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On the Arts: They are chicks, hear them roar as a musical influence

Sunday, January 02, 2000

By Tracy Collins

For all of the legions of ladies who paraded through the lineup during Lilith Fair's three-year run, there were three notable absences: Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith.


Tracy Collins, the Post-Gazette's assistant managing editor/news, writes the Game Daze column in Friday's Weekend section and regularly reviews new recordings.


It would have been fitting for those three to have graced the stage, for they helped plant the seeds for the biggest music story of the '90s, one that culminated in Lilith Fair. It was a development bigger than grunge, bigger than techno, bigger than Latin. It was the rise of chick rock, to such dominance that women were six of the eight biggest-selling acts of the decade. More importantly, beyond the top of the charts -- away from the commercialism -- much of the best music was being made by women, in numbers and quality never before seen in the male-dominated music business.

And the influences of Bush, Mitchell and Smith are all over the sound of women in the '90s. Lilith Fair's founder, Sarah McLachlan, often pokes fun at her early records as a time when she was "listening to too much Kate Bush." But her refinement of that sound, along with the noted songwriting influence of Mitchell, led her to write "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" in late 1993. And without that record, you could make a good argument that Lilith Fair never would have happened, because McLachlan wouldn't have had the clout to pull it off.

"Fumbling" was released just before grunge started to bottom out. In the spring of '94, grunge god Kurt Cobain killed himself. Over the next two years, other grunge front-runners like Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, Blind Melon and Alice in Chains would all be troubled or ruined by drug problems, and the superband of grunge, Pearl Jam, was waylaid by a quixotic battle against Ticketmaster.

So, in burst the women, led by Sheryl Crow and then Alanis Morissette.

It's not as if they were there by default, either. There was such a depth of talent across all genres that the lines of those genres began to blur. What became most important was the music and the women delivering it.

To be certain, the '90s were like other decades in producing big-name acts. Where there once was a Donna Summer, we had Whitney Houston. Where there once were Streisand, Tina Turner and Cher, there were Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and -- 24 years between No. 1 songs -- Cher. Where there once was Debbie Boone, there was Britney Spears. Where there once was Paula Abdul, there was Jennifer Lopez. Where there once was Olivia Newton-John, there was Jewel. Where there once were the Go-Gos, there were the Spice Girls.

But in decades past, once you got past the top names, there were very few women acts producing music that would qualify as more than "flavor of the month." It's been a different story in the '90s.

And what were this generation's influences? They obviously weren't following the money. Linda Ronstadt was the highest-paid woman rocker of the '70s and Madonna ruled the '80s, but their artistic influence has been minimal. In a parallel universe -- making far less money and far fewer magazine covers -- Bush, Mitchell and Smith were making great, pioneering music and influencing a new generation.

Bush's imprint can be heard in the music of McLachlan, Tori Amos, Loreena McKennitt and Sinead O'Connor.

Mitchell's wonderful compositions influenced '90s artists like the Indigo Girls, Sheryl Crow, Shawn Colvin, Jonatha Brooke and Mary Chapin Carpenter. They all have distinguished themselves through their writing and musicianship, as well as their singing.

Smith, meanwhile, was the original riot grrrl. Many have tried to mark the rise of grrrl power to Liz Phair's 1993 disc, "Exile in Guyville," which in its own way broke new ground for sexual frankness for this generation of women, including Morissette. But Smith was making bikers blush when Phair was in Pampers, and her influence can be seen not only in Phair, but also in Courtney Love and Ani DiFranco, along with grrrl groups like L7 and Veruca Salt.

Beyond those obvious products of their foremothers were notable performers who helped define the sound of the decade, like Natalie Merchant, Patti Griffin, Sam Phillips, Paula Cole, Annie Lennox, Fiona Apple and Morissette. Alanis has sometimes polarized the sexes but has also managed to sell a whopping 27 million copies of her debut, "Jagged Little Pill," and another 7 million copies of her fine follow-up, "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie." She's done it with artistically sound work that has sometimes confounded critics but has won her legions of devotees.

We've also enjoyed influential rockers like Melissa Etheridge and girl-fronted rock bands like Garbage (Shirley Manson), the Cranberries (Dolores O'Riordan), the Cowboy Junkies (Margo Timmins) and Hole (Love); edgy Euro-dynamos like Paula Jean Harvey and Bjork; country crossovers like k.d. lang, Lucinda Williams, Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, Alison Krauss and the Dixie Chicks; and great R&B acts like Lauryn Hill, TLC, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, En Vogue and Erykah Badu, along with newcomers Macy Gray and Angie Stone.

Veterans Emmylou Harris, Janet Jackson and Bonnie Raitt were bigger than ever in the '90s, and even one-album wonders like Joan Osborne ("Relish") and Patti Scialfa ("Rumble Doll") revealed exceptional talent.

By both major yardsticks of musical success, the chicks ruled. Of the top 20-selling artists of the decade, 13 are women. Of the 36 Grammy Awards given in the top categories of Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Album of the Year and Best New Artists, 21 have gone to women. That dominance is likely to be guaranteed when the nominations for the best of 1999 are revealed on Tuesday.

The best testament to the lasting effect of the Chick Decade is that when women dominate those nominations, it won't be that big a deal. In fact, it's almost to be expected. For that, we thank their myriad influences -- Chrissie Hynde, Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, but especially Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith. Their career record sales would represent a bad year for Celine Dion, Mariah Carey or, heaven help us, even Britney Spears. But they've meant so much more.

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