On Top of Pop, But Not With One Voice


Paula Cole stands on the lip of the stage of the Vogue, a trendy club in downtown Indianapolis. With her angelic face and innocent demeanor, she looks just like the prom queen she was a decade ago in the little seaside town of Rockport, Mass. "I will do the laundry if you pay all the bills," she sings in a sweet soprano from her current hit single, "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" "Where is my John Wayne? Where is my prairie son? Where is my happy ending? Where have all the cowboys gone?"

The lyrics go on to praise the virtues of docility and domesticity. Unless one assumes the song is meant ironically, it places the 29-year-old Ms. Cole somewhere to the right of Tammy Wynette, creator of the memorable retro anthem "Stand by Your Man," as far as sexual enlightenment goes.

Then abruptly the mood shifts.

As Ms. Cole belts out "Tiger," her declaration of independence from her past, she seems to metamorphose into a proud woman rocker of the 90's. As such, she recalls the cover of her album "This Fire," from which the song comes; it features a photograph of a nude Ms. Cole on a swing in a field of flames. Flaunting her bare midriff and pierced nose, she roams the stage wildly, a tough, strident little girl. "I'm so tired of being shy," she sings. "I'm not that straight-A anymore. I've left the girl I was supposed to be."

In many ways, the two faces of Paula Cole embody the contradictions at the heart of today's female pop stars. Nonetheless, the Indianapolis crowd erupts with equal enthusiasm for Ms. Cole's every song, be it of the little-girl type or the riot grrrl variety. In the same way, the women producing such music offer a dizzying array of contradictory messages, ranging from the treacly to the anarchic.

Unlike the new breed of young feminist authors like Naomi Wolf and Katie Roiphe, the new young female musicians seem to have no intellectual ax to grind.

"What distinguishes these new women isn't a shared philosophy," said Bill Bentley, who as director of publicity for Warner Records' Reprise label has helped promote albums by Joan Jett, Alanis Morissette and the all-women groups L7 and Babes in Toyland.

"What they have is a shared talent for moving people with their music. And that's why people are so eager now to hear them on the radio and buy their records."

The music industry, which has yet to pull out of a yearlong financial slump, has been quick to take advantage of this trend. As grunge and gangsta rap become increasingly moribund, and with electronica still struggling to establish itself, what is being called the "new women's music" is offering rich commercial possibilities. Singers like Meredith Brooks, Fiona Apple, Jewel, Erykah Badu and Monica have been atop the pop charts and staples of Top 40 radio for months. So have groups with female lead singers like No Doubt (with Gwen Stefani) and the Fugees (with Lauryn Hill).

At the Grammy Awards, in February, women made up a significant number of nominees.

This year's Grammy darling was Celine Dion, 29, the megaplatinum purveyor of syrupy Canadian pop whose "Falling Into You," the best-selling record of 1996, won Grammys for both album of the year and best pop album. Last year, Ms. Morissette, the princess of post-adolescent feminist angst, took home four major Grammys for her debut wail, "Jagged Little Pill."

This summer's symbol of the sea change is Lilith Fair, an all-woman tour that has already earned the affectionate label Girlapalooza, an allusion to the testosterone-heavy Lollapalooza tour of the last few seasons. The two-month Lilith festival, which begins on Saturday in George, Wash., and comes to the Jones Beach Amphitheater in Wantagh, N.Y., on July 25, will feature a dozen prominent performers, among them Ms. Cole, the Cardigans, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tracy Chapman and Shawn Colvin. It was organized by Sarah McLachlan, a 29-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter whose music veers from painfully introspective to full-bore rock.

Not since the glory days of Motown in the late 60's have so many female voices been at the top of the pop charts, forcing onetime giants like R.E.M., U2 and Aerosmith to sag far below them.

Suddenly, it seems, there is a woman's voice for every demographic group. The "Beavis and Butt-head" crowd of 10-to-14-year-old boys, for example, can listen to the jiggling Spice Girls, a British import notable for their chirpy, bubble-gum sound.

Girls in the same age group have latched on to Meredith Brooks, 31. Her current hit, "Bitch," from her debut album, "Blurring the Edges," became popular not through MTV, a common route through which popular songs emerge today, but through pre-teen-age girls who turned the song into a playground anthem.

The umbrella of "women's music" is now large enough to cover LeAnn Rimes, the 14-year-old Patsy Cline clone whose aching ballad "Blue" has been in the top 10 album chart for almost a year, as well as the decidedly grown-up Cassandra Wilson, who took the 1996 Grammy for best jazz vocalist on the strength of her ethereal, critically praised album "New Moon Daughter." And it takes in Ms. Badu, whose album "Badzuim" suggests the arrival of the finest blues woman since Billie Holiday.

Such women are not, needless to say, seeking the audience of college fraternity boys now flocking to hear Ms. Stefani, 28, and her jacked-up garage band, No Doubt, whose album "Tragic Kingdom" has sold seven million copies.

