, but has tremendous faith in Brooklyn's current vibrant underground scene, believing young people today are as driven and creative as she was back then.
She's lived for the last seven years in L.A., where Clueless is set, and says the film has aged better than she expected while still reflecting its original time period. She laments the dearth of films like it in theaters today: smartly sweet comedies grounded in female friendship, a combination she credits as the source of its staying power. She also loves Alicia Silverstone's star performance. "I wanted to dislike [Cher] — the ditzy blonde — but she was ditzy in a likable way," says Sobule. "Like Judy Holliday or Goldie Hawn, where she's actually kind of smart."
Clueless is "very L.A.," says Sobule, and while Cher's revered closet would be at home in almost any store today, it's distinctly different from the Nineties wardrobes Sobule saw in New York. It was a little more gauche, a little bit more flamboyant, than what the fashionistas she outfitted wore. But there's also a sincerity and heart to the film that would have been out of place in Manhattan. Other than Wallace Shawn, the heart of gold at the film's center is Sobule's favorite part. She plans to watch it again later in the week.
As we walk toward the friend's apartment where she's staying, a woman bumps roughly into her and tells Sobule to "move your fucking bag." Sobule turns around to remark that the comment wasn't very pleasant, to which the woman replies, in perfect, crisp diction, "Being pleasant was not my intention." Sobule laughs to herself. New York may have cleaned up since she lived here, but some things never change.
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