Jewel’s “Daddy” Would Not Exist Without Sylvia Plath’s

Long before Lana Del Rey made the word and concept of “Daddy” her bitch, there was Jewel with a song from 1995’s Pieces of You called “Daddy.” And long before her, there was, of course, Sylvia Plath. With a poem called, you guessed it, “Daddy.” One that would become among her most illustrious and frequently cited, especially by women who could feel the same pain. Released in 1965 (thirty years before Jewel launched her own attack against a hostile patriarch), “Daddy” completely changed the game for women, writers or otherwise, in terms of how they could talk about their fathers. Never before had a piece of literature written by a woman (as opposed to a man speaking for a woman) been so brutally honest and anti-father. Sure, you had something like To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960, but that was 1) a novel and 2) ultimately a love letter to “Daddys” such as Atticus Finch everywhere (even if he was “still working in a system that institutionalized racism and sexism, and should not be someone to look up to. Other critics claim Atticus Finch to be morally ambiguous and [condemn that he] does not use his legal skills to challenge racism in 1936 Alabama”).

So for Plath to come along and utterly decimate the status quo vis-à-vis women revering their fathers, well, that was something quite noteworthy. And something that she likely felt obliged to get off her chest in the months leading up to her suicide. Perhaps feeling liberated enough in the subconscious foreknowledge of her death to finally get it off her chest. “It” being her sheer hatred for the man who half-created her. And she was more liberated still because the poem was also written a month after her separation from known twat Ted Hughes. Thus, the content was undeniably colored by how she ended up seeking out a man so similarly oppressive and degrading as her own father. In the wake of her marriage’s dissolution, catalyzed by an affair Hughes was having with Assia Wevill (who would also later kill herself), Plath could at last say what she meant without worrying about fulfilling her so-called womanly duty to be meek and tactful. Hence, the deluge of “dark” (read: real) poetry that spewed forth during this period.

Categorized among what would later be called Plath’s “October poems,” “Daddy” is one of several of Plath’s most standout “railings” against societal expectations of women. Expectations, of course, that are conditioned within a young girl starting at home. Not just by her father, but worse still, her mother. And that’s something Jewel would realize about her own matriarch after it was already too late. That is to say, after her mother robbed her blind of her fortune while working as her manager, embezzling an amount reported to be somewhere in the one-hundred-million-dollar range. At which time Jewel would recall, “And then as I started investigating the truth about what my mom had told me in my life versus what was true, I had realized that pretty much everything that I formed my reality on was fiction.” This is possibly what led her down the path of reconciliation with the father who had inspired her Plath-esque song. One inspired by how Atz Kilcher was “abusive” (though it’s not specified if that means verbally or physically) toward Jewel and her brothers throughout their childhood. He apparently saw fit to get his act together in his, um, sexagenarian years. But that was well after Jewel had already fled his household while still in her teens, soon seeking out her mother in San Diego. And yet, a lot of good being close to “Mommy” would do as Jewel ended up living out of her car and shoplifting to get by.

Perhaps it was during this fraught period that the seeds for “Daddy” were planted—and grew with intense ferocity. After all, just as words were Plath’s only salvation, so was music for Jewel. And it quite literally saved her…considering it only took her a year of living in her car to land a record deal with Atlantic. As the first truly mainstream singer-songwriter since Joni Mitchell to achieve such mainstream success, it was searing, slow-burn tracks like “Daddy” that made Jewel stand apart from everyone else of that “Lilith Fair era.” For even singers as “brutal” as PJ Harvey and Tori Amos weren’t saying things like, “You know, sometimes I sleep past noon, Daddy/I drink lots of black coffee and I smoke like a chimney/Yes, I left the refrigerator door half open, Daddy/What’s that say about me?” As Jewel keeps slow-building to the finale of the song, she highlights the kind of “disgraceful” behavior that would make her father ashamed—that might prompt him to characterize her as “unladylike” and a “slob.” Indeed, fear of being deemed a slob appears as a faint running theme on Pieces of You for reasons why men might not like her (e.g., “I brush my teeth, I put the cap on/I know you hate it when I leave the light on”). But in “Daddy,” she gets off, much the same way Plath does, on deliberately making her father feel disappointed. Better yet, on the notion of finally killing him, even if only in her art. Granted, Plath’s father did actually die when she was eight, but she never really buried him until writing “Daddy” in 1962. In which she wrote the verse, “Daddy, I have had to kill you./You died before I had time——/Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,/Ghastly statue with one gray toe/Big as a Frisco seal.”

