When I Come Back, I Want to Be Hot at 40

See how I used this title to make you read my post? Maybe it’s intriguing: it suggests that I’m dying, or that I’m going somewhere, or that being hot at 40 is an actual possibility. It’s the equivalent of using pop music to grab someone’s attention when they’re not interested in your (rock, country, soul) songs anymore.

Remember Liz Phair?

Remember how amazing she was for talking about sex in ways that were realistic, and reflected actual women’s experiences? Remember how awesome and raw her sound was, fuzzy distorted guitars that often almost drowned out her monotone vocals? It was angry, hard music, good for us girls growing up in the 90s.

Then, remember this?

I was thoroughly confused when this came out. I listened to it a lot in my apartment on the York U campus, and while I liked the song, I didn’t get why she of all people had recorded it. Then I figured it out: she was dangerously close to 40, still writing angry tunes that didn’t fit the current radio landscape, and who would listen to her now? Suburban moms her age who weren’t mad anymore? Girls in their 20s? So her record label forced her to work with a production team that had worked with Britney Spears, and came up with “Why Can’t I” and other poppy tunes on the record. Simple, right? That's the only explanation.

Do you know about Shelby Lynne?

I used to love Shelby Lynne. I still do. My introduction to her came via a mixtape someone made me that included a few of her songs. So I started buying albums. Her stuff is insane – but I’ll come back to that in a second – she was getting a lot of attention around the same time as “Why Can’t I” because I Am Shelby Lynne was being touted as “the best debut album” of the year, despite the fact that it was her SIXTH and released a decade after her actual debut. Then she released Love Shelby in 2001, again when she was (gasp) into her 30s and she’s all sexed up on the cover and in videos like “Killin’ Kind.”

I wonder how many people followed her after that. I sure did. I went bonkers for her Dusty Springfield covers album, being a closeted Springfield emulator myself. And then there was Revelation Road, released on her own label, which documented her and sister Allison Moorer’s turmoil following the shooting death of their mother. By their father, who then killed himself.

Sheryl Crow got in on this action. By 2002, she’d faced 40 with sun-kissed confidence, lounging on the beach with surfers and singing about summertime and dudes. “Soak Up The Sun” was an odd turn for her, again rooted in the language of pop rather than the hard rock she was known for. Sex it up, Sheryl, we assume her label told her; otherwise you may not sell any records in your advanced age.

Recently on the podcast “Switched on Pop,” hosts Nate Sloan and Chris Harding did the right thing and brought in the girl experts: Andi Zeisler (author of We Were Feminists Once), Robin James, and others, to talk about feminism and the language of pop. “Certain sounds become gendered,” says James, citing the “booty claps” of trap music. Sounds are not neutral but can be loaded with gendered connotations, they add. James calls the “strong voices” like Taylor Swift’s vocal melisma in “Shake it Off” the “lean-in style corporate post-feminism.” We’re used to hearing her more “girly” voice, with shaky uncertainty or limited decoration, in her country tunes. We are trained through repeated listening and the messages that accompany them, to think of women or men when we hear certain sounds.

That’s why, after a decade of hearing women like Crow and Phair make noisy, aggressive music, using sounds that aren’t “feminine,” along with cohorts like Michelle Shocked, Ani DiFranco, Sleater-Kinney, Suzanne Vega, and Victoria Williams through the 90s, we might not be pleased by their new pop turn. Check out this commentary on Phair, devoid of spellcheck, from Stereogum: "Phair’s also working on a studio album due out this fall. In an essay composed for the Exile reissue, Alan Light writes, 'Phair spoke for the uncertainties facing a new generation of women, struggling to find a balance between sexual confidence and romance, between independence and isolation… Exile in Guyville sat at the center of a culture in transition.' We agree, but it’s hard to say she’s done much speaking for or two anyone or anything since Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg. After that are more the half-naked photo years. With her vintage material on-stage and back in circulation, it’ll be curious to see which Phair shows up to record the new stuff." Add to that the unavoidable assumptions we draw from visual cues like tight or cleavage-baring clothing, fresh tans, and bleached hair; all we can think is these women are far from the self-possessed rock icons we believed them to be – they are only puppets of the pop industry.

Well, fuck that. I actually like “Shake It Off” way more than Swift’s other material. It’s a good song. I learned all the words to “Why Can’t I” and sang along constantly when it came out, which is more than I can say for Phair’s prior material. I wrote a paper on Crow’s C’mon C’mon album and presented it at the graduate colloquium in 2004. This is good shit. And it hardly affected the way I thought about these women, because guess what – I’m going to say something so groundbreaking, are you ready? – they’re not one-dimensional. 

Presumably, these real women do things like crave relationships and closeness, they get mad about music industry misogyny, they wish their husbands looked at them the way they did ten years ago, they lead pro-choice campaigns, they drink too much whiskey every Friday night, they argue with their friends on the merits of the "because she's a woman" argument for Hillary Clinton, they enjoy wearing makeup and heels sometimes, but not always (the “feminists can’t be pretty” argument is not worth any space anymore), and – guess what – they can change their musical taste. And style. Why did I even have to write that paragraph?

So what if their new style includes a smoother voice, a higher register, more melisma, fewer crunchy guitars? Is it any less important? Especially when it sits among all of their other material?

I present to you: The Dixie Chicks.

I cry pretty much every time I see the Chicks perform, even if only on screen. This article finally explained why. When I was 20, they were saying everything about independence, freedom, escape, love, friendship, and social justice that I was feeling. That only magnified as they navigated their post-Home backlash. There is at once nothing and everything pretty in their music. They’re mad and funny at the same time. They never back down, even when using the sweetest sounds. “But that's the thing,” says Powers. “In 2016, and in fact perhaps always, the spirit of the Magic Mike movies — of women claiming pleasure and personal power — is arguably more key to the significance of the Dixie Chicks than the spirit of Nashville tradition. Onstage Wednesday evening, the trio expanded upon the idea of the ultimate girls' night out, deepening its meanings by connecting this sense of female joy with purposefulness and social justice.” 

So the next time you malign a woman singer for “going pop,” let it go. Maybe she just felt like it.