Girl trouble

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

Same goes for the Breeders. Sure, "Cannonball" was a great song, but the rest of the album (1993's Last Splash) was awful, and, for that matter, so was their 1990 debut, Pod. Like many of their peers, Kim Deal and company were about as charismatic as cardboard, as interesting to watch live as a TV test pattern. The phenomenon is so common among the one-hit-wonder rock girls that it's hard not to watch them on Late Night With Conan O'Brien or The Tonight Show with the slightly amused trepidation of a parent who knows her kid is gonna choke during the talent contest. More often than not, they do.

But just because a woman slings her guitar low and attacks a song with some confidence doesn't make her perfect. Justine Frischmann took Elastica to the top of the charts (in England, at least) on the coattails of formula, affected aloofness, and borrowed Wire riffs, and then went into hibernation, apparently cashed out on ideas. When Elastica returned last month with its first release after a four-year absence, it was obvious that Frischmann didn't use the time off to come up with anything new. Courtney Love has an ongoing and serious identity crisis, sometimes leaning back on temper tantrums or the ever-reliable T&A to hold the spotlight. And Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon is just another chick bass player with a sideline career of designing tiny T-shirts. Role model my ass.

Gordon is perhaps the perfect example of what is wrong with women in rock. She is a stereotype: the token female in an all-male band, another girl who decided at the last minute to join her boyfriend/brother's band and picked up bass because it's allegedly the easiest of the rock instruments to learn. Female musicians like Gordon did not spend their teenage years banging away at chord progressions, building a record collection, or considering their relationship with rock anything more than a hormonal affair. They didn't start playing music because they were compelled to; they did it because they might as well. Talent's not an issue, because they have none.

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.

Women use excuses not to learn to play music well, but that shadowy affirmative action protects them from heavy scrutiny. Beauty, politics, a parallel career as an actress-model-whatever -- you name it, they'll use it to sidestep the pursuit of technical or aesthetic prowess. The most offensive female crutch for weak musicianship is political, and the riot grrrls are the biggest culprits. Spawned from the anger of youthful feminism, this contingent careens along on recycled gender theories about the imbalance of power and has yet to show that one of their own can write and play a decent tune. It would be far easier to listen to a political sermon from a woman who knows her E-string from her g-spot. If you don't like the music guys make, then pioneer your own musical forms, but keep in mind that two-chord abuse and shrill ranting does not a pioneer make.

You can't beat someone at their own game if you can't play it. Several years back, Elvis Costello piped Bikini Kill over the sound system before his show at Starplex Amphitheatre. Instead of coming off as Costello making a bid for hipness, it felt more like a challenge: If you can sit through this tripe, you can stay for the real music. So depressing was the aural onslaught and the horrid discrepancy of talent between Costello and Kathleen Hanna, it was tempting to leave. Hanna couldn't write a Costello-caliber song to save her scrappy little life. Costello, however, could write Hanna's entire oeuvre in about five minutes.

To the same political end, the Lilith Fair population seems to think that cloistering their music in an all-female nunnery will make it sacred and precious, but it really just protects it from the big, bad, cross-gender world. Seems cowardly, given that Lilith Fair's audience will embrace just about anything with two legs and labia, no questions asked. It's like playing your songs for your mom. And all those guys in the Lilith audience are either just as frightened of male constructs as women, horny, or gay.

Not surprisingly, the few women who have successfully redrawn some of pop's parameters for their own aesthetics aren't cynical young girls in tiny Ts or post-folkie earth goddesses; PJ Harvey and Bjork are too busy forging their own sounds to be concerned with what the boys or girls are doing. If these two bona fide musicians sometimes come off angry or anguished, it has nothing to do with a battle of sexes -- it has to do with being human and communicating human conflict.

It seems that the R&B and hip-hop heroines understand this universal condition far better than so many pop women. While Lauryn Hill, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliot, and Macy Gray never deny their femininity, they don't make it a war cry or an excuse to turn out anything but the strongest, most intelligent material they're capable of. This is the upside for a truly musical woman: She floods public consciousness because of her talent, not despite her lack of it.

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