Given rock’n’roll’s sexual essence, it’s inevitable that the private lives and public styles of people who create popular music become a pivotal issue to some of those who consume it. Fans of all but the most distant performers see themselves or their desires reflected in their icons, scattered through a shattered prism of social pressures, lyrical messages, contrived images and personal realities. Before young women began significantly integrating rock’s male preserve in the last decade, the simplistic formulation that prevailed was that boys wanted to be their heroes and girls wanted to sleep with them. That thesis suffered gamely through several confusing phases (the cross-dressing and camp of glam rockers and the new romantics, bi-sexuality’s trendiness, the willful asexuality of punk), surviving into the arena-rocking late ’80s, thanks to manly men like Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen and Sting. Then came uncloseted (and closeted) lesbians and gays, and it was back to the role-model drawing board.
Given the permutations of male/female straight/gay fans and performers (for non-math types, that’s sixteen possible matchups), the erasure of old presumptions creates a whorl of new cross-currents. Boys want to be them, and girls want to sleep with them? Boys want to sleep with them and girls want to be them? Straight girls wish they were cool enough to be lesbians so they could be better fans? Gay people don’t care if the music’s good so long as it specifically addresses or includes them? Straight people think the music’s cool but can’t deal with (or don’t ask and don’t want to know about) the performer’s orientation? As Ray Davies once observed, it’s a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world, and — in a self-obsessed inversion of pop music’s onetime role as a generation’s defining culture — sectarian identity politics have become an aesthetic factor of rock life.
It took Melissa Etheridge years to find the commercial courage to clarify the sex of her obscure objects of desire; as a platinum-selling star, her 1993 acknowledgment of what everyone apparently already knew was a total non-event. Interestingly, her lyrics haven’t changed much since the revelation. On her early albums, while wielding romance-novel ultra-passions like a sweat-drenched gladiator, the rough-voiced Kansas singer/guitarist played it coy only in terms of who she was addressing in her clenched-fist epics of jealousy, recrimination and lust. No one has ever gotten further relying on the word “you,” leaving the rest to listeners’ imaginations. Coming out hasn’t appreciably altered that formulation.
Melissa Etheridge is a transition from folkie to rocker, using the semi-acoustic format to shape songs Etheridge overheats to a blood-curdling boil. She roars her most insignificant musings like a mortally wounded female Springsteen. The album is a ludicrous bodice-ripper, in which emotions are writ across the sky in letters that soar a thousand feet high. Aches ache, thirsts can’t be quenched-even in nights of “shaking lust and fire.” “I guess I’m just addicted to the pain of delight,” she sings in “Occasionally,” offering an enigmatic view on the joy of sex. Intemperate in extremis, Etheridge isn’t afraid to make her unbridled furies seem utterly ridiculous: in “Like I Do,” what she needs to know is, does The Other “inject you seduce you and affect you”? The related “Similar Features” has subtler lyrics, but still heaves and lurches in its melodramatic turmoil. Powerful feelings are a great asset in art, but Etheridge hasn’t got a clue how to focus her intensity into anything better than a public display of rejection.
Adding guitarist Bernie Larsen to the first album’s Kevin McCormick (bass, co-production) and new drummer Mauricio Fritz Lewak, Brave and Crazy tones down and shifts the arrangements a notch up the evolutionary scale, but the songs (other than the tender “You Can Sleep While I Drive”) fall short, as do Etheridge’s uneasy efforts to locate a workable folk-rock style for herself. Either she got too much off her chest the first time, or she was reconsidering ways to express the heat of her ardor. In any case, Brave and Crazy is repetitive and dull.
Never Enough suffers from the same half-bake malady. The debut’s rampant extroversion hangs like the ghost of lost youth on this glossy attempt at sounding grown-up and radio friendly (not to mention blonde) by sublimating Etheridge’s raw fury into sessioneer-aided studio concoctions and random rhythmic variety. “It’s for You” reaches back for its rousing chorus, but the verses are standard MOR mush; “Must Be Crazy for Me” tries to boil up a Meters-like gumbo but only gets the canned stew lukewarm; “Meet Me in the Back” alternates between a brisk Latin-tinged chorus and a lightly jazzified vamp verse. Although her self-produced stylistic grappling is subtly managed, it’s obvious Etheridge hasn’t got a clue what works for her. For all the first record’s abject wretchedness, it’s a model of stylistic integrity compared to this futile exertion. One could read psycho-sexual resonance into the defensive process of seeking a popularly acceptable identity, but why bother?
One has to know the right question to ask for Yes I Am to be the courageous personal declaration many mistook it to be. (The line’s actual use in the title track is to answer “Am I your passion, your promise, your end?”) Otherwise, Etheridge’s lyrics conduct business as usual (even “Talking to My Angel” obfuscates: “he said that it’s alright”) on her breakthrough record, co-produced for maximum Bryan Adams-style anthemic arena power by Hugh Padgham. Cutting the crap, the album sets Etheridge firmly where she belongs — in the elementary wind tunnel of stadium rock with easy, bonfire songs that can be bellowed by one and all: “I’m the Only One,” “Come to My Window,” “All American Girl” (a dreadful attempt at topical commentary that barely deserves John Mellencamp, whom she obviously seeks to emulate in it). As Etheridge’s lyrical emotions run the gamut from intense to intenser, fiddling with their presentation is pointless. Songs build from folky/arty introductions to surging electric choruses, which suits her fine. But with the quieter efforts seeming to evaporate and the songwriting very uneven, what could have been an important mainstream record collapses into a couple of hits and a bunch of filler.
Reuniting with Padgham but hiring different sidemen, Etheridge clears away the final impediments to pure commercial pop-rock on Your Little Secret, an efficient and unambitious follow-up to Yes I Am. Having gained some skill as a singer, she settles into a harmonious balance with the electric music’s shiny appointments, getting more emotional mileage from less gut-busting intensity. Like other veteran stars with no burning creative agenda, she mines her songwriting formula reliably, bringing traces of outside styles (like the country twang of “All the Way to Heaven” and the elegiac artiness of “This War Is Over”) to her rather than stretching in their direction. Meanwhile, she has fun winking at the double entendres in her lyrics. “I Really Like You” promises “I’ll buy you mangos baby…I’ll shave everything,” while the title track strains not to come out and finally reveal something (which, by this point, was a secret only to those lacking access to a television, library or newsstand): “Before your cover’s blown…You make it hard…I will not lie.” By album’s end, she can “take off my shield…I won’t need it anymore.” Phew!