Etheridge has been riding a wave of good fortune lately, but it's the kind that is long overdue. Her most recent album, Yes I Am, has sold nearly three million copies since its release in September of 1993, and she is currently on the second leg of her tour, which brings her to the Valley this week. Since she wrapped up the first portion of the tour last December, Etheridge has maintained high visibility through the likes of VH1 (the video network is sponsoring this tour), and part of the reason she is back on the road can be attributed to popular demand. After years of being a staple on rock radio stations, Etheridge is now knocking on the door of mainstream stardom.
This current concert tour is a bit unusual, considering that Etheridge was on the road for most of 1994. Yes I Am didn't really begin to take off until last summer, when VH1 started giving her videos more airplay, and so much of the country may have missed her the first time around. As fickle as the music business can be, it's best to strike while the iron is hot, and Etheridge is certainly on fire right now. (She's even featured on the cover of the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine.) When this tour is completed in mid-July, it's back to the studio to put the finishing touches on a new album, which should be out by the end of this year.
It has been a slow, steady climb up the ladder of success for Etheridge, who was born in 1961 and grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas. She started playing the guitar when she was 8 years old, won a talent contest at age 11 and began playing bars and clubs around her hometown by the time she was 13. She spent a brief time at the Berklee College of Music in Boston after she graduated from high school, but believed that she couldn't make it in the music business unless she lived in California. She made the move in 1982, playing small clubs in Long Beach until she was discovered by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell in 1986. Her self-titled debut disc, containing the album-rock favorites "Like the Way I Do" and "Bring Me Some Water," was released in 1988, and her career received a tremendous boost when she was asked to perform at the 1989 Grammy Awards. She followed that up with the release of her second album, Brave and Crazy, later in 1989.
Her first two albums were moderately successful, but Etheridge was often criticized for being a one-dimensional songwriter. Many of the songs on the first album dealt with the heartache and jealousy that were brought on by a series of failed relationships, and the trend continued on Brave and Crazy with songs like "No Souvenirs" and "Let Me Go." She tried to appease the masses more with her third effort, 1992's Never Enough, which featured more mainstream, Top 40-type material, but that album didn't fare quite as well. (Ironically, it was Never Enough that won Etheridge her first Grammy Award.) With Yes I Am, Etheridge has shown a maturation both lyrically and musically, and it is this album that has launched her toward the realm of rock heavyweights.
Although Etheridge had been gaining a steady and loyal following since the release of her debut album, 1994 was unquestionably her breakout year. Among the highlights:
She scored her first Top 10 pop hit with "Come to My Window," for which she also earned her second Grammy Award for Best Rock Female Performance.
She opened a series of shows during the Eagles' summer reunion tour (which included a stop at Sun Devil Stadium last June).
She performed at Woodstock '94 in August and then was invited to the White House to meet the First Family.
She was featured in a cover story in The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian magazine, in which she was billed as "Rock's Great Dyke Hope."
It seems that last year would be difficult to top, but so far, 1995 has been more of the same for Etheridge. In January, she inducted Janis Joplin into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in February, she taped an episode of MTV Unplugged, on which she lived out a dream by performing "Thunder Road" with her idol, Bruce Springsteen. The magazine Entertainment Weekly touted the ascension of Etheridge as the "female Springsteen" in a story titled "Meet the New Boss." (These days, though, it's hard to tell who's influencing whom. Sharp observers will notice that the cover of Springsteen's recent Greatest Hits album is virtually identical to Etheridge's Never Enough cover.)
Of course, no discussion of Etheridge would be complete without mentioning the publicity surrounding her announcement two years ago that she is a lesbian. Although many hard-core fans always knew, she didn't officially make it public until a performance at a gay and lesbian ball celebrating Bill Clinton's inauguration in January of 1993. It's hard to say if her declaration had any bearing on her current popularity, but her career has taken off ever since. Even though she has become a spokesperson of sorts for gay causes, she wants to be known more for her music than for her orientation. As she told Entertainment Weekly, "I'm a musician who happens to be gay."
She's also a musician who has attracted many loyal and rabid fans. Her performances can best be described as passionate and honest, and it is those qualities that have endeared her to her public. She seems to feel every song she sings, and also enjoys flirting with her audience, delighting in the sexual innuendo that appeals to both men and women. She has remarked in the past that she wants her live shows to be a kind of foreplay. Though most of Etheridge's fans are female, her shows draw plenty of the opposite sex. Still, there's no denying the gay issue is a hot topic of discussion whenever her name is brought up. And she has altered her live shows somewhat in light of her coming out. She recently said in a Rolling Stone interview, "The classic rock songs were written about women, and I always felt I couldn't do them because it would make people feel awkward. But now people are in on it and appreciate it. I do 'Maggie May.' People love it."
Contrary to popular belief, the song "Yes I Am" has nothing to do with Etheridge's lesbianism. That territory is covered on the album, however, in the song "Silent Legacy." It's a powerful, haunting song in which Etheridge goes from the fear of opening up to someone ("They don't listen to your reasons/As original as sin/Deny all that you feel and they will bring you home again") to finally coming to terms with her sexuality ("Mothers tell your children/Be quick you must be strong/Life is full of wonder/Love is never wrong"). In fact, at the final stop on her tour last December at New York's Madison Square Garden, she broke down in the middle of that song and had to be prodded by her band members to finish it.
It's hard to imagine Etheridge having any disappointment in her personal life these days. She recently moved into a house in the Hollywood Hills with her lover of the past six years, film director Julie Cypher. The two met on the set of the video for "Bring Me Some Water" when Cypher was still married to actor Lou Diamond Phillips. It was rumored that Etheridge broke them up, but Cypher claims the marriage was already on the rocks by the time she met Etheridge. The two were featured in People magazine last year after making their relationship public, and are also planning to start a family, though they are keeping the details a secret.
Though Etheridge has had her share of success recently, when you read stories about her and hear her talk, it's hard not to think that she's still a small-town Midwestern girl at heart. Considering that some people in the business would rather spend more time trying to focus attention on themselves than on their music (are you listening, Madonna?), one gets the reassuring feeling that Etheridge is decent, down-to-earth and--well, nice. That should count for something.
Melissa Etheridge is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, May 31, at America West Arena, with Paula Cole. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.