As 1997 drew to a close, it was often hailed as a great year for Women in Music. This was the biggest story of a Movement, since bastardized ska has been the flavor-of-the-month for a couple of years now, the electronica thing was stillborn, sixth generation grunge won’t really die, and talentless REO Speedwagon tribute bands in alternative clothes can still hit it big, but only one or two at a time. The Lilith Fair tour was a landmark and kicked down the doors of radio programming for many female "alternative" and adult album artists. There is an element of this Women in Rock resurgence that seems to be generally neglected in the pop culture consciousness of this nation. I think that with distance and hindsight, 1997 will not be seen as the year of Women in Rock, but as the advent, proliferation, and dominance of Ab Rock.
What is Ab Rock? Well, take a moment and look at the image portrayed by many modern women in rock. Image in this case is not ancillary to the music, but rather an advertisement for the music that in many ways overpowers the value (or lack thereof) of the music. The best example to elucidate the definition of Ab Rock would be Paula Cole. Her music is a pale retread of what Sarah McLachlan was doing 6-8 years ago, but her one (and hopefully only) hit was buoyed by a video whose star was not her singing, not the arty camera shots, not even her face with its disturbing jaw, but her well-toned midsection. Yes, the Abs of Cole ensured that we have to hear her annoying "yippie-yo-yippie-yay" over and over. These Abs get more screen time, in better detail, than her face. When I first caught this video halfway through, I was shocked and appalled: "Sarah made a shitty song! Tell me this isn’t her new single." Then I saw the Abs. I was stuck between worrying that Sarah had gone over the edge and feeling sure this was someone else, as Sarah would never do such a thing. Relief washed over me when I saw the credits. Keep in mind that "Cowboys" is a song off Cole’s second album. Don’t let anyone convince you her sophomore success is a result of great artistic maturation, or that the public is belatedly recognizing her talent. The only change she made from one album to the next is a strict sit-up regiment. I hate Paula Cole. And her Abs.
Fiona Apple, whose music actually has some quality and depth (regardless of the stupid shit she says when someone points a mic or tape recorder in her direction; c’mon folks, she’s just past being a teenager, give her some leeway), joined the Ab Rock fray with her "Criminal" video. In this sensuous flesh-fest, which confusingly steals shots from both Larry Clark’s KIDS ("Caspuh, da dopest ghost in town") and a Paula Abdul video ("It’s Just The Way That You Love Me"), Fiona bares it all, showing how much of a bad girl she is. While her anorexic physique (and six-pack) might have made her the object of disgust and (unfortunately) envy to women and gay guys, it opened up her popularity to horny straight guys, a population which had generally previously written her off as another Tori Amos (blech!). Alas, an actual talent falls into the Cult of the Ab.
I trace Ab Rock, at least within our current decade, back to the burgeoning popularity of No Doubt c. 1995. "Just a Girl" hooked some adolescent gurls with its bludgeoning irony/softcore feminism, catchy riff, and general Cindy-Lauper-goes-ska. But in general, what you have is: Blonde… dot on her forehead… cute… doing push-ups… jumping around… (and most of all:) Abs! At base, No Doubt’s popularity comes from Gwen Stefani’s Abs’ power to make people want to (a) fuck her, (b) be like her, or (c) some combination a&b. With No Doubt you again have a sophomore success based mostly on the female lead singer’s move from baby fat and baseball hats to baby-tees and a perfectly toned midriff. But the plot thickens, as being Ab Rock can twist right back around and bite you in the ass. Gwen, possibly out of depression of not being with her cute little Gavin, put on a little weight during No Doubt’s last tour. Not Rosanne units of weight, just a slight pudginess about her prominent cheekbones and (gasp!) her hallowed, seminal belly. Immediately, more than one major national pop music rag ran pictures of her captioned with needling remarks. But hey, you live by the Abs, you die by the Abs.
Other Ab Rock luminaries: Spice Girls, whose t&a seem to be their only assets, and whose popularity sharply declined when 2 or 3 out of the 5 started to have to cover their Abs in order to obscure the rolls of fat thereover deposited; Jewel, whose mediocre angst folk is made palatable by her Zelweggian good looks and penchant for revealing clothes; Joan Osborne, a genuinely talented bluesy singer, who has committed the double sin of that "God" song (actually written by Eric Bazillion of the Hooters, for God’s sake!) and peddling her music through the little girl face and the yummy Abs; the women of Veruca Salt, who in a desperate attempt to not be one hit wonders have adopted a look that focuses heavily on Abs; Liz Phair, a great songwriter who is also unfortunately the indie rock world’s answer to Ab Rock; the list goes on…
Now let me not be slandered as anti-woman nor as a prude. I acknowledge (the obvious) that a woman’s body is her body, to do with and display as she pleases. I just want my art as art, not with the Great Abs come-on. For one thing, there is a corollary amongst male musicians, but it usually doesn’t involve disrobing. Sugar Ray, for instance, would not have even got its 7-1/2 minutes of fame without the square jaw and boyish good looks of its lead singer (bolstered by Supercat’s toasting and the catchy chorus of that inane "Fly" song). Bush’s Nirvana impression is made viable, and was probably guarded from the typical grunge sophomore slump (c.f. Candlebox, 7Mary3, Silverchair) by the fact that their lead singer is likely the cutest guy to come out of grunge, lo these many years and iterations of the form. (Next time: Square Jaw Rock? Cleft Chin Rock?)
Another point is that artists whose music I love have bared their flesh for the camera. Almost every PJ Harvey LP has a naked picture of her; the difference being that she looks weird. No one buys an album for the t&a, and it is not a marketing tool. Ani DiFranco has been dressing up sexy as of late, but again she gives her version of sexy a spooky enough quality that it is not simply an Ab Rock come-on; it’s complicated. She’s not exactly courting mainstream male lust. Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill is almost famous for her magic-marker tattoo on bared midriff shtick, but she is also adding a complication to the typical sexy-gurl thing.
I don’t namecheck these semi- or once-underground artists as a way to get hipster points or whatever. The fact that each of those three women have benefited commercially in some way, large or small, because they are attractive. So have other female artists I would exclude from the Ab Rock category, like Sarah McLachlan, Juliana Hatfield, Rebecca Gates, Shawn Colvin, Tori Amos, Tanya Donnely, and the Deal twins. That’s just the way the pop music game goes. The line I’m drawing is between those benefiting from something they can’t change and those making the image more important than the music. Whining about image’s influence upon music may be pointless, since image and music were intertwined even before the MTV age (but certainly now more than ever). It’s just disappointing when the public buys crap because of image or buys good stuff for the wrong reason.