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VH-1's 100 Women in Rock, Uh, Rocks

Surprise! VH-1's 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll is great music television. It's also a five-hour exercise featuring frequent trips in the way-back machine, a handful of surprises, and a dollop of situational irony -- real irony, not the stuff Alanis Morisette (#53) sings about.

The biggest irony is which network decided to air the series. The show relies heavily on video clips to explain the visceral punch each woman delivers, yet it's not showing on the channel that introduced so many of the top 100 to the public. This isn't really surprising, since MTV prides itself on hyping the next big thing and history is no friend to one-hit wonders. But for a window of time in the 1980s, artists like Kate Bush (#46), Madonna (#8) and Salt-n-Pepa (#83) were the reason people watched the channel; you'd think MTV would be a little more mindful of their own roots, if not the music industry's.

By contrast, upstart VH-1 has been carving out a space as the custodian of rock history with their Friday Night Picture Show, Behind the Music episodes and Where Are They Now? features. It's not surprising that they've managed to pull together a respectable list of female artists. What is surprising -- and pleasantly so -- is how good the show is. VH-1's specials tend to be slickly crafted and somewhat shallow. This show reaches deep into the roots of rock and pulls up some moments that were surprising in their reach:

  • Big Mama Thornton (#80) singing "(You Ain't Nothing But A) Hound Dog" years before Elvis touched it, and doing so with a growling carnality he never managed. This clip -- and the footage of the Shirelles (#64) singing "This is Dedicated to the One I Love" and "Will You Still Love Me?" -- reminds the viewers how whitewashed rock and roll was back in the 1950s.
  • Unlikely musical fans gushing like schoolgirls over their favorite artists. Hearing Natalie Merchant praise Sarah McLachlan (#69) isn't unexpected; watching Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley of KISS carry on about how much they admire ABBA (#70) is.
  • Articulate musicians. Rock musicians tend to come off as stoned, self-promoting and moronic in interviews. In very nearly every interview featured here, they're speaking with eloquence and conviction about their favorite artists, and both subject and commentator look better. The one exception is Madonna: the nicest thing she says about anyone is of Alanis Morisette -- "she sold so many albums..."

    VH-1 refrained from adding "...for my label, Maverick records."

  • The real roots of rock and roll. Before snake-hipped hedonists took over, rock had its roots in gospel, r&b, country, and jazz. Without the unabashed power of Mahalia Jackson's voice (#78), Dinah Washington's sly, silky vocals (#48), Patsy Cline's delicious heartbreak (#11) or Mavis Staples' exuberant delivery (#57), rock's blend of suffering and celebration would have been forever muted by the likes of the Lennon Sisters and Annette Funicello.
Best of all, the five-hour series manages to capture a paradox inherent in music television: demonstrating how rock and roll has always fueled visual iconography while somehow managing to rise above it. Nowhere is this clearer than in the back-to-back coverage of Joan Armatrading (#59) and Cyndi Lauper (#58). Armatrading's voice -- which adoring fan Shirley Manson of Garbage described as "a mix of chocolate and velvet" -- flowed and bubbled over low-key still photos and left goosebumps. By contrast, the Cyndi Lauper segment knocked viewers of a certain age right back to 1985 with the high-energy shots of Lauper dancing in the street at the end of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." The music was almost an afterthought, which seems appropriate; Lauper was a snapshot of a certain moment in pop, not a soundbite.

Further illustrating this were the segments on Laura Nyro (#52) and Kate Bush. Nyro, whose distinctive phrasing and throaty vocals managed to impart an otherworldly quality to 1970s rock, is a musician whose body of work plays background music to your own imagination. Her segment was a mix of stodgy concert shots and album covers By contrast, Bush's gossamer vocals and lush orchestration is inextricably coupled with the sensual imagery she put forth in videos, and her segment was an otherworldly blend of sound and pictures. Does that mean one artist is a real music asset and the other is not? No -- it just illustrates that rock has assimilated visual media, and Bush was an architect of that moment.

Of course, the strongest feature -- pulling together a collage of powerful visual and musical moments -- is also the series' weakness. For example, Sheryl Crow is the highest-ranked rock artist of the 1990s at #44, outranking Hole (#68), Sarah McLachlan, P.J. Harvey (#55), Tori Amos (#71) and Liz Phair (#94). It's not like Crow's contributed anything significant to the craftmanship of pop -- Phair and Harvey have owned the 1990s in that category. She hasn't become iconic of a movement in rock music the way Courtney Love did as the kinderwhore frontwoman of a grunge band. Nor has she coupled her work with a social cause or cracked open the music business to all-female marquees like Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan have, respectively. But she is eminently videogenic and therefore great for VH-1 ratings, so there you go.

The only other gaffe is the advertising. I'm sure the advertising executives at VH-1 were positively agog with joy at the prospect of delivering a sure demographic to the advertisers, but surely someone must have questioned the wisdom of running diet commercials throughout a broadcast featuring original fat-positive spokeswoman Mama Cass Elliott (#23). The only possible explanation is that someone in media planning had a sense of humor about the futility of getting women to pay attention to the usual anxiety-inducing commercials about smooth legs and flat stomachs when they're sandwiched between shots of imperfect-looking women creating perfect moments in music. That's the only conceivable explanation for why an FDS commercial aired right after the Melissa Etheridge (#49) segment.

Snicker-inducing commercials and judgement gaffes aside, the series is a joy to watch. It successfully conveys to a generation of ahistorical rock-n-roll listeners why Queen Latifah (#71) acknowledges a musical debt to Ruth Brown (#60) and how Pat Benatar (#39) really was a lot more groundbreaking than she looks today. It demonstrates the importance of rock's clown princesses (the B-52s Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson at #47) as well as its heartbreakers and mystics. The show manages to sum up rock and roll in all its populist roots and iconoclastic directions, and to watch a television show so perfectly embody its subject is a rare moment of perfection and a joy to behold.


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