Say what you will about “token” minority appreciation months — I always seem to learn something by indulging the concept. For instance, in honor of Women’s History Month, I thought I’d run down a short list of the female recording artists who have expanded my musical horizons, and I found myself naming name after name after name. After name. It turns out they’re not a subset of popular music. They’re an integral part of it, pushing songs up and down the charts, innovating, regressing, occasionally blowing our minds, and yes, occasionally flopping. It occurs to me that the story of women in pop music is really just the story of pop music. They’ve been playing right along with the men, and although I didn’t know it, I’ve been listening the whole time.
As I said, whittling my favorite female artists down to a list of 10, or 50, or 100 is a ridiculous exercise. But since I want to pay tribute to women whose music means the most to me, I narrowed the field to those who wrote the music they recorded, highlighted by the one song that epitomizes their talents. Make no mistake: These are musical giants by any measure. Consider the five I’ve named here not as a listing of “best women in music,” but a sampling of the very best artists in pop music who happen to be women.
Jackie DeShannon, “When You Walk in the Room” (1963): She’s best known for recording Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What the World Needs Now is Love,” but Songwriter Hall of Fame inductee Jackie DeShannon was no slouch with the pen, composing the classic “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” and co-writing “Bette Davis Eyes,” later a chart-topping hit for singer Kim Carnes. “When You Walk in the Room” echoes many of the female-oriented hits of the early 1960s — notably the Carole King/Gerry Goffin penned “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” — that regarded love with a tentative shyness and anxiety of a teenager*. To cite individual lines does an injustice to the entire piece, which paints an agonizing portrait of a lovesick wallflower whose world lights up when the man of her dreams enters her room. Painfully, she keeps her distance, observing from afar what she believes is unattainable. It’s heartbreakingly sweet, an ode to teen awkwardness that presumably fades in adulthood.
*It should be noted The Searchers covered “When You Walk in the Room.” Like most great love songs, the lyrics are not specific to gender or, for that matter, sexual orientation.
Joni Mitchell, “Free Man in Paris” (1974): I was never big on Joni Mitchell as one of the folk mothers of the ’60s, but her influence on the genre is undeniable. Her “Woodstock,” covered famously by both Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Matthews Southern Comfort, became a touchstone for a generation defined by that legendary music festival. In the 1970s, Mitchell moved toward fuller, jazz-infused instrumentation that produced such hits as “Help Me” and “Free Man in Paris.” The latter recounts an excursion to Paris she made with friend David Geffen, during which the ascending record executive, accustomed to dealing with “dreamers and telephone screamers,” was able to forget his cares, if only briefly. One can imagine Geffen letting his responsibilities slide away on the Champs Elysees to the refrain of “I was a free man in Paris, I felt unfettered and alive. Nobody calling me up for favors, no one’s future to decide.” That Mitchell nailed him so precisely is a credit both to the depth of their relationship and her songwriting mastery.
Liz Phair, “Mesmerizing” (1993): For a few albums in the 1990s, Liz Phair was so original, so genuine and so refreshing. I’d never heard anyone like her. She talked about sex, love, relationships, marriage, divorce and children in absolute frank terms. She gave the listener unfiltered access to what was on her mind, turning from schoolgirl sweet to shockingly filthy in the same stanza. Her 1993 debut “Exile in Guyville” carries so much interesting baggage, as titles such as “F–k and Run” and “Divorce Song” indicate, but “Mesmerizing,” in which Phair lyrically empties both barrels in a blaze of defiance and hurt, showed me a new way of recording music. It’s sparse, with little more than an electric guitar, a hint of percussion and her world-weary voice. But it holds up. Phair grew more polished in follow-up albums, including the excellent “Whitechocolatespaceegg,” but slowly fizzled into obscurity the further she strayed from the cut-to-the-bone sound that made her so, well, “Mesmerizing.”
Carole King, “It’s Too Late” (1971): Carole King is a no-brainer for this list; it’s just a matter of which song to single out. Luckily, as hugely productive as her years with husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin were, those were collaborative efforts and don’t count here. Her extensive solo catalog doesn’t make the job a whole lot easier, but given the enormous impact of her landmark 1971 album “Tapestry,” let’s start there. Even then, with a loaded track list that includes the wrenching “So Far Away,” I basically had to flip a coin to arrive at “Too Late.” First off, I’m a sucker for major 7 chords, which she throws liberally into both songs. The tiebreaker then is the latter’s unique appraisal of why a relationship failed, best summed up in the line, “Now you look so unhappy, and I feel like a fool.” Maybe it’s the female perspective. Maybe it’s just great writing. Either way, there’s a keen understanding that breakups aren’t always about what went wrong or who’s at fault. Sometimes unhappiness and foolishness just happen.
Stevie Nicks, “Silver Springs” (1977): As part of the rock ‘n’ roll soap opera that was Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks had a treasure trove of intraband relationships and dalliances to mine for writing material. She did not waste them, crafting soul-baring songs like “Gold Dust Woman,” “Sara” and “Landslide.” How it was that “Silver Springs” led an orphaned existence as a B-side left off the group’s 1977 “Rumours” album will forever be a mystery to me, as it’s one of her finest efforts, both as a writer and singer. Aimed squarely at bandmate and ex-lover Lindsey Buckingham, “Silver Springs” explores betrayal, musing over what could have been before devolving into the obsessive ranting of a stalker. If it’s not clear from the line, “And can you tell me was it worth it/Really I don’t want to know,” how emotionally devastated this woman is, the refrain seals it with “I know I could have loved you but you would not let me.” Nicks alternately voices pleading, scorn and finally desperation as she pledges to “follow you down till the sound of my voice will haunt you.” And haunt it does. It’s rare to see heartbreak so powerfully written. It’s even rarer to see it so expertly illustrated.