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Revival of the Year: Women Rock the Main Stage

“I should bang her and put her out of her misery.”

Youcould say it was just another morning on Howard Stern’s radio show. Thehost was petulantly aroused, and the object of his disaffection was,ahem, a woman. In this case, Amy Lee, lead singer of Evanescence, themost successful new rock act of 2003 and the year’s only female-ledrock band to have an album go platinum, or even gold (Fallen has sold almost three million copies).

Stern had just seen Lee perform on the Teen Choice Awardsbroadcast and was disappointed — but not by her singing. He railedthat she didn’t look anything like her photos or as she did in theband’s video for their goth-rap-metal hit, “Bring Me to Life.” Duringthe TV show, she’d worn layers of dark clothes, and Stern was appalled.How dare she hide her body? The band’s music must be angry, he surmised, because she’s too ugly to get a man!

What’sworse, Lee had accused the shock jock of sexism in an interview. “Ithink his show is shit,” she said. “It’s all about objectifying womenand just treating them like crap. I’m pissed off at the girls that goon the show, too. That’s the horrible part of our society, that womenthink that’s how we’re supposed to be.” So Stern defended his honor,and, by extension, that of all the guys who felt betrayed by Lee’ssubterfuge. After mentioning that Lee could stand to lose 50 pounds,Stern put it plainly: “I should bang her and put her out of hermisery.”

Even in an era when women are said to have achievedunprecedented opportunities and feminism is viewed by many as passedogma, a female-led rock band is still powerfully, strangelythreatening. It’s hard to imagine Korn’s Jonathan Davis or Staind’sAaron Lewis — rock singers with less-than-fetching mugs — subjectedto the physical critique endured by Lee. They’re not expected to be”attractive” before their music is given serious attention. Davis can,literally, wear a gorilla suit and still appear on the cover of anational magazine (see Spin, November 1998).

During the past five years or so, as rap metal roared and numetal howled, female musicians became an afterthought. Perhaps it wasthe hostile work environment — a lingering backlash against theunprecedented surge of women in alternative rock through the early tomid-’90s (PJ Harvey, Bjork, Hole, the Breeders, Alanis Morissette, LizPhair, Bikini Kill, Tori Amos, Juliana Hatfield, L7, Babes in Toyland,Veruca Salt, et al.). “It’s shocking how few leading ladies there havebeen out there,” says Karen O, 25, of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who releasedtheir major-label debut this year. “The ratio of male to female is justtotally off.”

But this year, there was a shift. Angry-dude titans LinkinPark and Limp Bizkit were less dominant, and rock’s definition ofmasculinity had more to do with introspective emotions (Radiohead,Dashboard Confessional, AFI, Thursday) and scruffy, self-aware cool(the Strokes, the White Stripes). Lollapalooza featured two female-led,main-stage rock bands, the Distillers and the Donnas. The Yeah YeahYeahs’ Fever to Tell was one of the year’s most criticallyadored records. There were striking albums from Chan Marshall’s CatPower and Pretty Girls Make Graves (with singer Andrea Zollo).

“It’sa cycle,” says the Distillers’ Brody Dalle, 24. “Look at the late ’80swith hair metal, then Nirvana coming around, and after that, it wasreally booming for women. Then, it went back to a version of hairmetal, just without the hair. [Laughs] Now, it’s coming around again.”

Dalle had a gratifying 2003: Coral Fang, her band’sthird album (their first on a major label), was well received, and alate 2002 tour during which the Distillers opened for No Doubt andGarbage led to a friendship with veteran female rocker Shirley Manson.

But talk to Dalle for even 15 minutes and it’s clear thatshe embodies the conflicted nature of women in rock. She’s resentfulabout having to defend her divorce from Tim Armstrong of Rancid (aftershe’d had an affair with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme). Shestill has to withstand accusations that her early music wasghostwritten by Armstrong. She’s on edge about charges that sheexploited and abandoned the Bay Area and L.A. punk scenes to setherself up for a major-label deal. And she feels patronized bydiscussions of women in rock. “[The subject] is moribund, dude,” shesays derisively. “I think focusing on that alone is what killed womenplaying music in the ’90s.”

Dalle was raised in Melbourne, Australia, and her motherheld “strong political feminist views. She didn’t even genderize colors– she never put me in pink. I was a tomboy. I’m still a tomboy — Ijust wear heels.” Dalle also attended Rock’n’Roll High School (formedin 1990 by Stephanie Bourke of alt-rock group Litany), where girls tookmusic lessons, practiced, formed bands, planned gigs, and recorded.Dalle’s first group, Sourpuss, flourished there, and she met Armstrongwhen Rancid stopped by the inner-city Melbourne school. But Dalle hasfew fond memories, referring to the administrators as “psychoticfeminists.”

“It’s a great idea in theory,” says Dalle. “But women haveto take the fucking reins themselves. That way it’s not some novelty orsomething you’ve had handed to you because of your lack of anappendage.” When asked if it’s hard for young girls to imagine being ina rock band if they haven’t seen women doing it, Dalle responds: “Myinfluences were guys, so that’s no excuse.” Of course, Dalle has saidthat she learned to play Hole’s “Teenage Whore” on guitar at age 13,and she covered Patti Smith’s “Ask the Angels” on the Distillers’ 2000debut album.

Most of us rebel against our childhoods in some way, so it’snot surprising that Dalle is ambivalent about her progressiveupbringing. But it’s sad that after benefiting from so many strongwomen, she feels the need to denigrate their influence in order to gether own talent recognized; still, it’s precisely the lack ofopportunity and support for women in rock that forces female artists toscramble for crumbs. Despite Dalle’s worries, it’s rare that women inrock bands are handed anything.

If you picked a random week out of the yearand checked for women rockers on the BillboardTop 200 albums, Hot 100 singles, and Modern Rock top 20 albums charts,you would’ve found Amy Lee, Meg White (of the White Stripes), and LizPhair. After Evanescence, the top-selling album by a female-led bandwas the Donnas’ Spend the Night, at 363,000 copies. Despite hersexed-up pop makeover, Phair has sold just 197,000 copies of herlatest; the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, only 88,000. The last albums by Bjork andPJ Harvey didn’t come close to going gold.

“When I was younger, I didn’t have that many chances toexperience women playing rock music,” says Karen O. “Most of the womenI’ve admired had to reinvent the genre for themselves.” Or as Dalleputs it, “I play music, that’s all that fucking matters. I’m stilltrying to figure all this shit out on my own.”