The first time I ever sang in front of another person as an adult, I turned my back to my voice teacher, drew a breath and belted out "Similar Features" from Melissa Etheridge's debut album. I had the record on heavy rotation at the time it was a transitional point in my life, and I couldn't stop listening to Melissa's songs. Her voice was raw, her lyrics frank, her arrangements barren. I remember the album cover, Melissa's fists clenched in the air, defiant and strong. Fast-forward 15 years or so, and my first single was on the radio and critics were, to my great pleasure, comparing my sound with Melissa's. She sent me an e-mail, a welcome to the intimate club of female rockers. We developed a friendship, which grew when she and her partner Tammy Lynn Michaels moved into my Los Angeles neighborhood.
The music industry has become far more image conscious and contrived since her first album affected me so profoundly, and yet Melissa, 43, has remained unapologetically herself. She never sold out, paired up with the next hot producer or took off her clothes to sell records. She just writes incredible songs and sings and plays her guts out. Melissa's fearlessness was never clearer than at this year's Grammy Awards when, completely bald after nearly five months of treatment for breast cancer, she gave a wrenching, rocking performance of Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart." I was bawling backstage. She walked off and seemed to have no idea that she had done something extraordinary. She was just being Melissa: honest, defiant, fists in the air.
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From the Archive
Q&A: Melissa Etheridge: Joel Stein sits down with the rock star