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Rock chicks have a tough time finding their place in the industry



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Remember when Gwen Stefani was "Just a Girl"?

Oh, the irony.

For most of the `90s, Stefani hit the stage with No Doubt in baggy pants, mismatched shirts, hair in a ponytail and fist raised. Sure, No Doubt was a pop-rock act, but Stefani was a rock chick, fearless and feisty as she sweated on stage beside the boys, especially when delivering the band's hit anthem of tomboy rebellion.

"I'm just a girl/That's all you'll let me be. ... Oh, I've had it up to here!" Stefani sang.

Fast-forward a decade. Stefani's image has grown increasingly more glamorous, particularly with the release of her 2004 solo debut, "Love. Angel. Music. Baby." No longer protesting being typecast as "Just a Girl," Stefani launched a successful, kitschy-femme fashion line and surrounded herself with an ultra-girly gaggle of "Harajuku Girls," styled after the Japanese pop micro-culture.

In her live show, Stefani is surrounded by glitzy props and back-up dancers. She has several costume changes.

And not one of the outfits, according to reviews from earlier in the tour, involves baggy pants or a devil-may-care ponytail.

Is Gwen just letting her girly-flag fly? Or has she decided to conform to one of the most prevalent beliefs of major record labels - you have to act like "just a girl" to sell albums and concert tickets.

"It's amazing to me that this fight is still going on," said Carla DiSantis, editor and founder of the magazine ROCKRGRL.

"My coming of age was in the early `80s, when we had the Go-Gos, The Bangles, The Motels, The Pretenders, Blondie, Heart. Now I see a lot of (women) singers, and that's fine, but I really lament the lack of women players," DiSantis said.

Rock chicks, whether playing their own instruments or leading a band with the same commanding presence as, say, Deborah Harry, are an endangered species in music today.

Commercially successful women tend to be drop-dead gorgeous R&B singers such as Beyonce or highly-packaged, formulaic pop peddlers such as Ashlee Simpson.

"It's as if the visuals are more important than the music, and that's even more true for female artists," said Alaria Taylor, an independent artist who hosts Milwaukee's regular "Chick Singer Night" showcases.

Taylor added that talent often takes a backseat in deciding commercial success in music: "Now, it's No. 1, appearance, No. 2, name recognition, if you're on a TV show, or if your sister is on a TV show."

Country fans may hold up Gretchen Wilson as an example of a rock chick at heart. But consider this: Wilson's sophomore album, "All Jacked Up," released to considerable buzz in September, has already fallen behind the debut from The Pussycat Dolls, which came out earlier that month.

Yes, a bunch of scantily clad, openly lip-synching burlesque dancers have greater staying power than a rootin' tootin' "Redneck Woman" in today's music climate. Recent albums from Sheryl Crow and Fiona Apple have done similar slides on the charts.

Ten years ago, the musical climate was different. Artists such Alanis Morissette, Sarah McLachlan and others enjoyed the spotlight and platinum sales.

Whether rolling out hit after hit from a single album, as Morissette did with the landmark "Jagged Little Pill," or filling amphitheaters during the Lilith Fair tour, women proved they were as talented - and as marketable - as the guys.

So what happened?

Two trends are coinciding: the natural cycles of pop music and consolidation within the music industry.

Generally speaking, pop music reinvents itself every half-decade or so. For male musicians, for example, the glitz and hedonism of late 80s hair metal gave way to the gloomier, less extroverted era of grunge which, in turn, was eclipsed by the assault of rap-metal as the90s closed.

In similar fashion, uber-rock chicks such as The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde and girl groups of the 80s waned in popularity as the strong female singer-songwriter - the prototypical Lilith Fair act - rose to prominence, only to be overtaken by the fluffy teen tart craze starting in the late90s.

The best years sales-wise in the history of the music industry happened to coincide with the peak years of the teen craze, largely because the music was embraced by the relatively affluent, demographically huge Generation Y.

As the new millennium began, however, a number of factors sent the music industry into a tailspin.

