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Thursday, February 16, 2012

I am Woman, Hear me ROAR!

So it has come to my attention that in today's music world, there are many female artists who can hold a tune decently and put on a good show, but don't have what it takes to be in the unofficial female rock/pop hall of fame. Can you name five female artists who are currently performing and living and who also still sound like they did when their career began? I definitely can!

I guess what started me to think about this topic was Whitney Houston's recent death as well as that of Etta James and Amy Whinehouse. All three had amazing, incredible voices and each had very hard lives filled with drugs, abuse, alcohol, and tragedy. And, I can name a lot more female artists with incredible voices whose lives were defined by tragic circumstances: Janis Joplin, Mama Cass Elliot, Karen Carpenter, Selina. Maybe that's the key to a great artist, especially a female artist, a person who suffers greatly. There is the thought that great artists suffer for their art. It is the pain and suffering, after all, that makes lyrics to a song more powerful and deep.

I certainly don't like superficial musicians who sing about things they don't care about or things that are truly mundane. But, we're not talking about merely great artists, we're talking about great FEMALE musical artists. By definition, females (no matter the genre) have to battle against the 'pink glass ceiling'. They are in a world dominated and controlled by men. Though things have changed in that department, I can sit here and think of top record companies not being able to name any females who are running said record companies. I mean, there might be females who started/control some independent/indie labels but I cannot think of any major label that is run by a female.

In fact, according to an article on the UK Guardian, 66% of the industry is controlled by men and 77% of it is male dominated when it comes to promotions and major management positions. Even though this is the truth across the pond, I'm sure it is a similar story here in the US. In fact, within the UK, Andria Vidler is the first female in the history of the UK to have a top position in the music industry, as the EMI label president for the UK and Ireland. (1) Shocking?

That being said of women in the field of music executives, think about women musicians. Women, as musicians have to prove, even more so than men, that they are worthy of winning a Grammy or selling out a concert. If the artist in question dresses too provocatively, she's a 'whore'. If she doesn't sing like the women who blazed a path before her, than she's 'no-talent whore'. Female artists have a mystique and a persona that makes them extra-ordinary. They have to rise above the world of men and objectification. A good voice, a winning smile just isn't enough. So I ask again, who do you think of as the top female (living) vocalists of all time?

Did you say Joan Baez? That's who comes to my mind. Anyway, I had the pleasure of seeing (and meeting) Joan Baez back in November 2005. She was playing at the Calvin Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts. It was a rainy cold night, but when I sat down to see Baez perform, she warmed the entire room. Not only was she candid and personal, reading from some of her political poetry, but she sounded EXACTLY like her albums. I was so enamored of her that afterwards, one of my good friends joked that I was going to become the next Mr. Baez.

I have to admit that I did put her signed CD in a special frame along with an 8x10 photograph of her performing on stage. I may have also put a bunch of 4x6 photos of her performing on my wall. But, c'mon it's JOAN BAEZ! She started the whole political music scene with Bob Dylan in the early sixties playing at dank, dark coffee houses in Greenwich Village. And, she is still authentic and sounds incredible.

However, unlike many of her peers, Joan Baez has stayed away from hard drugs and alcohol (at least to my knowledge). I can't really imagine her doing lines of coke or taking shots of Jager. She seems like more of a green tea and vegan oatmeal cookie type of gal.

So, in terms of great female vocalists and rockers, who else was, is, and continues to be amazing? There's Dolly Parton. She seems to also be as authentic and true grit as a Country Western song itself. I mean, yes she has had plastic surgery, but c'mon she still sounds and look incredible. I'm sure she takes care of herself in other ways than just botox. According to Jancee Dunn (an editor for Rolling Stone since 1989), Dolly Parton is as real as real can get and "does not need any extra 'color'" (139). Dunn wrote a memoir, 'But Enough About Me: How a Small-Town Girl went from Shag Carpet to the Red Carpet' which is an expose about her life growing up in New Jersey and then rubbing elbows with famous celebrities.

