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Descriptive account of female musicians and their portrayal of life.

This article was submitted by its author and is reproduced with full permission from the author.

Female American solo artists of the late nineteen nineties were extremely popular at the top of the American billboard charts. Their media image was one of independence and strength. Examinations of these artists' songs reveal that their lyrics have similar themes related to personal emotion. Amongst these emotions are heartache, love and betrayal. These themes are constant even though the musical style may vary from genre to genre.

"It could be argued that the freeing of rock/ folk from its social implications whether it is drugs or war" "has left music relatively thin in terms of content" . Hence the music industry began to search for an exciting music form that was long neglected. This ultimately led to the emergence of women singer/ songwriters into the mainstream .

An essential example of female musicians is the singer/songwriter Sarah Mclachlan. She represents the creative successful female artist. As with many artists today she co-writes her songs and plays her own instruments. Her music has a wide audience in the United States and perfectly fits the idea of "girl power". Sarah Mclachlan is a "believer in the feminine mystique".

Her musical style fits into the category of soft rock and is represented by the song "Building A Mystery". The song is a soft rock ballad. The careful use of acoustic instruments for the soft sections and electric for the more aggressive enhance the song considerably. The lyrics are written straight from the heart. Lines such as "give us a tantrum, and a know it all grin, just when we need one, when the evening's thin" suggests this.

References to represents the countries' confusion over religion at the time of the songs creation is seen in the line "You live in a church, where you sleep with voodoo dolls". "Cus you're working building a mystery" , refers to a close relationship that has someone hiding their true feelings from them.

The infamous music industry lifestyles could perhaps be affecting these musicians' personal opinions. Possibly, their songs lyrical content would be a vehicle to reinforce their viewpoints and femininity. Sarah Mclachlan can be seen to do this within both of the songs examined here.

The second Sarah Mclachlan song examined here is"Adia". The entire song is constructed around a piano and acoustic guitar. Once again the writer appears to resonate a feeling of betrayal. However, she then contradicts this suggestion in the line "its easy let it go". Perhaps, this may mean that people should learn to forgive each other. Her loneliness is also reflected in the accompanying video. Sarah is seen standing still on a train station with everyone else blurrily running around her. The message of the song, however, is mostly drawn through the artists' powerful voice. She has a tendency to allow her voice to crack on the high notes to make a yodel like sound. This may relate to not being able to stop her true emotions becoming public. This is a concept, which is also used by the artist Jewel. Jewel is, however, more of a country singer than Sarah Mclachlan, who concentrates upon acoustic stripped down songs.

In this study the songs of Jewel come from the album titled "Pieces of You". This album set a record for Atlantic/ Warner music.No artist had ever taken longer to break" into the US charts . However, when she broke through she was not going back. The song "Who will save your soul?" is predominantly an acoustic guitar track, in an MTV-unplugged style. This has the effect of increasing its impact upon the listener by making the experience more intimate. The songs subject appears to be about people who are not living their lives in a wasteful manner. In essence, it is a list of Jewels likes and dislikes. She refers to people wishing for things that do not matter in the long run. Lines such as "People living their lives for you on TV / hope your health don't go to hell" suggests this. Americas religious decline also appears to disgust her.

The song "Foolish Games" is another example of a song about a crumbling relationship. Everything their partner did became irritating. "You took your coat off and stood in the rain / you were always crazy like that". The prominent piano introduction suggests the dark and depressive mood of the artist, which is carried through into the video. It shows Jewel riding around on a white horse on a cold night on her own, totally isolated and alone.

Being let down by people close to you is another staple of music inspiration. This can be seen in the lines "These foolish games are tearing me apart / your thoughtless words are breaking my heart". In contrast to the quite simple accompaniment of Jewels music Shawn Colvin uses many other instruments and has little empty space within her songs. Jewels silences are deafening and never golden.

Shawn Colvin's music is mostly concentrated upon "folk rock" style. The album "A Few Small Repairs" was in the American charts in the summer of 1997 and was number one for several weeks. The song "Sunny Came Home" contains acoustic and electric guitars; drum kits and synthesizer along with the simple and a strong vocal. The song appears to be about someone burning their house down. The music video also shows fire and the effect of melting photographic film superimposed over a close up of Shawn's face. The fire may suggest the unpredictable emotions under extreme circumstances is the songs content.

In contrast to this, however, the chorus suggests that the song is about escapism. Lines such as "She says days go by I'm hypnotized/ I'm walking on a wire/I close my eyes and fly out of my mind/Into the fire" contradict the rest of the song.

A similar negative to positive view of life is seen within the song "Get Out Of This House". There are clear links between mental illness. "Go jump in the lake, go ride up the hill/ Get out of this house/ it's a house of your making, it's a house of ill will" . The author creates an imaginary life for herself because she does not like her own. By the end of the song she has finally faced up to her problems. She has dealt with them and she will no longer let herself be pulled back into mental illness again.

Shawn Colvin's subject matter of house burning and mental illness is very dark. However, the instrumental arrangement and vocal draws you away from the meaning of the words and is relatively light hearted. The subject matters of these songs are probably invented. This is a technique regularly used within country music. This causes debates over authenticity. Does it really matter if what they are singing about actually happened to them? It is mostly a decision for the individual listener. The artists creates a situation where the are emotionally downtrodden but are back on top by the end of the story. However, this is not the case with the songs of Fiona Apple.

The song "Shadow Boxer" has a dark opening sequence with prominent piano chords. This song comes from the album "Tidal". The album and songs title make certain references to the writers pain. Lines such as "Once my lover, now my friend / what a cruel thing to pretend" . The subject matter is the gradual deterioration of a relationship. The feeling of loss, not un-similar to death, suggests that her boy friend purposely hurt her by being unfaithful. Perhaps, the title "Tidal" relates to compares the unpredictable manner of the sea, with relationships.

