Girl-On-Girl Action Breaks Up The Modern Rock Sausage Party

Al Shipley | August 15, 2008 10:00 am

Many people find it hard to tell the great from the godawful when it comes to 21st-century mainstream rock. To help figure out which is which, here’s “Corporate Rock Still Sells,” where Al “GovernmentNames” Shipley examines what’s good, bad, and ugly in the world of rock and roll. This time around, he notes that rock radio has actually started playing songs sung by women after a long drought. (No, really!)

This is the kind of mind-numbingly specific chart statistic that is almost impossible to prove or disprove, but I’ve got a strong hunch that the current Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart is the first to feature three female solo artists in a very long time, if it ever did. This week saw Modern Rock debuts from both M.I.A. and Santogold, with “Paper Planes” entering at No. 28 and “L.E.S. Artistes” at No. 40; completing the female-fronted trifecta is Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl.” The Max Martin-produced pop smash, which debuted on the chart almost immediately after I made much ado about the Martin-masterminded Carolina Liar breaking the decade-old Martin/Modern barrier, is at No. 39 and on the verge of dropping off in its ninth week. And, just to add a cherry on top, the female-fronted Ting Tings are at No. 38 with “Shut Up and Let Me Go.”

As you can see, these songs are all in the lower reaches of the chart; the highest any of them has reached so far was Perry’s summit at No. 27, and only “Paper Planes,” which has made it to the upper reaches of the Hot 100, seems to have the momentum to climb higher. And most of the songs are getting some kind of boost elsewhere, making their Modern Rock chart positions essentially a side effect of their mainstream prominence; M.I.A.’s song is in the Pineapple Express trailer; the Ting Tings’ track is in an iTunes ad; and Perry made a speedy ascent up the pop charts, which preceded her rock radio push by several weeks. But the fact remains that these songs are getting played on rock stations that you might ordinarily be able to listen to for hours without hearing a single female vocalist.

There have, of course, been bigger Modern Rock hits by female-fronted acts in recent memory–Paramore scored two big singles in the past year. But they’re a band made up of one highly recognizable girl singer and a bunch of relatively anonymous dudes, a format that’s proven successful in the past for the likes of Garbage and the Cranberries. Female solo artists, on the other hand, are a lot more scarce on alt-rock airwaves, or at least have been for the past decade. When Billboard began the Modern Rock chart in 1988, the “college rock” scene as it was defined then was full of females, as well as fey males; it’s progressively become more macho ever since. The very first Modern Rock No. 1 was Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Peek-A-Boo,” and Siouxsie Sioux made regular appearances on the chart in its early years, as did the likes of Kate Bush, Sinead O’Connor, Suzanne Vega, and later on Tori Amos.

But then came the grunge era, which made alternative rock both much more popular and considerably more aggressive. Initially, bands with multiple female members like Belly, the Breeders and L7 maintained a strong radio presence, even as punk bands associated with the riot grrrl movement proved too underground or confrontational for mainstream radio, or perhaps just indifferent to catering to it. Male singer-songwriters like Robyn Hitchcock and Elvis Costello started disappearing from modern rock playlists a little quicker than their female counterparts, but in general things quickly became much more band-driven. Even essentially one-man operations like Nine Inch Nails tended to fly under pluralized band names. In fact, there may be only one significant male Modern Rock solo artist who hadn’t previously fronted a popular band from the past 15 years: Beck.

Female solo artists were a little commonplace, at least up until the mid-’90s, but they always seemed in danger of going pop, and losing rock fans in the process. The Sugarcubes and 10,000 Maniacs were Modern Rock staples, as were Bjork and Natalie Merchant when they initially went solo. But as they gained bigger and broader fanbases, Modern Rock gradually dropped them. No Doubt, on the other hand, lost rock radio well before Gwen became a solo star. Jewel and Sarah McLachlan disappeared from rock playlists right around the time the Lilith Fair codified them as the new faces of adult-contemporary chick rock. Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill scored three Modern Rock No. 1s on the way to becoming one of the biggest selling albums of the ’90s; after that, rock radio seemed to realize that there wasn’t much more angst where “You Oughta Know” came from, and let Top 40 radio keep her.

The last time a female solo artist topped the chart was in 1996, when Tracy Bonham’s “Mother, Mother” went to No. 1 shortly after Alanis reached that summit for the last time with “Ironic.” In the ten years since Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” the only female-fronted band that’s topped the chart has been Evanescence–and that was with “Bring Me To Life,” a duet with Paul McCoy of 12 Stones. Bands like the Donnas and Flyleaf have scored minor hits, but haven’t ever really gotten close to that brass ring. For the most part, women have remained in supporting instrumental roles in mainstream rock in recent years, from Meg White to that time-worn cliche, the girl bassist.

It’s not a surprise that two of the acts now on the chart–M.I.A. and the Ting Tings–hail from across the pond. In the last few years, we’ve seen many female solo artists from the UK who have gone over big in their homeland before crossing over to younger, hipper Americans: Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, Kate Nash, Duffy, etc. But those artists were generally pigeonholed as pop or soul artists than as rock artists, and only Winehouse’s “Rehab” had any kind of traction on Modern Rock radio. And then you’ve got the old issue of skin color: neither M.I.A. nor Santogold are white, and both have influences that stretch beyond rock. But Santogold’s new wavey “L.E.S. Artistes” and M.I.A.’s Clash sample in “Paper Planes” have just enough guitar to comfortably fit in alongside the Weezers and the Seethers they’re now sharing airtime with. Hell, M.I.A. might even be getting herself some of that political rap-rock audience that’s made the Flobots so popular. (Yes, I hope I made you squirm with that comparison.)

The last thing I want to do is hasten the inevitability of a whole new round of “women in rock” trend pieces, mind you. But it’s good to see a little more gender balance in Modern Rock, even if I don’t particularly like any of the songs currently tipping the scales.