Loony tunes

Why is it that male pop hopefuls can achieve stardom simply by writing great songs, while their female counterparts have to have nervous breakdowns, write mad lyrics and pull stupid faces? Emma Forrest on pop's whining ways

By the age of 18 Kate Bush had hit number one with "Wuthering Heights". The close ups on her porcelain, paranoid face and frenetic, white-robed body, comprise one of the classic pop videos of all time. She followed it with "The Man With the Child in his Eyes", a song she wrote when she was 12. It was taken from the chart topping debut album The Kick Inside, whose title track was about incest. By 24, Bush had ducked out of the limelight and the music industry rumour mill whispered that she was having a breakdown. Having sold it to us so successfully, so appealingly, the gossips said that Kate Bush was going mad.

Cut to the Woolworth's wackiness of Alisha's Attic. The Essex sisters, Shelly and Karen, broke through this summer with "I Am, I Feel", a whiny slice of Neurotica cut from the same cloth as Alanis Morissette. They were put together by Dave Stewart, the man behind the hugely successful Smash Hits neurotics, Shakespear's Sister. For 1990s pop executives, depicting your starlet as crazy is one of the easiest ways to sell her (you only need to look at the success of Bjork, Alanis, Polly Harvey and Tori Amos to see that). Judging by the heavy styling Alisha's Attic have gone through, smudged black eye-liner is all you need to prove how nuts you are. That and a quasi-schizophrenic imaginary character called Alisha. The sleeve of Alisha Rules the World reads "I love you Alisha. You're an angel and a devil. Are you in an evil mood? Did you have a morbid thought today?"

In today's climate, it's fascinating that Kristen Hersh, the celebrated singer-songwriter behind Throwing Muses, and a diagnosed bi-polar schizophrenic, is still deemed too left-field for the pop market. Her songs are often fanned from vivid hallucinations and if she doesn't get the words and notes out as soon as they enter her head, she will have a fit. It is because she refuses to pour her "craziness" into acceptable cultural moulds that she is so hard to market.

We like our pop tarts glamorously wacky, sexily unhinged, not genuinely mentally ill. One imagines that if Alanis Morissette were ever to fall out with her record label, she could give them back her crazed, tangled locks, just like Judy Holliday reaching down her jumper and handing back her Styrofoam falsies when Harry Cohen told her he owned her. The enormous global success of Alanis has given us Alisha's Attic and 18-year-old Fiona Apple who says, "I like having my heart broken. It means the muscle is being used." It's depressing that Alanis, whose album is absolutely brilliant and perceptive and true, should have become a market entity and be used as the spearhead for watered down "new neurotics".

She herself is clearly inspired by the mother of all neurotic female performers, Joni Mitchell. When told how definitive and stunning her album Blue remains, Mitchell claimed that "all it is is me having a nervous breakdown on record. That was before nervous breakdowns were invented." Since Mitchell, it's as if every other female performer is just using chapters from the golden note-book. Some do it better than others (Morissette, Tori Amos, Polly Harvey), but they are still writing about the same old things: "Here is the sexually aggressive song, here is the song about me hating my body, here is the song about feeling suicidal after my boyfriend left me." A lot of the albums sound like nothing more than women's magazines.

When Mitchell wrote about these subjects she was breaking new ground. But that women are still singing these songs suggests that we can only write about one thing. A dumb college boy-rock band, like Presidents of the United States of America, can write a song as quirky and throwaway as "Lump" because they can afford to be casual. They don't feel they have a duty to sing about anything.

What's happening to women in rock today is similar to what happened to female movie stars in the Sixties. Just as women were being declared equal and liberated, they were, on screen, being turned into whores - see Shirley MacLaine's entire career. Peckinpah's misogynistic films giving way to the slasher flicks of the Seventies. As Julie Burchill wrote in Girls on Film: "It is easier to stick a knife in a girl's back than to write a good line for her." It is easier to have your pop stars wear panda eye make-up and pull stupid faces than let them just get on with it, without all the pretence of being loony.

It's the main challenge to any woman trying to break through. Nut for instance, a young woman signed to Epic, is finding it impossible to explain that despite her name (given to her as a child) she is not the new Alisha's Attic. Her publicist Terri Hall, explains: "People have decided to put this kookiness on her shoulders and she really dislikes it. I'll ring up a magazine about her and they'll say, `We've already got Alisha's Attic this issue. We don't want any more women.' The girl just writes songs you can hum on the bus. It's nothing to do with weirdness. She's completely normal. Think about why we love Noel Gallagher. He's a down-to-earth geezer and he writes great songs. It's so different for a female songwriter."

Not just the content and appearance, but also the sound has become uniform. That same high, whiney voice used by everyone from Joni to Kate to Tori to Alanis. In The Magic Flute Mozart made the Queen of the Night sing in a high-pitched squawk to denote how neurotic she is - it was a sound supposed to get at you and be irritating. On Bjork's first record, the whine was a novelty. The follow up, Post was less well received. Consequently, she is now selling herself in the mass marketplace almost entirely by her videos. The sub-Jungian imagery of her first hit "Human Behaviour" (Bjork falling through a forest, Bjork being chased by a giant teddy bear) has given way to more disturbing clips like "Violently Happy". This has her in a padded cell, squirming out of a straightjacket, cutting off her own hair and pulling apart a doll. Immaculately made up, of course.

The manufactured pop of Louise and The Spice Girls is, in many ways, healthier and less damaging to women than the parade of cute crazies and Morissette clones. Whatever you say about her, Madonna was never a whinger. It is actually surprising that the threatened influx of Madonna wannabes never really materialised. After all, she is the biggest selling female pop star of all time. Odder still, it is Joni Mitchell, 30 years after she first made it, who continues to inspire the imitators. This is a performer who, no matter how critically acclaimed she was, never sold well (according to David Geffen, she owes him millions of dollars in unrecouped advances). Without The Spice Girls, it would be as if the Eighties never really happened and that Madonna's lessons - "I am in charge, I make my own cultural references, if I mention my body it will be solely with adoring praise" - had been forgotten

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick