“7th grade is evil!” Jill Sobule states emphatically. “It isn’t the first week or first month or first year that fucks you up for life, it’s 7th grade.”
Sobule would know. The singer-songwriter has an entire solo show, F*ck 7th Grade (now playing Off-Broadway’s Wild Project through February 11), about the long-reaching impact of that disastrous year. Why is it such a mess? Answers Sobule: “All of a sudden, peers become more important than your parents. In 6th grade, I was this tomboy, I was a badass, I was the electric guitar player. Suddenly, 7th grade happened, and my friends started wearing makeup and I didn't feel like I fit in. I knew early on that there was something different about me; that I had crushes on my friends, and that wasn’t,” here Sobule makes exaggerated air quotes, “the ‘right thing.’ 7th grade is when it all fell apart.”
F*ck 7th Grade, which was originally intended to be a limited run experiment in the small downtown venue, immediately caught the eye of uptown critics. It was named a New York Times Critic Pick and sold out multiple extensions of the original 2022 run. Now, it’s back for two weeks, with many of the performances prior to the February 11 closing already sold out.
In the years after her realization that “7th grade started it all,” Sobule began doing informal research amongst anyone she came across: When did you feel the worst about yourself? With very little deviation, she found that cis women identified 7th grade as the age, and cis men hated 9th grade the most.
“My research is totally unscientific, but it’s also 100 percent right,” Sobule says with a laugh. “Your body is a little ahead of your mind, it’s this hormonal thing. They call it the confidence gap. You’re suddenly in a body that doesn’t feel like yours anymore; I don’t think we ever get over that.”
Sobule has spent most of her adult life trying to “get over that.” Known for her hit 1995 single “I Kissed A Girl” (written more than a decade prior to the Katy Perry song of the same name), her music oscillates between folky introspection and raucous rejection of expectation. In the years since her mainstream success, she has returned to her autobiographical roots, with songs centered on her struggles with depression and anorexia, her Jewish heritage, and her complicated relationship with gender norms and sexuality. Through it all, she never expected to end up on a theatrical stage.
“I played Miss Hanukkah in 5th Grade, but that was all of my theatre kid experience. Eventually I was asked to cowrite a piece called Prozac and the Platypus, and a thing called Times Square at NYU, but I wasn’t on stage,” Sobule shrugs. “I’ve been playing songs in front of an audience for a couple decades now, but having to memorize stuff is hard, even though it’s my words I have to memorize.”
It can be difficult for a confessional songwriter like Sobule to know where the line between herself ends and performances begins. Her director, Lisa Peterson, and book writer Liza
Birkenmeier, have had to keep her on a short leash to prevent asides that were not originally scripted. “Every once in a while I'm like, ‘what did I just say?’” Sobule shivers, throwing off the discomfort of vulnerability when it descends. “Isn't it funny how we’re more open in front of 100 people then we are in real life with each other? Somehow that feels safer. In 7th grade, this inner world that I desperately had to hold onto and hide, here I am in front of other people just saying, ‘blah here it is.’ And people are coming to see it! I can’t think about it too much.”
Approximately 75 percent of the music in F*ck 7th Grade is from Sobule’s back catalog, including some early songs written in the stew of her adolescence. Still, she rankles at the idea of calling it a jukebox musical: “We didn’t have to create a story around these songs. These songs are my story. I just wrote a few more to fill out the narrative.”
She also struggles with the label of one-person-show. While the life on display is Sobule’s—the music is hers, and she is the star of every sequence—she carefully chose the all-female musicians surrounding her. That also helps with the stage fright, as Sobule remarks, “I’m not alone, I’m with my girls.”
Sobule is handling the success of her show with characteristic irreverence. “It took me by surprise. As I get older (and maybe I’ve always been this way) I’ve noticed this defense mechanism; I don’t get too hyped for things. I try not to put too much on anything.” Here, Sobule leans forward, conspiratorial. “But in the back of my mind, I always thought this could take off. After all, we all hated 7th grade! Who doesn’t want to curse it out?”