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Gold Dust Women: Stevie Nicks, Jenny Lewis, the Things That Have Changed, and the Things That Haven't 

Tuesday, Dec 9 2014

It's hardly a revelation to state that the music industry, with a few exceptions, has very little place for women over a certain age. In a youth-obsessed culture, we love ingenues. To break onto the national stage in music as a lady in America, you should try to be 24, though 19 is better if you can help it. Turning 30 and 35 can be okay, but starting around then you should be prepared to tell a story about a journey: about how you overcame an addiction, about your kids, about your lack of kids, about your marriage and divorce, about your diet and exercise regimen. By 50 you should be writing a memoir about what you've learned, and get used to being trotted out at awards shows for crowds that include at least a few people who only know your name because Taylor Swift said you were an influence.

This isn't, of course, to say that male musicians aren't treated differently as their hair starts to turn gray. But the deciding line at which point male rock stars stop being icons and become guilty punchlines is much, much blurrier. "Eh, I'd still do him," is not that funny of a thing to say about Mick Jagger, 71, or David Bowie, 67. How does it change when you sub in Debbie Harry, 69? Ronnie Spector, also 71? There's a tendency, when it comes to working female musicians over a certain age, to treat their very survival as miraculous. This makes sense in a way, because we intuitively understand the industry pretty much eats young women for breakfast. But what we're saying, really, when we express (even congratulatory) surprise at an older woman still participating in the music market is something akin to "Look at that: She had the audacity to keep existing once people stopped wanting to sleep with her!"

These were the things running through my mind last week at Oracle Arena, as a fully reunited Fleetwood Mac took the stage and the crowd roared to life. Stevie Nicks, 66, blond hair nearly down to her butt, in an all-black hippie-goddess-mama outfit that can only be described as "Stevie Nicksian," is nothing if not an icon. She's the ultimate, tragic California dream girl — she met bandmate and former beau Lindsey Buckingham during her senior year when he was singing "California Dreamin" at a party, for Christ's sake. And then she turned bad, at one point tearing a third hole in her nose from cocaine use. There were the tumultuous relationships with, well, two-thirds of the men in her band. And then the feat of kicking the benzos she was put on to help keep her off the coke.

But she got through it all. Hers is a survivor's tale, and those are the kind we want from our older women. It's the end of the acceptable arc: Start out as an ingenue, sin, repent, accept the role of the wise matriarch. Say what you will about Madonna, but I posit that, at 56, her refusal to ever seem matronly or even motherly (despite the fact that, unlike Nicks, she actually has children) is, subconsciously at least, behind most finger-wagging about her. She wants people to look at her as a sex symbol til she drops, and Lord knows only Mick Jagger can get away with that.

There are variations on this, of course. Courtney Love (whose seething cover of Nicks' "Gold Dust Woman" is a force to be reckoned with) has stayed relevant through sheer force of will plus exhibitionism plus a YouTube series; she also just announced a tour with the younger, shinier, and more confusing exhibitionist Lana Del Rey.

Sadly, tellingly, these are also the things that come to mind when reading interviews with or accolades for Jenny Lewis, who will be bringing her fiery-haired 38-year-old self to the Masonic next Sunday for a show with Ryan Adams. Like Nicks, Lewis is a California dream girl archetype, having grown up in the San Fernando Valley with professional entertainers for parents; she was a child TV and film star before she took to music. Like Nicks, Lewis rose to fame in a band (Rilo Kiley) in which she played with her boyfriend (Blake Sennett). Like Nicks, Lewis has written and spoken compellingly about her complicated relationship with her father, a theme critics always enjoy teasing out of her little-girl-lost narrative. And, like Nicks, Lewis has served as a sex symbol for a particular kind of guy — the ever-present alterna-crush for a certain type of indie dude, one who just happens to always go for the "troubled" girls.

Jenny Lewis is also close to 40.

This should not matter. This should not sound like an approaching storm cloud. But on the cusp of 40, singing about how she's "just another lady without a baby," as she does in "Just One of the Guys," off her latest, widely acclaimed album The Voyager, one can't help but hear strains of Nicks, who once said in an interview, "My mission maybe wasn't to be a mom and a wife; maybe my particular mission was to write songs to make moms and wives feel better."

Lewis may be following a similar trajectory. The record, Lewis's third solo effort and an album four years in the making, is plainly influenced by the sun-bleached West Coast melodies of the '70s, a sound which owes its life in part to Nicks and her band. Probably not incidentally, it's also about big changes in Lewis life: the breakup of Rilo Kiley, the death of her father. There are fears about aging woven into her words — several reviews have referred to it as a "coming of age" album — but she's still too much of a darling for them to land with much weight. They're dressed up in slick, tailored, rainbow-colored suits; they're combed perfectly into her auburn bangs.

The Voyager also might contain Lewis' strongest songwriting yet, but it's so inextricably tied to her personal life that most reviews can't help but fall back on receiving it as a straight journal entry, a clear, open, confessional window onto her actual life — which is, of course, a mistake, but it's an occupational hazard for all confessional songwriters. It is notable that this is coming at a time when, not unlike the awkward transition so many child stars go through as they take on more adult roles, Lewis is soon going to have to attempt to age into a version of herself that gets taken seriously regardless of whether or not she's a sex object. Does she have a sin-redemption arc to sell? What else can she offer? What else is the market willing to buy? We'll be waiting, fingers crossed, to find out.

In the meantime, she's a hell of a performer, her record is a great listen, and the show this Sunday should be excellent. And besides, for now, as one of my guy friends in his mid-20s declared when The Voyager was released, after we had spent maybe 30 seconds discussing its technical merits: "I'd definitely still do her."

About The Author

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is SF Weekly's former Music Editor.

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