Who says I oughta know?

(This column appeared in The Sault Star July 17, 2023)

What’s the proper way to act when one’s gender is being savaged by a very loud chorus of women?

I could ask Miss Manners, but she’s on the cusp of 85. I doubt if a woman that age really “gets” Alanis Morissette.

So I’ll pose that question to you, not-so-gentle readers. And I’m asking for myself, not a friend, because I was the one who found myself all ears in a crowd that seemed to be all lungs.

Puzzled? Let me explain.

It happened in June at the Festival of Beer at the bushplane museum. I was the designated old fogey in a very congenial group of men and women about a generation younger than me. 

The other males drifted away in search of more beer to sample. Then the band launched into a very good cover of You Oughta Know, Morissette’s jagged little 1996 Grammy Award winner. Clearly it struck a chord in the women around me.

Now, I’ve always enjoyed You Oughta Know. It is venom you can dance to.

More than that, the lyrics are great, vicious and explicit though they may be. And Morissette pours her entire martyred soul into the song, her voice atremble with anger, spitting invective as if it were battery acid. No wonder she also won best female rock performance that year.

So I was on the verge of singing along (because I’d completed lots of beer-sampling by then) when I noticed the vehemence and seeming passion with which the women in our group, and it seemed almost every female in the hangar, joined in on the chorus:

“Well I’m here, to remind you/ 

Of the mess you left when you went away/ 

It’s not fair, to deny me/ 

Of the cross I bear that you gave to me/ 

You, you, you oughta know.”

It struck me that this was more than just a catchy tune from their youth. It seemed that the song’s sentiments reflected their lived experience. You Oughta Know appears to be the go-to rage anthem for women scorned.

British playwright William Congreve first mentioned, in 1697, that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and it still ain’t news. 

Morissette didn’t invent the rage song. Think of Aretha Franklin’s emphatic song Think, or R-E-S-P-E-C-T, for that matter. 

There’s Heart’s Barracuda, Linda Ronstadt’s You’re No Good, Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, Joan Jett’s I Hate Myself for Loving You, The Dixie Chicks’ Goodbye Earl, Taylor Swift’s Picture to Burn — even Aerosmith’s Janie’s Got a Gun.

Way back in the 1960s, Lesley Gore slammed her man with You Don’t Own Me. 

This was the same Lesley Gore who also hit gold with It’s My Party (and I’ll Cry if I Want To), lamenting that “my Johnny” and Judy had left at the same time, holding hands. 

When Gore later came out as a lesbian, it seemed the joke was on Johnny: had she actually been crying over Judy? 

There are men’s rage songs, of course, but many of them have a thematic affinity with It’s My Party: the woman runs off with his best friend, taking his pickup and his dog, and he greatly misses the dog, truck and best friend.

She got the gold mine and he got the shaft, as it were.

What sets Morissette’s song apart from most of the rest is its blunt and overt sexuality. In fact, it seems almost everything the singer misses about Mr. Duplicity is something done without wearing clothing.

That sexuality made my position (old man abashed) a little awkward, standing there while the women belted out the chorus, seemingly for lack of a more lethal weapon.

Sure, my presence was incidental and no outrage was aimed at me. For one thing, younger people seem to think seniors are asexual, perhaps having ceded their lust as a condition of receiving Old Age Security cheques.

But they might have reasoned that any man who has lived to a crusty old age surely must have scorned a woman or two along the way. Guilty as charged.

Like other men, I left a few messes when I went away, though surely not as big as the messes I made while I was still there. (As comedian Sandra Shamas noted in the title of one of her shows, My Boyfriend’s Back and There’s Gonna Be Laundry.)

What man hasn’t? What woman, too, for that matter?

As the audience participation was demonstrating, there’s no shortage of scornees in this world.

So though I was a bystander to the communal act of musically dismembering remembered dispensers of scorn, my ignorance of the situational ethic still made me uncomfortable.

Had I joined those women, pumping my fist in the air with every “you,” it might have seemed like cultural appropriation.

Feigning interest in something on the floor could be perceived as an admission of guilt.

Pulling out a cellphone and checking for messages might be seen as callously dismissing the wave of righteous collective emotion.

Nope, I had no idea how to act. 

Though I suspect if I had asked one of the women, she would have said I oughta.

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