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Wednesday, Jun 25 1997
I never thought I'd say anything like this, but I miss Courtney Love. The old Courtney, that is; the one who was always shouting and making a spectacle of herself, who dressed herself up in over-the-top, baby-doll caricatures of femininity. She was inescapable -- and yes, she was grating -- but she made people think.

The new Courtney, though no less ubiquitous, is tidied up and Versace-fied, and when she's photographed, it's less likely to be with one foot up on the vocal monitor, flashing the audience as she screams into a microphone, than to be turning a demure face to the Oscar-night paparazzi. With makeup, perky enhanced breasts, and a tasteful Hollywood hairdo, the Courtney who now declares herself the "Sharon Stone of rock" pretty much sums up a year in which woman-fronted bands and female solo artists are commanding the charts -- yet the one song that passes for a feminist anthem is No Doubt's "Just a Girl."

Female musicians didn't used to be considered entirely credible unless they employed some degree of boy-drag; but now, the media can't get enough of rock's girlie-girls. A recent article in Allure magazine, titled "Frock and Roll," gushed: "After heavy metal's spikes and studs and grunge's sloppy flannel, the latest chapter in rock (which hasn't found a name yet) is surprisingly feminine and fashion forward." No Doubt's Gwen Stefani was the subject of a recent feature that quoted her worrying over her diet, nails, and hair. The current issue of Details finds a writer practically panting over Jewel's near-commercial perfection: "If it weren't for her slightly crooked teeth, she might be romping around a J. Crew or Victoria's Secret catalog." The media seems pretty darn relieved that rock's most successful women conform to a fashion-magazine standard. Perhaps that's why the "rock glamour" of this year's crop of thriving and attractive female artists is being used to show that femininity is back "in" (as if it had ever really been out).

It's great that female musicians no longer feel that they have to dress down to be taken seriously, and there's absolutely no reason why any of these women should have to justify strapping on the Wonderbra. But the media's urge to compare female musicians based on looks and not on sounds is hardly surprising. (Who was the genius who compared Alanis Morissette to Fiona Apple?) Equally unsurprising is the media's compulsion to mark glamour as a musical trend. The Allure article, for its part, is explicit in defining what this glamour rock is all about. While emphasizing that "individuality is key," the piece nevertheless runs down a checklist of rock-girl dress dictates, like: "Dark kohl-rimmed eyes, pouty lips, and pale skin are musts." Predictably enough, the look is summed up as "rock's latest rebellion: girls dressed as girls."

This is where it gets really disturbing. Essentially, by using the term "rebellion," the Allure piece whitewashes counterinsurgency. This new rock glamour is just another means by which cultural fear of strong women is assuaged. The current situation of women in mainstream rock -- which is about as revolutionary as putting cheese food on Wonder bread -- is thus made to seem edgy; the emphasis on appearance a brand of radicalism. By inserting these women into fashion spreads, and casting their femininity as some sort of ultimate mutiny, the media applauds them -- not because they're talented, hard-working, or good role models for young girls, but because they aren't threatening the beauty standard. Each attractive new rock success story functions as another step away from the more challenging, subversive time a few years back when grittier chicks like Babes in Toyland and L7 worked the glossy-magazine circuit. It's as if the media now needs to rescind all that, and display appropriately feminine musicians in order to prove that, gee, maybe this whole women-in-rock thing isn't so scary after all. Furthermore, the makeover doesn't just apply to the up-and-comers. The Allure piece also cites Chrissie Hynde, Patti Smith, and Kim Gordon as shining examples of musicians who are able to negotiate the territory between the androgynous and the feminine. Hynde's miniskirt and Gordon's sandals are heartily applauded, as if the multifacetedness of the musician is really best exemplified by her choice of footwear.

These articles are ridiculous, sure, but still entirely discouraging. Explorations of Gwen Stefani's girlishness, Jewel's catalog-worthy beauty, and the fashion secrets of Garbage's Shirley Manson don't paint an optimistic picture of where women in rock are headed. If Courtney's makeover is any clue, the most successful women in music aren't going to question why their appearance continues to define and limit them. They're just going to spruce up their wardrobes and smile for the camera. And maybe see about instituting a Grammy for most glamorous rock star.

By Andi Zeisler

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Andi Zeisler


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