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.