The Critics were surprised by Apples mature musical style. Fiona Apple's "musical sophistication and existential detachments that is sometimes staggering in its complexity" . This was especially due to her being in her teens when the album was released.

The song "Criminal" is another song about emotional pain. Lines such as "I've been a bad bad girl" also "And its a sad sad world/ When a girl will break a boy / Just because she can" . The artist is the betrayer and feels guilty as a result of her actions. She feels so bad that she wants to be punished for it.

F iona Apple occasionally revamps her image to allow her fan base to stay faithful to her career. In her videos she has been everything from a tart to a goofy teenage character.

Paula Cole has a similar lyrical style to Fiona Apple even though her country music style is very different from the rock music of Apple. The album "This Fire" contains a variety of several country/ pop songs. The song "Where have all the cowboys gone?" talks about a crazy lifestyle became more settled after the couple had their first child. The husband stayed out all night at the pub with his friends and became thoughtless towards his wife. The car was the last thing connecting her to the wild open country life they used to have. "We finally sold the Chevy/ when we had another baby/ and you took that job in Tennessee" She is obviously not happy about letting go of her adolescence. Cowboys are used as a symbol of her lost freedom.

"Carmen" is yet another song that is about confusion. It appears to be about a love affair with one of her female friends. "Carmen, I don't know, I don't know I don't know if I can go back/ Carmen I'll never be never be never be the same again/ Carmen".

However, she doesn't seem to be able to recognise if these are her true feelings or purely drug-induced hallucinations "I love the way you think/ is it biological or all the acid/ you've eaten/ just take me into your body/ I wanna be high on you Carmen" The repetition of the words "I don't know" emphasizes the utter confusion in her mind. The songs of Paula Cole are also heavily influenced by relationship failures. They look at the dark side of life rather than success and happiness. Alanis Morissette also does this.

However, Alanis is firmly in the genre of Rock. The album "Jagged Little Pill" shows a much darker representation of relationship breakups. The song "you oughta know" compares a relationship with his new lover. The lines "An older version of me/ is she perverted like me" "Does she speak eloquently/ and would she have your baby/ I'm sure she'd make a really excellent mother" , expresses her inability to understand why her boyfriend left her. To be able to cope with this pain she comes to the conclusion that his new partner reminds him of her.

The chorus suggests that she has unfinished business with her former partner. "And I'm here to remind you/ of the mess you left when you went away/ it's not fair to deny me/ of the cross I bear that you gave to me/ you, you, you oughta know" . The girl wants closure on the relationship so she can get on with the rest of her life.

Strong women characters within the music industry are on the whole positive and strong role models for budding female musicians. People such as Madonna take control of their music and manage it in a business like fashion. A significant part of her control comes from her image on stage, in her music videos. It has been suggested that such an ability"Enables girls to see that the meanings of feminine sexuality can be in their control, can be made in their interest and that their subjectivities and are not necessarily totally determined by the dominant patriarchy". Alanis Morissette did exactly this when she changed herself from being a bubblegum Canadian pop sensation to an aggressively strong looking rock icon.

Alanis Morissette's music expresses a " more aggressive view points towards males than previously been acceptable for the popcharts.". She is not subtle in her lyrical style at all. She "seems to struggle to contain her rage towards the opposite sex" . The song "You learn" refers to the ability to swallow your pride. "I recommend getting your heart trampled on to anyone, yeah". If something doesn't go exactly as planned swallow your pride and get on with your life, instead of feeling bitter about the situation. This suggests that you should not always say what you mean for the sanity of others. The video shows Alanis changing her jumper to a different color in each scene. This suggests she is shedding her skin, a new start to her life.

The emphasis upon the artist's personal lives is very political in the way it pushes women's liberation into the foreground. However, their are female artists that are not portrayed as independent thinkers. They suggest through there interviews that they have musical control, but it is clear that they are puppets of their music label. Artists such as Britney Spears and perhaps Whitney Houston with several remodeling of image, show precisely this.

These women set about challenging the music industries acceptance of women singer/ songwriters. Essentially, the theme of the majority of female artists material is similar even though the genre the artist is, working or constructed under is different.

In conclusion, there is always a moral to these artists work. If someone has an affair they feel guilty, if they are the victims of a breakup they are seen to better themselves and able to move on. Basically everything will work out all right in the end. Whatever life throws at them they will bounce back harder and stronger than before.


Music albums consulted: -

Fiona apple, 1996: -Tidal, SONY/WORK

Alanis morissette, 1995: - Jagged Little Pill.
Produced by Glen Ballard, WEA.

Sarah mclachlan, 1997: -Surfacing, produced by
Pierre Marchand, Arista Records.

Jewel, 1997: -Pieces of you, Atlantic records.

Shawn Colvin, 1996: -A few small repairs, produced by John Leventhal,
Columbia Records.

Paula Cole, 1997: -This fire, produced by Paula Cole, Warner Bros.


Books Used

McClary, Susan, Feminine findings, (music, gender and sexuality). University Of Minnesota, London, 1994.

Bayton, Mavis, Frock rock (women performing popular music)-, oxford, New York, oxford university press, 1998.

Dickerson, James, Women on top (the quiet revolution that's rocking the American music industry). Billboard books, 1998.

Whitely, Shelia, Women and Popular music, sexuality, identity and subjectivity, Routledge, New York and London, 2000.


Web Sites Used

The official Sarah mclachlan web site: -

The official Fiona Apple web site: -

The official Paula Cole web site: -

The official Shawn Colvin web site: -