I have a bit of an affinity for artists who are uncool, which might be why I’ve been thinking about Sarah McLachlan lately. McLachlan meets almost all the criteria required to be a vastly uncool artist: she’s a woman who sings slow, serious, feelingsy music that sounds like something your mom would listen to, she’s popular even though it’s impossible to find anyone who owns her albums, and her all-women’s festival from the late-90s, Lilith Fair, is now associated more with embarrassing Clinton-era white feminism than the current hip progressive movement. I’m guessing most people my age know her most for her appearance in those viewer-shaming ASPCA ads where her extremely sappy song “Angel” plays to shots of depressed dogs.
Due to that uncoolness, I don’t think I’ve seen a single artist I listen to mention McLachlan as an inspiration for their work, even though a lot of current indie music has more in common with her than they want to admit. I started thinking about this when I was really into Emma Ruth Rundle’s Marked For Death album in 2016. When trying to think of who Rundle reminded me of, for some reason McLachlan’s name popped in my mind. They probably have nearly no similarities in terms of background or actual influence, but I thought Rundle’s slow-burn balladry wasn’t too far off from something McLachlan would have made if she had been into metal.
From there, I began to connect McLachlan’s reputation as a punch-line to other albums I felt were overlooked for committing similar crimes in terms of being earnest, feminine, and unexciting. Albums like Bat For Lashes’ The Bride and Mary Timony’s Mountains suddenly started to feel more closely linked to McLachlan than I would have guessed. And I began to wonder if, beyond all the cultural baggage, there was something worth exploring here, which led me to try actually listening to more of her music than just the three or four songs everyone knows from the radio.
Listening to her two most popular albums, 1993’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy and 1997’s Surfacing, confirmed a lot of what I suspected. It’s not amazing music to me by any means because sonically it’s about as adventurous as a trip to the post office. But there were also some surprises: for one, McLachlan has more of an edge than I assumed from just hearing songs like “Angel” and “I Will Remember You.” Her lyrics are smart and have an actual bite to them a lot of the time, and while her songs skew towards ballads, there was also a lot that didn’t sound too different from current indie folk. She was also capable of writing undeniable singles like “Possession” and one of the biggest jams of the 90s, “Building a Mystery.”
What stuck out most, though, was just the way McLachlan sings, with so much sincerity, emotion and conviction. Obviously it can be considered sappy or maudlin, but I found there to be a genuineness in her songs and their construction compared to most music at similar levels of popularity. Its commercial viability seems more like a coincidence than anything — the feeling I got was that McLachlan just made her music and it happened to connect with listeners. It doesn’t have the sense of calculation that ruins so much poppy music for me.
Obviously McLachlan didn’t invent being a woman who sings about feelings, but I think the success of her music and the concept of Lilith Fair helped make it feel more normal. When I grew up, I just heard songs by McLachlan on the radio without ever seeking them out. I’m guessing a lot of current artists also did, and even if they’re not actively listening to McLachlan and citing her as an influence, her mere existence probably paved the way for many who grew up hearing that voice playing on the radio or in supermarkets.
One of the best developments in the last few years of indie has been a boom in women singer-songwriters, who are getting more acclaim and support than ever before. The funny thing is that a ton of them sing like McLachlan, and some even make music that overtly sounds like hers. An artist like Weyes Blood, whose excellent album Titanic Rising is the most acclaimed of the year thus far, is basically making adult contemporary for the indie set. Maybe McLachlan’s style has finally come around to being cool.
There is some comedic value in reading artists and writers totally dance around mentioning McLachlan because her music is so associated with being lame. I’m as guilty of it as anyone: if I saw an artist on Bandcamp saying they were influenced by McLachlan, I’d probably assume it was some soft pop nonsense that’s “not for me.” But then I’ll write about artists like Weyes Blood and how amazing they are without even considering the hypocrisy.
This all leads me to believe that McLachlan is the victim of typical garbage narratives surrounding gender and coolness. Similar to how many dismiss “chick flicks,” this music gets a bad rap because it has an appeal to an audience that has been deemed to be less worthy or important. Meanwhile, the same people who scoff at her are probably listening to man-in-a-cabin folk and indie-approved feminine soft pop without even realizing the similarities. With so many acclaimed artists working in a similar space, McLachlan is overdue for some credit.