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The Rockologist: The Women Who Have Rocked My World

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They say that the voice of a woman can be enough to soothe both the savage beast in man, as well as serve as proverbial nails on a chalkboard.

Nowhere has this been more true over the years than in music. My own relationship with women in music over the years has been, well let’s just say that as in life, it’s been complicated.

The first time I can remember falling in love with a woman’s voice was when as a pre-teen boy I first heard Grace Slick sing “White Rabbit” with the Jefferson Airplane. Even though I nary understood a thing that Grace was talking about with all her talk about pills that made you either larger or small, there was still something about her sweet, yet seductive voice that made me really want to fall down that particular rabbit hole.

Even so, I would grow to develop a certain love/hate relationship with the various women of rock over the years as I grew older. For every Janis Joplin or Aretha Franklin who were able to touch some unrealized yearning deep within my soul, or for every Ronnie Spector who was able to light the flame of innocent, unconditional romantic love — there would be those angry feminist singers who could just as quickly extinguish it.

This reached an apex in the nineties, during the era of the Cranberries, the Breeders, and especially Alanis Morisette — a singer whose songs more often than not left me wondering “hey, what’d I ever do to you?” than anything else.

Right around this time, I can remember going to an outdoor Neil Young show where The Pretenders were opening, and Chrissie Hynde — an artist whose toughness I always respected — going all ballistic on people barbecuing burgers, due to the “meat is murder” factor. I mean, it’s a festival already! What the f…?

And then there was the Ani DeFranco show a friend dragged me out to, where me and him stood alone in a stadium full of angry feminists glaring menacingly at us. Never before or since have I gone to a concert where I felt more like the enemy than I did a mere spectator. I’ve been less scared as the lone white dude at an NWA show.

This was about the point I began asking myself “when did all these chicks get so damn angry?”

Thank God, that in between the angry feminism of the Anis and the Alanises — not to mention the empty trilling of the Mariahs and the Whitneys — there have still been some great female singers whose ability to soothe the soul have stood out from the rest.

These are great singers who understand implicitly that music works best as a comforter, rather than as a confronter. Not that these same talented women don’t have a capacity for expressing anger, of course…

A number of these amazing women come to mind right away, such as Sade — whose jazzy torch songs evoke a perfect mood of both longing and regret — and Annie Lennox, who just has an amazing voice period.

For me though, the female vocalists which left the deepest mark tend to fall into two categories, much as the females I tend to prefer in life do.

In category “A”, we have the fiercely independent maverick, who also has the spirit of an angel. For me, there is no artist alive who epitomizes these qualities the way that Patti Smith does.

On the album Horses, and especially on extended tonal poems like her greatest song “Birdland,” Patti effortlessly channels up both the spiritual and the profane in such a way as to take your head away to an entirely different sort of plane — at least if you are really listening. The fierce intellect and conviction Patti Smith brings to her work alone qualifies her as one of the true greats.

But when her unique vision is applied to an apocalyptic scenario like the one seen below in a scene from the short-lived TV series Millennium, it’s as though every fear you ever had of the end of the world in your head was being split wide-open:

Speaking of great examples of music being wed to cinema, Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack to David Lynch’s TV cult-classic Twin Peaks is one of the best ever. But what was most key to this was the singularly angelic voice of Julee Cruise.

Lynch’s hallucinatory vision of dark erotic danger in a small Northwestern town has often been imitated (most recently on ABC’s Happy Town), but never equaled.

Perhaps the most key factor to this, was Cruise’s haunting performance of the Twin Peaks theme, “Falling.”

Set at closing time in the type of sleazy, smoke-filled lounge that no longer exists in these politically correct times, Cruise’s rendering of this song suggests all of the possibilities, and all of the lingering erotic danger that exists in such a place as Twin Peaks.

As such, it conveys the moment perfectly.

Okay. So much for those women who appeal to the mind, and even to the soul. As for category “B,” there are also those who appeal to the…well, you know…

When it comes to pure out and out eroticism, no one has ever communicated this as perfectly as Vanessa Daou did on her tragically slept on, Erica Jong-inspired album Zipless.

And this is the point where I guess I apologize for taking you through a personal mix-tape of my own fantasies.

But hell yeah. Damn, would I like to get with a girl like this:

On the other end of Vanessa Daou’s pure sexuality, lies the innocent pre-“Cloudbusting” romanticism of Kate Bush. Before Kate got corrupted by the eighties New Wave of weird chicks like Lene Lovich, this was the “Dorothy in Oz” sort of girl every guy dreams of.

If there is any girl on God’s green Earth I would love to be “alone on the stage tonight,” with, it is the Kate Bush who is exclaiming “Wow! Wow! — Unbelievable!”

And then, of course, there are those girls who can simply sing their asses off. The first time I saw Annie Haslim perform with Renaissance, I swear to God I felt the air move when she hit those un-Godly five octave notes of hers:

Carole King — another female singer I respect by the way — once said she could make the earth move under my feet. And I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. Annie Haslim on the other hand did it simply by opening her mouth.

Now that’s my kinda girl.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.

    What about Sarah McLachlan ??Go to Youtube and watch the concert video for “Possesion”!

  • Jim Miralles

    As a fan for music, the article reminds me of some of my favorite female rockers…
    Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart
    Deborah Harry of Blondie
    Martha Davis of The Motels
    Joan Jett
    Pat Benatar

  • Mark Saleski

    i like most of these singers, though i’d take Ani DiFranco over all of them. biting lyrics, really great guitar playing.

