Girls at their worst

Female pop idols get a raw deal in the media. Or are they asking for it? By Emma Cook
She's loud, defiant and vociferous. "She" is a new breed of nineties pop star: armed with opinions, a penchant for speaking her mind and, notoriously, fronting an otherwise male band. In a word, she's got attitude. It's what male pop stars take for granted and female pop stars have fought long and hard for; the inalienable right to be opinionated and self-righteous - to be gobby big-mouths when it suits them.

But there's still a lot of catching up to do on planet pop - not just for those taking part but for the spectators as well. Where female musicians still stand miles apart from their male counterparts is the way in which they are judged for what they say. Liam Gallagher behaves outrageously and it's accepted as entertaining rock'n'roll behaviour. Louise Wener of Sleeper has a go at feminism and PC behaviour, and she's vilified throughout the press.

So can the new generation of girl-babes really rant and rave with the best of the lads or are women still expected to be seen and not heard? Is it innate sexism and prejudice on our part to view self-aggrandising women as somehow more offensive then their male equivalents? Maybe we only object when their views seem to originate less from the heart but more from a shrewd sense of marketing; a contrived attempt to carve out their own self-styled soap box.

Over the past two years Louise Wener has let rip to anyone who cares to listen - usually male journalists. "Political correctness is such wank. Everybody's so worried about what they're thinking. Where's the defiance? Where's the fun?" she asked Melody Maker in May 1994. In a similar vein she railed against feminism and left-wing trendies.

Her agenda was born out of what seemed a sincere frustration: three years of putting up with fashionably right-on students while studying politics at Manchester University. But, by choosing to express her grievances in this forum, her vitriol sounded anything but sincere and well-informed.

Wener's PR blurb enthuses, "Yes she's outrageous. Yes, she's outspoken. But she's also intelligent, informed, aware, sexy and photogenic..." It's this sort of packaging that hints at contrivance, especially when she repeatedly fails to put her material where her mouth is, so to speak. In her lyrics and on stage, all stridency gets lost in a wash of breathy, girlish coyness.

In fairness to her, it could be she was never that bombastic to start with. On some occasions she spoke without reservation when she should have known better and certain journalists never let her forget it. What can seem downright irritating in print is actually playfulness on her part. In person, far from coming across as the spiky, feisty lass portrayed in NME interviews, Wener is warm and ingenuous. Why should this be such a surprise? "Women are still denied the right to having a sense of humour or irony. Everything I've said gets taken utterly seriously," she says. "I've said some things that got analysed and picked over in a way that wouldn't have happened to a bloke."

Wener tells me she has learnt her lesson and now tends to bite her lip when it comes to contentious subjects. "I don't talk about certain things to certain journalists now. Early on I was being myself, which in some ways was part of the problem." And one she hasn't quite resolved judging by this month's Loaded where she tells the lads: "Hand most men a map and they wouldn't have a clue where the clitoris was." Wener may speak with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but there's still a sense that she tries too hard to offend and ultimately fails to shock.

Courtney Love of Hole is one of the few female performers who at least appears to be truly wild and brash - she indulges in a variety of thorough- going vulgar behaviour beyond the natural reach of our more reserved, perhaps knowing British sisters. Even previously forthright pop femmes seem to go along with this. Sonya from Echobelly, who's always been outspoken on certain issues - music industry prejudice and her Asian background - has tempered her approach, both in her music and in interview. She told NME last August, "I haven't apologised for my views: it's all in there but it's subtler and cleverer..." She has no time for the stereotype of the "angry young woman".

Skin from Skunk Anansie used to say it loud and clear, advocating her own brand of female empowerment through "Clit Pop", a statement she wore boldly on her T-shirt. Now the message and the medium have softened. In a less subversive mood she recently appeared on Pyjama Party, getting girlie with Katie Puckrick. Perhaps female popstars have had to abandon their politicised identities in a bid for mainstream success - they are certainly aware that if girls shout too long and too loudly in pop it can overshadow their music. As Wener says, "I want to look like a songwriter first - the stuff that goes around it becomes less and less important to me."

But these singers are still self-consciously establishing their identity, whether it's making a fuss about the world or subtly withdrawing from it. The danger lies in appearing to manoeuvre tactically; which can leave an artificial aftertaste. The worst crime any pop star can commit - especially those who wish to be "taken seriously" - is faking it. That goes for both men and women, which is why Damon's mockneyaffectations earn him such scorn.

And it's also why Dolores O'Riordan of The Cranberries, one of pop's most conspicuous female crusaders, is seen to be losing credit, despite her group being Ireland's biggest musical export since U2. In her song, "Still Remembering", she laments, "They say that good people are always the first to drop/ What of Kurt Cobain will his presence still remain/ Remember JFK, ever in a saintly way/ Where are you now?" She is also moved to write about John Lennon's death and Bosnia.

Why do these attempts to tackle human injustice seem somehow studied and condescending? Would she get away with her pious proselytising if she were male? John Harris, Q's features editor, thinks not. "Being preachy in 1982 was a lot easier than in 1996. Now, if you're didactic, people are cynical, whether you're male or female. Noel Gallagher's lyrics have been platitudinous on occasion but they've never declared an overt moral standpoint."

What also grates is an apparent absence of humour. "No one's really that straight or po-faced anymore," suggests Harris. "Pop culture has got a lot more sophisticated." Nowadays we expect a certain amount of irony and self-awareness from our artists, which is why Dolores, and to some extent Sinead O'Connor, represent a less than contemporary sensibility.

O'Connor vocalises her personal pain through her music. Tragedies in her private life from suicide attempts, nervous breakdowns and an abusive family background define and dominate her music. She says, "I have to be who I am. I can't talk about the songs I write without saying these things." Her personal pain also encompasses politics and religion - in February she pleaded with the IRA to stop the bombings.

Using music as a psychotherapeutic release is another means of expression that the latest generation of female-fronted artists seem keen to avoid. As Wener complains, "I don't really want to write, `Woe-is-me-I've-got- my-period' songs." What seems problematic for women is establishing an authentic middle ground between irony-free, angst-ridden confessionals at one extreme and sexy, packaged pop on the other.

According to Amy Raphael, author of Never Mind The Bollocks: Women Re- Write Rock, artists that do avoid categorisation start out with an innate sense of their own identity - something that's impossible to fake. "The reason everyone's clamouring to talk to Justine Frischmann [of Elastica] is that she's just completely natural," she says. "That's the way she is." Bjork and Polly Harvey also transcend stereotypes. They would never be "outrageous" for the Loaded lads and, unlike Wener, their humour seems idiosyncratic and therefore more genuine.

"These are the women who you can imagine going out for a drink with," Raphael says. "You can relate to them. And if you're buying into their music you should be able to do that." They are also in the enviable position of being viewed as powerful performers who happen to be women rather than the other way round.