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Nashville Scene Small Change

Shania Twain and Mindy McCready are waving a new feminist banner over Music Row. Yeah, right.

By Beverly Keel

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  Rock's angry young females have been capturing the national headlines recently, while the music press fails to recognize how far women in country have progressed. It was only 10 years ago that K.T. Oslin helped to modernize the female country singer's image with her 1987 hit "80s Ladies." Since then, things have slowly begun to change for today's women country artists, who now demand equality and respect.

"80s Ladies" told the tale of educated, liberated women who burned their bras, their dinners, and their candles at both ends. Since then, any number of female singers have made their own declarations of independence. Especially noteworthy is Mary Chapin Carpenter, whose 1993 song "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" was inspired by a Geritol commercial in which a man quips, "My wife. I think I'll keep her." The singer's pointed lyrics captured a woman's disillusionment with her marriage and with workplace discrimination. Reba McEntire, meanwhile, asserted in her 1991 hit "Is There Life Out There" the idea that women should make a life for themselves. ("She's done what she should/Should she do what she dares/She doesn't want to leave/She's just wonderin' is there life out there.")

These songs may seem unremarkable, but they truly mark change in country music's attitudes and themes. Patsy Montana, Loretta Lynn, and Kitty Wells were all outspoken and independent in their own way, but they were also the exception. Most women country singers have historically cried tears of sadness after being deserted, or they've cried tears of joy to be back in baby's arms. Indeed, the music of Tammy Wynette, Connie Smith, and others suggested that a woman's whole identity was defined by her man. For every song like Lynn's "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin'," there were five that reaffirmed women's submissiveness. Beginning in 1966 with Sandy Posey, seven different female singers cut the song "Born a Woman," which states, "A woman's place in this ol' world is under some man's thumb."

Today, however, woman are truly more independent-minded, more strong-willed. In song, Pam Tillis dares her man, "Go on and get your share/But believe me baby/It's lonely out there," while in the studio, she has become producer of her own recordings--truly a rare thing for a woman in country music.

Lady's first
Ten years ago, K.T. Oslin told country listeners that women were changing

Women in country have progressed steadily but quietly since the late '80s. The most recent development is the astonishing success of Canadian singer Shania Twain, whose 1995 album The Woman in Me sold 10 million copies. It could be argued that Twain represents the future of women in country--frank, original, independent, and sexy. In songs such as "Any Man of Mine," she turns the tables on men, insisting that she's the one who must be pleased. "I can be late for a date, that's fine," she sings, "but he'd better be on time." Her new album, Come on Over, continues in this vein with "Honey I'm Home": "Pour me a cold one, and oh, by the way/Rub my feet, gimme something to eat/Fix up my favorite treat." Finally, it's the man's turn to slave away in the kitchen.

Modern female country artists may pale in comparison to women rock 'n' rollers, but these rock artists face very few of the constraints that have stymied their country counterparts. It could even be argued that country still remains one of the last bastions of male chauvinism in the music industry. Women are still routinely referred to as "girl singers," and one label executive reportedly called his best-selling female act "our Hooter girl." It wasn't until recently that executives even realized that women artists could sell if given equal opportunity and promotion.

Granted, today's women singers are still expected to conform to an image, but then, so are men. It's also worth remembering that women have had to create change by working within the system, by promoting music that's inspiring to their female audience while remaining appealing to the male gatekeepers at labels and radio stations. Since country is a mainstream genre that reflects the tastes of Middle America, there simply isn't room for extremism. Working women can't relate to Courtney Love, but they understand Reba McEntire. As Nashville songwriter Sandy Knox says, most female country listeners belong to a generation trapped between Betty Crocker and Betty Friedan.

But herein lies perhaps the greatest irony: Despite their softened, non-threatening lyrics, country females still face a double standard at radio and in the press. Some radio programmers complained, for instance, that Mindy McCready's "Guys Do It All the Time" was male-bashing, when the song merely stated that women should be allowed to do anything that guys can do. Other programmers resisted playing Martina McBride's "Independence Day" because the song depicted a woman's murderous response to her abusive husband, yet they delighted in spinning Garth Brooks' "Papa Loved Mama," in which a husband kills his cheating wife.

This double standard even seeps into newspaper and magazine stories, most of which are written by men. As it turns out, appearance--good or bad--plays a much larger role in stories about women than it does in stories about men. Reporters constantly write about Wynonna's and Yearwood's battles with weight, while Joe Diffie's girth and Vince Gill's recent weight gain have gone without notice.

If women aren't too large, then they're too sexy. A perfect case in point is Shania Twain, who has been particularly subject to negative criticism over the last few years. After the release of The Woman in Me, Twain's husband/producer Robert "Mutt" Lange was often credited with the album's success, as if he were the Svengali who molded a clueless creature into a strong, assertive singer. Many people assumed that Lange was the mastermind behind the songs and that he merely attached his wife's name to the end product. These critics fail to realize that Twain had been working on many of the album's songs--not to mention her career--before she even met Lange.

Twain's latest album, Come on Over, is currently being subjected to a new barrage of criticism, but even so, the LP will undoubtedly be a multimillion-selling success, further solidifying a place for women in the country marketplace. And in the end, that's the best way--perhaps the only way--to bring about changes in country music. The anger and the sexual frankness of Liz Phair and Polly Jean Harvey simply don't have a place here, and they probably never will. As such, women will have to continue making their gains in subtle, but noticeable, increments.

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