The mythic status with which Plath imbues her father deteriorates throughout the poem as she rehashes, “I never could talk to you./The tongue stuck in my jaw./It stuck in a barb wire snare./Ich, ich, ich, ich,/I could hardly speak./I thought every German was you./And the language obscene.” In Jewel’s version of these sentiments, she warbles, “You know, sometimes I wanna rip out your throat, Daddy/For all those things you said that were mean/I’m gonna make you just as vulnerable as I was, Daddy/What’s that say about me?” The repetition of the line, “What’s that say about me?” at the end of each verse is designed to work up to the fact that any quality or “behavior” a father detests in his daughter is, in the end, his own doing. He is the culpable party for rendering her into something “wrong.” A.k.a. “defiant” and “rebellious” merely for coming out from underneath the spell of idolizing her father, as most little girls are wont to do.

Plath emerges from this spell at full force via the lines about how Otto Plath is “not God but a swastika/So black no sky could squeak through./Every woman adores a Fascist,/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you.” And this is the territory wherein she starts to acknowledge how her attraction to a brute like Hughes was but an extension of her “trauma bond” with “Daddy.”

As for Jewel, she continues her “Daddy” tirade with Plath-esque contempt by adding, “You know sometimes I wanna bash in your teeth, Daddy/I’m gonna use your tongue as a stamp/I’m gonna rip your heart out the way that you did mine, Daddy/Go ahead and psychoanalyze that/‘Cause I’m your creation, I’m your love, Daddy.” That word, “Daddy,” said/sung with more venom each time.

Finally flipping the script on the line, “What’s that say about me?” to indicate that she and he are but macabre reflections of one another, Jewel concludes, “Grown up to be and do all those sick things you said I’d do/Well, last night I saw you sneak out your window with your white hood, Daddy/What’s that say about you?/I’m sloppy, what’s that say about you?/I’m messy, what’s that say about you?” What it says, to be sure, is that Daddy is so often a monster, whether conscious of it or not, who serves to help not only damage the psyche and destroy the self-esteem of his daughter, but perpetuate the cycle of internalized misogyny within women.

Nonetheless, as mentioned above, Jewel gradually realized that her mother was the true villain of her narrative. Which is part of how she came to forgive her father on the 2015 album Picking Up the Pieces, a bookend to Pieces of You. The song that would offer up the exact opposite message to “Daddy” was “My Father’s Daughter,” a title that can be interpreted with as many dark meanings as positive ones. Per Jewel, “The song is about forgiveness. It’s about my dad and [my] relationship; it’s about the fact that all of us owe everything that we are to the sacrifices of the generations that came before us. In this case, my grandmother and my father.” In this sense, Jewel is certainly a long way away from Plath’s 1962 state of mind at this juncture. Though there was clearly a time when she embodied the same headspace with regard to her feelings on Daddy. And yes, like Jewel, Plath’s relationship with her mother was not, at its core, a very positive one, with the poet addressing it in both “Medusa” and “The Disquieting Muses.” For one might argue that a contempt for Daddy inevitably leads to a contempt for Mommy because she deigned to marry him (though the aforementioned Lana Del Rey has not yet come to that conclusion—quite the opposite, in fact).

As for Jewel, it’s no surprise she would go the published poet route (à la Plath) soon after the release of Pieces of Me. With a collection called A Night Without Armor (resulting in one very uncomfortable and condescending interview with Kurt Loder). What’s more, you could say that, when she was a child, she had a touch of Scout from the previously name-checked To Kill A Mockingbird in her, being that she once noted, “I never thought I was any different than a man; I was raised in a place where pioneer women were very strong still. They’d shoe horses and build their own homes and were very self-sufficient. It wasn’t really until I’ve gotten older that I really became a fan of women. And a fan of what women are capable of balancing and achieving, by just being them.” More often than should be the case, “Daddy” isn’t really helpful in allowing his daughter to reach that conclusion.

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