Girl trouble

Rock and roll is still a man's, man's, man's, man's world

Trees was packed that night, and you couldn't help but wonder whether the club would have been quite so packed if the band on stage, Sleater-Kinney, were made up of three men instead of three women. Drummer Janet Weiss was capable but not great, suffering from that awkward, constipated look common to female drummers. Corin Tucker sang her defiant lyrics in a kewpie-doll voice and stood stock-still with her guitar. And the other guitarist, Carrie Brownstein, well, she was all right. But the only reason her coolness was conceded was because she loped around stage and enjoyed the instrument in her hands with the ease of a guy, unlike her bandmates. She stood out by comparison rather than by competence.

Yet music writers across the country have trumpeted Sleater-Kinney's victorious leap over old pop constructs toward a new approach to rock and roll ever since 1997's Dig Me Out; they wax on about how this is one of the most important bands of the '90s. But Sleater-Kinney's ascendancy feels more like fad than fact. Months after the release of the group's third album, it's doubtful that anyone listens to the unlistenable The Hot Rock anymore. The fact is, Sleater-Kinney hasn't so much managed to rethink rock as to drag it to an amateur slumber party, leaving things like musicianship and hooks and cohesion behind. And unlike any all-male band that might sound the same way, these three girls have been crowned for it.

Face it, women in rock haven't come a long way, baby. Growing up in the '70s and '80s, there were so few women playing rock -- or at least playing the kind of rock I wanted to hear -- that it was easy to assume they couldn't. Joni Mitchell was too earnest and tedious, and Patti Smith was little more than a scrawny groupie spouting pretentious poems. Real rock heroes were rangy, entitled, and male. Guitars seemed a natural extension of their bodies; song structures and pop hooks were as intrinsic to them as eating and sleeping. The key: equal parts effortlessness and swagger, something female rockers at the time sadly lacked, and most of them still do, as Sleater-Kinney ably demonstrated at Trees.

PJ Harvey is one of the few women in rock and roll who can keep up with the men.
Valerie Phillips
PJ Harvey is one of the few women in rock and roll who can keep up with the men.
Tiny T-shirt designer? Check. Role model? Not bloody likely. Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon is a stereotype.
Tiny T-shirt designer? Check. Role model? Not bloody likely. Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon is a stereotype.

Of course, the members of Sleater-Kinney are handicapped; they come from a generation that spent its formative years scanning MTV for role models. The women who did join the '80s rock world showed up on the all-music channel wielding a very non-democratic weapon, one that most male musicians didn't need to sell themselves: sex. Right out of the gate, they wore stiletto heels and bustiers, cooing oversimplified songs in seductive voices. And the whole world listened not because the music was phenomenal, but because the singers were female, still a novelty at the time.

Instead of challenging the male-dominated work of rock, they titillated it. The women who emerged during the early days of MTV, influencing a generation in the process, sold themselves on the very thing (or things) that blocked them from the ranks of the creatively and intellectually keen, and it's had lasting effects. Tits and ass, a promise of a great blowjob -- Madonna understood the backhanded power of such display, and everyone talked about her antics, not her tunes. The talent of most female musicians still comes into question because of this unspoken affirmative action, and it should. Like Ladies Night at a smarmy bar, most women get into the Rock Club for free because they have good legs, not chops.

But some of them did have the chops, most notably Chrissie Hynde. The Pretenders' singer-guitarist was one of the only women of that era worth listening to, because she was lean and ballsy and wrote great songs in the post-Beatles tradition: two-guitars-bass-drums, two-part harmony, one-three-five chord progressions. It's a template women musicians might resent, but they have yet to come up with anything better. Ethereal earth-goddess jams are not the answer to bulletproof structure, nor is angsty rambling femme-folk, no matter how many magazine covers Ani DiFranco or Alanis or Jewel grace.

Granted, for the non-songwriters, the playing field is mostly even -- Britney Spears is no more or less talented than male counterparts such as the Backstreet Boys, Madonna no less ingratiating than Ricky Martin. Plus, that whole contingent uses sex appeal with equal aplomb, music coming in a distant second at best. No one's ever going to accuse Christina Aguilera or 'N Sync of breaking any new ground, or fault them for it. But in terms of writing and playing your own music, if the woman can't do it with the confidence and focus of a man, then she should get off the stage.

For example, Liz Phair's 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, was lyrically raw and crammed with loose, warbling hooks -- the kind of record that proved some women could do it as well as or better than men. But then she showed up at David Letterman's studio and delivered the album's punchy opener "6'1" with hollow, shaky uncertainty and painfully real stage fright -- eyes glued to her guitar neck, voice flatter than ever, paralyzed to her spot. Absolutely no follow-through.

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