A buddy of mine- a first rate singer songwriter who has successfully toured for years and has released several critically acclaimed albums was telling me, on her last visit to out fair Pennsyltucky town, that our local Triple A station, in fact a public station, just would not get behind her latest album, though similar stations across the land had picked it up.
I snorted, because like most local musician I am well aware of this station's peculiarities in choosing records to play. They're a public station, usually a good venue for local performers to get some airplay. Not here- they claim they're programming is strictly controlled... blah blah. They're allegedly a Triple A station, but I've tuned in a couple of times to hear the most un-adult acoustic stuff imaginable... Iggy Pop's Lust for Life, Steely Dan's Josie, Spearhead's Hole in the Bucket- great stuff, all of it, but not Triple A. They're playing it during the real jock's shifts, too, not the wacky volunteer weekend shifts. So god only knows what their mysterious playlist 'criteria' is. Meanwhile, they inexplicably pass on all kinds of good Triple A records. To try and explain this to my buddy, I used the example of the first Brandi Carlile record. When that originally came out a couple of years ago, it came out on RED, the 'indi' arm of Sony. It's kind of like the minor leagues- they put you there to see if you'll perform in the 'bigs.' Anyhow, I was working for a record distributor at the time, doing marketing, the record had just come out and BC was going to be performing in town. The label had some money they wanted me to spend at local radio to help promote the record and the show. I listened to the record. There was no doubt it was a stone cold fucking smash, none- right? Usually I had to listen to and help promote stuff I couldn't let play longer that 4 minutes, so this was fun. I emailed the MD at our little Triple A station. The answer I got back was just ridiculous. They were just going to have to pass. WXXX, on the other side of PA, had picked up that record for airplay, so they were going to pass on it. Yeah, they were passing on it because a station 400 miles away had picked it up. That's a sound decision. And you know what? Don't think for a minute that this type of vague, weird shit is limited to one station in a backwards town. The music industry is riddled with that kind of backwards ass thinking- whole label rosters come and go, informed by nothing more than the peccadilloes of some wonk that hasn't seen daylight since Kajagoogoo made him gag and he vowed to dedicate his life to exterminating synth pop. Forget what people like to listen to, he's on a mission. The other side of the coin is the big suits with expensive shoes- don't think for a second that these fucks are doing anything but moving product- and that product ain't really music. It's fashion.lifestyle.tonal wallpaper.whatever. The bigs spend huge amounts of money placing product on the racks, on the air, on the tube, in your line of sight, and what you think you 'found' on your own was deliberately placed in your way, and it was placed there at the expense of something else. Let me give you an example- when the last Britney Spears album came out - not this new child custody one, her label spent in excess of 16,000 dollars with the company I worked for, buying advertising, giving price incentives and purchasing 'rack space.' In the grand scheme of things, we were just one medium sized distribution company. There are half a dozen or more companies in the US that do what we do - sell music to independent chains and mom & pop stores. So, multiply that dollar amount by 6- that's 96,000 dollars on one release in one tiny segment of the the music business infrastructure. Glossy publication ads in National Magazine? A review blurb on Amazon? Rack space and Ads in the BigBox Stores and Huge Music chains? That shit is all paid for. Hundreds and Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent essentially 'making' something a hit. And let me tell you, it's no different with the indi labels, they just have less money to spend and maybe really like music. And it means that even the most talented musician faces a total crap shoot in earning a living, even at the so called 'indi' level.
And that's why my buddy sputtered "FUCK BRANDI CARLILE" when I started to tell my "we're gonna have to take a pass on that record' story, her reaction raises a whole different set issues.
I'll be honest, I'd fuck her in a heartbeat. I mean, have you seen the kid? She is the total package- the music's good, the voice breaks your heart, she's enough of a knockout that I feel like a bitter old perv every time I see the album cover. However, she poses a problem to a lot of us oldsters in the singer-songwriter game. Yes, she's gifted, she works hard, and she's a genuine person. The records are highly listenable. But she's also easy on the eyes, has had a lot of help, both creative and administrative, and she just plain got lucky- she showed up at a point in history that was made possible by 40 years of other women laboring in relative obscurity. And by lucky, I include the fact that she was raised in some mountain cabin with nothing but a victrola and some old Carter Family records and NO MTV. She rolled down from the mountain with none of the video-era induced 'lifestyle/product/fashion' trauma that's caused so many of us to doubt ourselves, waste time redefining our images, or generally feel inferior. So, her success could feel like a slap in the face for woman working in the same vein that's been out there slogging it out for 10, 15 , 20 years. It's a particularly bitter pill for women musicians to swallow- not BC herself, but the general phenomenon of the mighty machine picking just one woman for artistic relevance every decade.
