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
Friday 13 December 1996
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
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