Wednesday, October 17, 2001

The Women of Rock

While 70s music may be known for splintering off an incredibly diverse number of styles and interpretations of rock and roll, it should be known for the decade when women rockers came into their own. Well okay maybe recognition of them didn't really happen until a bit later... but that is when late boomer women took up the anthem, heard the call, and sisters started "doing it for themselves."I have always contended (but do not believe anything you hear about me being contentious though) that the sweeping societal changes usually traced to "the 60s" did not really take root and embed themselves in our societal psyche until "the 70s," thus impacting the Later Boomers far more than the Hippie Boomers. I climb out even further on a limb when I say that later born Boomer women absorbed the majority of the shock waves from the impact of these changes.

A great place to view the extent of the type of change of which I speak is in the world of popular music. Rock splintered into so many genres, by the early '70s that I find I must use the generic term "rock" for contemporary music in general in this article, although it might rankle folks who know the difference between adult contemporary, pop, folk, rock, soft rock, country rock, ad infinitum. I firmly believe that the marketing of distinctions between musicians vary far more than the orientations of the artists themselves. But then there are two type of people in the world, lumpers and splitters, I'm a lumper. I prefer to see commonality not difference, and I'll be dog gone dogged if I can figure out the difference between most contemporary pop and folk singers other than the circuit they play and tour.

Anyway, moving on, I will not belabor the old, now well established, argument that Rock 'N Roll is a sexist industry. That isn't news to anyone. But when you think of the world of contemporary rock, across the board and across genres, you will find that many, many of the women whose names come up are later born Baby Boomers: So how did these women manage to survive a sexist industry and claim a niche for themselves? What niche? Well, it is a niche, but it isn't a named one. I mean the niche is filled with women, and why would you want to bother naming something like that? (I'm being sarcastic here!) I'm talking about the Indigo Girls, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Joan Osborne, Carrie Newcomer, Joan Jett, Melissa Etheridge, KD Lang, Natalie Merchant, Sheryl Crow, and Kate Bush. What these women do could not have been done in the 60s. They are filling a niche they created themselves. In essence these are the ladies of rock who took advantage (long, slow, steady advantage) of a juvenile system that was the mid-20th century music industry, and created the land of women's rock. I think you have to go back to early jazz and blues singers to really find the breadth and depth of women in music that late booming women display. Info at the end of this article will help you keep current with these booming women of rock, pop, and a few more celtic and country folks too. (Another of my articles "Systems theory, semiotics, and deconstructing post-modernist bull" will get you up to speed on the systemic elements of social change.) But let's continue to look at a smattering of what makes these ladies so special before you go flittering off to their sites.

Of course some great amount of gratitude goes to the Grandmothers, Mothers, and Aunties of Rock who are leading edge Boomers or even a bit older. We daughters and sisters should lay alms at their feet, even as our brothers and husbands hurl themselves prostrate and drooling at their feet them hoping for a kind word or smile. (Yes, there are male groupies…ask any male Boomer about Stevie Nicks if you don't believe me… and watch his eyes glaze over, but it is a different sort of scene.)

Who would these grandmothers be? Bonnie Rait, who personifies tough and whom I often see playing a benefit concert in Sedona that has also hosted Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin carpenter and Trisha Yearwood. These strong women of rock stick together, huh? Joan Armatrading has to be mentioned, even though she is pretty hoity toity with the Queen now, but she certainly taught more than a few late booming women how to lay it on the line lyrically. And we cannot forget Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde, lest the gods of rock strike us dead. I am enchanted with a writer friend's description of Patti in concert in Ljubljana a few months back, "At times she broke the frenzied rock anthem pace by donning a pair of half-glasses and reading from one of her books, one of her poems or one of William Blake's, aging in an instant into a rude bohemian grandma, then shucking the props and transforming back into the ageless rock-poet avatar in blue jeans." Geesh, such poetry! I wanna grow up to be a rude bohemian grandma… I wanna never compromise the essential core... at least half of late boomer women do, I'm sure. But there are multiple styles of expression and there are some of us who at times still like to listen to (or perform) songs about love and lacy thoughts and owe a great deal to Stevie Nicks for showing us all that you can keep your identity and autonomy while being one of the most well recognized sex symbols of an era. Then there are Linda Rondstat and Joni Mitchell who showed us that you can be successful but that it is more important, ultimately, to do your own thing whether it be jazz or mariachi.
Of course there are a few who defy such dichotomous classifications as grandmothers or aunties… and as any scholar knows one should always be suspicious of dichotomies… such as Laurie Anderson who is definitely to be grouped agewise with the aforementioned women but who made performance art and spiky haircuts almost mainstream with many of her younger compatriots. And Debbie Harry defies classification too… does anyone still appreciate the crossover quality of Rapture (not to mention playbunny to new waver)? And what of Annie Lennox and Pat Benatar .who almost qualify for late boomer status, but not quite as they were born early mid 50s? I do understand that hard and fast classification is impossible. We're talking trends here, okay?
It's not that the late booming women born from the mid-50s and to the mid-60s can lay claim to any radical creation, although the women of punk, along with the rest of the punk scene, certainly tried, but they can lay claim to riding out a storm with a determined patience that really shows how much stamina women have. Like any group of cast-a-ways, they had to individually ride out waves that started continents and lifetimes away. We all do. Nothing is without antecedent. But these women certainly represent, and in many ways typify, how many boomer women have met and dealt with the struggles, obstacles, and confrontations encountered at the edge of this rapidly expanding system or landscape. Big labels just don't promote women through time. Well hyped, hyper-funded one hit wonders come and go, as do teen voices behind the implants, navels, and bootay that record execs so love, while incredible performers and lyric spinners like Natalie Merchant are push to the side or back burner. Check out her "official" website and compare it to the one listed below, if you don't believe me. These officious sites never capture the essense of the woman they represent. But these women are not giving up. They continue to play their hearts out into their 30s and 40s whether they've made it big or not… and in many instances making it big doesn't translate to making big money.
I like to mentally place people into the same three types of groups as cell cultures I've heard about (okay, I went through a nerd phase and hung out with some scientist types): cells that stay at home right where they were formed, cells that venture out to new territories and then migrate back with news of outside conditions, and colonists that venture out never to return as they start their own colonies. Later born boomer women musicians were freer to be reporters or colonists. While their older sisters were often restrained or simply barred from the vessels that set sail for the distant newly discovered lands rumored to be populated with such with such wild and mythical beasts as rock and roll, psychoactive drugs, reliable contraception, instantaneous world wide communication and strange and wonderful new technologies -- the younger sisters simply built their own boats and set sail to explore these mythic lands in their own way, at their own pace, christened with their own names, and their own music. 

One interesting thing is that a segregation of sorts occurred, probably driven by women and not in an accidental fashion. Many female musicians were found to be "doing it for themselves" or with a single male partner -- the "it" in this instance being music, keep it clean here, okay? -- in order to do what they wanted, liked and needed to do when the opportunities for women in the rock world consisted at best of being primarily singers, occasionally songwriters (probably uncredited), and rarely instrument playing musicians, but always eye candy and regarded with little more respect than groupies. So small labels and independent record (remember that word?) pressings were viewed not as a stepping stone to a big label, but as an end in itself… getting the music out there to people who care. The true counter cultural practice of doing it anyway and outside the system survived in the musical world and was fed to a large degree by women's efforts. Women are used to working outside the male system and accomplishing much, that's how the majority of children are raised and impossibly small budgets stretched to feed and clothe families. When women are passionate, anything is possible.

This is merely a cursory view of boomer women and music that hardly scratches the surface of all the things women musicians were doing between the 70s and now. Look at the world of celtic music which is rife with women artists upon whom Enya's success is interlaced. Enya is a late boomer by the way. Trisha Yearwood is a new country late boomer, but she like many contemporary country performers have some pretty deep roots in rock.
So if you haven't taken a little trip to your local independent music store lately to peruse indy performers , shame on you. Go do it right now. There are incredible performers out there; all of the ones mentioned herein can be found at major music outlets - but that wasn't always the case in these women's muscial past. There are a wealth of great women bringing women's thoughts and women's views to us musically that are on small indy labels. Get out there and support your thinking, feeling, vibrant singing sisters (or mothers, or daughters...) and thank them for keeping non-homogenized, inspirational music alive!

Melissa Etheridge
Born: 29 May 1961
Leavenworth, Kansas
Read her autobiography.
Joan Osborne

Born: 8 July 1962
Check out her magazine! Oprah it ain't, thank heavens.

Tracy Chapman
Born: March 1964
Okay, so she has a major label behind her. Don't begrudge her that okay. She's from Ohio and studied anthropology - so she's okay in my book - the girl has done all right for herself.

Carrie Newcomer
Born: 25 May 1959
Carrie believes we late boomers live in an age of possibility - an "indy" performer if there ever was one. Check out audio of I Heard an Owl - written and recorded only 2 days after the Sept. 11th tragedy.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
21 February 1958
For a while you can check out a video of her at PBS's Austin City Limits site. Her appearance on ACL is scheduled to appear on Nov. 3, 2001.
Suzanne Vega
11 July 1959
She's no "Marlena on the Wall> any longer, in fact she's on tour with her 2001 release of "Red and Gray."
Indigo Girls
aka Emily and Amy
Emily Ann Saliers
22 July 1963,
New Haven, Connecticut, USA

Amy Elizabeth Ray
12 April 1964,
Decatur, Georgia, USA
They have this Verde Valley School Benefit connection too... what gives?
Shawn Colvin
10 January 1956,
South Dakota, USA.
Credits Jackson Browne (deja vu all over again) with "discovery" of her recorded music. Didja know that both she and Annie Lennox are featured on the soundtrack of the movie "Serendipity?"

Kate Bush (Catherine Bush)
30 July 1958
Bexleyheath, Bexley, London, England, UK
What other late booming woman has a holiday named after her?

Eithne Ní Bhraonáin
17 May 1961,
Gaoth Dobhair, Donegal, Ireland
It is NOT muzak!
K D Lang (Kathryn Dawn)
2 November 1961
Consort, Alberta, Canada
Did you know she hosts ROADIE CHEFS II on the Food Network?
Joan Jett aka Joan Marie Larkin
22 September 1960
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Do check out her site for a view of patriotic punk!

Sheryl Crow
11 February 1962,
Kennett, Missouri
Tried the traditional route of playing with and for guys as a backup singer for artists such as George Harrison, Joe Cocker, Stevie Wonder and Rod Stewart but no one" knew who she was" until she "broke through" in the 90s. Gotta appreciate her stamina! She's on Stevie Nicks' new single, too,ya know?

Natalie Anne Merchant
Born at 10/26/63 in Jamestown, N.Y.
See Natalie's "Nowhere Man" September 14, 2001 performance on TNT's "Come Together" Benefit and John LennonTribute.

Trisha Yearwood (Patricia Lynn)
19 September 1964
Monticello, Georgia, USA
And she also has played at the benefit concert for Native American scholarships, guess where? Yep. Verde Valley. Those late booming women musician threads running deeper than "rock" or "country" classification. 

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