Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Girl With The Most Cake

In this article, I’m attempting to tackle a very difficult topic – the greatest female musicians in the rock and roll era. This is difficult for several reasons. For one, it is an extremely subjective topic. Secondly, it is a topic which has been done numerous times before by a number of other critics, surveys, magazines, etc. Thirdly, it is difficult to rate these women simply for being women – meaning, how do you take into account the male musicians in the same categories? Are we allowed to compare these women against men in the same genre, or is only a ranking of women against each other? Fourthly, these women all come from many genres of music, and therefore, in many ways, you are comparing apples and oranges, with the only constant being gender. Finally, the word “musician” itself is subject to debate; what is considered to be a musician to one may not be to another.

So let’s start there – what is a musician? In rock and roll, I believe the term to be comprised of two qualities: that of songwriting, and that of performance. By songwriting, what I mean is not only the ability to write meaningful lyrics, but also the idea of knowledge of music theory; being able to construct melodies and harmonies, rhythm patterns, combining lyrics with music, etc. By performance, quite simply I am referring to the ability to play a musical instrument – to perform the work. To be called a musician does not necessitate being skillful in both categories, but in the hierarchy of musicians, one who is highly skilled in both will almost certainly rank above one who is only highly skilled in one.

Another tricky aspect to the definition of music, especially relevant when discussing females, is that of what the voice is in the pantheon of instruments and music. I used to believe that being a great singer with a great voice was not as impressive as being equally good at another instrument. My reasoning behind this was that I felt like voice was something that is trained, while another instrument, say the violin, is something that is both trained and learned. To say it another way, we are all born with the ability to sing, but none are born able to play the violin. However, the deeper I get in music, the more I respect the ability to control your voice and the amount of effort it takes to be a truly great singer. Yes, we are all born able to sing, but only some are born truly able to sing. So for the purposes of this article here, let’s agree to call the voice another instrument: being able to play the violin is the same as being able to sing.

What we must then consider, is that one who is a singer is not exactly the same as one who sings and plays guitar (or piano, or whatever). Meaning that a singer plays one instrument but singer/guitarists play two, which, to me, generally constitutes a higher ranking in the “musician” category.

The next issue to resolve is that of ranking these women for simply being women, in other words ranking against each other not against music at large. In sports, it’s an easier argument to say “The greatest female tennis players”, because for the most part women’s tennis and men’s tennis are drastically different – comparing Steffi Graf to Bjorn Borg is a wasted effort. However, in music, the same is not true. Why can’t a woman be as good on guitar as a man? Why can’t a female be a better songwriter than a man? Yes, comparing singers is tough, because the registers females sing in is different than that of males, but outside of that, there is no reason, short of “opportunity” and “societal pressures” that a female should not be able to be compared with a male. When thinking about these females, then, I take into account how they stack up against music at large, first artists in their genres but then also their relative context in rock and roll.

So why is this list any different than those published by other sources, say VH1’s list? In my experience, those lists have generally distorted the value of the voice and also added to the mix the ability to entertain as an artist as well as general cultural impact (plus album sales) – so someone like Madonna gets a lot more respect as a monumental female in music than I would give her. My list is not called “the greatest women in rock”; rather, it is “the greatest women musicians in rock”. Big difference.

Finally, how do I reconcile differences in genres? Well, it comes down to the definition of musician for me. Musicians are musicians, regardless of the genre. Can you write songs? Can you play instruments? As long as I look at it that way, I don’t believe we’re talking about apples and oranges any more – I think we’ve leveled the playing field.

Before I reveal the final list, I found it helpful to construct of list of the pool of people to choose from by category. I realize that there are women who could belong to a few categories at once, and that definitely factored into the final list. Nevertheless, here are the categories:

The singers:
May not have written the songs, and may not be able to play another instrument, but their voices are some of the best in the business, male or female.

