Rock on, sister

Not too long ago, radio wouldn't play female artists back to back. This fall, women's voices are everywhere.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

If you think your neighborhood record-store chain has an unusually high selection of diva-type releases on its shelves this fall, or that your favorite radio station is airing more female voices than ever, welcome to the male-dominated music industry's latest discovery: It's OK to market multiple women artists at once.

The Dixie Chicks, Avril Lavigne, Michelle Branch, Norah Jones, Pink, and India.Arie are just a few of the names that have been anchoring the upper reaches of record sales and airplay charts. In fact, 12 of Billboard's Top 20 songs this week feature women. These artists are being joined – or about to be – by Faith Hill, J. Lo, Christina Aguilera, Shania Twain, Alison Krauss, Missy Elliott, and several other women dropping new discs in time for holiday buying. And no one seems to be batting an eye – least of all consumers.

"It's come to that, finally, that it doesn't matter any more," says John Artale, buyer for Galaxy Music Distributors in Pittsburgh. "As long as they have some individuality, as long as you can tell 'em apart, it's fine."

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Not too long ago, the music industry wasn't so sure Americans could tell one soprano from another.

"Back when I was making my first records [12 years ago], men were the ones selling country records," says country singer/songwriter Kelly Willis. "Today it's completely the opposite. Women are selling way more records than men ever did."

Ms. Willis remembers that radio stations refused to play two women artists in a row, and "there weren't a whole lot of women who were writing their own songs or being allowed to."

It used to be even worse. Woodstock veteran Melanie, who has just released a new CD, recalls being told that if a woman got played on the radio, "they couldn't play another one for, like, six hours." The folk singer, who had a string of hits in the 1970s including "Brand New Key," admits that didn't even seem wrong to her then. "It was just the way it was," she says, "so you had to be good."

While other genres haven't seen as dramatic a turnaround as country, there's no question that women are being celebrated this fall. Rolling Stone released its second-ever "Women in Rock" issue. This month's Vanity Fair music issue features nine of the hottest stars in the business – all women – surrounding a single guy: quintessential ladies' man Barry White.

Exposure on radio airwaves and on MTV, VH1, BET, and other cable networks certainly has a lot to do with women's greater presence. Other causes range from a take-charge performer named Madonna, who had no interest in being managed by a male Svengali, to a little experiment called Lilith Fair.

No back-to-back airplay was still the norm in 1997, when Canadian Sarah McLachlan organized the first concert festival featuring only female performers (or female-fronted bands). Lilith came at a time when women like McLachlan, Alanis Morissette, and Jewel dominated pop radio. Its phenomenal success – it actually set attendance records at some venues – went a long way toward shaking up the status quo in the music industry.

One of Lilith's strongest messages was that women can control their own careers, and more are doing just that.

Teen singer-guitarist Michelle Branch lays it out in her online bio: "I'm not a fan of changing yourself for anything. With me, what you see is what you get."

Newcomer Ms. Jade, the first woman signed to rapper Timbaland's Beat Club label, agrees. "Everybody knows exactly how I am. They can take it or leave it."

But not all radio stations are tuned in to the trend. When it comes to rock, testosterone still rules. The only way a female gets heard is if she happens to be the drumming half of hot garage-rock duo the White Stripes. And some artists say that if they don't want to bare their midriffs while wailing about love – or, preferably, sex – the industry does not want to hear from them.

As Rolling Stone magazine notes, "Rock radio won't even touch female artists, while the pop factory keeps churning out sound-alike clones, and ambitious musicians with something to say find themselves out in the cold."

Neo-soul pioneer Meshell Ndegeocello feels the chill. "Because I don't want to write song after song about designer clothes, liquor, cars, and booty, I am deemed outside of the 'urban' demographic, i.e., my music isn't 'black enough' for MTV or BET or Clear Channel [radio] to convince Coke or Lincoln or McDonald's to buy some airtime.

"Maybe if I was a little more '-er' – younger, cuter, lighter, thinner ... just maybe I'd get an opportunity or two more to be a bigger part of the popular-cultural machine."

Rosemary Welsch, program director at Pittsburgh public radio station WYEP-FM, says, "There's some improvement, but I think the industry tries to make itself feel better by saying how much better it is." WYEP often provides the first or only airplay given to artists like Willis or Ndegeocello, who don't neatly fit into mainstream genres.

