Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Put Another Dime In The Jukebox, Baby

GQ, that bastion of good taste and promoter of $150 handkerchiefs, has compiled for its lucky readers a list of the 25 Sexiest Women In Rock: a nine-page spread celebrating the feminine spirit in the unabashedly ball-filled world of rock and/or roll. Loosely historical, sort of chronological, definitely pictorial, the article highlights the "brashest, ballsiest, most beautiful women to ever step up to the mike."

Aw, man. Or woman, I guess. I know any time a men's magazine does a spread on women-in-rock, nobody's going to be 100% happy. On the plus side, it's a chance to celebrate some gold-standard performers, showcase some new voices, and indulge in nostalgia for boners and guitar solos of yesteryear. GQ's collection of kicks off in 1965 with Cher and wraps up in 2009 with Katy Perry, with broads like Carly Simon, Tina Turner, Chan Marshall and Lauryn Hill providing the meaty middle.

On the other hand, these kinds of articles often fetishize the women for being attractive without mentioning what that cost them. I'm no women's-libber type, but it's hard for me to take seriously articles that talk about Fiona Apple's prettiness in her video for "Criminal" but don't mention that she was an anorexic teenager. The article's authors gloss over Nico's 15-year addiction to heroin in favour of highlighting her Nazi-Germany and teen-model past. Marianne Faithful, presented in GQ's pages as a fashion idol, Jagger-blower and sexual goddess, actually released more than 20 albums. They mention Chan "Cat Power" Marshall's notorious meltdowns, but since she's now happily and healthily releasing critically acclaimed albums, she's safer than someone like Lauryn Hill, who's profile doesn't mention her more recent disappearance from the public eye. Hill's blurb instead, again, focuses on her looks and her "raw talent" in equal amounts.

I'm not naive enough to think that the music industry is all about talent: there's a reason record labels have marketing departments. But for each of the legitimately strong, ballsy women who are featured - Grace Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett - there's a face who's known more for her bedfellow, addictions, fashion sense or childhood than for her musical output. Women whose notoriety outshines their talent.

GQ, which has a vested interest in showcasing pretty girls of all ages and eras on their pages, because it's a men's magazine and men tend to like pretty girls, slips a few surprises into their list. Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon is featured, alongside a portrait that doesn't show her face. Cher shows up, reminding people that before she was a punchline, she was a powerhouse. Grace Jones, who is both sexy and terrifying, snarls at us from her photo. But so many of the women on these pages are seen as soft, delicate, damaged: Apple, Nico, Faithful, Michelle Phillips, Stevie Nicks.

It's interesting to note that most of these delicate little flowers are from the '60s and '70s. By the '80s and '90s, instrument-playing ladies are dominating the list. Women like Chrissie Hynde and the Bangles' Susanna Hoffs are showing up, playing their own instruments and sassing the fans with a new brand of self-aware sexuality. In the 2000s, MIA and redheaded powerhouses Neko Case and Jenny Lewis (both of whom have successfully navigated the leap from band member to solo artist) wouldn't be caught dead hanging off some rock-star stud's bedframe: they make it on their own terms.

I don't doubt that Nico and Francoise Hardy and their delicate, damaged brethren have far-reaching influence in the music world. I just wish GQ had talked about it. These dames are attractive, even the ones that claim not to be (Chrissie Hynde? Are you insane? Do you even own a mirror? If you aren't a babe, then I'm Quasimodo. Jesus. Not the point), and yes, they're sexy. But I would argue that their sexiness stems not from their looks - even though they're all babes - but from their ability to handle their instruments, their voices, and themselves in a world where a female bass player is noteworthy.

I realize also that this is sort of a matter of taste: some men, when weighing the merits of both sexy and musically talented, are going to prefer the wholesomeness of Linda Rhonstadt to the ferocity of Grace Jones. Some are going to prefer the loony sheen of Katy Perry to the deconstructedness textures of MIA. That's fine. But a female musician is still a musician, and ignoring her talent in favour of her looks or her tragic/notorious/titillating life story does her a major disservice. Talk about the soaring range, the commanding stage presence, the devoted fan base, the record-breaking sales, the critical rejection, the bold costumes, the underhanded management, the whatever story is relevant to the music.

Show me women who have taken their suffering, their objectification by men, their sexual damage, their addictions, eating disorders, psychotic fits, and other ravagements of their life stories, and turned that into powerful rock and roll. I will respect the hell out of them. That's commanding. That's sexy. That beats the hell out of a pair of icy blue eyes or being the object of Bob Dylan's lust any day of the week.

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