Strong women are in, I hear, at least in alternative music. Strong,
woman-oriented lyrics and messages are everywhere, and most female
artists are very popular with male fans. That's good, right?
Not necessarily. All too often, those strong messages are disguised
by sweet little-girl voices and pretty, perky faces, carefully
calculated to be non-threatening. "I'm a strong, independent woman,"
they tell us breathlessly. "Isn't that cute?" It's enough to
make me want to, er, Bjork.
Take Lisa Loeb (please).
In "Do You Sleep," she sings:
You kick my foot under the table,
These are not wimpy lyrics -- but Loeb's voice carries no conviction.
In the video, the "wispy-voiced chanteuse" looks plaintively into the
camera through cat-eye glasses, somehow managing to come across as a
knock-kneed, awkward fifteen-year-old. A gorgeous one, of course; a
knock-kneed, awkward, ugly fifteen-year-old wouldn't sell records.
I kick you back;
I can't say I'm able to
stand for you or
fall for you ever again.
And then there's
Bjork. Almost every man I know has the hots for Bjork. I can see
why -- she's beautiful, and she oozes vulnerability from every pore.
But take a look at her lyrics, from "army of me":
These are hardly the words of a vulnerable little girl, but if you're not
paying attention, you might never know the difference. Her presentation
dulls the impact of her words; even at her most powerful, her vocals
sound more like a child having a tantrum than a strong adult woman.
you've got to manage
I won't sympathize
and if you complain once more
you'll meet an army of me
Alanis Morrissette's voice is no
problem -- it's
not a good voice, as such, but it's interesting and she uses
it well. Her performance occasionally shows real power. Unfortunately,
Alanis' female angst doesn't come across as sincere -- probably because
her brother writes her songs. Coupled with the irritating video for
"Ironic", in which four of her (saints preserve us) cavort in a Cadillac
looking ever-so-cute, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
To be fair, there are plenty of strong women in alternative music.
Courtney Love of Hole is a
fine example -- a woman who isn't afraid to look like a screeching
harpy, if that's what the music calls for. But that's the exception,
rather than the rule, and women who stray too far from prettiness and
femininity rarely remain popular. Only those with really extraordinary
Smith comes to mind) succeed in the long term.
It seems strange that in a genre of music that calls itself "alternative,"
women are penalized for not conforming to stereotypes. You don't see many
men out there in the alternative community playing down their music to be
non-threatening. Men are allowed to be powerful, but strong women still
scare us -- even many of us who think we know better. A friend told me
recently that he's known a number of men who were big fans of Tori Amos until they saw her perform.
Live, they found her too aggressive and threatening, and they lost
This isn't really a new phenomenon. Most fans of female musicians
are men, and certain men seem to find this particular female archetype
irresistible. For years I've listened to male friends bemoan
death, fondly believing that they could have saved her. (If only
they'd been older than fifteen at the time!) It's no more common than it
ever was. I suppose I'm noticing it more because it seems so
ridiculous to me that even now, strong women feel a need to play
down their power. I shouldn't be so surprised. The fans, after
all, eat it up.
This bothers me in ways I can't put my finger on. It helps that I'm
not the only woman I know who is uncomfortable with the strange
intensity of fascination certain men have with these women. I've been
told it's "just sour grapes," and maybe there's some truth to that.
These women are hiding their strength, and wearing their vulnerability
on the outside. Most of us do it the other way around, and evidently
many men don't find that nearly so attractive. The media constantly
feeds us unrealistic images -- of women, of men, of sex, of love -- and
it's hard not to be swept up in those illusions. We all wish we could
roll over in bed every morning and put our arms around a lover who isn't
neurotic and doesn't have acne on their back.
Yeah, right. As Susie
Derkins would say, "...and while I'm dreaming, I'd like a pony."
While it's not necessarily fair that the media feeds us images of
people that are more attractive than the real thing, that's what we
ask for, and that's what we get. We pay for it with more than money.
Are these women selling themselves out? I don't know. Maybe it's
just their style. However, being a female musician myself (although
not of the gorgeous, non-threatening variety), I think I have a pretty
good idea why otherwise strong women cultivate such vulnerable images.
They're doing what they have to do to succeed in an industry that exists
only through the good graces of the general public.
Some people take drug tests to keep their jobs. Some wear suits and
ties. Female musicians try not to be intimidating. It's no different.
No, really. Keep telling yourself that, and everything will be