In my recollection, the first big explosion of chick singer songwriters, in the late 80's, went something like this: "Your record's great, but radio won't/can't play it because they're already playing the Suzanne Vega record." Like, Shawn fucking Colvin was shopping demos that year and heard this crap, right? One of the premiere songwriters of the last 20 years, and she had to swallow this Luka shit. Have you heard "Steady On?" It's a masterwork. "Luka" beat that? It's simply unconscionable. A lot of women's careers were foundered because of fucking "Luka", and let's face it, 20 years later, can you even listen to that song? Don't lie. You can't. The next wave- Tracey Chapman- 'Fast Car', sure they played the hell out of it, but ignored even better songs from that album and subsequent albums, because all anyone wanted from the black chick was that 'slice of life' view from the black underclass so they could say that they 'got it, they really got it.' Melissa Etheridge? ('Melissa Estrus' as one of my rural record store owners consistently and perfectly mangled her name....) Don't even get me started. The first album had some songwriting promise on it, but then she clearly signed off on the "Big Plan" from the record label: "you are the inheritor of Joplin's mantle, but you are happy playing along with the boys, not tortured by your lack of creative control and sexual confusion, you are also a lot like Bruce Springsteen, you will be growing your hair and having dermabrasion and you will name check as many products as possible on the next album." She was as fucking processed as velveeta, but not as tangy.
Then came the huge epistemological problem that was The Indigo Girls. The same surge in College rock power that catapulted R.E.M. and 10,000 maniacs and fucking Luka into ubiquity created just enough of an anti-gravity chamber to let these two into the a major label contract. They totally slipped under the fence, and no one made them clean up or change their clothes. The sound was fresh enough, they were hip enough looking to get a shot at initial airplay on MTV and college radio- the difference is they had the material and the work ethic to stick around and develop a live following (and not just the lesbians- they're musical appeal is pretty wide, go to a show, there's a lot of walks of life there) and keep vibrant for a long time. In some ways, their longevity echoes that of the Grateful Dead- who also got very little airplay but connected with a huge amount of people and happily made music that they loved for a lot of years.
However- back to the 'problem:' At no point on 50 years of rock and roll had there been a successful female creative duo. You had Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, CSN, whatever- name two other chicks (who weren't raised from birth to work as a team, like the Wilson Sisters,) who negotiated a productive creative relationship. NONE. Suzy Quattro rocked alone, Joan Jett too. No one expected creativity from the Disco chics. The Runaways were really just some puppet show put on by a pedophile, other than Jett, no one really made it out alive, or maybe was even alive to start out with.
Women's place in rock music had always been tolerated because either they were
1) the chirp - as Joni Mitchel so elegantly put it on Miles of Aisles, just frontin' the band.
2) Unique enough to be respected and granted special dispensation to be in charge of their shit - Joni Mitchell, maybe Carole King, after she karate chopped her way through the Brill Building.
2b) Unique but viciously attacked for taking artistic risks and stumbling, disposable freak show: Essra Mowhawk, Laura Nyro, Grace Jones, Jane Childs, Toni Childs, Sinead O'Connor, Joni Mitchell every other album, Linda Perry prior to becomng Uber pop producer, Cyndi Lauper,
3) the tortured and then dead artist- Joplin was way more successful as a corpse than as a living, breathing, smelly, unattractive blues singer.
4) a gig bag - somebody's girlfriend- Again, Joni's an interesting exception that proves that rule, since Graham Nash was sort of her gig bag, talentless barnacle that he was.
6) man clone/one of the boys.... Melissa Estrus, Bonnie Raitt in the 70's/80's, Joan Jett,
5) puppet - I'm not even going to bother naming names
and no matter how you cut it- all of those roles serve to inhibit and diminish the idea of women themselves as strong creators. Culturally, if the 'idea' doesn't exist in theory, no one will aspire to it.
Now here come the Indigo Girls. Two singer songwriters with unique individual styles, working together (which you know from all of the mainstream rock media - ahem, lester bangs, that that's just not possible, the implosion of the Runaways, that just can't happen) and basically gigging themselves into the consciousness of music listeners. (and this was before the much vaunted Ani Difrano DIY juggernaut that made us all feel like losers because we couldn't do it all like she did -we paled in comparison to AD)
They worked together writing and arranging, they worked together gigging and networking, and they generally just fucking worked- which, correct me if I'm wrong, please, but you never saw that in rock music before, not the collaboration, not the work ethic from chicks, and not the just humbly getting it done. Sure Joni Mitchell worked her ass off, but she never collaborated with another woman, and she'd be the first person to tell you she's been cut throat in taking advantage of the few opportunities presented her. Sure the Wilson sisters collaborated, and don't get me wrong, I love Heart like I love chocolate, and I denied this for years but my ears don't lie- they rode the backs of their male bandmates to kick out the jams - if you don't believe me- take a look at what happened when the Fisher Brothers left the operation. Yeah, What about Love? my ass, it ain't no Crazy on You, and I can't even come up with an explanation for the Quasi-Broadway musical that was Private Audition. That don't mean I don't like, but it ain't rock and roll.
So here's IG, working their asses off, not trying to be anything they aren't, and not acquiescing to any weird label imperatives - now remember, they would have been signing with Epic at around the same time that ME was signing with Island, and somehow no one sat them down and insisted on high hair and tight jeans) and succeeding. They didn't get any prettier, thinner, smoother skinned or suave. I'm not saying they didn't feel the same pressure, I'm just saying they didn't do it. I've been at shows where Amy Ray, god bless her, looks like she just rolled out of bed and maybe needs a shower. In other words, they just rocked on like a rock band- not a girl rock band.
Very few artists anymore get the chance to keep working as they see fit for 20 years, and even fewer were women. Think of another band from the late 80's college rock or indi scene that's still viable. I can't. But their continued existence opened up a whole new mental channel for musicians younger than them: women as collaborators. Not just collaborators with each other, but with men too. Women as strong creators capable of equal artistic partnership.
This, in conjunction with with the social changes brought on by the internet for youngsters (See "we are everywhere, virtually) brought about Brandi Carlisle.
We say "fuck brandi carlile" but what we really mean is "fuck time, and fuck my luck." It's not magic that she has, it's extra energy from not having to second guess herself about everything from the music she listens to, whether or not she can jam with the boys, not having to fight for space on the bill, not having to stress about sexual orientation (I know she's huge with the the lesbians, but I'm not sure she's a lesbian, I'd wager she is, but it just doesn't matter - it wasn't an impediment in her personal development or in her career development.) The only difference between BC and my buddy is that for BC, there's a very clear spot for her to plug into the culture, and it's a spot that simply wasn't there before. I'm not saying that sexism, homophobia, whatever, has vanished, but I am saying that I believe it's sphere of influence has shrunken dramatically.
And time and luck wise, she's dealing with younger, better dudes- they are more enlightened. Those twin boys she pals around with- they write half of the material and don't mind simply beng the un-named backing band. Ten, even five years ago, you never would have seen some boy show so little ego in supporting a girl artist. That's because it wasn't just the girls who grew up with this new ideal of women as legitimate partners for collaboration, it was the boys too. This generation of boys grew up with real women rockers as touchpoints.
I grew up barely being allowed to mention that I had a guitar in front of the of the boys- I was in a couple bands in highschool but always as the singer - never a guitarist- even though my voice hadn't changed yet and I was a much better guitarist than singer at that point in my life. I can't improvise for shit because there wasn't an safe place to learn how- the boys wouldn't play with me without mocking not just my playing, but my very desire to play- I was a girl!!!! I was 30 years old before I finally broke through the fear of performing that that created, and I know it wasn't just me that happened to. Janis Joplin's band was full of terrible fuckwad musicians, but no one else would play for her, and even these suckbags wouldn't take direction from her cause she was a chick. BC hasn't had to deal with that, so she gets the benefit of collaboration- most of us are better when an outside influence tempers our work. The genius of the Beatles and the Stones and the Who and most other paragons of rock authorship was collaboration. The whole was better than the sum of it's parts. They were better because Paul pulled John out of his own head, and Jagger could interpret Keith's monosyllables into something the rest of the band could follow, and Daltry reigned Pete and his 72 minute long rhapsody about the beauty of a single note in by simply saying "that's great, man, but how will it help anyone get laid?"
Generations of rockers grew up under that male dominated sky, and really only one generation of singer-songwriters (so far) has matured into touring age under the new regime, and little BC is the result. So yeah, we say $%*^$ Brandi Carlile, but at the same time, I can't help but be a little proud that she exists, because really, she serves to prove the theory that all the women who came before her proposed: woman are equally strong creators and rockers, work with us and good things will happen.