Beauty and the Beat

Nikka Costa has a big, funky voice and a great butt. Which will you notice first?

Oscar-nominated Alfre Woodard chooses to call herself an actor rather than an actress, because "actresses worry about eyelashes and cellulite, and women who are actors worry about the characters we are playing." Adapting that comparison for a discussion of female musicians, let's say that a pop diva is more concerned with her looks and image, while a serious artist focuses on the quality of the music she's creating.

Which makes funky soul sister Nikka Costa problematic. She's a hottie and she works it, but she's also got chops -- thereby defying the human need to slap on a label and get going. And though Costa, who is in her late 20s, is married, it's clear she has minimal potential for becoming a minivan-driving soccer mom: She's got a luscious booty that's almost always swathed in low-slung hot pants, along with a wild mane of red curls and a voice the size of Camelback Mountain.

Costa has said that her record label, Cheeba/Virgin, would rather she didn't mention that she's married, because "if you're married, guys won't want to fuck you, and then they won't buy your record." Which raises the question: Would they have said that to Costa if she were a man? "Oh, yeah!" she exclaims. "I think that Hollywood and the record industry think that they can sell a single artist a lot more easily if the fans think that they have a little chance. They always try to hide that shit. They try to hide it if you're homosexual. There are many artists [who] are homosexuals who take their best friends to premières to make it look like they have a date. So they cover all that shit up to make you more marketable."

Nikka Costa: Raised on the Rat Pack and vintage soul.
Nikka Costa: Raised on the Rat Pack and vintage soul.

Judging from Costa's publicity photo and some other media snaps, that's about all Virgin is concerned about covering. If you hadn't heard Costa's record, you might suspect that she is trying to compete with Shakira and Lil' Kim and Britney in a contest over who can bare the most flesh. A quick cruise through a recent issue of Rolling Stone (the one with you-know-who and her bodacious ta-tas on the cover) yields these results: Britney in bra and panties, barely covered by a diaphanous baby-doll dress; Paul McCartney fully clothed; all the men of U2 and Linkin Park fully clothed; Staind's Aaron Lewis fully clothed; J. Lo in a skintight half-shirt and microshorts. Anyone else detect a trend here?

Costa gets a bit defensive when asked whether she feels pressured to look a certain way.

"I feel sexy when I sing; I feel sexy on stage; I like dressing up. I'm not really conservative about my body; I don't think it's a big deal. Americans are so conservative. And I'm secure enough with my music that I don't feel like it detracts from it. I'm confident enough with it that I don't feel like I need to prove a point by not showing anything. It's fun. I'm a girl; I like being sexy."

Fortunately for Costa, the music is what separates the women from the girls. "Britney Spears is trying to say, 'I'm growing up, I'm becoming a woman,'" Costa explains. "She's not trying to say, 'I'm growing up, I'm becoming a serious artist.' She has a great body, but that is her main thing. It's not like her music is her main thing. There are definitely artists who are more music-driven, and there are artists who are more image-driven. There are songwriting-driven artists, and there are interpreters. You know, they don't write their own songs, but they sing other people's songs great."

One listen to Costa's most recent release, Everybody Got Their Something, should make it clear which camp she belongs to. While Britney was molesting reptiles on stage and thrusting her rear end at the world, Nikka Costa was busy writing and recording a funktacular, Janis Joplin-flavored record that doesn't need any T&A to boost sales. On Everybody, Costa and producer/hubby Justin Stanley manage to blend rock, funk, hip-hop, blues and R&B influences without sounding overly busy.

"I definitely wanted to make a record that had a lot of different moods on it, a lot of different styles, because I don't know anybody who listens to only one kind of music, and I get really bored when I put on a record and the first four songs sound exactly the same," says Costa. Mission accomplished: The first three tracks are a whirlwind tour through funky R&B ("Like a Feather"), sensitive modern rock à la Fiona Apple ("So Have I for You") and earthy soul that screams with near-metal freakouts (the aptly titled "Tug of War").

It's Costa's use of her early funk influences that results in the most exciting aspect of her music, though. Those in the know contend that funk is a dead, grievously overlooked genre. No one is making true funk anymore; even funk stalwarts George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars have become the next jam band for politically correct noodlers. "I've listened to a lot of soul music -- Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and that kind of stuff," says Costa of the state of the funk. "It probably didn't get its full run. It hasn't lasted like rock has, but I think it's morphed into other areas, like hip-hop uses funk a lot -- everyone's sampling James Brown -- so it's kind of living through another genre now. I don't think it's dead; I just think it's living through other things."

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