It was another Year of the Woman in popular music. No one paid the subject any mind because last year was the Year of the Woman in pop music, and who expects two straight years of the woman? Yet while 1988's claim to the title was based on the mass-market breakout of a select few semipopular artists addressing feminist concerns thought "sure" to alienate a wide audience (Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, Michelle Shocked, etc), 1989's Year of the Woman was based on simple chart success. It was as quiet a triumph as any trend measured on the Billboard charts could be, because that's where this category of "female artists" set records for most number-one albums and number-one singles.
The meanings to be drawn from this, however, are ambiguous. For every strong statement made by a Janet Jackson or a Neneh Cherry there were two or three singers like Taylor Dayne just filling up the airwaves. And of course Debbie Gibson counts as female but isn't yet a woman, which complicates matters.
At the head of this ambiguous trend, in any case, was Madonna, as usual, who remained unfathomable and for that reason incredibly popular. The jumble of conflicting images that constituted her "Like a Prayer" video qualified as an artistic statement only in that it proved too strong for Pepsi, which paid her off and sent her packing, in an attempt to protect the innocent minds of its generation.
And that's where the consequences of this trend, whatever they are, will be played out: in the minds of the young girls who still listen to radio, buy singles, and watch videos. Unlike the tidy adult minds that championed Chapman, Vega, and Shocked, the teenyboppers were likely both to have actually bought those artists' records and to have gone on to this year's less dogmatic female acts. The kids made Jody Watley and Paula Abdul stars while the adults who read this paper (make that simply, "who read") were wondering who these people were in the new Reebok and Gap magazine ads. Both these artists proved too flexible to be called feminists. Watley teamed with rappers Eric B. & Rakim to make an insipid song advocating the pleasures of mere friendship, sullying the critical reputations of both acts in the process. Abdul hit with a single saying it isn't the material things but "The Way That You Love Me" that matters, then undercut this simple message with a video that said clearly the opposite, with its images of cars, champagne, and the singer's own coy smile.
The strongest statement of the year was Neneh Cherry's "Buffalo Stance," a feminist manifesto without a formal agenda except for an implied desire to get even, to find some level of equality. The music was confrontational without being macho, and Cherry's one muttered slur was the word "gigolo," cast around with the same elan that the Rolling Stones use with the word "bitch."
And Queen Latifah became the woman who finally equaled the best male rappers, song for song, over the length of an entire album. Her rapper's egotism seemed not macho but fully feminine and fully earned, the requisite attitude in the struggle for comparable artistic worth. Her demands for sexual equality, meanwhile, had a clear and powerful parallel in her demands for Third World equality.
These relatively small record-business triumphs were all but undone by small but telling defeats such as Maria McKee's solo debut. Geffen Records worked hard to tame one of the most thrilling voices in rock, then packaged McKee in a soft-focus photo, hair up and hem down, that looked like the first picture in a Playboy magazine spread in which, on ensuing pages, the hair comes down and the bodice comes off. McKee showed some real emotion only on the CD-only cut, "Drinkin' in My Sunday Dress."
The packaging, manipulation, and commercialization of the female image--while nothing new--reached such an extent in the record business this year that I turned increasingly to world-music stars such as Chaba Fadela (who sings North African rai music) and Najma (who sings Indian ghazal poetry). The lack of hype surrounding Fadela's You Are Mine and Najma's Qareeb was refreshing. While Fadela's style sometimes seems grating--like dining perpetually at a Middle Eastern restaurant--Qareeb, with its rolling, funky bass, its circular violin figures, and its expressive saxophone, all embellishing Najma's own incredible voice, never grew tiresome. Along with Lucinda Williams's debut (a 1988 release that we discovered late), Qareeb was one of the two records in the house capable of making my baby daughter turn from a bottle to face the music.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Deborah Frankel.