In calling her vastly popular current album "Yes I Am," Melissa Etheridge made a strong affirmation but left it open to interpretation just what she was affirming.
Some of her fans, and many casual onlookers who knew of Etheridge only through her magazine interviews, probably figured "a lesbian" was the obvious completion to the title's unfinished thought. After all, Etheridge had publicly declared her sexual orientation eight months before the album was released in September, 1993.
But as she recorded "Yes I Am," Etheridge wasn't just concerned with a new way of presenting her personal life to the public. She also was intent on answering questions of musical identity she had broached with her somewhat experimental 1992 release, "Never Enough."
Etheridge stocked "Yes I Am" with 10 songs sung in an all-out, ardently husky voice, carried along by brawny, big-beat guitar rock in the tradition of her early influences, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger.
The songs, and the title above them, stood as an affirmation of the musical stance she had embraced after her previous record's stylistic vacillations: "Yes I Am . . . a heartland rocker."
" 'Yes I Am' is as close to me as you can get," she said recently over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. But Etheridge, who headlines Sunday at Irvine Meadows, sees the offbeat departures taken on "Never Enough" as part of an important process of trial and error and sifting out that enabled her to convince herself of her proper musical home.
On "Never Enough," her third album, Etheridge de-emphasized the heartland anthems of her previous releases, "Melissa Etheridge" and "Brave and Crazy." Each of those late-'80s albums had sold a million copies, establishing the Kansas-raised singer as an heiress to the Springsteen-Seger legacy and also inviting comparisons to another of her heroes, Janis Joplin.
With "Never Enough," Etheridge eased off on her characteristic full-on rasp long enough to sing several delicate ballads, and set aside the big chords and high-kicking beats of heartland rock to try out hip-hop rhythms and synthesizer-driven dance music.
One uncharacteristically restrained and elegant vocal turn, the somber ballad "Dance Without Sleeping," was recorded, she says, "in response to critics who were saying all I can do is yell and holler, and I have no subtlety."
Album sales fell off a bit, although the record's one heartland anthem, the Seger sound-alike, "Ain't It Heavy," won a Grammy for best female rock performance.
Etheridge said she remains glad that she took those musical detours, even though they may temporarily have slowed her commercial rise.
"I don't ever regret doing it, because it kind of let me know where my road is and what I'm best at," she said. "It gave me confidence, actually, in my own talents and decisions. Before then I had this idea, 'If I add this and this, then everybody will like it.' I learned that, no, everyone likes truth in music, and they can hear it when it comes from the soul."
"Dance Without Sleeping," one of her favorites, remains in her concert set list, a softer interlude in a 2 1/2-hour program built largely of assertive material. She still plays songs that were rhythmic experiments on "Never Enough," but has retooled them as straight-ahead rockers.
In gaining what she calls a firmer musical "sense of myself," Etheridge lost a couple of longtime collaborators. Bassist Kevin McCormick and drummer Mauricio Fritz Lewak had gotten accustomed to a more collegial form of decision-making on previous albums, she said, and departed after the "Yes I Am" sessions.
"I felt, 'I've got to take things in my own hands,' and it left some people feeling they didn't want to do it with me anymore."
As she auditioned replacement players, Etheridge said she was rooting for a multicultural outcome.
"I wanted a woman (and) somebody of color, and it didn't work out that way."
Instead, she ended up with "all white males. The most important thing is the feel of the music."
One of the new players, guitarist John Shanks, had worked with Etheridge in her first touring lineup in 1987; she says that his style has been important in giving some fresh twists to a new album she has been recording over the past few months, aiming for a November release. Producer Hugh Padgham remains on board from "Yes I Am," and Etheridge foresees no radical departures from the heartland-rock grounding of that 4-million seller.
Etheridge said she may or may not introduce some of her new songs on the two-month spring concert tour that brings her to Irvine Meadows. Like her hero, Springsteen (who turned up to duet with her on his chestnut, "Thunder Road," during Etheridge's otherwise solo performance on a recent edition of "MTV Unplugged"), Etheridge doesn't like the idea of fans getting hold of rough, bootlegged versions of unreleased songs that she considers still evolving toward their final, recorded form.
The success of "Yes I Am," which remains in the Top 40 on the Billboard albums chart more than a year and a half after its release, has lifted Etheridge to the same rarefied plane of popularity as Springsteen, Seger and the third member of heartland rock's male triumvirate, John Mellencamp.
