August 12, 2004
Are we there yet?
Has American pop culture progressed far enough to crash the glass ceiling of rock ’n’ roll and let ladies rock just as hard as men?
To be sure, post-Lilith Fair, in the wake of the riot grrrl era — when the Amazon warrior goddesses of Olympia, Wash., rained down a dirty flood of distorted guitars and squelched, righteous lyrics; before Courtney Love got all freaky-deaky on us — we can say we’ve progressed. Our modern-day female rock icons are not the twee Stevie Nickses or butchy Grace Slicks of yesterpop, but something in between.
We mosh to Gwen Stefani cooing with an ironic wink, “I’m just a girl/ ...That’s all that you’ll let me be,” and we fake like we’re big fans of Sleater-Kinney. We laugh The Donnas off the Billboard charts for protesting a bit too much against their pre-
manufactured AC/DC-cloning schlock (prepare to giggle again Oct. 26 when The Donnas’ unanticipated “The Gold Medal” hits Target shelves) but shortly after, shower praise over Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for her indie wierdness, even if she happens to get her strange stage dresses custom-made by a hoity New York designer.
There are signs that the rock world is opening up for women. You can now send your 8- to 18-year-old to the summer Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Ore., and raid your teenage son’s iTunes collection for tracks by female-fronted wünderbands Rainer Maria and Rilo Kiley.
But there are just as many signs that rock still isn’t ready to roll with the double-X chromosome crowd: First, there’s the unironic title of Hilary Duff’s new DVD: “The Girl Can Rock.” Because, c’mon, she so can’t.
And then there’s the “Chicks with Attitude” tour, featuring Liz Phair (best known for her critically panned, overtly poppy self-titled 2003 album), Swedish rockers The Cardigans, and opening sets from 17-year-old pop singer Katy Rose and Fiona Apple/Tori Amos wannabe Charlotte Martin.
You want attitude? The tour is sponsored by Maybelline. You know, the makeup brand.
“Where’s the Budweiser sponsorship when you need it?” remarks one local female music fan.
“Chicks with Attitude” comes to Tempe’s Marquee Theatre Saturday night, and short of pulling up in a bus shaped like a Caboodle, there isn’t much more embarrassing than the show’s name. Just ask Nina Persson, frontwoman of The Cardigans.
“It’s the story of our careers,” Persson says. “We did the Lilith Fair, and obviously I’m the most visible person in the band, but the way we work, everybody’s the same. But I guess if we keep fighting (the “girl band” label) we’re just going to be sad.”
Look nationally, rock locally
If the national scene is in such an odd gender state, what about the local one? Last Wednesday night, we wandered over to central Phoenix to catch a show by female rock acts Bella, Secondhand Emotion and Dear Nora — the latter actually singer/songwriter Katy Davidson, 26, a Cave Creek native who now lives in San Francisco and has her own CDs out on indie labels. The goal: to hear some good tunes, and maybe suss out gender insight from some of the Valley’s few all-girl groups.
The show, at The Phix art gallery, was fairly dead, with the dozen or so audience members divvying up their time equally between listening to the bands and taking smoke breaks outside. Onstage, both Bella and Secondhand Emotion deal with tuneful trainwrecks and technical difficulties. Though the local bands are friends, they couldn’t be further apart stylistically.
Bella is one of the Valley’s more popular rock acts, playing short power-pop punk ditties that showcase 28-year-old guitarist/singer Natalie Espinosa’s fancy fretwork and androgynously deep, smoky voice. Espinosa used to jam with some of the guys who would become Jimmy Eat World, but she says playing with girls — her band includes drummer Jency Johnson, 28, and bassist Kristi Wimmer, 31 — is a more social experience.
“When you get a bunch of girls together, you get everyone in different moods and attitudes,” Espinosa says. “Everyone really does care, and everybody has an opinion. I’d hate for somebody to come by practice, because we spend 45 minutes playing songs and the rest of the time just catching up. They’d be like, ‘Do you guys actually practice?’ ”
Espinosa says her band hasn’t suffered any discernible drought in attendance (that night’s show withstanding) since forming three years ago because of any perceived bias against female rockers. But that’s because Bella never aimed to draw any gender lines to begin with, she says. Her band wears slightly gender-disguising jeans and T-shirts, and the frontwoman’s shaggy hair droops down low enough to cover her entire face, except where a microphone would go.
“That’s what I want people to see,” she says. “That we can play with the boys.”
Contrast that with Secondhand Emotion frontwoman Jessica Jurgens, 23, of Scottsdale. Looking voluptuous in a red and black floral dress, cute pink shoes and big sparkled earrings, she straps on a guitar and bobs her head as her band — guitarist Jen Rahlf, 25, and drummer Krista Ruet, 24 — kicks off a jangly ’80s-inspired pop tune; when they flub the entrance, her eyes roll up in the back of her head, she flashes an angel grin and says her favorite catchphrase of the night, “Bru-tal.”
As if the stereotype of Go-Go’s-era silly rocker girls needs further enforcing, Jurgens announces in between songs, “My dress just came undone. Whoo! That wasn’t planned.”
But even if a wardrobe malfunction wasn’t intentional, the bubblegum shtick sure is, Jurgens confides after the show.
“It’s a tongue-in-cheek response,” she says, “due to the lack of response. You have to tell people it’s gonna be the sexiest show of the galaxy, to get them to come.”
Adds Ruet, “You’re a token girl band, and you have to prove yourself more.”
But it is Davidson, who’s toured the West Coast with her mixed-gender band on all-girl rock festival bills and typical nightclub gigs, who has the most insight.
“Even though things have been gradually changing,” she says after her brief solo performance on vocals and electric guitar, “men still have more, not only access to equipment, but confidence to play and write songs. I think the wave of the future is coed bands ...
Davidson is irked by Liz Phair — an idol of hers — agreeing to a tour called “Chicks with Attitude.” (“Yeah,” Davidson says, “that’s pretty [expletive] harsh.”) But her criticism of Phair is tempered by her respect for the indie-queen-turned-pop-mini-idol, whose latest album includes songs co-written and produced by The Matrix — the pop team behind Avril Lavigne — yet has sold less than 400,000 copies in the United States.
For Davidson, the issue of whether Phair sold out to make a poppy major label album last year is moot; divorced and supporting a young son, going pop was Phair game, so to speak.
“She put out a masterpiece (1993’s ‘Exile in Guyville’) and got dogged for it,” Davidson says. “You turn 36 and you have a kid, it must be really easy to get disillusioned. It’s kind of lose/lose for her.”
In fact, Davidson wrote a song about Phair, one she didn’t play on stage Wednesday night but sang a capella in the corner of the nearly empty gallery. Its chorus: “They wouldn’t care so much/if she were a man.”