Nor are they competing with the kitschy cotton candy of the Cardigans, a group fronted by Nina Persson, whose shrill, mopey "Lovefool" lay at the heart of last summer's MTV-style remake of "Romeo and Juliet."

Then there is the new crop of women who go by single names, among them Monica, whose song "For You I Will" was heard on the soundtrack of the movie "Space Jam" and has been in the top 10 for six months. Jewel, the 22-year-old Alaskan-born singer-songwriter with Bambi eyes, has reached triple-platinum status and the cover of Rolling Stone with the help of her bittersweet acoustic ode to co-dependence, "You Were Meant for Me."

Although the term women's music is attractive to record-company executives, it is universally despised by the women who produce it. They see it as a ghetto that evokes images of overearnest 1970's folkies trying to right society's wrongs through tedious, acoustic songs.

"It's kind of insulting, because most of us see ourselves as musicians, not women musicians," said Mary Chapin Carpenter, who will perform at Lilith Fair.

"It also bugs me because 'women's music' suggests singers who hate men," added Ms. Carpenter, a 37-year-old Washingtonian best known for her urbane, country-tinged songs about loves lost and found. "The last thing I wanted to be associated with is a festival that is perceived as man bashing. I joined up when I realized that Lilith isn't about that, but about providing an antidote to that whole Lollapalooza testosterone scene."

Still, it's hardly news that women view the record business as an exclusive, impenetrable boys' club. " 'You're crazy, nuts and out of your mind if you want to have Paula Cole open for you,' " Ms. McLachlan recalls one music promoter barking at her when she was putting together her own tour last year. " 'Who taught you the music business? Don't you know you can never have two women on the same bill, that nobody wants to pay to see that?' "

Ms. McLachlan prevailed, but the incident was central to her decision to organize Lilith. "Radio promoters are the same way," said Ms. McLachlan. "They say, 'We can't add your song to our playlist, because we just added Tori Amos last week.' "

And the fastest, easiest way for a woman to climb the charts is still by being part of a man-made, prefabricated confection like the Spice Girls. It's an approach whose roots run deep: 20 years ago the girl band known as the Runaways produced an album whose cover image made clear that its members were of jailbait ages.

Yet there is hope even for women who choose to submit to the whims of a Svengali like Phil Spector, who managed the careers of many early girl groups. Joan Jett eventually broke away from the Runaways and forged a memorable career in the 80's and early 90's that has made her something of a godmother to several waves of female musicians with loud guitars and idealistic dreams. One of Ms. Jett's biggest fans is Susan James, 25, a heavily courted Los Angeles singer-songwriter on the cusp of success.

On a Saturday night in April inside Largo, the West Hollywood club renowned as a petri dish for next big things, the atmosphere before one of Ms. James's concerts is upbeat and expectant. The small room is packed with glad-handing talent scouts.

That Largo is the place to be is confirmed by the presence of the actor and director Ben Stiller, the avatar of Hollywood hip. Also present is Rodney Bingenheimer, a disk jockey at the Los Angeles Top 40 radio station KROQ. Mr. Bingenheimer has been front and center for seemingly every rock happening since hippies rampaged up Sunset Boulevard in the great music riots of the late 60's. Most recently he championed the music of the rocker Ani DiFranco.

"Susan James is among the best of the new breed of women musicians who are going to set the industry on its ear," Mr. Bingenheimer says.

"I was the first one to play Susan on the radio in Los Angeles because I think she's the new Ani DiFranco, the latest talented woman who has told the major labels to take a hike because she doesn't want to be a fad; she wants a career."

Indeed. Ms. James, who runs her own record label, Major Label Records, out of her one-room apartment in the San Fernando Valley, ignores the music-business types working the room before her show, a one-night engagement, to schmooze with friends who have come to see her perform.

During the show, Ms. James, a master of the electric guitar who studied opera and musicology at the University of California at Los Angeles, rips through material from her critically praised 1996 album "Shocking Pink Banana Seat" and also performs some new tunes. With blond locks flying, she lurches between the experimental vocal stylings of Sinead O'Connor and the funky showmanship of P. J. Harvey.

Working as a secretary during the day to pay the bills, she has already opened for such disparate performers as the Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, the avant-garde bassist Rob Wasserman and Lindsay Buckingham, formerly of Fleetwood Mac.

She says she is happy to take her time and remain the boss of her career.

"The same people who are so desperate to sign me to a record label deal right now as a 'woman musician' are the same ones who'd cut me loose in a second if my first album for them didn't sell a million copies," she said after her show. "I'd rather keep selling my records out of the trunk of my car and keep developing as an artist so that when I do make my move nobody can turn me into something that disappears when the next flavor-of-the-month comes along.

"I don't want to be a trend. I want to play rock-and-roll."

Neal Karlen is the author of "Babes in Toyland: The Making and Selling of a Rock-and-Roll Band."

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