HEAR THEM ROAR

It’s a tough gig for age­ing fe­male stars. So let us salute those women of a cer­tain rage, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Essay -

It some­times feels as though there isn’t much of a home in pop mu­sic for the older woman — ei­ther as per­former or lis­tener. The essence of rock is youth­ful re­bel­lion, and a mas­cu­line ver­sion of re­bel­lion at that. The role of rock chick is avail­able for a few years, but a ma­ture woman has long been the ul­ti­mate scary en­emy.

In my early child­hood the light­est mu­sic was rel­e­gated to BBC ra­dio’s Housewives’ Choice pro­gram, and a few years later Lon­don’s Cap­i­tal Ra­dio snig­ger­ingly called its rock show Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It.

I got the point, and when I was young it didn’t bother me much. My con­ser­va­tive mum did in­deed seem to have square mu­si­cal tastes, and I never thought to look ahead and won­der what would be­come of me as I aged and — God for­bid! — dared to be­come a house­wife, or a mother. Thank­fully now I’m here, times have changed, although mu­sic mag­a­zines Mojo, Q and NME are still stocked in the men’s sec­tion. And the mu­sic that’s ad­ver­tised as the ideal Mother’s Day gift doesn’t speak to me any more than it ever did. But there’s no doubt that things are get­ting bet­ter. If I look to the gen­er­a­tions above me, the still suc­cess­ful men form a long list — Leonard Co­hen, Bob Dy­lan, Neil Young, Robert Plant, Paul McCart­ney, Spring­steen, the Stones et al.

Joni Mitchell, Ste­vie Nicks and Mar­i­anne Faith­full have to do a lot of flag­bear­ing for women, and still aren’t ac­corded the same re­spect. As Linda Grant wrote in a piece for The Guardian about be­ing a Joni fan: “What she al­ways lacked ... was the ob­ses­sive­ness of the male fan­base: the Dead­heads and Dylanologists who cat­a­logue and com­pete for record-col­lec­tion ku­dos ... Where are the 1000-page vol­umes of mu­si­cal Joni­trivia, the con­fer­ences, the PhD dis­ser­ta­tions?”

My age group is bet­ter rep­re­sented. But while many of us cite the Bri­tish punk and post­punk era as be­ing rich and in­clu­sive, few of its fe­male per­form­ers have en­joyed con­tin­u­ing promi­nence. Along with the sad losses of Poly Styrene and Ari Up, oth­ers I loved have re­treated or faded — Alison Stat­ton, Pauline Mur­ray, Lesley Woods, El­iz­a­beth Fraser — leav­ing a hand­ful of sur­vivors such as Neneh Cherry, Chrissie Hynde and Alison Moyet, and, from the equiv­a­lent US scene, the likes of Kim Gor­don and Kristin Hersh.

Maybe it’s partly our own fault. For var­i­ous per­sonal rea­sons we’ve re­tired and left the field to the men. But when I do make mu­sic now, I at least at­tempt to be the age I am and write truth­fully about it: in a song like Hor­mones, for in­stance, talk­ing about be­ing a menopausal mother of men­strual teenagers. I look to Patti Smith and Kate Bush with ad­mi­ra­tion for re­claim­ing the tem­plate of rock for the older woman, the mother, re­luc­tant per­former.

Four years older than me, Madonna must be menopausal, but has cho­sen the route of eter­nal youth­ful­ness to sus­tain her ca­reer. I re­spect that spirit of de­fi­ance — no woman has a duty to be a role model — but still, I’d love to hear her sing, or even talk, about hot flushes or a dancer’s fear of bone thin­ning. How could she? Look at the shit she got af­ter a mi­nor mishap in a dance rou­tine be­yond the fit­ness level of most 30-year-olds.

Out­side rock mu­sic it has al­ways been eas­ier to age and be re­spected — gen­res that weren’t youth cults to begin with are more for­giv­ing. Nina Si­mone was still putting a spell on Nick Cave at the age of 66 when she per­formed at his Melt­down gig. The Cape Verdean singer Ce­saria Evora didn’t begin to achieve in­ter­na­tional suc­cess un­til she was in her late 40s, while Blos­som Dearie was still play­ing New York night­clubs in her 80s.

So, to cheer my­self up, I lis­ten to Elaine Stritch singing The Ladies Who Lunch and Peggy Seeger’s lat­est al­bum, recorded aged 79, and then I go to see Imelda Staunton — prac­ti­cally a teenager at 59 — per­form with en­ergy in Gypsy, a show about thwarted am­bi­tion and twisted moth­er­hood, and I think, “You know what? Th­ese women f..king rock.”

Clock­wise from top left, Mar­i­anne Faith­full, Ste­vie Nicks,

Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell

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