    Haslip i can’t stand at all, but i’m not a proggy guy.

    …and i don’t miss smoke-filled lounges one little bit.

  • El Bicho

    Good to see women get some spotlight, but I take issue with a few points.

    No Tina Turner?

    Slick’s voice sweet on “WR”? When was the last time you heard that song?

    “Great singers who understand implicitly that music works best as a comforter, rather than as a confronter.

    I disagree here totally. There are many times I’ll take Dylan’s “Master of War”, Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up”, RATM “Killing in the Name”, Nina Simone’s “Mississipi Goddamn”, Alanis’ “You Outta Know”, etc. over some lame, sappy love songs.

    “Carole King…once said she could make the earth move under my feet.”

    No she didn’t. She said she felt it move.

    And why aren’t women allowed to be angry? It’s an emotion they are entitled to express just like everyone else and some do it very well.

  • zingzing

    i recently had a thing for female punk/post-punk artists. the slits, raincoats, lilliput, au pairs, delta 5, essential logic, esg, bush tetras, lydia lunch (especially teenage jesus and the jerks)… it goes on.

  • Glen Boyd

    El B…

    There are lots of women I could have mentioned here, not the least of which is Tina Turner (“River Deep Mountain High” is as near to a perfect record as any I can think of).

    Joni Mitchell is another who comes to mind that comes to mind, that perhaps I glossed over here. But for the purposes of this article, I went with those mentioned…I didn’t the space or the time to really do otherwise. It’s not a book…someday maybe though…

    As for Grace Slick, I’m just going on childhood memory here. I remember that the first time I heard that song her voice really had this seductive sort of quality that was particularly intoxicating to a thirteen year old boy whose hormones were fairly raging out of control at the time.

    I also agree that anger is an emotion conveyed particularly well in music. People like the Clash and RATM do that particularly well. There’s just something about when that anger is so directly targeted towards men — Alannis is the most obvious example that comes to mind here — that kinda leaves me cold.


  • roger nowosielski

    Also, Glen, no mention of women voices in operatic music. They’re simply angelic.

  • Glen Boyd

    I’m not an opera fan, but Annie Haslim kinda covers that for me.

  • roger nowosielski

    What about Sarah Brightman, “The Phantom . . .”?

    You really ought to sample women voices in the genre – Renata Tebaldi, Callas, Teresa Berganza, plenty more to come from. It’s a cathartic experience.

  • El Bicho

    “You Outta Know” is directed at one man, the one who left the narrator and hooked up with another woman very soon after. It’s not an attack on men in general.

    Her pain and anger is identifiable to any person who has been in a similar situation. I certainly went through it, so I have no idea what you are reading into the song.

  • zingzing

    morrisette was, at that point, a bit harsh and annoying, both fine things, but combined with her rather insipid songwriting, she ends up on the bad side of both of those above qualities, in my opinion. unfortunately, as she matured, her songwriting went from harsh, annoying and child-like to just plain old boring.

  • roger nowosielski

    “Speaking of great examples of music being wed to cinema, Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack to David Lynch’s TV cult-classic Twin Peaks is one of the best ever.”

    I certainly agree with you there, Glen. Not just the music – the entire series is a classic. Never to be surpassed.

  • Glen Boyd

    Zing makes my point for me Bicho. Her voice is just really grating and annoying to me, especially when she’s pissed off at one of more of her ex’s…which seemed to be a constantly recurring theme in her songs, including, but certainly not limited to “You Oughtta Know.”


  • Mark Saleski

    oh, and i forgot to say that i’ve always been kind of surprised that Vanessa Daou never hit it big. i remember hearing a tune on a cmj sampler and thinking “what the hell was that?!”

  • Glen Boyd

    She’s super-underrated. The Zipless album is one of the most erotic pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and her album Dear John Coltrane is also quite good (sex isn’t the only thing she sings about…it’s just that she does it so well when she does).


  • Glen Boyd

    Speaking of things I also forgot to add, the one time I saw Vanessa Daou live, she was sharing the bill with the recently passed Guru (doing his Jazzmatazz thing) of all people…

    One of the weirdest pairings I’ve ever seen, but also a great show. Daou completely won over the hip-hop heads too.

    And she is even more sexy in person. I about creamed my jeans when she signed a poster for me…and it stills hang proudly on my wall.


  • Bill Altice


    Check the Karen Cooper Complex, please:

    Jason Sigal, Managing Director at WFMU said:
    “This is amazing stuff and we would be honored to feature it in wfmu’s curated portal on the free music archive. I’m very sorry for our slow response, we have a lot of stuff to wade through to find gems like these.”

  • Glen Boyd

    Don’t understand this comment at all; even after checking the link.



  • V B

    Carole King never said anything about the earth doing anything under YOUR feet. That was a very lame thought you should have kept to yourself.

  • martin lav

    Hey Glen,
    How could you have not ignored the Chrissie’s comments about the burgers at a festival that had both her and Neil on the ticket? Seems as though she should have gotten a pass on that one. Ever here her Needle and the Damage Done? One of the best female voices in Rock n Roll by far.

    And with statements like this:
    “Hynde was asked: “What was it like playing with Neil?”

    “Fucking great!”, replied Chrissie.”

    Who could not LOVE Chrissie?