I had a realization recently that my love and preference for tender, energetic rock music did not come from nowhere. I had once thought it was a carryover of my emotional teenage days, but I’ve come to understand that these roots extend further than I once thought. For instance, I was 5 years old when “All You Wanted” by Michelle Branch was released and became a runaway hit. The memories of hearing this song on the radio are by no means my clearest, but they instead have functioned as minor guiding lights for who I am and what I like today. Michelle Branch does not hold a glamorous spot in American popular rock history, mostly being relegated to the “Remember This?” genre of local radio, but I think she affected people deeper and more widely than we’d like to admit to ourselves.
Michelle Branch exploded into the pop world in late 2001, when the state of American rock music was torn between the fall of grunge, the subsequent rise of post-grunge, and the lateral and reactionary explosion of nu-metal. In the middle of this chaos was a separate pocket of young singer-songwriters, mostly women, who would provide a reprieve from the often alarmingly macho nature of the aforementioned subgenres. In the span of a few years, this scene would produce smash singles from Natalie Imbruglia, Vanessa Carlton, and of course Michelle Branch.
You probably recognize Branch’s name from a few places in popular American music. Before putting out a couple of country hits with The Wreckers in 2006, Branch had an extraordinary solo run in 2001 to 2003, releasing two successful albums with The Spirit Room and Hotel Paper that contained even more successful singles in “Everywhere,” “All You Wanted,” and “Are You Happy Now?” She even nabbed a Grammy win for her collaboration with Santana, “The Game of Love.” She did all of this in the ages of 19 to 21, to put things into perspective, Like her contemporaries, however, her peak was high but relatively short, and Branch had a 14-year gap, from 2003 to 2017, in between solo albums.
Branch made music that was warm, frank, and extraordinarily catchy. It was pop rock, sure, but it had just enough edge to stand out, not unlike the sound that would catapult Avril Lavigne to stardom in the same era. Her music was sentimental without being saccharine, and it never felt cloying or cynically crafted to push the little emotional buttons in your brain. The songs were simple, straightforward, and emotional in a way that might be seen as detriment for a woman making her way in the rock world.
I’m not trying to assert Branch’s music into the Canon of Highly Respected American Albums, but I am attempting to give some love to a musician that, unbeknownst to me, played a big part in the musical development of myself and other people I’m sure. I think this kind of music, like most media that appeals to young women, gets put on a subconscious “pay no mind” list by people who like to consider themselves the arbiters of music consumption in the western world.
This style of music pretty much entirely stopped existing for a good amount of time after its peak, and that’s not entirely without reason. Trends change, and popular rock music has only moved further and further from the consciousness of the public. In recent years, however, an undercurrent of women in rock has sprung up to take the mantle that artists like Michelle Branch once held.
Are Mitski, Soccer Mommy, and Snail Mail making music that sounds exactly like “All You Wanted”? Of course not. But the role that these women play, making music that is as energetic and accessible as it is emotionally vulnerable, is extraordinarily valuable in a rock world that even now is dominated by male voices. And while these artists are enjoying much more accredited critical acclaim than Michelle Branch ever did, their perspectives can still be devalued in favor of the men in rock music who are seen as possibly more legitimate or worthy.
To give a piece of music it’s proper due, there doesn’t necessarily need to be a formal critical re-appraisal of a song or album. Truly appreciating something requires a certain amount of heart, and an acknowledgement of love and respect is as important as anything else. Hearing all of those guitar-backed women on the radio so many years ago undoubtedly helped me gain some of that love, and unfortunately I’ve spent the better part of my life pretending that wasn’t true. So to Michelle Branch, I will simply say thank you.