Ms. Welsch notes, "Even though we play more women than most stations, it's still more heavily focused on men, and we'll still get the occasional complaint that we play too many women."

Certain formats, such as adult contemporary, feature women because they're trying to grab well-to-do female listeners, she says. "But it's indicative of the industry that programmers don't think that men, and especially boys, are interested in hearing what women have to say unless it's a sexy song."

A half-hour of MTV watching reinforces that point. Even Branch's new video with Carlos Santana for "The Game of Love" is filled with overt sexual imagery, though the two artists themselves don't participate in the caressing.

But most artists say they have control over their songs and images, and many choose to market themselves as sex vixens. Singer/songwriter Julie Miller, whose songs have been covered by the Dixie Chicks, Lee Ann Womack, Brooks & Dunn, and Emmylou Harris, recalls dressing "like a hooker" in her bar-band days. "I was at that place in my life where I thought, 'This is cool that I look like this' and that it gave me some kind of power.... Now, when I see someone like that, I'm so embarrassed for them. It doesn't look cool or beautiful, it looks sad and pathetic."

Still others fight it. Drummer Torry Castellano, aka Donna C. of punk band the Donnas, says, "It's kind of crazy when you're working with a photographer and they're, like, 'You know what would be really cool? If you guys all just sat around in your bras and we took pictures. Whaddya think?' And we're like, 'No. We think no.' And they don't get it."

Bonnie Raitt, one of the first rock-era women who gained respect as an electric guitarist, says, "I've never listened to any record company.... They can never pick my material or comment on it. Luckily, I signed with people that respected me, and if they ever said anything about what I wore or what I sang, I would just say, 'It's not your place to tell me that.' But on the other hand ... because I wasn't accepting their advice, they penalized me by not promoting my records."

This is still a reality for many artists of both sexes, though women are no longer prevented from having husbands or children, as rockabilly pioneer Lorrie Collins and her envelope-busting sisters sometimes were.

Raitt also points out, "Especially in the Lilith era, there are many more women respected as musicians and on the charts ... in all kinds of music. But in terms of managers, executives, and editors and engineers ... there's still a Neanderthal level of acceptance in terms of positions of power." The few who do rise, she notes, "sometimes have the worst qualities of the more piggish men."

Adds Castellano, "It's a really, really slow process." And sometimes, she finds, the best thing to do is stand up and fight. Like a man.

Listen up: These women rock

The following albums won't top the charts, but they're just as worthy, if not more so.

Kelly Willis – Easy (Rykodisc): Willis, an affectation-free charmer, wraps her pure, plaintive voice around her own heartache songs and those of other well-chosen authors, including husband Bruce Robison and the late Kirsty MacColl, with backing by Vince Gill and other A-team Austinite/Nashvillians.

Kim Richey – Rise (Lost Highway): Richey easily straddles pop and country while dipping into jazz and rock, but it's Richey's nuanced, crystalline vocals and her knack for inhabiting an aching lyric so completely – no matter how she sings it – that make "Rise" a quiet stunner.

Shemekia Copeland – Talking to Strangers (Alligator): This young blues mama, daughter of the late Johnny "Clyde" Copeland, ain't foolin' when she belts out songs of desire and don't-mess-with-me attitude. Producer Dr. John contributes piano and keyboards, and Arthur Nielson squeezes out guitar licks so hot, he could be charged with arson.

Karrin Allyson – In Blue (Concord Jazz): Though not a blues album per se, jazz singer Allyson's disc embraces the concept of blues. The colorations she brings to "The Meaning of the Blues" and 12 other tunes couldn't be further from Copeland's, which goes to show what a spectrum we could be experiencing if mainstream radio would let us.

Meshell Ndegeocello – Cookie: The Anthropological Mix Tape (Maverick): A female Gil Scott-Heron who challenges the status quo in gender, racial, and other realms, Ndegeocello melds jazz, hip-hop, funk, soul, and poetry in masterly fashion.

Neko Case – Black Listed (Bloodshot): Patsy Cline comparisons abound, but Case's torch and twang leanings, while owing heavily to tradition, still carry twinges of her punk-rock background.

Sinead O'Connor – Sean-Nós Nua (Vanguard): O'Connor calls these Gaelic folk tunes "true soul music," and when she wraps her angelic voice around them, that's exactly how they sound.

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