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Folk Heroines, Not Heroes

Where, in the name of dudehood, is the next Bob Dylan? Why, he's cowering in the closet, right next to his out-of-tune acoustic guitar, that's where. He's been there for more than a decade now, suffering flashbacks of that awful scene from Animal House. You know the one:

Pencil-mustached Stephen Bishop, wearing a black turtleneck, has ostensibly escaped from the local coffee house, and now he's strumming an acoustic guitar and waxing sensitive on the stairs inside the Delta House. "I gave my love a cherry that had no stone . . . ," he simpers at a trio of dreamy, swooning co-eds. Then Bluto (John Belushi) comes on the scene, makes a face, rips the acoustic out of Bishop's drippy hands, smashes it to smithereens against the wall in three quick strokes, and returns it to Bishop.

Finally, Bluto gives the folkie a real taste of his own sensitive medicine: "Sorry," he shrugs as Sam Cooke's "Twistin' the Night Away" puts some life back into the toga party.

If you didn't get the gist of Bluto's blatant message, the translation is, roughly: IF YOU'RE A DUDE, IT IS NOT COOL TO ACT SENSITIVE AND STRUM AN ACOUSTIC GUITAR AT THE SAME TIME. DUDE. At least if you want to sell a million albums in Recordland, it ain't.

For the last year or two or three, the record world has patted itself on the back as it's rediscovered a concept known as "women." Thanks to this new awareness, extremely sensitive (some would add the words "and tough") acts such as Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Michelle Shocked, Indigo Girls, the Natalie Merchant-led 10,000 Maniacs, and the Edie Brickell-led New Bohemians have sold millions of records apiece. But along the way, while the industry was patting itself on the back over all these wonderful women it had let into the party, someone forgot to send all the next Bob Dylans the invitations. Or maybe not just the next Bob Dylans. How about next James Taylors, even?

Oh sure, there are men who've dared to walk out of the coffee shop lately with an acoustic in hand. But male folkies have a place, and it's not at the top of the Billboard albums chart. It's underground.

Compare the household recognizability of a Tracy Chapman or a Suzanne Vega or a Michelle Shocked with that of a Peter Case or a Martin Stephenson or a Jerry Giddens. And those guys are supposed to be a few of the hottest new male folkies around. And who have you heard more from lately, anyway, the Indigo Girls or the mostly male Washington Squares?

Radio formats of all kinds don't want anything to do with men strumming hollow bodies. Martin Stephenson probably didn't do anything to help his cause by calling his back-up band the Daintees, and the recently released Capitol Records debut by the English folkie generated critical kudos, not sales. Case, who used to rev it up with the hard-rocking Plimsouls, struck out on his own three years ago in a more sensitive vein, but even buckets full of critical praise haven't put him on the map commercially. (Case is scheduled to play locally on September 5 at Anderson's Fifth Estate in Scottsdale.)

Geffen Records, Case's label, wonders tongue-in-cheek in a recent press release who's going to buy the ex-Plimsoul's new record, The Man with the Blue Postmodern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar: "Album radio-rockers? The all-important college/alternative crowd? Young folkies in love? On-top-of-it BMW drivers who've already worn the chrome off their Cowboy Junkies cassettes? Postmodernists? Dare we say it . . . neo-traditionalists?"

Case responds, "Just between you and me, it seems like it's written for people who can't really afford record players or records, you know what I mean? That's why it needs to be played in hamburger joints or bars or something like that."

To which the label says, "Geffen Records will no doubt get its crack marketing department for `dives' right on it."

WHY IS IT THAT guys like Peter Case and Martin Stephenson can't sing and strum their way up the singles chart?

You could blame it on the national attitude. Back in '78, while America was mincing through the Jimmy Carter-Alan Alda thicket, the Animal House scene may have been a frustrated cry that some people--many people--wanted more beef and less brain in their pop culture. And it's been confirmed since that America doesn't want mass-scale "wimps." It wants large-caliber weaponry, power chords, steroids and corporate raidership. Three Rambos, the Reagan-Bush-Quayle-North administration, and also Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, and Guns n' Roses.

