Copyright 1996 Telegraph Group Limited

The Daily Telegraph

April 18, 1996, Thursday


LENGTH: 949 words

HEADLINE: The Arts: The angry young women of rock They used to spout sensitive lyrics in sweet voices, says Neil McCormick, but today's female singer-songwriters are more likely to bellow abuse



AIMEE MANN and Alanis Morissette, two of the most impressive singer-songwriters in contemporary popular music, are currently touring in Britain. But don't go to their concerts if you are of a nervous disposition. Mann may look like an angel, but she has a mean streak as wide as her smile.

"I've been called waif-like. I don't know why because I feel I'm aggressive," she has said. "Someone saying f you in a higher voice seems to carry less impact, I guess." The contemptuous sarcasm that characterised her last album is aptly summed up by its vindictive title, I'm With Stupid. After listening to her acerbic collection of musical put-downs, you cannot help but feel some sympathy for Stupid, whatever sins he may have committed.

"You f--ed it up" is the opening line of the first song on the album, and "You're just a fing freak in this world" is the refrain of the last song - in between Mann doesn't exactly mince her words either.

Alanis Morissette employs a more exact usage of the Anglo-Saxon verb on her hit You Oughta Know. Directed at a lover who abandoned her for another, she spits out the line, "Are you thinking of me when you f her?", dwelling with spiteful relish on the profanity.

Elsewhere on her album, Jagged Little Pill, she rails with venom against Catholicism, sexism and the sheer injustice of life. Whatever happened to that elusive creature, the sensitive singer-songwriter? It used to be the one area in the rock pantheon where women truly excelled, pouring their hearts out over a delicately plucked acoustic guitar or perfectly tuned piano.

But somehow, it is hard to imagine Joan Armatrading or Janis Ian using the F-word without blushing. The early history of rock is littered with girl groups and pop chanteuses, but they existed in a masculine domain, largely catering to male fantasies. The favoured adjective used to describe upfront female singers like Tina Turner or the late Janis Joplin was "ballsy", insidiously underlining the dubious concept that rock and roll was not women's work.

Joni Mitchell's emergence in the late Sixties proved that testosterone was not a prerequisite for great songwriting. But while she broke the mould, she established another. The female songwriters who followed her appeared to exist in a rarefied stratum: burning incense, living with only a musical instrument for company, perhaps emerging occasionally to take a lover (if only to give them something to write about). A different set of adjectives were a p p l i e d : "whimsical", "emotional" and above all "sensitive".

The closest Carole King came to getting down and dirty on her 1971 album Tapestry (still the biggest-selling album by a female artist) was to allude metaphorically to the earth moving, and even then it was under her feet and not more intimate parts.

The worst you could accuse Carly Simon of was a case of mild sarcasm on You're So Vain. None of those artists would have required a parental-guidance sticker on the cover. The punk explosion of the late Seventies opened doors to women with sharper instincts.

Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde established beyond doubt that the electric guitar was not a gender-oriented instrument. The global success of Madonna in the Eighties further redefined the role of women in music.

Yet singer-songwriters such as Kate Bush, Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman and Tanita Tikaram still walked the same flower-bordered paths. "The pattern of introverted songwriter is hard for women to break out of," according to Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry. "The programming goes deep when you're told that you'll only be loved if you're nice and quiet, otherwise you're considered a fishwife or homosexual. Fortunately, the louder voice is getting stronger." Which is putting it mildly.

What was once a largely confessional genre has become increasingly confrontational, mirroring other developments in female rock. If you were to pick out the toughest people in rock today, the loud-mouthed, laddish boys of Britpop would barely get a look in next to the leading female contenders.

Sinead O'Connor's bold pronouncements on religion and politics have caused international controversy (although it sometimes appears she is unable to speak without first inserting her foot in her mouth). Courtney Love, the equally outspoken leader of Hole, is attending anger-management sessions after being convicted of assaulting another female musician.

And Icelandic fruitcake Bjork took a leaf out of Love's book in February, when she punched out a female TV reporter at Bangkok airport. This spirit of feminist rage appears to have finally encroached upon the delicate garden of feminine singer-songwriting.

When Tori Amos released Little Earthquakes in 1991, she may have sounded like another delicate waif, but there was nothing restrained about her lyrics. One track, Me and a Gun, explicitly detailed her experience of rape. "When I first heard Little Earthquakes," says Alanis Morissette, "I just bawled my eyes out. I felt like it was the first time I could relate to a woman on that level through her music and I was so grateful."

Other songwriters have responded to the same zeitgeist. No one could accuse Liz Phair, PJ Harvey or Heather Nova of being delicate flowers. The new breed of insensitive singer-songwriter may, however, be just another passing phase. "There is a part of me which is very bitter," Morissette admits. "I suppose You Oughta Know hardly paints the picture of a bohemian little girl, but that's more the reality. "I burn a candle last thing at night, breathe deeply and calmly and try not to be too stressed out. I guess my next record will just have to be about dandelions and flowers and lilies."