Girl Rockers

In 1997, women rockers were the rage. You could not turn on the radio -- any station -- without hearing Sarah McLachlan, the Indigo Girls or Shawn Colvin. Not anymore. While women continue to be well-represented in pop and even R&B, fewer women hard rock acts are getting airplay and concert promotion. Rock music -- as in aggressive, guitar-driven rock -- is currently experiencing an estrogen drought. Stations have traded in female acts like Paula Cole for all man bands such as Creed; they've exchanged Veruca Salt and Babes in Toyland for Godsmack and Sevendust.It's always been hard for women to make their way in the male-dominated rock world, particularly in the guitar-thrashing, mosh-pitted sub genres like heavy metal, punk or alternative rock, which have typically been the domain of the adolescent male, and expressive of the aggression and alienation that comes with them. Historically, a few women have broken through the gender barrier on the rough edge of music, like Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, or Chrissie Hynde. But typically, female rockers have either been decorative adornments -- maybe that's what Grace Slick really was -- or they've been novelty acts, like Joan Jett or Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics -- screaming into a microphone but not wearing a shirt: a bit decorative, a bit of a novelty.It looked for a moment in the 1990s that this might be changing. Female rockers like The Breeders started to get airplay on college radio, and soon the music found its way into the mainstream. The trend came to a head in 1997 with the Lilith Fair, a nationally touring summer festival of female-led bands and soloists, the brainchild of singer Sarah McLachlan. For three seasons, the fair brought acts like Tracy Bonham and Luscious Jackson to national consciousness, and that attracted record companies to women bands like flies to honey. Women rockers were the next big thing, and everybody wanted a piece of them.That has changed. Radio stations say they are playing fewer cuts from female rock artists than they were, and women artists say they are finding it harder to get a record company to promote them. There are a few reasons for this, say people in the business. Pop music has always been a game of trends. Maybe the trend has passed.But there may be underlying factors. For one, the Lilith Fair, so much a part of the women rock scene, leaving a hole where promotion of women acts is concerned. Second, say some women, men in the music business were threatened by women's success and have started to close the doors again.And there may be a third, more fundamental determinant: demographics. During the 1990s more women were buying records than ever before. In 1997, women made up more than half of the record buying public for the first time in recorded history, up to 51.4 percent from 43.5 percent in 1988 according to the Recording Industry Association of America. While there are no recent figures from the RIAA, it does seem that the demographic pendulum has swung back to favor the adolescent male. A recent CNN report claims that there are more 12- to 24-year-old males -- prime head-banging material -- than any time in history. In 1999, this group spent $278 billion dollars, and had 33 percent more buying power than their female peers. That puts a lot of financial power in the pockets of male consumers -- who are using it on music made by other men."I think there is a backlash against women in music," says Emily Saliers, the folkier half of the folk/rock duo the Indigo Girls. "People thought women were taking over the charts. Everyone thought there was an inequality."The success of the Lilith Fair threatened many men because of its exclusivity, says Saliers. The intention of Lilith was not to alienate men but to celebrate women in music, and that might have hurt a few egos."I think that men did feel threatened," agrees Liz Queler, a musician and board member for Women in Music, a New York-based, not-for-profit organization attempting to help women achieve success in the music industry. "I heard many male musicians asking why they couldn't have an all-male festival, but they did. It was called Lollapalooza."Other men did feel threatened and not because women were getting all the attention, but because they weren't getting the attention. If you're an artist and something is going on and you aren't involved, you feel threatened," she adds.Because the fair was such a success -- proving that women were not only in demand but could also generate enough dough to carry a tour -- some male acts felt they were losing ground. This was one trend that simply stated "no boys allowed" -- at least not in prominent roles as lead singers.The Lilith phenomena was said to have grown out of alternative radio listeners who had grown up -- and grown tired of the grunge scene. Listeners wanted something cleaner, softer, different, but not something as offensively syrupy as adult contemporary. That's when the softer, singer/songwriters that typified so many of the women acts were able to get a hold on the radio listening market.But now, in the year 2000, the radio-listening market is significantly younger and predominantly male, and they want harder rock."The whole climate of alternative radio has really changed since our last album," says Kate Shellenbach, Luscious Jackson drummer. "Right now radio is in a very interesting place. Music is either superduper mindless pop or heavy, guitar-based, male-dominated Korn type of stuff."But since rock is on the rise again, why wouldn't female rock bands -- especially the harder, heavier ones -- get a lift as well? Doesn't a rising tide lift all boats? The reason, say observers, is that enthusiasm for rock and roll in particular is primarily driven by identification. The audience -- mostly male, mostly young -- wants to see themselves reflected in the bands that they like. We want to be like our music stars. We want them to speak for us.That gets a bit complicated for a male audience when the voice presuming to express rage, lust, anger -- is the voice of a woman."When a woman goes up on stage and is a rocker, there's a toughness that takes away that femininity," says Don Grierson, who worked for several major record labels, such as EMI and Capitol, working with acts like Celine Dion and Heart. He now is a private consultant and works for an online service called Taxi (www.taxi.com) that helps artists make inroads to major labels."Males audiences never really accept it," he continues, "and females are more likely to listen to something more sensitive like Sheryl Crow or Sarah McLachlan, who are certainly from the rock world, but their music is more melodic, not hard-ass, in-your-face rock. Rock is very masculine and women who are masculine are not considered very attractive."Few women have successfully melded the rocker girl image and when they have, their lyrics have primarily spoken to female audiences. For example, PJ Harvey can manhandle a guitar but lyrics like "Look at these, my child-bearing hips and look at these, my ruby red lips" are distinctly female.Still, there are a few female-led rock bands that are making a name for themselves in the male-dominated world of rock. The teenaged punk/metal quintet, Kittie, is certainly making waves with their new single "Brackish" off their first album Spit. They sound like a female incarnation of Marilyn Manson, complete with churning guitars, growling vocals and the goth-metal image. Joydrop, led by vocalist Tara Slone, has also received at least semi-regular airplay at rock and modern rock stations nationwide.Michael Creamer, manager of the rock group Letters to Cleo, a female-fronted band that was quickly signed in 1994, says he is optimistic that women will have another chance in the spotlight. "The pendulum swings in this business. It will swing back," he says.Creamer says when he first tried promoting Letters to Cleo, radio stations didn't have any female artists on their play lists. But when women artists were hot, he had no problem getting singles like "Here and Now" on modern rock stations.Yes, agrees Grierson. It's a fickle business, and big labels don't encourage a band to keep touring if it isn't making money in a hurry, Grierson explains."This is a very interesting business. It's a business for followers, not leaders," says Grierson. "Our business today as an industry is built on finding a quick fix. They'll do typically anything to make their numbers look good, but they don't do a good job developing artists or looking towards long-term success. They're all looking for an easy way to make a quick buck."So if women bands want to escape the ebb and flux of market-forces, then they are better off with a small label. "If you're an unknown and a major label is courting you, that's fucked," says Holly Figueroa, singer/songwriter and founder of Indiegrrl, a music collective for independent female artists. "They're only looking to crack the next big thing and when that big thing isn't so cool anymore, they'll drop you for someone or something else."There's no question in my mind that signing a major label deal is a death sentence," Figueroa adds.Still, everyone in the business agree that there is a solid, if smallish, audience for female rockers, and that will continue to develop as long as women who like the music continue to support it.

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