Let's be honest: Despite the perceived sensitivity injection (courtesy of tear-stained emo and indie artists), radio is no more welcoming to female musicians now than it was during the days of frat-mook nü-metal at least female musicians of substance. Save for Kelly Clarkson and KT Tunstall, modern airwave starlets show more skin than intellect. And while catchy pop fluff has its time and place yes, even the pre-fab Pussycat Dolls seeing women time and time again reduced to vapid sex objects (and nothing more) is tiresome.
Who suffers most from this narrowing of gender roles? Female artists doing their own thing, naturally. Take Pink. For a time, her insistence on individuality reaped dividends; witness her transformation from faceless Top 40 diva to colorful icon with 2001's M!ssundaztood. But when she co-wrote tunes with Rancid's Tim Armstrong and enlisted Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens for 2003's rock-oriented Try This, the album barely made a ripple in the culture's consciousness.
With I'm Not Dead, Pink rediscovers her pure-pop roots, having enlisted noted teen-dream scribe Max Martin and glossy-rock vet Butch Walker for musical help. But the results are as varied and as atypically "pop" as This. For every Kelly Clarkson-esque rock-popper, stylistic curveballs abound; "'Cuz I Can" explodes like a shower of disco-glam glitter, "Leave Me Alone" is Killers-esque, and "The One That Got Away" shows off Pink's rust-colored, bluesy wail.
Sure, Clarkson's surprise hit "Since U Been Gone" made it cool to use guitars on rock songs again. But Pink's interpretation of this phenomenon is a little less breezy. She grapples with the double-edged feminine sword the struggle to desire and be desired; being sexy while still earning respect on several tunes, she tells her younger self to "don't lose your passion or the fighter that's inside you," and even records a surprisingly moving song with her dad, a folk tune he wrote while serving in Vietnam. While the album's numerous earnest piano ballads are a little too syrupy to swallow (the Indigo Girls-starring "Dear Mr. President" in particular), Dead is smarter-than-average music. It's emotionally multidimensional; in other words, not an escape from reality, but a reflection of its imperfections.
Capturing life's giddy highs and lows is what Boston rockers Damone excelled at on their woefully underexposed 2003 debut, From the Attic, a disc full of bubblegum-punk ditties about teenage ennui and innocent love. Like Pink, Damone vocalist Noelle LeBlanc a firebrand hiding behind shaggy hair, eyeliner and hoodies like a scruffy Runaways admirer isn't typical for her genre; her girlish-without-being-girly yelps ensure that. But unlike many groups, Damone doesn't make Noelle's gender the focal point of its music or sonic approach, as evidenced on the superb Out Here All Night. While a few tunes perpetuate Attic's new-wave fizz (the Valley Girl soundtrack-esque highlight "You're the One," the power-pop bounce "On Your Speakers"), crunching metal and ballsy classic rock indebted to Mötley Crüe, KISS and Pat Benatar dominate. Night is rock for tomboys who'd rather practice air guitar than go shopping.
And Damone suffers commercially for this. They're not macho enough to hang with brute-force metalheads, but not tarted-up enough to be Ozzfest pin-ups, either. It's a misfit situation Pink knows all too well; "I don't want to be a stupid girl," she sings on Dead's attention-getting (but still pop-leaning) single, "Stupid Girls." The sad thing is, if she were one, she'd probably be multiplatinum by now. Annie Zaleski