"I think in today's society, a man will pick up a heavy-metal guitar, and a woman will pick up a folk guitar," Washington Square Tom Goodkind tells New Times. "That leaves Phil Ochs out in the cold. It certainly leaves Heart in a bad position. A woman's place is with an acoustic guitar, and I think it's a sad stereotype that the music industry is pushing. It's gender-bashing. It'd be nice to have a new Bob Dylan or a new Phil Ochs."

The fellas who populate the high places in the record industry have made sure this hasn't been quick to happen in the late Eighties. They seem to think that the marriage of women and folk music is a match made in marketing heaven. And record sales have borne it out. Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman have become household names. Peter Case and Martin Stephenson have not.

Meanwhile, famous female folkies have continued to be portrayed often as sensitive, not strong--something Chapman herself finds odious. She told Rolling Stone last year, "It seems to me that that image was created for female folk singers because they actually had a lot more control than other women in the music scene. They wrote their own songs, they played them, they performed by themselves--there you have a picture of a very independent person, and trying to make them seem emotional and fragile and all puts a softer image on it. As if there was something wrong with being independent."

This stereotyping, ironically, hints that folk music is being wrested from its liberal stronghold. "I think it's good that women are given a chance to shine. I just don't think it's the kind of portrayal that will advance women," says Goodkind. "It's too soft. It's not aggressive enough. It pigeonholes women as only being soft and sensitive and not aggressive and intelligent."

He contends that "right-wing society" wants women to be labeled as "introspective, rather than extroverted and intelligent."

Goodkind blames the male-dominated record industry for perpetuating the woman-as-sensitive-singer-songwriter stereotype. "I think they approach women as sex objects," he says. "They find it more appealing than a group singing protest songs."

GIVEN THAT AMERICA is in no mood for turtlenecked men on its Billboard, does that mean it's impossible for a person with enough testosterone for a beard to glom a Top 40 hit using only a soft voice and an unelectric guitar?

Actually, it's not that hard--if your names are W. Axl Rose and Slash. Guns n' Roses is the proud owner of the hottest male acousticism around today. The group's stripped-down number "Patience" sneaked into the Top 10 without one power chord, sonic drum beat or thundering bass line. Considering that even Tracy Chapman had a band jump-starting her "Fast Car," is it possible that Axl 'n' Slash's songwriting is just so powerful on "Patience" that it didn't need to be pumped up with heavy-metal accouterments?

Not likely. That Guns n' Roses scored with an acoustic ditty like "Patience" can be chalked up to their tattoos as much as to anything else.

The trick is that W. Axl Rose and Slash weren't introduced to record consumers as simpering types. Rose came to eight million American fans complete with a ragged, Joplinesque howl, greasy orange locks and swathed in tattoos. Slash broke on the scene blinded by bangs and bangs of curly locks and a penchant for rearranging big Aerosmith chords into unforgettable heavy-metal pop--the kind that sells tons of CDs, tapes and albums.

Which Guns n' Roses did. The band's Geffen Records debut noise-pop epic Appetite for Destruction is platinum eight times over. What's more, with Destruction songs like the smack ode "Mr. Brownstone" and the I Love-Hate L.A. boogie-anthem "Welcome to the Jungle," G n' R established itself as a heavy-metal band forever--even if Axl n' Slash later foisted on listeners their acoustic meanderings.

When "Patience" came on the scene, America may have been thrown a change-up by this heavy-metal monster, but the song really isn't that far removed from Bon Jovi-esque power balladry, a method of songwriting that employs acousticisms for a few bars before it blooms into larger-than-life mega-metal. These days, Guns n' Roses could concoct something called G n' R Sings the Toons of James Taylor, Dude and be assured it'd generate enough sales to finance a fleet of fast cars for the whole band.


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