PJ Harvey is one of the few women in rock and roll who can keep up with the men.
PJ Harvey is one of the few women in rock and roll who can keep up with the men.
Valerie Phillips

Girl trouble

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.

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.

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.

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.

And there are women rockers out there who can do the same. For every guitar-frightened Liz Phair, there's a Carrie Brownstein; for every numbingly self-righteous Natalie Merchant, there's an unassuming drummer like Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley. It's enough to almost give you hope. Instead of turning off the stereo at the first sound of a female voice, wait a few bars to see where she's headed. But more often than not, she'll likely end up at the same place Sleater-Kinney resides: at the top of this week's critics' list, with nary a great tune in sight.


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