Summer in America. A time for blood-drenched, dumbed-down action-adventure movies high on corpses, dinosaurs and extraterrestrials, but low on heart. Summer in America. Turn on the TV and watch your tobacco-chawing interleague baseball games; lay down your $49.95 and catch a championship-boxing match complete with an outrageous ear-chewing incident. Summer in America. Also a season for music: strutting macho megatours; draining weekend-long rock festivals; sweaty dance clubs throbbing with testosterone-filled techno. Dial up Ticketmaster; go to an outdoor alternative-rock show in a field, in a stadium; see the teeming, churning mosh pits, the muscular bare-chested frat boys, the sharp, scabbed elbows, the clomping Reeboked feet, the choking clouds of dust obscuring the stage...What if summer were different? What if the hottest season of the year flexed a bit less and cared a bit more? What if the months of July and August, at least when it comes to music, were a tad more feminine and a bit more feminist? What was it that Virginia Woolf wrote back in 1929? "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." Might the same be true of pop music?
This summer female pop stars are clearing out space for themselves, and the season's usual sea of masculinity is parting. The debut CD by Alaskan pop-folkie Jewel, Pieces of You (Atlantic), has sold more than 5 million copies and is still riding high on the charts. Erykah Badu, with her poetry-slam soulfulness, has sold more than 1 million copies of her brilliant new CD Baduizm (Kedar Entertainment/Universal) and is a headliner on this summer's neo-soul Smokin' Grooves Tour. And Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan has masterminded the summer's most talked-about musical event: Lilith Fair, a traveling show featuring a rotating lineup of 61 female singer-songwriters, including Cassandra Wilson, Tracy Chapman, Fiona Apple, Paula Cole, Jewel and McLachlan herself. There's a different melody in the air: macho is out; empathy is in. "People want to be given hope," says Atlantic Records senior vice president Ron Shapiro, "and these female artists are giving young people a life preserver."
Call the new sound coffeehouse pop. It has a comforting warmth, a topping of sugary froth, and it provides a kind of buzz, like sipping a cappuccino in a corner cafe. It is led, mostly, by female singer-songwriters, writing primarily from a feminist point of view. On her hit song Bitch, Meredith Brooks declares that she wants to "reclaim a word that had taken on a really derogatory meaning." But ideology or no, these women are unafraid to celebrate their own sensuality. On the inside flap of her album, Jewel poses in a sexy yellow swimsuit.
This new music has the vigor of youth--McLachlan is 29, Jewel just 23--and yet it echoes with sounds of three decades past: the crisp emotionality of Joni Mitchell, the artful lyrics of Bob Dylan. While rooted in acoustic folk, it draws freely on blues, jazz and even hip-hop. "There's no such thing necessarily as a folk song or pop song," says jazz singer Wilson. "What it is is not as important as how you do it, and how you do it is not as important as why."