Pop Culture

A rocker worth Crow-ing about

Women are fixtures in the top echelons of pop, soul, country, dance, blues, gospel, even hip-hop, but there are very few women near the top in rock, and no one with the status or longevity of a Madonna, an Aretha Franklin, a Dolly Parton, or the star power of a Britney, Cher or even Jessica Simpson.

Among the current female rockers who actually sell are Sheryl Crow, veteran growler Melissa Etheridge, angry young woman Alanis Morissette, troubled aging punker Courtney Love, punk/metal ingenues the Donnas, punkish indie rock band Sleater-Kinney and revived new wavers Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Debbie Harry of Blondie.

Goth-pop-metal hybrid Evanescence, led by young singer Amy Lee, broke huge last year but guitarist and co-songwriter Ben Moody has already departed casting grave doubts on the band’s future. Avril Lavigne is massive with the kids, but let’s face it, her brand of pop-punk is way more pop than punk and it remains to be seen if she will still be a star by the time she turns 21. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Kim Deal of the Pixies are respected indie rock pioneers and fixtures, but they aren’t really stars in their own rights. Formerly brazen indie-rocker Liz Phair just had a big album, but she turned slick popster to do it. Did I mention Sheryl Crow?

Sheryl is reigning Queen of the Rockers
Singer, songwriter, musician, producer and girlish 42-year-old sex symbol, Crow, originally from Missouri, is by far the biggest star of those listed above, as her current spate of activity underlines. The former backup singer for Michael Jackson (“Bad” tour of '87-'88, tabloid rumors of their romantic involvement were greatly exaggerated, as in completely fabricated) was selected for the plum assignment of kicking off the NBC “Today” show’s “Toyota Concert Series” in April.

Today show

Then on May 4, Crow took to the air again, this time literally as she performed a 40-minute acoustic set before an invited business audience on a United Airlines flight between Chicago and Los Angeles to promote a joint venture between the airline and Sony’s new Connect Online Music Service. (A novel cross-promotion between the companies, anyone who downloads music from the Sony service can earn flying miles from United, and United flyers will be rewarded with points toward music downloads.)

Back on the ground, Crow is dating American bicycling champ Lance Armstrong (she has been credited with putting “fire back in his pedaling”), she does an on-screen performance of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” in “De-Lovely,” MGM’s film about Porter.

But amidst all the glitter, glamour and globetrotting, it’s the music that counts and Crow has the goods. Crow’s voice is youthful but lived-in, and her eclectic but immediately identifiable style draws together rootsy rock ‘n’ roll, bright pop-rock, alt-rock and country into an extremely appealing blend very well represented in her recent smash collection “The Very Best of Sheryl Crow.”

After kicking around L.A. for several years in the late-'80s and early-'90s, fighting depression, doing studio backing vocals (Sting, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Sinead O’Connor, Stevie Wonder, Foreigner, Don Henley), and avoiding being forced into the dance-pop mold as a solo artist, Crow fell in with a loose group of musicians and songwriters (including producer Bill Bottrell, David Baerwald and David Ricketts of “David and David”) who called themselves the Tuesday Night Music Club. Out of beery sessions with this group came her brilliant debut album of the same name in late 1993. She won Grammys for Best New Artist, and Record of the Year and Pop Female Vocal for her breakthrough single “All I Wanna Do,” which also leads off the best-of collection.

“All I Wanna Do” is a classic L.A. brew of sunny country-rock, Latin-esque rhythms, fabulist humor (“I love a good beer buzz early in the morning”), a hint of surf guitar and a shadow of desperation as the world passes before the bloodshot eyes of the Crow character and her “plain ugly” drinking companion William. Also on the collection from Crow’s debut is the sublime “Leaving Las Vegas,” a sad but hopeful farewell set to a hip-hop beat, the sweet beat ballad “Strong Enough” (“lie to me, I promise I’ll believe”) and the similarly themed “I Shall Believe.”

Crow’s exceptional self-titled second album came along in '96, forging Stonesy fuzz guitar, roots rock swing, and odd studio noises and squiggles into a sound both classic and contemporary. Representing it on the collection are emblematic “A Change Would Do You Good,” gentle “Home,” world-weary “If It Makes You Happy,” and swirling, hard-charging “Everyday Is a Winding Road.”

Another winner, “The Globe Sessions” ('98), didn’t break new ground but canvassed familiar territory quite pleasurably (if a bit somberly) with “My Favorite Mistake” (remarkably echoing Aimee Mann), “There Goes the Neighborhood” with big fat “Exile On Main Street” guitar riffs from her co-writer Jeff Trott, and the Stones’ own sax man Bobby Keyes, and bluesy “The Difficult Kind” (“Anything But Down” is strangely left off the collection).

Crow’s image was glamorized considerably (note hot beach pics) and her music brightened on “C’mon, C’mon” ('02), where it became clear that the 40-year-old was not going to go gently into that good night. On the collection are “Steve McQueen” (with chic treated vocals) and “Soak Up the Sun” (with Liz Phair singing along). Also on the collection are Crows monster country duet with Kind Rock “Picture,” and her new cover of Cat Stevens’ lovely “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” her biggest solo hit single since “All I Wanna Do.”

And that’s why Sheryl Crow is rightly the biggest female rock star in the world today. But where are the other rocking women? We’re in a lull right now with no one other than Crow comparable artistically and commercially to Janis Joplin, Grace Slick or all-girl bands of the '80s like the Go-Gos and Bangles. Testosterone still flows through the heart of rock, still powers the chords, and still never gets pregnant. The less rigidly priapic genres of new wave, punk and indie rock have borne more feminine fruit than rock proper, and there the best hopes probably remain.

Eric Olsen is the editor of and a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.

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