Book review of When I Grow Up: A Memoir
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Juliana Hatfield
Label
Wiley
When I Grow Up: A Memoir

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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n the early ‘90s, Juliana Hatfield was one of a seemingly infinite number of young female “alternative” rockers, with all the moody lyrics and slightly mussed production that fit right in with the era. Unlike most of her peers, however, Hatfield always seemed like a pure pop fan at heart – partly because of her sweet, little-girl vocals, which made everything sound adorable no matter how much distortion was piled on top of it, but also because she wasn’t afraid to use her obvious natural gift for melody. Acts like L7 and Four Non Blondes felt short-lived even at the height of their popularity, but Juliana Hatfield had the look and sound of someone whose career was built to last.

Except, as it turned out, she didn’t – not at the major-label level, anyway. In fact, Hatfield only released a pair of albums for Atlantic before leaving the fold in the late ‘90s, becoming one of the first alt-boomlet artists to really try and make a go of it at the indie level. To her credit, she’s managed to maintain a steady release schedule since departing Atlantic, but she’s never come close to rebuilding the buzz of her early years; she’s always been a below-the-radar artist, seemingly content to trade her privacy for a smaller slice of fame. Until now, anyway – in a rare burst of marketing synergy, her memoir, the charmingly titled “When I Grow Up,” is being released on the back of her new album, How to Walk Away. Though it’s the furthest thing from a tell-all, it does offer plenty of insight into the career and creative process of an artist who, for most people, began and ended with a pair of medium-sized hits 15 years ago.

The biggest problem with most celebrity memoirs is that they tend to begin in their subjects’ youth; going back that far is surely a nice exercise in nostalgia for the author, but for everyone else, the mundane details of another person’s upbringing are usually enough to send many readers skimming through the first third of the book or more. In Hatfield’s case, the most interesting portion of her career covers a relatively brief period of time – maybe five years – so if she’d taken that approach, “When I Grow Up” would have been dry as toast. On the other hand, if she’d focused only on those years, she probably would have ended up with a nice pamphlet rather than a book, and come across as frighteningly fixated on the past.

She solves the problem by facing the book in alternate directions, switching between her early years and a late-period tour as she goes along. It’s the perfect approach; it helps break up what are essentially rather grim entries in a road diary with the inside story from someone who was chewed up and spit out by the music business machinery. Those breaks are sorely needed, too: the book’s biggest flaw, somewhat ironically, is Hatfield herself, at least insofar as she seems to be terminally unhappy on the road, and willing to lay bare all of her insecurities and mood swings as she goes along. Her honesty is appealing, but after a couple hundred pages of self-flagellation, it’s hard not to want to hug her or slap her (or both) and tell her to lighten up.

Not that she doesn’t have reasons for the negativity. As Hatfield repeatedly points out, her audience has been dwindling since the mid-‘90s, and although artists are conditioned to say they’re doing it for love of the music, going from MTV’s buzz bin to a dingy apartment stuffing your own envelopes is a pretty rough fall, and it’s to her credit that Hatfield describes it all with so much candor. This is the other side of the rock & roll dream: even if you do manage to accomplish the impossible and earn yourself a gold record or two, that doesn’t mean you won’t find yourself playing crappy clubs 10 years later, schlepping your own gear and wondering why the rider didn’t show up on time – or finding out from your tour manager that the promoter lost money on the show and weaseled out of paying you the agreed-upon amount.

Fortunately, Hatfield has the good sense (or just dumb luck) to end her story on a high note, managing to lay down at least a few of her personal crosses before the final pages – and the epilogue adds an especially sweet, stranger-than-fiction Hollywood touch. Even if you’ve never counted yourself among her fans, if you’ve contemplated a career in music – or are old enough to remember the alternative explosion – you’ll find “When I Grow Up” to be a perfectly enjoyable read.

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