SOMETHING’S HAPPENING HERE, THOUGH WHAT IT IS ain’t exactly clear. Last month, when announcing the nominees for the Grammy Awards—which CBS will broadcast on Wednesday, Feb. 28—a spokesman heralded the ascendancy of females in rock’s traditionally male domain by declaring, “This is the year of the woman.” If so, why now?
Because “male rock is running into clichés and self-parody,” offers Lucy O’Brien, author of She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop & Soul. Laura Lee Davies, music editor of the British magazine Time Out agrees that some guy-rock can seem stale, especially in comparison to, say, Alanis Morissette and PJ Harvey, quirky performers who have hit the mainstream with their over-the-top personas intact. “Women are better at playing around with image,” says Davis. “Boys still get a bit self-conscious if they try anything more than putting on a checkered shirt and standing behind a guitar.”
And, of course, this being rock and roll, it’s all probably somehow related to sex. Many of the women nominees are startlingly forthright about matters sexual. “That part of rock has been really boring in the last few years,” says Geffen Records vice-president Robin Sloane. “Women see the world differently.” Female musicians, she says, are “the most exciting thing happening.”
ALANIS MORISSETTE: Fans find her Jagged new image easy to swallow
WITH THE ANGUISHED CRIES AND SCREAMS OF A WOMAN WAY BEYOND THE VERGE, ALANIS Morissette works the stage at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom like a padded cell. As she flails her arms at some unseen tormentor, keening and ranting about sexual and emotional betrayal, the sellout crowd of young, ecstatic fans, all of whom seem to know her songs by heart, chant the risqué lyrics along with her. It’s a riveting, heart-and-head-banging performance and something of a coming-out for the 22-year-old Canadian, who started her career as a sweet-as-cream, children’s-TV star. Nominated for six Grammy Awards, Morissette has sold 8 million copies of her uneasy-listening album Jagged Little Pill, currently No. 1 in Billboard. The buzz began last year when Morissette’s controversial single “You Oughta Know,” a hate letter to an ex-beau, became a radio hit despite lyric content that would curl Tipper Gore’s hair. “Is she perverted like me?” Morissette sings in an angry snarl. “Are you thinking of me when you f—k her?”
For those who recall her previous turns as a fresh-faced 10-year-old on Nickelodeon’s You Can’t Do That on Television and, later, as a teen disco queen known in her homeland as the Canadian Debbie Gibson, Morissette has come a shockingly long way, baby. “When I first heard ‘You Oughta Know,’ ” says Geoffrey Darby, one of Morissette’s Nickelodeon directors, “I thought, ‘That came out of the mouth of our sweet little girl?’ ”
Raised in Ottawa by schoolteacher parents, Morissette, Darby remembers, “was smart, pretty and fun-loving. She lit up the screen.” Canadians saw the same G-rated smile six years later when Morissette released the first of two peppy dance albums. “Back then I was a lot more worried about people’s perception of me,” she told the Los Angeles Times last year. “I wanted their approval, so I came across happy. When I [old fans] finally heard this more honest part of me, I think they were like, ‘Yikes!’ ”
Now living in Los Angeles, Morissette makes no apologies for the sexual woman she is or the teenybopper she was. “It’s all part of who I am now,” she said. “And I like who I am.”
PJ HARVEY: She’s got a pink catsuit and a dozen incarnations
WHEN THE VILLAGE VOICE ANNOUNCED TWO weeks ago that Harvey had won the New York City weekly’s prestigious national critics’ poll, chief pundit Robert Christgau called her “a good old-fashioned genius.” That much-abused label just might fit the enigmatic 26-year-old singer and songwriter who has won nearly universal praise for her third, Grammy-nominated album, To Bring You My Love. For Harvey, a petite 5’4″ chameleon whose look swings from vamp to vampirish, being designated a genius beats other things she has been called. Most people, she once said, tend to take her for “a mad bitch woman from hell. I can’t get enough sex or blood.”
Offstage, in fact, she’s a demure, publicity-shy Brit from the West Country. Her music-loving parents, stonemason Ray and sculptor Eva, often hosted weekend bashes attended by their friends Rolling Stone drummer Charlie Watts and the late rock pianist Ian Stewart. “I am really lucky I had a mother and father like that,” Harvey said last year. “I mean, they really are rockers, much more than I am.”
Signed by Island Records in 1992, Harvey began hearing the g-word almost immediately. But to her, music has little “to do with your head,” she told London’s Q magazine, “It’s to do with your body, which is a very sexual instrument.”
JOAN OSBORNE: A diva whose earthy voice takes aim at heaven
LIKE WISE DINNER-PARTY HOSTS, GRAMMY Voters have long observed a rigid rule of etiquette: no irreverent talk about religion. So it’s a shock to find Osborne, whose hit single “One of Us” wistfully wonders, “What if God was…just a slob like one of us?” at table with the rest of this year’s nominees. The song, already a gold-certified Top 10 hit, is up for record of the year. Osborne, 33, has also been nominated for four other Grammys, including best album for her platinum debut, Relish, which brims with controversial lyrics. In “Right Hand Man,” about a one-night stand, she sings about her “panties in a wad at the bottom of my purse” and asks her short-term paramour if she can borrow a clean shirt.
A blues fan and church singer from the Bible Belt town of Anchorage, Ky., Osborne, one of six children of building contractor Jerry and seamstress Ruth, never considered music as a career. “In that place,” she has said, “it would have seemed an unrealistic pretentious ambition.” Osborne opted instead for film school but left New York University in 1986 and spent much of the ensuing decade singing gospel-flavored blues in Manhattan clubs. And though she has found commercial success with a secular sound, Osborne, a self-described “lapsed Catholic,” is still intrigued by church music. “It’s a search,” she has said, “for ecstatic experience.”
DIONNE FARRIS: It’s cool,’ she says of Grammy’s nod. ‘I thought I was going to be overlooked’
LIKE CHER, THE ALICIA SILVERSTONE CHARACTER IN CLUELESS who was named after a famous singer “who now does infomercials,” Dionne Farris owes her moniker to her parents’ favorite vocalist (and current Psychic Friends host), Dionne Warwick. “I’m just glad it wasn’t Gladys Knight,” Dionne says. “I like her, but Gladys Farris? Oooooo.”.
Farris, 27, isn’t ready for TV pitchdom just yet, but she is making a name for herself in Warwick’s original calling. Her Top 10 hit from last summer, “I Know,” has won her a Grammy nomination. But it won’t be her first trip to the awards show. She won a 1993 Grammy as a vocalist for Arrested Development, the pop-rap group she had quit the year before. Now working on her second solo, Farris, who was raised by her New Jersey schoolteacher mom, Larraine, lives in Atlanta near her father, Richard, a restaurant manager. Since breaking up with her longtime beau in 1993, Farris isn’t ready for a new relationship. “Child, no!” she says. “I ain’t got the time.”