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Why are women making most of the best pop music of the '90s?

By Jesse Fox Mayshark and Joe Tarr

NOVEMBER 23, 1998:  [Setting: Sensitive writer's apartment in Old North Knoxville. Living room full of books by Russian authors and old copies of The Nation. Five-CD disc player stocked with music by women.]

JM: Okay, the first thing we need to deal with is why we're doing this. I mean, is it patronizing to talk about "women in rock" or pop or rap or whatever? You don't see articles about "men in rock."

JT: Of course it's patronizing, especially since we're both guys. But it would be ridiculous not to recognize that women haven't had the same opportunities as men in the music business. Now that it's finally changing, it seems that the most compelling and adventurous music is being made by women.

JM: Yeah, I can go along with that. And maybe that's the point—this isn't just a "Year of the Woman" (even though most of the best music of 1998 is by women). This is something that's been emerging for a couple of decades. As things have changed—or in some cases not changed—for women since the 1960s, pop music has become one of the main vehicles for chronicling them. It's more accessible than literature and more personal than television—it becomes a major part of a lot of people's identities. So then I guess the question is, why are women not only making good music, but—in all genres—consistently making music better than most of what the guys are turning out?

JT: Rock (in which I include R&B, hiphop, folk, punk et. al) at its best has always rebelled in some way against something, whether it be musical conventions or the moral codes of the day. It's in your face, takes risks, and demands to be listened to on its own terms—you can say that about Little Richard, the Beach Boys, the Velvet Underground, and Public Enemy alike. But there isn't much for white male rockers to react against anymore. I mean, they've pretty much ruled the industry since the beginning. Females have something to rebel against, and something to add. One reason Courtney Love is so fascinating is that she's writing the other side of the standard rock formula that Kurt Cobain followed, and was consumed by.

JM: Yeah, although it's a little hard to tell where she's going with it. But the thesis is solid. Teenage boys with guitars are such a cliché. In the day of Elvis or even The Beatles and Stones, boys could still horrify their parents by buying a Telecaster. Now it's just like being on the soccer team. But I bet a lot of moms and dads still get worried when little Jenny says she wants to get an electric guitar. Which is why there's still something defiant and exciting about it. USA Today had one of their phone-in polls a few weeks ago where they asked "Who is the future of rock 'n' roll?" I didn't see who won—probably Matchbox 20 or someone similarly awful—but I wanted to call up and say, "It's some 15-year-old girl sitting in her bedroom with a Fender, a four-track, and a pile of Pavement and Tori Amos records, and she's gonna scare your pants off."

Sex and Power

JM: All right, we've got a pile of CDs here from the last six months or so. PJ Harvey, Lucinda Williams, Lauryn Hill, Liz Phair, Alanis Morrisette, Hole, Sheryl Crow...Anything in common?

JT: Confidence, maybe. All of them have been around for at least a little while, and I think they are all aiming to seize the moment. PJ Harvey, I think, is the most accomplished visionary of the bunch, maybe in all of music today (except for possibly Sleater-Kinney). Unlike other female musicians, she isn't just writing about gender roles and what it's like to be constrained by them—she seems to have moved beyond all that to place where gender has no meaning. Her songs are about the ferocity of love and desire, and no one can escape. You have the prostitute in the opening song, scorning all men yet hoping one will rescue her from despair, or the man searching for his love, who wanders off mumbling, "If I don't find it this time, I'm better off dead." I think that's why she uses both male and female narrators in her songs, each of them equally doomed. She writes songs unlike anyone I know of today—they have the same heart that Appalachian or Irish folk ballads do, yet they're forward thinking.

JM: There's something about PJ Harvey that seems almost pre-rock 'n' roll. It's not folk, at least not in the normal sense, but it's like she's using the whole spectrum of popular music. The first song on her first album, "O My Lover," was kind of a gothic chamber ballad, and then two songs later was "Dress," which is one of the greatest punk rock songs of all time. ("It's hard to walk in a dress/It's not easy/Must be a way I can dress to please him...") I think the new album is a little too confident, in a way—self-doubt has produced a lot of great music (just ask Kurt Cobain). But it's a great CD, and it gets better every time I listen to it. Maybe the best one here, with the possible exception of Lucinda Williams. I think it's also the only one that seems really confident. Most of the rest of them seem to spend a lot of time either being victims or defiantly vowing not to be victims, which still springs from a victim mindset.

JT: The confidence point is silly to argue about, but I think there is something determined about each of the albums, whether real or forced. Alanis is didactic. Lauryn has the bravado that every good hiphop artist needs. On the Hole album, Courtney sounds like she's ready to kill herself, but there is something empowering in the way she embraces her pain and throws it back at you. Lucinda Williams is a great storyteller and, though her characters maybe aren't so confident, I think Lucinda sounds pretty damn sure of herself. If I'm not mistaken, each of her last three albums have songs about suicide on them—I don't know if she's been hit especially hard by this or is haunted by one particular incident. She deals with it a little differently this time around on, "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten": "He asked me: Would you jump into the water with me? I told him: No way, baby, that's your own death, you see." Even more daring is how she begins the album with a masturbation song. Now, maybe that seems like a shock gimmick, but I think it's pretty bold. Just as this culture sexualizes young women, it de-sexualizes middle-aged women. So Lucinda gives us the image of an older woman writhing around alone on her bed.

JM: And Lucinda is sexy, which is important. Along with Bonnie Raitt and a handful of other women, she's claiming sexiness for women over 40. Really, all of these albums are trying to deal with sexuality in new ways. I guess it's natural, since women have always been defined so much through their sexuality. Three of these women have shown their nipples on their album covers, which you could argue is either buying into that definition or rewriting it on their own terms. But it seems like there's still a lot of confusion, maybe even more among the younger women. It's like the "sexual revolution," such as it was, has just made things harder. Both Liz Phair and Alanis Morrisette have spent a lot of time questioning the whole idea of transcendence through sexual power. Alanis' new album—which I think is kind of weak overall—has a line about "I'd have an orgasm/Still it would not come," where it is the ever-elusive (for Alanis, at least) self-esteem.

And while we're on the subject of sex and power, what's up with all these ambiguous songs about abusive relationships? It's been 70 years since Bessie Smith sang, "I won't call no copper/If I'm beat up by my poppa," but we still have Courtney Love singing, "He hit so hard/that I saw God," and Liz Phair's "Johnny Feelgood": "I still get up when he knocks me down/And he orders me around/'Cause it loosens me up/And I can't get enough."

JT: I don't have a clue. Maybe as these women claim more power for themselves, they are questioning what it means when someone claims power over you, or when you surrender to someone. It's interesting to watch how they wield their pop star power. I don't sense that they want the adulation traditionally bestowed upon male pop stars, but for better or worse, they're getting it.

JM: Well, I think Courtney wants it. She wants everything. But maybe they're discovering that having power is scary. There's something perversely comforting about being submissive, being told what to do—you know, the way bigwig CEOs pay lots of money for women in leather to tie them up and spank them. Still, it seems like it's time to get past the "He hits me, he loves me" thing. Anything else you wanna mention, Joe?

JT: Cat Power. Cat Power. Cat Power.

[Long pause while our sensitive male music writers contemplate the wonder of women in rock. The disc changer moves to a Lucinda Williams song.]

JT: So, um, which one would you want to go out with?

JM: Uh, I don't know...Lauryn Hill's a major babe...or Liz Phair, she's cute...

[Discussion degenerates from there...]

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