The songwriters:
These are women who were/are incredibly skilled at creating songs. Many of these women are known as folk singers and come up in the same sentence as Bob Dylan. Their melodies are unforgettable (“Big Yellow Taxi”, for example) and the structures of the songs themselves are simple and beautiful. These are the songs that everyone else sings.

The rockers:
These are women who ooze rock and roll. They may not be the best singers or songwriters, but the influence they’ve had on rock and roll, regardless of the genre, is undeniable. Generally speaking, the women in the list do play multiple instruments and write their songs, but the women who ranked highest also had an enormous impact on music in general.

The innovative:
Women who are trained in a variety of genres, and are able to act as pioneers or leaders in new and avant garde genres. Generally, these women do play multiple instruments and sing, but their largest impact often comes from, for lack of better descriptors, the “unclassifiable”.

The instrumentalists:
Outside of voice, there are many women who are great at their instruments. This was one of the more difficult categories, because I have a lot of trouble distinguishing these musicians from men in the same category. Meaning, if you play guitar, are you as accomplished as Jimi or Stevie? I’m just not going to say you’re a great guitarist simply because you are a woman, or better than other women. You need to be great compared to all guitarists. Unfortunately, this list is therefore pretty short…

The greats, by category:
1. The singers: Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner,
2. The songwriters: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Sinead O’Connor, Tori Amos
3. The rockers: Janis Joplin, Joan Jett, PJ Harvey, Debbie Harry
4. The innovative: Bjork, Kate Bush
5. The instrumentalists: MeShell Ndgeocello, Bonnie Raitt

What’s there left to say short of revealing the final list? Without further adieu:

The Greatest Female Musicians In The Rock and Roll Era:
1. Carole King: Tapestry is an album everyone should own. This album proves her songwriting, piano, and singing abilities without a doubt. What makes Carole so special, and number 1 on the list, is that she wrote so many of the songs that were made famous by others on this list (as well as the Beatles themselves!). She is one of the best songwriters in all of music, and put on top of that a great voice and the ability to play the piano…
2. Aretha Franklin: The greatest female voice in rock and roll. The greatest voice in rock and roll. Arguably the greatest voice in all of music. In the same league as Jessye Norman, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday without a doubt.
3. Bjork: punk, jazz, soundtracks, electronica, classical, a cappella, experimental, she’s done it all. Don’t get caught up in dismissing her because she wore a swan dress once. Bjork is one of the most inventive and brilliant minds in all of music.
4. Janis Joplin: the reigning queen of rock and roll. Raw rock and roll. There has not been a woman since her that has been able to capture her soul and power, though part of her value is that so many constantly try. To be a woman in rock and roll means that you are going to get compared to Janis.
5. Tina Turner: Tina was a symbol of female power and sexuality in music in her prime (and even still today). Oh, and she could sing, too.
6. Joni Mitchell: another great songwriter, and arguably the greatest of the acoustic guitar-driven folk singers in the 60s and onwards.
7. PJ Harvey: underappreciated female in alternative rock. I consider her to be the most talented of all the female alternative rockers, in that she was a pioneer, a singer, a songwriter, and an instrumentalist all at once.
8. Debbie Harry: Debbie’s appearance on this list is similar to Tina, in that Debbie brought such power and sexuality to pop and rock music with Blondie.
9. Tori Amos: it’s a bit of a shame that Tori seems to have been relegated to the “adult contemporary” genre, but her first 3-4 albums proved how much talent she has as a songwriter, singer, and pianist. Her songs, especially those on Little Earthquakes are so complex in their forms and yet powerful and delicate at the same time.
10. MeShell Ndgeocello: I have to put at least one of the “instrumentalists” on this list. In a world dominated by the likes of Victor, Flea, Stanley, Larry, and others (you bassists know who I mean), MeShell has gained a great deal of respect as one of the great bassists out there.

Well, there we have it. As with any list, I’m sure there is a great deal to debate about here and I’m sure many disagree with my choices, but hopefully we can all at least agree that the women listed above are amazing musicians and deserve a special place in the world of rock and roll…