What's interesting is that Dunn's description of Dolly Parton is exactly what one would expect:

"Her voice made itself known first-she was signing the old hymn 'Peace in the
Valley' as she tapped over in her five-inch stiletto heels. She stopped to greet
me, put her hand jauntily on her hip, and patiently allowed me to gawk. She was
wearing a spectacular platinum wig, clingy black velvet two-piece pantsuit, big
silver earrings, multiple shades of purple eye shadow, and shiny, bubble-gum pink
lip gloss. 'Well, hello' she said with a big grin. Who is like her, in all the
world? Who is her successor? That mind-bogglingly small waist! Those glorious
knockers! This glitzy getup was-hand to God-all for her trip to the chiropractor
later in the afternoon. She cheerfully explained that most people would be
frightened to look 'this cheap and whorey' but not her" (140).

Then Dunn goes on to say that she wants to test if what she has read about Dolly Parton is really true; does she like to snack on Velveeta cheese? Dolly Parton doesn't avoid the question or blush, she just gets up to grab a whole block of Velveeta: "There was a bomb shelter's worth of tinned SPAM, cans of corned-beef hash, loaves upon loaves of delightfully spongy white bread, and a giant brick of Velveeta" (142). Do you know many rock stars who would be this authentic and unabashedly frank. Dolly Parton doesn't give a care; she is a glitzy Southern barbie doll who likes to eat Spam and Velveeta. And, you have to admit that her voice still sounds incredible. She is on my top ten list of top female artists as well as musicians I would die to meet in person. I would just love to meet her; you know, for a sit n' chat. *2

I mean don't get me wrong, when you look around there is some incredible female talent: Lady GaGa, Adele, Feist, Norah Jones, Cat Power, Carrie Underwood. But, are any of them INCREDIBLE to the point of being like, 'damn, I really want to meet her'? Joan Baez and Dolly Parton are. I mean, I have met the former and she is not only nice and authentic, but she respects and admires her fans as much as they do her. So maybe that's it, that female artists have to not only have a grand persona but present a veneer thin enough that she doesn't become 'a frosty bitch'. Great female artists are not only talented, but they are women who you would want to gather at your dining room table and break bread with.

The only other woman I can say has an amazing presence and talent in terms of rock history is Pat Benetar. That woman is tough as nails. Plus, she started out singing blues/jazz in cabaret clubs. She was trained in classical and theatrical singing too. WHAT? She didn't make a natural transition like Debbie Harry (aka Blondie) from punk to new wave. Pat Benetar was singing Ella Fitzgerald and then transitioned over to rock. Not only does she have some amazing hits and set fashion trends for the early/mid eighties, but she still rocks out and looks really hot too (BTW, she has a fan club site: I actually found out that she's playing at Irving Plaza in March. She is definitely on my list of artists who I would pay good money to see and possibly meet. I just like how she has a persona of 'you f- with me and I'll cut your nads off, mister'. She doesn't mess around. And, maybe the key is just that. As a woman in the music world, you have to have thick skin.

Think back to the female artists who are no longer with us and the circumstances of their lives. Maybe a big reason for the burning out of stars so bright is the great pressure. Trying to look good and sing well; it's a lot of pressure for any person. Madonna became more spiritual and got into Kabbalah (or at least her version of it anyway). Some singers don't smoke or drink, and others eat (or don't) certain foods and stay on regimented diets that sound weird to the rest of us. Female musicians have a lot they have to think about so if raw food and yoga does the trick, then more power to that person.

I dedicate this entry to the women rockers and musicians. They dare to step into a man's world and define music by their own set of rules! ROCK ON, ladies!




*2 Dunn, Jancee. 'But Enough about Me: How a Small-Town Girl Went from Shag Carpet to the Red Carpet.' New York: Harper Entertainment, 2006.

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