Sarah McLachlan and the Anxiety of Influence

What Women Really Think
Oct. 22 2009 10:19 AM

Sarah McLachlan and the Anxiety of Influence

Florence and The Machine , a critically and commercially successful British band led by the huge-voiced Florence Welch, dropped its first album, Lungs , on our shores this week. Lungs , which was released in July in the U.K. (it’s been available 'electronically’ in the states since then as well) and promptly nominated for the prestigious Mercury prize, is a great album. As proof I direct you to the euphoric " Dog Days Are Over ." (Or you can try the more misleading " Kiss With a Fist ," the only track that sounds like a White Stripes song, albeit a good one). The uniformly positive reviews of the record have compared Florence to Kate Bush , Annie Lennox , Grace Slick, Tori Amos, The Cranberries, Bjork, Siouxsie Sioux and Joanna Newsom. These comparisons are apt, but there’s someone missing from the list. Florence and The Machine also sounds like Sarah McLachlan . This is not an insult.

Of course, it seems like one. A decade removed from her chart-topping, Lilith Fair glory, McLachlan is synonymous with treacly, sentimental, spiritually acoustic floss like "I Will Remember You" and "Ice Cream" (the dessert which your love is better than). She’s not very rock n’roll. Florence is. She sings louder and lower than McLachlan, her songs have aggressive, pounding beats (drums even!) and her lyrics are controversial ("A kiss with a fist is better than none").

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And yet, Florence shares with McLachlan a mood, a certain melodramatic ambition, a taste for organs, yearning and soaring, highly-produced, multi-layered, heartsick tracks likely to put an ache in the back of a 14-year old's throat. Or, simply put, this owes a lot to this . Without McLachlan’s "Possession" or "Fear," there is no "Cosmic Love." (Anecdotally, Florence Welch was 11 when McLachlan’s Surfacing and "Adia" first charted in the U.K. Barely teenage is just about the perfect time to be exposed to McLachlan and all her pretty, angsty sentiment).

Whatever the connection between the two women, calling attention to the fact that Florence sounds like McLachlan comes off as a diss, which is probably why reviewers have avoided the comparison, unless they’re dissing (See: " The Sarah McLachlan-on-Broadway 'I’m Not Calling You A Liar’ ... is just so dumb.") And, fair enough, you wouldn’t call an up-and-coming actor the next Chris O’Donnell if you were trying to make him seem cool, now would you? So Florence sounds like Kate Bush, and not the founder of Lilith Fair. No big.

Except, what again is so terrible about Sarah McLachlan? If you have any natural aversion to the maudlin, the over-earnest or angels that sounds like a rhetorical question. But it’s not. Sarah McLachlan’s not cool, but, well, do you need to feel cool when you’re watching the In Memoriam video play at the Emmys? (That is a rhetorical question.) If we only evaluated art by its ability to make us "feel stuff," horror schlock would be Shakespeare, and yet, music’s ability to move is the best thing about it. More than anything, Sarah McLachlan’s music wants to make you feel stuff and it’s pretty effective, especially, I would wager, if you are a teenage girl.

McLachlan's lameness can't have precluded her from influencing cooler musicians-but does it preclude her from being cited as one of those influences? And would Sarah McLachlan be less lame if she her Lilith Fair sisters-the Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, Melissa Etheridge, etc.- hadn’t been on a stated mission to promote crunchy girl-power? If they hadnt been making music for girls? If more rock critics were chicks who had listened to McLachlan (perhaps ill-advisedly) in their youth, would they be more likely to give Sarah her due props? Florence and The Machine’s album is worth a listen, no matter what you make of McLachlan, but we're going to have more chances to consider the Candian's legacy. She sold a lot of records.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.