With her three platinum albums, Etheridge is the first woman to have joined them as a confirmed star of heartland rock. And now that today's large brigade of rising women rockers is taking its cues from punk and alternative influences, rather than from that old-time rock 'n' roll, the question arises whether Etheridge, who turns 34 on May 29, might be not only the first female heartland star, but also the last.
"No, I don't think so," said Etheridge, who soaked up her influences while growing up in Leavenworth, Kan. "I think it comes in waves. I was 18 when it was Seger and Springsteen, then, when I was 21 it was the Clash and all that. There's a whole wave of the '80s that is influencing what's coming out now, your Liz Phairs and Courtney Loves and stuff.
"I think maybe I have been influencing people who in maybe five years will come out from the heartland" and make the style current again among young listeners. "That kind of rock 'n' roll will always have an audience."
Etheridge says her decision to go public about her sexual orientation stemmed from a long-building dissonance between her desire for privacy and her performer's ideal of laying out emotions in the most forthright way.
"The whole time I was thinking, it's ridiculous, I talk (in songs) about truth and honesty, and it didn't make sense to me" to continue to veil her personal life as interviewers probed for the real-life situations that gave rise to those songs.
Etheridge had long been open about her sexuality with family, friends and the early followers who knew her in her scuffling days as a solo performer in women's bars such as Que Sera Sera, the Long Beach nightclub that was her steadiest gig in the four years leading up to her 1986 discovery by Island Records chief Chris Blackwell.
In January, 1993, Etheridge pledged her allegiance, as it were, during a gay and lesbian ball in Washington that was part of the Clinton inaugural celebration.
"For me personally, the biggest plus has been the ability to be myself. I don't have to worry, I don't have to put the energy into hiding anything. It's great to be able to go out with Julie (Cypher, a film director who has been Etheridge's partner for six years) and be comfortable doing different things.
"I can honestly say that the only minus has been that I have to talk to everyone and their sister about it," she said. "It's unusual to talk to strangers about such personal subjects."
Etheridge has lent time and talents to various causes; being a lesbian rocker with a mass following makes her a valuable asset on the benefit circuit. But Etheridge says she has kept political activism out of her concerts.
"The best thing I can do is write my songs truthfully and have them mean something to everybody. Just (to have) people feeling and being touched by music is a lot in this day and age, and that's my goal. Beyond that, I'll go to this thing or that thing, give a speech or something, but I won't do that at my concerts."
The mass public gives special status to writers, artists and entertainers, and with it comes leeway to stretch various boundaries that rank-and-file citizens usually can't test without consequences.
Etheridge and Elton John can be openly gay and get played on MTV and VH-1; discussions of the homoerotic influences in the verse of Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman can be a staple of American literature courses. Only the occasional confrontational gesture by a gay artist--an explicit Robert Mapplethorpe photograph, perhaps--draws open censure.
Etheridge readily acknowledges that the test of tolerance lies not with acceptance for gay and lesbian celebrities, but for people who just want to teach school, serve in the military, have a chance in a child-custody battle or walk safely on a beach without having to hide a fundamental part of themselves.
"Yes, there is a big difference between me and my big old safe home and safe rock 'n' roll career" and other homosexuals who are less insulated from bigotry, Etheridge said.
"But I think the best thing that comes out of (her own openness) is that . . . it brings (the subject of acceptance for gays) a little more out in the open," she said. "You can do this article in Orange County, somebody reads it in the paper . . . and maybe it's not a foreign thing. Maybe I'm just a crazy singer-artist, but it's in the (public) consciousness and they can't deny that."
In her songwriting on "Yes I Am," Etheridge avoids soapboxes but doesn't entirely shy from the fray of today's charged debates about values and social mores.
"All American Girl" depicts a hard-pressed barmaid whose working life and personal life just keep getting harder as she tries to stay afloat "in this man's world." A past abortion is one of the details Etheridge paints into the character portrait:
Her eyes are black as leather and her hair is killer red
How could she keep the baby when she can barely keep her head?
She don't owe nobody nothing, and she ain't on the street
But these drinks are getting heavy, and these tips are getting weak *
The National Institution on Drug Abuse has produced a public-service video around the song, which will be released this summer. The four-minute treatment, featuring performance footage of Etheridge along with animated figures acting out a story line, inflicts even more woe on the protagonist than Etheridge herself had intended.
In the song, Etheridge's character learns that a friend of hers has been infected with the AIDS virus, with no suggestion that she herself is at risk; the video, which has a drug-abuse-can-lead-to-AIDS message, turns the HIV-positive "friend" into a fellow the "All American Girl" has had casual sex with while intoxicated.
