December 1, 1999
It’s the holidays again! Time for “Best of” and top ten lists. But with all the talk of a new millennium, it is easy to forget that this holiday not only brings a new year, but also a new decade. The nineties were touted early as the decade of women in rock, and it certainly was. From angry young women like Alanis Morrisette to megastars like Britney Spears, the rock and pop scene was dominated by the fairer sex. Looking back at the last ten years, it occurs to me that the decade was less that of the female rocker and more the decade of the female songwriter.
The nineties saw a new generation of women. It was a time in which the first generation that had been raised to expect equality came into its own. These women grew up believing that they would be judged according to their talent and not their sex. Although sexism is still rampant in the music business (anyone who reads Rolling Stone can tell you that), these women are so intelligent and talented that you find yourself judging the music and forgetting their sex.
The first example of the woman in rock turned songwriter is Aimee Mann. In the eighties she was the quintessential female singer fronting an all-male band. But Aimee never really fit the mold. Although beautiful, she refused to follow society’s (and the music industry’s) idea of how she should look and what she should sing. Back in the eighties she wrote and sang all the music for ‘til Tuesday, and seeing the band back then you knew it was really all about Aimee. With her first, and in my opinion, best solo album WHATEVER, I think that Aimee made the statement that she is a songwriter and record sales be damned. And although sales of her solo albums have never matched the early success of ‘til Tuesday, the quality is far superior. With songs like “Put Me on Top” and “Say Anything,” WHATEVER is a classic rock album still waiting to be discovered. In the tradition of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and John Lennon, “I Should Have Known” is one of the greatest kiss-off songs ever written. Although lost in the Lillith Fair shuffle, Aimee is one of the most under-rated artists of the decade. Her albums can be hard to find, but are well worth the effort.
Sam Phillips got her start in the Christian rock scene. A huge success in that genre, she soon became frustrated with the limits that it put on her songwriting. She felt the politics of Christianity restrained her creativity. By stepping outside the restricted Christian rock community she was able to explore the same subject matter with more freedom. On MARTINIS AND BIKINIS, Phillips writes about the dangers of blind faith as well as the more traditional rock themes of love and loss. Her belief in a higher being is never lost, but her faith in man is sorely shaken. Not just an excellent songwriter, Sam is an accomplished composer. Her songs are not only lyrical but also filled with richly orchestrated and multi-layered arrangements.
Another female songwriter who came into her own in the nineties is Shawn Colvin. Her most recent efforts have brought her both critical and commercial success. Yet, her Grammy Award winning STEADY ON is in my opinion her best album to date. Filled with rich imagery and heart wrenching honesty, STEADY ON captures the essence of growing up female in America. Colvin writes of abuse, neglect and doomed love. In “Avalanche,” she compares the hopelessness and helplessness one feels in a dying relationship with a snowball careening down a mountainside destroying every thing in its path. “Diamond in the Rough” questions our need to demand perfection of our lives and relationships. In the song “Polaroids,” from the album FAT CITY she evocatively paints a picture of fondness for the memory of youth and childish dreams as she pours over the scrapbook of her life. The song evokes the mixture regret and fond memory of lost youth and lost dreams one feels as she pours over the scrapbook of one’s life. Shawn Colvin is one of the most under-rated songwriters of our generation regardless of sex. She has the unique ability to take the tragedies in her life and use them to paint a picture of the life of the listener. This level of intimacy is very rare. Listening to a Shawn Colvin record is like having an intimate conversation with an old friend. If you liked the more polished A FEW SMALL REPAIRS, you’ll love her first two albums for their raw energy and frank emotion.
One of the most fun songwriters of the decade is Jill Sobule. She burst onto the MTV scene with the frivolous “I Kissed A Girl” in the mid-nineties. Her first album was filled with songs about men with hairy backs and catholic schoolgirls gone bad. It was all very clever if not particularly deep. Her latest album, HAPPYTOWN, showed her true talent -- an ability to laugh at herself while pointing out how petty we all have become. Her observations seem relevant in a post-Seinfeld world all about nothing. She sings about how bitter and petty we have become. She sings about the joys of prozac on the single “Happytown,” but she slips in the cold realities of a society dependent on pills to gain the “even” life we’re told we should be leading. She asks the hard questions like “would you have hidden me in your attic” and which of us could answer yes. In our materialistic world, what price would we pay for friendship or love? From calypso to sultry jazz, Jill is as difficult to stereotype as she is talented.
Another songwriter who defies stereotyping is Liz Phair. With its naked strength and frankly sexual lyrics, EXILE IN GUYVILLE became the favorite of every warm-blooded, post- pubescent male in America. Too bad they missed the joke. Liz wasn’t writing for their pleasure, but about hers as well as ours. She wasn’t afraid to say what she felt-even if it made people squirm. Her music was really less about being sexy and more about the politics of sexuality in the nineties. She said what we women were beginning to feel -- that we like sex and the old stereotypical gender roles are obsolete. But she never trivialized the difficulties that come with sexual liberation. She was able to capture the sense of freedom and the feeling of vulnerability that comes with equality in the bedroom. In her latest album, WHITECHOLOLATESPACEEGG she brings that same sense of duality to the topics of marriage and motherhood. It’s hard to get old, but it’s harder to know how to define your sexuality and its role in your life once you hit the June Cleaver stage. Liz says what we all feel -- I might be driving a mini-van but I’m the same woman I’ve always been.
They say there is no greater flattery than imitation, and when it comes to songwriting, the greatest flattery comes when your peers recognize your talent and want to make your songs their own. The nineties were marked by the phenomenon of the tribute album. Artists from the Carpenters to the Chairman of the Board had their songs recorded by popular artists and compiled in a tribute album. One of the best of these honored an extremely talented, yet overlooked songwriter named Victoria Williams. On the album SWEET RELIEF, artists from Soul Asylum to Maria Mckee sing her songs. Williams has a talent to weave everyday scenes into elaborate tales of life and love. She writes in the seemingly random, rambling style of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, but like them her songs are anything but. She paints a portrait of life that seems at once both simple and sinister. She shows us an America like few of us are willing to claim as our own. The unassuming melodies and images stay to haunt you long after the music has stopped. Originally organized in an attempt to help Williams finance her medical treatment for multiple sclerosis, the album rises far above the usual “relief” album in quality. Yet its very existence plucks at our consciousness. How can a society as rich as ours leave talents such as Ms. Williams to suffer without healthcare. When Ms. Williams sings of starting her teenage years with the poison in her mouth it is very difficult not to be moved.
Lillith Fair showed women are more than ready and willing to take center stage. Those mentioned above are but the vanguard. There are many more, some more financially successful like Sheryl Crow, and others just signing their record deals changing the face of songwriting forever. As more women grow up believing they are only limited by their talent and perseverance, we should see less flashes in the pan and more women with the strength and ability to last into the 21st century.
-- Thomi and Jay Sharpe