McDonnell and Wyman

McDonnell and Wyman

The year on rewind.
March 1 1999 2:29 PM

McDonnell and Wyman

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Dear Evelyn:

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I go back and forth on the issue of whether it's appropriate even to talk about "female rock artists." There are good reasons to stay away from the whole subject. It's a de facto ghettoization; in an ideal rock world we would talk about woman artists simply as artists. And it's a distraction, as an artist's work is prismed through her gender. I grant both points, but I think there are larger and more important issues at stake.

I'd like to center the discussion around two questions designed to make the issue as stark as possible. First: Will there ever be a female Mick Jagger? Which is to say: an undeniable star with undeniable artistic and attitudinal authority, confronting the moral complexities of the day and of her position?

And second: Should there be?

For the sake of the argument, let's talk about the first question on its own terms, at least for a minute. After a decade or more of hopeful but ultimately overstated "Year of the Woman" articles in the music magazines, it's possible that we're in an era that may be recognized as a watershed. There are a lot of reasons for it-the most important probably being the disrupted economics of the music industry after Nirvana hit in the early 1990s - but whatever the cause I can't think of a time when spectacular, potentially pantheonic artists like Liz Phair, Courtney Love, PJ Harvey, Lucinda Williams, Sleater-Kinney, and Lauryn Hill were recording at the same time. That list merely represents my list of candidates who combine artistic importance with indication that they have at least some understanding of pop instincts as well; you may have different nominees. But everyone should remember that the mere possession of pop instincts is something different from garnering actual record sales. Leaving aside Lauryn Hill, who has crossover and pop (as opposed to rock) sales fueling her triple-platinum-plus album, none of the artists I mentioned above has sold a million records.

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I'm not sure why rock is dominated by men. There have always been remarkable female artists, of course, but very few-arguably no-epochal ones. There are spectacular singers, from Aretha Franklin to Linda Thompson; incisive, nonpareil songwriters (Joni Mitchell); unmistakable stars (Janis Joplin); even commercially dominant artists (Madonna, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey). But is there a Bob Dylan, a Mick Jagger, a Kurt Cobain?

Let's look at what that might mean. Beyond the simple requirement of being an artist qua artist (which to my mind elegantly removes Madonna from the debate) there are two parallel challenges. One is formal, and is generally called being "rockist"-i.e., basically understanding the moves of the (mostly male-dominated) music as it has evolved over the past nearly half century now. Chrissie Hynde is a typical model here: For whatever reason, she played tough like a guy, yet throughout her key early albums she confounded the image with serious music that strikingly broadened the emotional themes of the genre, culminating in her defiant statement on growing older, "Middle of the Road."

The other might be called the pop imperative, which means being larger than life, capturing the imagination of a large public, and making a difference. Among woman rock artists, Madonna is probably the standard here, though I personally have always found her epater le bourgeoisie methodology a bit low-rent. For others, it's harder. I don't feel sorry for rock stars as a matter of principle, but I will stipulate that there's a psychic toll that can chew up those not possessed of certain rough character edges. That's a nice way of saying that besides superhuman dedication and commitment, you have to have the ability to be an asshole and leave some bodies behind.

A handful of female artists whose records we're talking about are dealing with these difficulties in different ways. Liz Phair has the rockist thing down cold, from the audacious way she patterned her first album after the Stones' Exile on Main Street to her methodical appropriation of white-boy guitar rave-ups. Her understanding of the music's sexual imperatives, too, is as sophisticated (and mischievous) as anyone since Jagger. Without even being a student of rock, she instinctively appropriates its most central features for her own purposes. Her first record remains persuasively epic, and even on her most recent, 1998's Whitechocolatespaceegg , there are songs like "Perfect World," whose gentle elegance, personal knowingness, and overall design leave one slightly awed. But I think she's adrift on the commercial front. She's barely managed to record three albums in seven years, and the last two have been disconcertingly confused. A creature of the '90s indie scene, she worries too much about keeping herself out of the stardom threshing machine, while Exile's vast ambitions show her interest in it. And her live shows are frequently incompetent.