"That's (the video makers') own interpretation," Etheridge said, acknowledging that it takes liberties with the song's plot line. "But as long as it's not interpreted in a harmful way, I give my songs up to interpretation to anyone."
Etheridge is surprised she hasn't caught flak from religious conservatives for an irreverent line in "Silent Legacy," another character study from "Yes I Am."
In it, a girl is ostracized by her parents after they learn she has been having sexual trysts in a motel. In the song, Christianity is seen as a stifling, shame-instilling force that contributes to the troubles of a character who is trying to deal with her first erotic passions.
They feed you on the guilt to keep you humble, keep you low
Some man and myth they made up a thousand years ago
"When I wrote (those lines), I thought, 'Oh, this is going to be it, I'm drawing lines now and people are going to say, 'Hey!' " she said. "The only criticism I got was, 'No, it was 2,000 years ago.'
"It's not anti-Christian," Etheridge added. "It's more anti-patriarchy. I have my views of organized religions and the purpose of their creation. People having faith is fine. The foundations of the religions are all good, and the problem is where people take them."
For the most part, though, "Yes I Am" sticks to Etheridge's primary theme: capturing the most charged moments in relationships--the first flaring of desire, the self-abnegation that comes with obsessive love, the pain that follows rejection--and raising those feelings to near-operatic heights of bigger-than-life expression.
Now that Etheridge has been in a settled relationship for six years, it is suggested, perhaps the raging tumult of her art no longer mirrors the patterns of her personal life.
"Of course (being in a long-term relationship) has an influence," she said. "But fortunately or unfortunately--I don't know which--those emotions are still within me. I still fight the irrational jealousies.
"It's been six years, yes, and if we could be married we would," she said. "But there's still things I fight about myself. It's safer for me to write about them than to act upon them in my relationship."
Etheridge says she always had a big, husky voice well suited to heartland rock and to the depiction of fiery passions.
"I started singing when I was about 10. I would sing in choirs and they would put me in the back row with the tenors and the boys because I sounded so strange," she said. "Then I started singing in country-and-Western bands, and I was well-suited to that because it was all belting.
"I never related to the softer, higher voice" of the archetypal female folk-rocker, she said. "I never had a problem with that. I wanted to sing 'O Holy Night' at Christmas, but they always gave it to the pristine sopranos. I always wanted to belt it out an octave lower."
Etheridge knew from an early age that she wanted to be a rock singer. Her parents wanted her to get an education, which led, in the spirit of compromise, to a brief enrollment at Boston's Berklee College of Music.
"Berklee was kind of over my head. I didn't want to put the work into it," Etheridge recalled. "I got a job playing at a restaurant five nights a week."
Etheridge returned to the Midwest and spent nine months singing in hotel lounges in Kansas City, Mo. By 1982, she had arrived in Los Angeles and pursued her musical ambitions by talking herself into a regular gig at Que Sera Sera and other lesbian bars where Euro-beat dance music, not solo singer-songwriters, were the customary fare. For the first time, Etheridge was able to experiment with original songs, alternating her live sets with the hammering dance music.
"I think the experience of honing my craft in bars was a big influence," Etheridge said when asked how she came to emphasize songs with large-scale emotions, expressed in the most emphatic way.
"There would be 15 people in the bar and I'd notice the ones they liked were the ones that were just full of fierce passions," she said. "That would make the audience listen and applaud, and I kept writing (like) that because I kept getting a response."
The bar background also trained Etheridge in what is becoming the endangered art of connecting with an audience between songs--an art that usually is best practiced by experienced solo performers, such as Richard Thompson, Randy Newman, John Prine, Iris DeMent and Suzanne Vega.
The rockers who parade through "MTV Unplugged" typically come armored with full-band arrangements and seem totally unprepared for the intimate-performance challenge of disarming an audience. That's not a problem for Etheridge.
"I'll still stand up in front of 10,000 people and talk to them like I would in a bar," she said. "I've always believed if you talk to people in the bar, they'll pay attention and stay with you. I still feel that I have to bring them in, make them comfortable."
* Who: Melissa Etheridge.
* When: Sunday at 7:30 p.m., with Joan Osborne.
* Where: Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine.
* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to the Irvine Center Drive exit and turn south.
* Wherewithal: $58, $43, $38 and $28.
* Where to call: (714) 855-6111 (recorded information) or (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).
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