Monday, March 5, 2007


There's a fine article in yesterday's Independent about that phenomenon the music press always describes with the most tedious of thought-clich├ęs: "women in music."

The article doesn't cover stuff like factory-processed pop horror like the Pussycat Dolls, still less the uber-fine but musically uninteresting Beyonce, but the new wave of refreshing and compelling female artists like Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, and Joanna Newsom. The author of this article is quite keen on the Gossip's Beth Ditto as well, but I have to confess that--while respecting her success as a fat tattooed lesbian--I think her killer gospel/soul voice could be put to better use. The article hits on a point that I've always wondered and fretted about: if a woman plans to become a pop star (or more likely some men in suits plan for her to become a star), she has to conform to one of two possible archetypes: the virgin or the whore. Britney Spears played both of these of course...and I think we all now understand where that kind of pose gets you.

There have always been women artists who've refused to play the conventional PR game and found wild success in the underground and to some extent in the mainstream: Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Kirsty MacColl, Bjork, PJ Harvey, etc. Not to mention great all-female or female-fronted bands like the Slits, Blondie, Cocteau Twins, Mazzy Star, the Breeders, Le Tigre, and Sleater-Kinney (for my money the greatest American rock band at the time of their unfortunate dissolution). But it's only now that the mainstream press, radio, and TV establishment in Britain is catching up with nonconformist female talent and lavishing attention on it. This is still yet to happen in the USA, I'm sad to say, and the UK is only slowly learning to embrace female musicians who don't feel they have to cover up who they are.

As the article puts it: longer do you have to don a pair of golden hot pants, do five-hundred sit-ups a day, pretend to be a virgin (like Britney) or a whore (like Christina) and/or bump'n'grind against a superstar rapper to score that elusive No 1 hit. No, you can drink yourself silly, fall over, cover yourself in tattoos, be fat (like Beth Ditto) or a self-confessed anorexic/bullimic (like Amy Winehouse), laugh about how many drugs you took as a teenager, sleep with women, sleep with men, swear like a trooper - and then you can write funny, candid songs about doing all these things, and people will buy it. The proof is in the pudding - or at least in the sales figures. Amy Winehouse's second album Back to Black has gone triple platinum, Lily Allen's sparkling ska-pop debut Alright, Still has gone double. And it's just the beginning.

Indeed. This description even extends to a mainstream pop group like Girls Aloud; they make ultra-catchy music and they're not afraid to fall over drunk at awards ceremonies. I tend to admire that.

To my skewed sensibility, some of the freshest and most interesting music these days is being made by women or by woman-fronted bands. From Amy Winehouse's raw and luxurious soul to Lily Allen's witty neo-Two Tone pop, Joanna Newsom's visionary harp epics to the Outback Gothic of Juanita Stein's Howling Bells, the skittering polyphony of M.I.A. to the exuberant dance-nonsense of CSS...not to mention Kate Jackson of the Long Blondes, Ninja of the Go! Team, and those loveable Pipettes. One of the reasons I'm so pleased with the success of Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse is that, aside from making wonderful music, they're both appealing personalities. They both have a way with the one-line putdown, and neither of them are afraid to speak their minds forcefully and exactly. Independent-minded women with colorful personalities are hell of a turn-on , let me tell you...much more than anything about the Pussycat Dolls.

The soulful Miss Winehouse:

And the scintillating Miss Allen:

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