by jonathan ledoux

Rock and Roll is a boys club. You have to admit it. Even though we have our female pioneers and icons, few have been admitted into the elite world of the rock star. Sure, women have broken through, Debbie Harry, Stevie Nicks, and Tina Turner are all first rate artists that have challenged and broken the male-dominated stereotypes that define rock and roll to this day. However, most of these women, once they have found success, turn their focus in other directions. Making dance records, going “pop,” or taking on a film career have all been viable excuses to lean away from the music that breaks many women into the industry. Furthermore, these women often lose the grit and depth of feeling that initially attracted attention to them. Opting for industry imposed luster as opposed to reconnecting to the emotional core of their music.

Artist: PJ Harvey
Song: As Close As This

Polly Jean Harvey, however, is not one of these women.

On her crackling and bruised debut LP Dry, PJ Harvey sprang into the music scene of 1992. Much of the attention, here in the states at least, was focused on Seattle. Bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were beginning to take back popular music that had slipped into the hands of the hair-metal bands of the late 1980′s. It was a time when many people in the younger generation began to find there voice. But where were the girls?

From Dry, to the harrowing Rid of Me, and into success with To Bring You My Love, PJ Harvey viciously cut a path through the male driven world in front of her. She was not a feminist, this was not on her agenda, she was driven to a place that allowed her music, her darker moments, to flourish.

She was not alone. Many female artist broke onto the scene in the decade to follow. Contemporaries abounded but few could navigate the waters as strongly as Harvey. Take Liz Phair for example, Exile in Guyville, her debut, is mammoth. However, softness and a need to fulfill commercial expectations, replaced songs about blow jobs and underage sex. Likewise, artists like Courtney Love, once rock royalty, faltered and retired. Or in her case collapsed under the scrutiny. Hole’s second LP Live Through This is still a touch stone of that era, but charting their course into the later part of the decade we see a decidedly Hollywood-ized version. Songs like “Celebrity Skin” and “Malibu” take on little impact when compared to the fuzzed-out rawness of her earlier recordings. The list goes on and on. Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos, and many of the Lilith Fair crowd have sidled off into near irrelevance.

PJ Harvey stands alone. Side-stepping a weak album in the late ’90′s she returned in 2000 with the Mercury Prize winning Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. An album so steeped in desire and regret you can practically smell the air on the rooftops she’s singing from.

Today, after nearly twenty years in the music industry, Harvey has returned with A Woman A Man Walked By, her second collaboration with longtime partner John Parrish. The record has a variety of styles that Polly Jean nimbly inhabits. From the slick and pleading opener “Black Hearted Love,” to the English pastoral of “Leaving California” and “The Soldiers,” she delves into the music and connects to it on a deeply emotional level. Never is she content to slide into the background or let the music overtake her. Instead she drives the tracks either with shear force of will, the snarling title track finds her howling “I want his f***ing ass,” or she slips over the song imbuing it with a ghostly falsetto that hovers above the ground yearning for explanation. The album doesn’t deliver on every level. Tracks like “Cracks in the Canvas” don’t add to her mythology.

That’s not the point though, or at least it shouldn’t be in her case. The difference between PJ Harvey and almost every other woman in popular music is that she refuses to be compromised. Her ambitions are lofty and the themes of her music are usually best suited to rainy days in graveyards but that strengthens her argument. She leaves her audience captivated by exposing her demons and unabashedly connecting with the subject matter. By honoring the darker sides of herself and reinvesting in the ideals that made her a rock star in the first place, Harvey individualizes herself and her music in a way that few can do, men or women.

The argument will be made that many women in popular music succeed in a variety of ways over the course of their careers. This is true, everyone from Madonna to Bjork to, hell, Cher have had incredible longevity and staying presence. However, the difference between these women and PJ Harvey is that they are not rock and roll. They dabble with it maybe, but the scope that defines them is different. Harvey, on the other hand, has never left her guitar and notebook for greener pastures. You will not hear her in ad for hair color, you won’t find her on the cover of Rolling Stone (You won’t find many other relevant musicians on there either.), and hell will freeze before she’s burning up the charts with a Neptunes remix. But alas, these identifiers of popularity are irrelevant.

PJ Harvey remains at the top by subverting the norm, a constant in the ever swirling waters of rock by embracing what many women lose or refuse to return to, the passion and tenacity that made them rock stars in the first place.

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