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PJ Harvey, after a couple of daring and provocative albums, pulled off something grander-something wholly mind-fucking-on To Bring You My Love in 1995. There, by means of a wholesale expropriation of male sexual terminology she audaciously confronted the most sexual of all pop music forms, the blues, and merged herself into it heroically. But it's since become apparent that Harvey's something less: an art rocker. Her last record, 1998's Is This Desire?, sees her pulling back from commerciality into an electronic avant-garde. Ugh.

Lucinda Williams pulled a classic rock move - spending about five years putting out an album. The result, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which came out last year and just scored an upset win in the Village Voice 's "Pazz & Jop" critics' poll over Lauryn Hill, is an obsessive's dream, cunningly crafted but accompanyingly bloodless. Williams is possessed of a rare keening voice and a fiction writer's ability to craft songs out of shaking moments of emotion. And beneath Car Wheels' friendly country sheen, the album seethes with ambition; Williams seems to have wanted to make something timeless and perfect, in which every millisecond of music hangs in the air hours after it sounds. I think the key track - and one of the most reverberatingly memorable songs I've heard recently-is "Metal Firecracker," in which Williams, nagged by a recurring dread, begs a former lover, again and again, "Don't tell anybody the secrets / I told you." But too much of the rest of the record misses that mark: It's as if her years chasing a sound debilitated the inspirations for her songwriting.

Lauryn Hill's ambitions are plain in The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill ; she wants to be Stevie Wonder. And Marvin Gaye. And Diana Ross. Unlike the other people here, she has a natural fan base (those who like the harmless pop-rap of the Fugees, her band) and the added benefit of being a black artist, with a built-in draw for a section of the pop marketplace that has historically rewarded its great artists more conscientiously than the white one. Hill has ably harnessed the magnanimous pop openness that has marked black pop from the beginning; her album is produced with a dizzying denseness and overlayed meaning, like the purposeful homages to Gaye, Bob Marley, Wonder, and many others. And she even takes on the music, one of the hardest things to do; on "Superstar" she essays a bleak portrait of an arrogant, vacuous rapper. Elsewhere, of course, her lyrical concerns are a bit empty-seeming; If the 24-year-old Hill can outgrow her lack of lyrical sophistication and put out another record or two like this she will be a star indeed.

Courtney Love is nothing but a star; she's almost not even a rock artist. You can't trust her songs. (Too many people help her write them). You can't trust her statements, because she's such a creature of the media that everything she says is intensely designed to provoke some strange reaction. (It's one of my theories about her that she does this as a matter of principle; it's what stars should do.) And while I said above that a true star has to have the grit to leave bodies behind, I didn't mean it literally. But Celebrity Skin is an almost perfect rock album. Every track is astonishing, a fully realized full-bodied rock song about a fairly substantive issue, from the myriad ways women are manipulated in the music business to the death of her husband. And each rings out the way great pop rock is supposed to.

And then there's Sleater-Kinney, the ostensible subject of our discussion. They are a three-piece punk-rock trio from Olympia, Washington, and arguably the biggest underground rock sensation since Nirvana. The band, fueled by the high, keening voice of Corin Tucker, crafts cacophonous but somehow beautiful songs that manage both to reference classic rock "feels" and remain proudly noncommercial. The question for the band is whether they will remain proudly, almost defiantly "indie," or, like Nirvana before them, venture out despite their wariness into a vast mainstream marketplace whose horrors might be balanced with the opportunity to contribute to something like the rock 'n' roll universiality embodied in their songs.

Will they do it? Can they? What do you think of their new album, the eagerly awaited The Hot Rock?

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Evelyn McDonnell is a free-lance writer and editor. She co-edited
Stars Don't Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Mythwith Karen Kelly, andRock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop and Rapwith Ann Powers. Bill Wyman is a critic and editor. He was formerly a staff writer at the Chicago Reader and arts editor of the SF Weekly.This week they are discussing Sleater-Kinney's new album,The Hot Rock, and other recent albums by female rock artists.