I can't believe the things I decide to write about.
Women? Have I lost my mind? I know as much about women as I do about God--not jack. Yet I continue to study both. In fact, I suspect they are one and the same. Like most subjects in my studies, one of my primary teachers has been and continues to be my best friend, music. In fact, I'd give music almost as much credit as direct conversations and physical relationships for helping me potentially (that's as far as I can go) understand the smarter gender.
That doesn't mean every babe who's ever grabbed a mic has left a mark. In the opinion of this dumb guy, it takes a real woman to teach us about women. Read on, as yours geekly (hesitantly) presents Ten Female Artists That Helped Me Understand Women.
The Chick Just Can't Hold Her Smoke
Admittedly, it took a while to even begin to want to try to understand girls.
You see, when you are a teenage guy - at least when I was a North Dakotan teenage guy - you want to be a tough guy. You need to be a tough guy. It's a tough place.
So you're not exactly trying to see things from the girl's perspective. You love 'em. You appreciate 'em. Lord knows you want to "really" appreciate them as often as possible, but you're not exactly trying to figure 'em out.
Back in those days, I couldn't have even written the sub-header below this, let alone the blog itself. Raging hormones don't exactly cushion a teenage boy's insecurity.
Musically, those hormones pushed me towards stuff that rocked. Period.
Which didn't exactly mean female artists. Women that rocked in the mid-seventies? There was Heart, The Pretenders... hmmm, I'm sure there were more, but you get the point. I wasn't seriously listening to many female artists (whatever I did hear was purely pop.)
You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman (Even Though I'm a Man)
But luckily, I matured (very slowly, and I'm still working on it). Nutty coaches, redneck cowboys, fearful conservatives, and step-dads (my old man was all four) quickly exposed how much ignorance a guy had to perpetrate to carry on the manly-all-the-time charade.
More importantly, I spent time with girls. Mom was cool, I had some great Aunts, and girlfriends were part of it... but girl friends were the biggest part.
Girls that weren't afraid to be themselves (I remember the first time one of my girl friends 'dropped trous' and peed in front of me. After the initial shock, I thought, "Wow, we really are friends"). Girls who would give you the honest perspective of a female counterpart.
I began to take a bit more interest in the female perspective. College helped for sure, as I continued to meet amazing women, and my list of female friends continued to expand.
And of course, I started to explore more and more female songwriters, singers, and musicians.
So That's How Women Think!
And man (no pun intended), did it pay off. It's been paying off ever since.
I've discovered songwriters and musicians that have literally made me feel - if only for a millisecond - like I might understand the female mindset in all its mysterious glory.
Before I get myself into trouble (after all, I understand enough about women to fear them), here's a list of my leading ladies of music.
Laura Nyro. Don't tell my wife, but I'm in love with Laura Nyro. If ever there were a female artist that I'd like to sit down and drink wine with, it would be Laura (unfortunately, she passed away in 1997). Ditto on a physical affair, even though she's not the most beautiful girl on the list (she's attractive, just not stunning.) Doesn't matter, because her sexuality absolutely saturates many of her songs (try "Woman's Blues" off the magnificent Eli and the 13th Confession) and it's a powerful thing. Of course, regardless of topic, her voice is intoxicating. I didn't meet her until I was 35, but our relationship has grown ever since.
Heart. The first "female" album I owned started the journey. Sure, it began with me staring at the Dreamboat Annie cover and thinking the Wilson sisters were both beautiful, but it didn't take long to appreciate their female perspective on songs like "Crazy on You," "How Deep It Goes", and my favorite, "(Love Me Like Music) I'll Be Your Song." Plus, it was never lost on me that they were battling in a man's world. I love when women do that.
Joni Mitchell. I had read enough cool stuff to take a customer recommendation on Court and Spark, but I didn't get Joni at first, or second, or even third. Then on the fourth or fifth listen (hey, I make sure before I scrap music), she hit me like a train. I had recently been stood up by my dream waitress, and the song "Car On a Hill" just weaseled its way into my soul. Ten albums later...and the only artist I'd put higher on the list is Ms. Nyro.
Aretha Franklin. Aretha didn't write most of the songs in her phenomenal Atlantic catalog, but she did write some good ones ("Think" and "Dr. Feelgood" stand out) and she interpreted other people's tunes like no one else. She's feisty, independent, and vulnerable all at once. If you don't remember the Queen of Soul (classic line, Donald), you need to go out and listen to Soul '69 or Lady Soul... then keep going.
Nina Simone. Nina is my argument that it's OK to say, "That chick has balls." Her music is raw and honest, and she used it to do things like speak out for civil rights and against poverty. If you're feeling low and emotionally-open, put on Nina Simone Sings the Blues, and you'll see what I mean. (The album has some great guitar work, too.)
Carole King. I started working in record stores in 1987. Carole's landmark album, Tapestry, was already sixteen years old, and of course, I had never heard it. For the next five years, I watched as it sold constantly to all ages of women, and a lot of men, too. Eventually I gave it a try, and really dug it. Still do. Now if ever there was an album that I'd say was the musical equivalent of a "chick flick," it would be this one--but what can I tell you, I like Sleepless in Seattle too.
Bonnie Raitt. It was my second year in the record stores when Bonnie won a zillion Grammys for Nick of Time. Lord knows we played it lot, but in spite of the relentless record company hype (don't get me started on that), I grew to like it. Then a trusted customer said, "You've got to try Bonnie's Warner stuff if you really want to appreciate her." So I bought The Bonnie Raitt Collection. One listen to "Love Me Like a Man" (one of many greats) and I was hooked. Try the Give It Up album if you are so inclined.
India.Arie. I'm in the halls of Universal Music in L.A., and one of the label pimps drags me into his office and says, "You gotta hear this." That's the biggest "If I had a nickel" statement in the music biz, so naturally I was skeptical. Then he hit play. Holy shit, it actually delivered. Her subsequent albums didn't hit me as hard, but man did that debut do the trick. I'm listening to "Strength, Courage, and Wisdom" right now. It's like I understand why I don't understand 'em.
Diana Krall. OK, so sexuality is a big part of my relationship with these girls. What can I tell you? You want honesty, don't you? When "Peel Me a Grape" is the first song you hear, and you can just feel the sauciness oozing out of your headphones, and then you discover the singer is beautiful, it's hard to avoid. However, my "desire" for Diana was soon equaled with respect. A Canadian hockey fan who's married to Elvis Costello and plays the piano like Thelonious Monk? What's not to love? Try Love Scenes for sultry; Live in Paris for the wicked piano. She's already a jazz legend in my book.
Pretenders. Now that I've justified the sexual side of things... I can say that I wanted to sleep with Chrissy Hynde about 12 seconds after I saw the "Tattooed Love Boys" video. All my crew did. The "I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for" lyric was notorious among us. Deep down, guys of all ages love that sort of brash behavior. There's just something cool about the "if you don't like me, fuck off" attitude (and she seems smart as hell, too.) It's like something a guy would do. Chrissy was the champ, and the Pretenders rocked. How do you not love her?
There they are, my favorite women of song. Some of the greatest voices of all time... that have been equally well-spoken on behalf of their gender (at least to me.)
I'll close by saying thanks, ladies, for the music. Thanks for opening your hearts and giving us big honesty and raw emotion. I've been listening to it all morning while I wrote and it still moves me.
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I still wouldn't want to be a woman for all the music on Earth, but it's nice to have your perspective at my fingertips.