Melissa likes girls. Now can we please move on?
Five years ago Melissa Etheridge told New Times readers that she had no idea what ingredients go into the recipe for rock stardom. That was back in the spring of 1989, on the high heels of her startling first album. She was Dorothy at Oz then, a Kansas kid with a guitar and a knack for writing songs, playing in SoCal bars until she was "discovered" by Chris Blackwell and signed to Island. Then came a couple of platinum albums, a handful of Grammy nominations, and, one year ago, a Grammy win in the category of Best Female Rock Performance for "Ain't It Heavy."
Today, driving home after rehearsing for her current tour, talking on the car phone from L.A., Etheridge says she's still not sure what makes for fame and fortune in the rock biz. "I mighta got lucky," she offers. "I just love what I do. I write and sing, and that's what I love. You can get drowned in the business and the hype of it. Certainly once you reach a certain amount of people, you want to reach more. But that won't take away from what I do."
Arguable. With Hugh Padgham at the board for her latest, Yes I Am, Etheridge has created a rich, smooth, inoffensive collection of nice songs. And for the auteur of Melissa Etheridge, Brave and Crazy, and Never Enough that is a big letdown. Fans have come to expect more than a nice pop album from the fiery femme.
Padgham is famous for his work with Genesis/Phil Collins and the Police/Sting, and that goes a long way in explaining the blandness of Yes I Am. Blackwell, Etheridge says, also had a hand in the new album. "He had some tough suggestions," the singer says. "He took an especially active role in this album, he let me know what he thought about the songs, what musicians were playing on it. He keeps a hand on the pulse of what I'm doing."
Etheridge also says she and her cohorts -- including Waddy Wachtel on guitar and Pino Palladino on bass -- went for a "live- sounding" album, and in some ways they succeeded. Yes I Am isn't cluttered or overproduced, it's just too glossy. (With exceptions, such as the word-perfect "All American Girl," in which listeners learn a character is a worn-out waitress via this lyric: "These drinks are getting heavy/And these tips are getting weak.")
One listen to a live recording from October 20, 1989, however, reminds that it really doesn't matter what Etheridge has recorded over the years. She can -- and actually has -- blow the roof off a venue simply by covering Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart." Over and over Etheridge has declared that she is a live performer first and foremost. "It's my absolute favorite thing," she said back in '89, and five years later she hasn't lost her love for it.
Which makes it somewhat frightening that for the limited tour she begins this week, and which brings her to town next Wednesday, Etheridge is opening for (gulp!) Sting. "I have a new band and I wanted to kick off the tour opening for someone," she offers. "I want to reach more people. Sting has a great audience, so I can reach a wider audience. Then I'll headline again."
If recording with Hugh Padgham and appearing live with Sting are indicators of a change in priorities for the ballsy singer, then her new take on fan clubs seems to spell sellout. It's called the Melissa Etheridge Information Network and includes a hotline and newsletter. "It is a fan club, yes," Etheridge admits. "And I hate fan clubs. The only reason I agreed to do it is that it allows people to find out where I'm playing. That's the biggest thing, where you're playing next. And you can buy preferred tickets through it. That means a lot to them, the real hard-core fans don't get scalped or have to stand in lines. So I put up with all the other stuff."
One thing that hasn't changed is how Etheridge writes her genderless, big-picture songs. "Yeah, I'm still writing on my guitar, sitting in a room with a piece of paper," she says. "That allows me to get a hold on a song, to really let it be an entity on its own before I bring it to the band." And five years later she's still playing (as both a string and percussion instrument) the old reliable Ovation twelve-string. "Well, not the same one," she says with a laugh. "I have a few of them that I keep in rotation. It's best for on stage."
Blackwell once said that he expects Etheridge to fill the Rock Hero hole left by Bruce Springsteen's fizzle. A lyrical vagueness -- and perhaps her lack of a penis -- is all that separates Etheridge from the Bruce/Cougar/Jovi crowd. She's tough and snarly, sincere and sensitive, macho and not, honest about what she does. She's not playing a role, she's living one, and that, along with a ton of great music and that exemplary live rep, should be enough.
Of course it's not. Etheridge first set herself up for an invasion of privacy by appearing topless, back turned, guitar riding hip, on the cover of the Never Enough album. A Springsteen rip, or parody? -- psychosexual statement? Only if you believe everything you read. "We live in a world of the vanishing album," she explains. "Before, you could do complicated things in the artwork of vinyl albums. Now the configurations are tiny. I wanted a CD cover people could see all the way across the record store and notice. Also, I have a big problem with fashion. I'd prefer not to have to wear anything. I wore jeans on that, because jeans are the most comfortable."
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Her care for packaging carries over to the booklet that accompanies the CD. On the very last page, over a blazing shot of her face in mid-sing, is a dedication to her father, who died after his footloose daughter proved her rock mettle but before her sex life became a media issue. (One cheering story to come out of the coming out was Mel's mom's reaction. Essentially Mom said that if someone couldn't handle her daughter's romantic inclinations, then that person was the one who had a problem.)
The media, too, have a problem. Yes I Am is described in the press as a coy title (as in, Yes I Am Queer), and much of her music is critically deconstructed in terms of its source's sexuality. Some really dumb writers refer to Etheridge's "wide following among gay women." Such limited thinking insults both artist and fan. "Sure, I'll talk about my personal life," Etheridge says warmly on the car phone. "I have no trouble with it. The title of the new album is not a reference to that. I knew people would take it that way, though. I knew they'd chuckle."
One of the best pieces written about Etheridge was by Rolling Stone senior writer David Wild, but the story appeared in US, not Stone. ("You won't find me in Stone," the singer quips.) The subheadline on the US article: "She's on the charts, out of the closet, and taking rock back to the heartland." Etheridge might reprioritize those concepts, invert them: music first, personal business second, commercial success third. Maybe those things have blended together now, become less distinguishable from one another. It's part of moving on. It's part of the recipe for rock stardom.
Melissa Etheridge opens for Sting 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Miami Arena, 721 NW 1st Ave, 530-4444. At press time a few $28.50 tickets were still available.