When I was younger, if I heard a song sung by a girl (at this age, you were either a boy or a girl, simple as that), I hated that song. That sounds worse than it is. I didn’t hate girls. I wasn’t raised to think they couldn’t do the same things that men could do (i.e. write/perform good music). It wasn’t even that I thought, in that particular little kid kind of way, that girls were icky. It was simply that the songs were bad, or at least song that I considered (and continue to consider) bad. I grew up listening to whatever my parents put on the radio, which was mostly 70′s and 80′s rock. This means that the majority of female fronted songs I heard were Fleetwood Mac, Heart, Rush, Pat Benatar, and Joan Jett. (I know, Geddy Lee isn’t a woman. I can’t help but needling Rush fans from time to time. And to be fair, the first time I heard Tom Sawyer, I legitimately thought I was listening to a woman sing.) You might be able to make an argument for any of these bands/artists, and you may even be right, but I’m still not going to enjoy their music. I even remember my mom being really into Janis Joplin. I have a certain amount of reverence for the place Joplin holds in musical and cultural history, but a lot of the music still leaves me cold.
I suppose it wouldn’t be dishonest of me to say that when I heard a female vocalist, I always ended up with the feeling that, as a boy, the song wasn’t meant for me. For all the sweet things people like to say about the simplicity of a child’s mind, there are reasons most people try to grow out of that. Maybe that was feeling was a reaction to not liking the songs, but either way, I didn’t like the songs. And I’m okay not getting enjoyment from any of these sources. The problem was that, at some point in my childhood, I started to associate a female singer with music I didn’t like. Someone should have told me that correlation is not causation. (They probably should have told me about Grace Slick, and I probably wouldn’t be writing this article.)
I don’t know when I started to realize that women could rock, too. I bought Jagged Little Pill, but none of the 16 millions people in America who bought a copy of that album are allowed to say that they liked it, so that doesn’t count. Veruca Salt, The Breeders, Poe, and Tracy Bonham all had early-to-mid-90′s singles that I loved in real time, along with a few others that I didn’t really discover or get into until after the fact.
Smack dab in the middle of those 90′s came No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom. I didn’t know anything about No Doubt and their ska history (or even what ska was) when I first heard “Just A Girl,” the first single from the album, but I loved the song. Each successive single pushed me a little further from the band, however. “Spiderwebs” was alright, but felt a little too long and messy, even before I really cared about those sorts of things. “Don’t Speak” sort of left me that “not for me” feeling I mentioned earlier, and the thought alone of “Excuse Me, Mr.” is enough to give me a headache. After Tragic Kingdom, Gwen Stefani and No Doubt gave me few reasons to ever reevaluate my stance on these songs. Any argument otherwise is bananas.
Which is why I was so surprised when I heard “Don’t Speak” recently. It wasn’t like hearing it for the first time, although it had been quite a while since I had listened to it, but rather like hearing an old song completely differently. I suddenly realized what an excellent song this is. Stefani’s lyrics, while not saying anything particularly new on the topic of breakups, do an excellent job of balancing that middle ground between sadness and anger that becomes the emotional home for so many people losing a relationship, with the music matching the tenderness and darkness of those emotions. Even Stefani’s voice, something I was never very fond of, seems tailor-made for this kind of song, her high-pitched rasp cutting right to her about to be former love (who happens to be laying down a pretty fantastic bass line).
It’s possible that, even if I had grown up without any ill-conceived prejudices about female singers, I still wouldn’t have liked “Don’t Speak” when it came out. I’m just glad I grew up.
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