Women In Love

"Faggot!" "Dyke!" "Queer!" "Get the fuck off!" "What are you supposed to be?!"

For twenty minutes at a recent show in Canada, drunken fans of Irish rock band the Pogues howled homophobic epithets at the opening act. But Phranc, the self-described basic all-American Jewish lesbian folksinger, kept playing. The woman generally acknowledged as the only open lesbian currently signed to a major record label talked to the crowd about tolerance and acceptance, then silenced it with a song:

"I dedicated `Take Off Your Swastika' to the audience," she recalled in a recent interview. "Their jaws just dropped. I sang it with more passion than I have in a long time. I was livid. As difficult as the show was to me, that was a really strong performance. I think it touched a lot of people."

Phranc thought right. At her show the next night, the audience "started singing along. When I did `Swastika,' they screamed for an encore. They were right there. You could just see the level of consciousness climb up. I think that those shows where it's tough are really important. People who do come to see me have no idea that's the way it is for me. That's the price I have to pay for being who I am."

Two Nice Girls, another act out to reach the masses with its lesbian perspective, hasn't had to shut up bigoted crowds. But listeners still react in unique ways to the Girls, who are considered the only all-lesbian band now signed to a major-independent label.

The fifth time they performed their signature song, "I Spent My Last $10.00 (On Birth Control & Beer)," a drunken man walked up to the stage and dropped off a condom. The tune is a sharp satire about a lesbian who jumps into a heterosexual relationship, only to find life "so much simpler/When I was sober and queer." When the folk-rock band performed the song recently, a tall punk led the sing-along. "Once we started singing, he started singing," recalls Two Nice Girls vocalist-guitarist Gretchen Phillips. "His face lit up. He became totally animated. . . . I just write 'em. I don't understand 'em."

Both Phranc and Two Nice Girls are aware they're pioneers. In the music business, an openly sexist, deceptively conservative industry, homosexuality--and especially lesbianism--is still taboo.

The record industry does seem to be making some strides in combating its sexism. For the first time, major labels are signing women like Tracy Chapman, Michelle Shocked, Melissa Etheridge, and k.d. lang, performers who've sold millions of albums without undressing for MTV. But frustrated industry insiders still whisper about the growing number of lesbians who aren't open about their sexuality for fear of saying good-by to platinum careers.

In shopping Two Nice Girls to the labels, the band's manager at the time faced this kind of career-deflating homophobia firsthand. "The record companies would say things to me like, `Are these a bunch of dykes?' I would say, `Well, they're musicians,'" recalls Jim Fouratt, a gay journalist, deejay and music-industry type. "I said, `Do you like the music?' `Well, I think they go too far.' They would say, `Not interested.'"

Fouratt and Phranc credit progressive-thinking execs at their labels for taking a chance on signing lesbian acts.

Before Two Nice Girls signed with Rough Trade Records, Fouratt says he wanted to make sure that label bigwig Geoff Travis "had picked up on the fact they were lesbians, that they were out in their lyrics. He looked at me the way any leftist music-industry honcho would. He said, `Don't you think it's about time?'"

By the time Phranc met with Island Records officials, her album was completely finished, right down to the cover. "It wasn't like I signed to Island, then made the record," she says from her home in Santa Monica. "I said, `This is who I am. This is what I do.' Kevin [Patrick, an Island A&R higher-up] said, `Let's go for it.' The work was more important than my sexuality, for the first time in many a year."

Phranc, however, makes it a point to let audiences know she's lesbian. "I don't think Island has promoted her particularly as a lesbian," Fouratt says from his home in New York. "Phranc has promoted herself as a lesbian."

"I don't think I can work and not be myself," says Phranc. "It's not the biggest part, it's not the smallest part, but it's part of me--I'm lesbian. I need to be honest about who I am." Two Nice Girls are equally open about their sexuality. "We're trying to go out and reclaim the world and take our rightful place in it as lesbians," Chickadiesels. "There were quite a few punk bands that sang about homosexuality in the early Eighties," Gretchen Phillips says. "When I was out there and going to hear music, I think they showed that was possible to do. . . . Also, the music was always really great. There was a lot of songs talking about how messed up and incorrect the current sexual politics were, which is what I wanted to think about."

Eventually, both acts returned to folk music to make sure their lyrics were higher up in the mix than the feedback. "It was sort of a reaction to not being able to understand what people were saying because it was so loud, so the importance of the songs would be audible," says Phillips.

Although the message dominates the Girls' debut, 2 Nice Girls is still a challenging record musically, dressing up the band's folk-rock core with new-agey atmospherics, country honking, inspired harmonizing, and freestyle rock 'n' roll. But the group never gets bogged down in its eclecticism, culling from the assortment at least two classics--"I Spent My Last $10.00 (On Birth Control & Beer)" and "Sweet Jane (With Affection)." The latter combines the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" and Joan Armatrading's "Love and Affection," layering the Velvets' melancholy storytelling with Armatrading's beckoning emotion. Lou Reed, Jim Fouratt claims, said he wished he'd heard Two Nice Girls' "Jane" before proclaiming the Cowboy Junkies' version of the song the best he'd ever heard.

Phranc's first album, Folksinger, a 1985 Rhino release, gave her an immediate cult following. I Enjoy Being a Girl, her Island debut, never soars as high as 2 Nice Girls, but it does accomplish its apparent goal of establishing Phranc as a personality--if not a songwriter--to be reckoned with. Phranc's melodramatic wail careens all over the emotional spectrum throughout the album. Her voice winks at her own jokes on parodies like "Folksinger" and the title cut, cries unabashedly on the romantic lament "Double-Decker Bed," and rises in political righteousness on liberal essays "Bloodbath" and "Take Off Your Swastika."

Refreshingly, Phranc doesn't package her songs in the kind of spotless Tracy Chapman-style arrangements that have made their "Both Phranc and Two Nice Girls are doing something unprecedented," Fouratt says. "If they were taking themselves seriously, it would be a painful road to go down. They have to step out of the closet. "It makes things hard for me. It would make things easier for a lot of gays and lesbians in the entertainment world to come out. Isn't that a swell fantasy to have? . . . I tend to think sometimes, `These artists who have made millions, how much do they have to lose?' But if they don't want it to be anybody's business, it's nobody's business."

"It's very hard for people to be out of the closet," Dlugacz says. "When you have a tremendous amount to lose, you're not gonna take that risk without that support. If major artists would come out of the closet, it would change many things in this country. People would say, `Gee, it's all right. I don't have to hate people I know nothing about, because they're in my midst.'"

Industry insiders whisper about the lesbians who aren't open about their sexuality for fear of saying good-by to platinum careers.

"There's a heavy backlash of homophobia sweeping across the world, and it's important that labels like these set the example."

"The work was more important than my sexuality, for the first time in many a year."

"If major artists would come out of the closet, it would change many things in this country."

"If I do it, I'm a dyke. If other women singers do it, they're in vogue."

"There's sort of an element that is so outrageous that it's almost acceptable."