DVDs and video games started taking bigger chunks of the average American's entertainment dollars.

As Generation Y started entering college, its tastes began to diversify rapidly, and it could no longer be counted on as a single buying bloc.

Now, downloadable songs - legal or not - and the resulting customized playlist mentality are fast making conventional albums obsolete.

In a panic, major record labels slashed staff, reined in spending, dumped acts that didn't sell and merged with each other.

That's meant less money and resources to promote fewer acts. The end result? Much less risk-taking by the labels and little support for women who break the conventional commercial mold.

"In order to get on the top 20 on Billboard, the label has to get behind you. You have to be a known quantity," said Taylor.

Labels go with known quantities - acts with name recognition - and then devote all their resources to promoting the album for a big opening week. Thanks to this strategy, we live in a world where Ashlee Simpson's "I Am Me" ends up at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and a fun, energetic act that happens to be all women, such as The Donnas, labors below the radar of big-time commercial success.

The Donnas themselves stand out as one of the few all-woman groups to be making a living from their music.

"I wish there were more bands out there like The Donnas. You're not seeing a lot of women playing instruments, besides (White Stripes' drummer) Meg White," noted DiSantis, a musician herself.

DiSantis believes the lack of women musicians in the public eye is only feeding the industrywide problem - she noted that a friend who runs a music school has had the number of female drummer students "skyrocket" since The White Stripes become popular.

"If you don't see any role models, you don't know they're out there. If all you see are `American Idol' and glorified karaoke, that's all you know," DiSantis explained.

Just as damaging as the absence of successful female role models, said DiSantis, is the attitude advertisers take in magazines for musicians, such as Guitar World. With the exception of the occasional Bonnie Raitt product endorsement, the women in ads tend to be in bikinis, draped over amps with a "come hither and rock me" expression.

"It's like there's a message, `It's our treehouse, stay out,'" DiSantis said of the advertisements.

Even male artists who are weathering today's harsh musical climate acknowledge their female peers have a tougher climb up the ladder of success.

"There are amazing women musicians out there," said Jason Mraz, whose quirky pop-rock songs have landed him in Billboard's top 10 album list twice.

Added Mraz: "But the industry signs acts based on marketing. It's definitely a loop. There aren't women out there doing well, because they haven't been signed, so industry doesn't sign any more, figuring they won't do well."

Both ROCKRGRL DiSantis and Milwaukee's Chick Singer Night host Taylor have hope that women who rock will again be heard - eventually.

Taylor sees the Internet as a huge and positive force, particularly with the advent of legal, user-friendly download services. She pointed to several sites that spotlight unsigned artists, including women, right beside major artists.

"With things like iTunes, power is falling into the public's lap and (record) companies aren't getting to make the decisions on what music we hear," said Taylor.

Popular Web destinations such as MySpace.com also allow musicians to reach fans and network with other acts around the world, effectively cutting out the middleman - in this case, the mortally wounded major label oligarchy.

DiSantis agreed.

"The major label system is broken, but I'm not crying. It couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of people," she quipped.

DiSantis, who just wrapped up the 2005 ROCKRGRL music conference in Seattle, believes publicly discussing the lack of female musicians in the spotlight is integral to solving the problem.

"Societal norms can change. When I was growing up, girls didn't play soccer. There weren't car seats, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving," DiSantis noted.

But Taylor cautioned that fame will never be a sure thing for any artist, dude, rock chick or "just a girl."

Said Taylor: "Unfortunately, music is not like sports. Whoever races the fastest doesn't always win. There is no objective way to reward the most talented."

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WHERE TO FIND THE ROCKIN' KIND

Looking for women who rock?

You won't find them on Billboard's top 10, MTV or commercial radio playlists. You can, however, find them online, on stage and even on the air:

Chick Singer Night: The showcase for local talent got its start 17 years ago in Chicago by Milwaukee native Lori Maier, and has since expanded to nine cities.

(C) 2005 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.. All Rights Reserved

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