[Originally published 1994 |
Updated here 1999.06.20
Women in pop music are nearing what sociologists would call "institutional completeness" – the capacity to live one's entire life within a certain community. Are you a woman (girl, grrrl, female, whatever) who fancies rap? There are tons of female rappers. R&B? Folk? Country? Dance? Ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto. And in rock music – an overtly gender-typed musical terrain, what with all those guitar necks sticking out of musicians' midsections – there is no lack of female talent. Two of my fave rocker chicks, Courtney Love and Chrissie Hynde, don't bother pretending they're anything other than women.
Imagine for a moment that you're Courtney Love. Your world-famous husband kills himself under suspicious circumstances (and you label him an "asshole" for so doing). You have a lovely young daughter. You're cool about queer stuff, being bi yourself. You've had drug problems. With all that under your belt, of course you're going to forcefully shove your knowledge and experiences and fundamental gripes in your fans' faces (or ears). You've got nothing to lose, and it's 1994, honey. We're not expecting sugar-coated platitudes from a woman who names her band Hole.
So fire up Hole's debut, Live Through This (with its spectacularly apropos Carrie-esque cover photo), and grit your teeth. Miss Love can sing quite beautifully when she wants to – hear how sweetly she sings the name of her Washington hometown, Olympia – but she holds that arsenal of vocal femininity in abeyance for the instants it will surprise you most. Millionaire rocker guys – in AC/DC, Stone Temple Pilots, Metallica – make a fool of themselves labouring to sound tough. For Miss Love, the growls spring from experience. She is tough. All those good-for-nothin' guys, up to and including Kurt Cobain, pushed her too far a few times too often. But, as the album title tells us, she lived through that.
"And they get what they want, and they never want it again," she mutters through almost audibly gritted teeth in the album-opener, "Violet." "Go on! Take everything! Take everything! I want you to!" On "Asking For It," she laments, "Every time I sell myself to you, I feel a little cheaper than I need to." A tad weary by the end of the first side, Miss Loves segues into "Doll Parts": "I want to be the girl with the mo-o-ost ca-a-ake... I fake it so real I am beyond fake, and someday you will ache like I ache." Straight guys must be cupping their crotches and reaching for the eject button after being slapped across the head with this.
Meanwhile, the Pretenders' latest, Last of the Independents, is living testimony to the staying power afforded by sticking to a formula – though in the Pretenders' case it's a formula with deep roots and a long reach. Miss Hynde has herself admitted that she writes only three songs – "rocker, pop song, and ballad." My, how the mighty can sell themselves short. There is complexity and nuance to her message. Miss Hynde is a long-term rock survivor (when your bandmates end up dead over and over again, that otherwise-loathsome term fits), a radical vegetarian, a mom, an expatriate Yank (she's lived in London for years), a girl guitarist who thinks girls aren't suited to play guitar, and above all an archetype for the desirability, the aptness, the power of butchness. (Joan Jett? Pfft!)
Have you seen the video for "Night in My Veins"? Miss Hynde stumbles post-coitally into daylight, too-small vinyl jacket immaculate but her bangs a little messy, enacting the aftereffects of the line "He's got his chest on my back across a new Cadillac. Feels good. It's all right. It's just the night in my veins." Is it a bit too Madonna/whore for her to yowl in another song, "I'm a mother! Treat me like a mother"? She continues: "You want to suck on my breast? It's no surprise you do. I'm the source and the force you owe your life to, brother.… I understand blood and I understand pain. There can be no life without it. Never doubt it. I'm a mother."
Don't underestimate my strength, Miss Hynde says. In fact, don't even bother estimating. You'll get enough of the real thing soon enough, fella. Don't say I didn't warn you.