Two years ago, cover stories from coast to coast touted the triumph of sensitive, probing women in music, led by the literate ladies of Lilith Fair. Huge sales for ambitious stars like Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos, Melissa Etheridge, Paula Cole, Jewel, Fiona Apple and Natalie Merchant were supposed to herald a sea change in which female artists would finally hold their own against the men.
That was then ...
Over the last year, every one of these women has experienced a serious decline in album sales. While six of the Top Ten albums of 1999 were recorded by women, in the first half of 2000 only two were â€“ and Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera might more accurately be described as girls.
At the same time, the modern and alternative rock radio stations, which were vital to women's breakthroughs, have abandoned them in favor of a fresh wave of macho male artists. The current Top Modern Rock Radio playlists feature not a single female artist.
"There's a total backlash," says Evelyn McDonnell, co-editor of Rock, She Wrote, a collection of women's essays on music. "The things that are happening now have misogyny embedded in them."
"You've got a lot of disgruntled guys saying, 'Why do we have to listen to all these chicks with their swinging hormones?' " explains Ann Wilson, singer for Heart, one of the first female rock groups to break through, in the '70s. "Because women spoke out, does this mean that now we have to sit back for the next five years and listen to male performers say things like 'Die, bitch, die'?"
Ms. Wilson points to Eminem as an example of the most violent reaction to the Lilith generation. "He represents the opposite to what Sarah was trying to do," Ms. Wilson says of singer-songwriter and Lilith founder Sarah McLachlan.
Some observers think it's a seasonal shift rather than a politically driven one. Says Cyndi Maxwell, rock editor of the trade magazine Radio and Records, "We had a glut of female product for a while there â€“ it's only natural that people would tire of it. That made the market prime for a male-rock explosion."
Jim Kerr, who covers alternative and modern rock stations, sees this as part of a natural cycle. "Five years ago you could have written a story saying, 'Whatever happened to men?' " Mr. Kerr contends that the current crop of leading female artists is in a creative lull. "The planets were aligned for them for a while, in '96 to '98, when they released a lot of compelling albums at the same time," he says. "You had Shawn Colvin, Sarah McLachlan, Melissa Etheridge all with good albums. That isn't the case now."
The vacuum has been filled by an aggressive new male sound: the rock-rap trend spearheaded by Korn and Limp Bizkit in 1998. By the time of last summer's Woodstock festival â€“ its unofficial anthem Limp Bizkit's "Break Stuff" â€“ the new macho wave was seizing all the headlines and the airwaves.
"At the end of '98, alternative radio was very leery of playing music that hard during the day when people were at work," Mr. Kerr explains. "But now that's no big deal. They'll play as heavy as possible."
When alternative stations have tried to bring in new women, he adds, they've failed. "KROQ in L.A. kept putting in [British singer] Dido. But their audience turned up their nose. Radio can't play what listeners don't want to hear. And once a sound gets going, it feeds on itself to such an extent that people focus on that entirely."
Meanwhile, the pop stations that did play female artists began to focus on lighter, fluffier music than was offered by the thoughtful ladies of Lilith.
"There's a time when people want to cry in their beer and look inward, and a time when they want to kick up their heels and have fun," says veteran pop culture critic Carol Cooper. "This is a kick-up-your-heels time."
That explains, in part, the dominance of teenage girl singers, such as Ms. Spears and Ms. Aguilera, or what Ms. Cooper calls "sassy young women" â€“ such as Pink, TLC and Destiny's Child â€“ "who don't moan."
Ms. Cooper adds that "you can't underestimate how important the dance element is in popular music right now. You can't exactly bounce around to Sarah McLachlan or Fiona Apple."
"There's so much emphasis now on production and beats and so little on songwriting and lyrical content," agrees Ms. McDonnell.
Similarly, the women's music that's succeeding now accents vocal athleticism over personal expression in songwriting. Ms. Aguilera, Destiny's Child and reigning divas like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion all put sound over substance.
Then there's pop's ever-increasing emphasis on appearance to consider. "It's hard to spend any time developing your craft when you have to spend so much time at photo shoots having your makeup done," Ms. McDonnell observes.
"These days you have to be a movie star to be a pop star," Ms. Wilson complains. "It's amazing what young musicians are expected to be."
Some critics opine that the very notion of identifying musicians by gender hurts women. "I always feared that the overemphasis on gender would turn women into a trend," Ms. McDonnell says. "And trends fade."
She lays some of the blame for this on Lilith itself and suggests that Ms. McLachlan's venture was "too narrow in the kind of women it promoted. It wound up aligning women with soft music and men with hard. So when the trends went to harder music, [people] forgot that women can be hard, too."
Women who remain largely unaffected by these developments include such ambitious R&B artists as Lauryn Hill, Macy Gray and Erykah Badu. Each has continued to evolve musically and emotionally. "Their subject matter can be angsty and introspective," Ms. Cooper says. "But they're not static or dour."
That doesn't mean that other reflective female performers should quit. Inevitably, their day will come again. "In the long view, I don't think we've lost all the ground we gained," says Ms. Wilson. "I remember a time in the '70s when radio stations had a quota, and you couldn't play more than one woman in an hour, regardless of whether it was Grace Slick or Joan Baez. That doesn't happen anymore. At some point, much wilder and more wonderful things will happen for women. They always do."