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Colleen Sheehy, NxNW, Published February 12 2014

Sheehy: Women in music today showcase variety of talent

I love the variety of women’s voices in popular music today. I’m not thinking of the megastars like Beyonce and Taylor Swift, even though I admire their showbiz smarts and economic power. They certainly do represent the increased potential for women to mount super tours, fill arenas, and attract international audiences. And they are meaningful to many young women and girls.

I’m thinking more of the emerging performers that are everywhere now in rock ’n’ roll, folk, indie music, and other genres. These women are no longer anomalies in what has been a male-dominated and often sexist arena.

Today, women’s voices show amazing variety in musical styles, lyrical concerns, vocal quality, and visual looks. They have become the new normal, and I applaud that. This makes for a richer world of art and experience for all of us, and can inspire us to raise our voices to communicate our own ideas and points of view.

So who are these women? I’m thinking of the three sisters in Haim, a group from Los Angeles, whose debut, “Days Are Gone,” features confident, beat-driven compositions, like “The Wire,” that some hail as the mark of a new L.A. sound. In a very different vein, the British band, Savages, has made a big splash with their punk revival sound.

Then there’s the incredible talent of Lorde, a New Zealander who, at 17, has wowed the world with her “Pure Heroine” album, featuring the hit “Royals,” a teenage girl’s retort to the rich that claims her and her friends’ power. Valerie June is another performer with a surprising, distinctive voice, part Billie Holiday, whose new album, “Pushing Against a Stone,” brings together folk, blues, soul and gospel in a genre-blurring collection of songs.

British singer Laura Marling brings a rich soprano to an update of acoustic folk-jazz music, via Joni Mitchell.

Lana Del Ray scrambles ideas about the blonde bombshell, singing in the world-weary, languid voice of a modern-day Nancy Sinatra.

Minnesota singer Caroline Smith issued a strong album last year in “Half-About Being a Woman,” that is rhythm and bluesy, expressing a woman’s perspectives on love and relationships.

Other singers find new nuances and contemporary sensibilities in stylistic revivals of girl-group sounds of the 1960s, such as Dee Dee, the writer and lead of Dum Dum Girls, and Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast.

Even in bands that are not “girl groups,” lead singers are the heart, soul, and voice of the music. Polica, a snyth-pop band from Minneapolis is all about the dreamy vocals of Channy Leaneagh. In Lake Street Dive, lead singer Rachael Price stamps the group with jazzy sensibility.

There are others who have been around for a while who display staying power and musical growth, like the chanteuse Neko Case, whose belting, clear voice express her strong convictions. The soft, breathy, thoughtful Maria Taylor also conveys the kind of strength that comes from learning from life experiences.

Though all over the stylistic map, these artists share a confidence in speaking their minds and claiming their musical territories.

As our community gets ready to host the annual “Celebration on Women and Their Music” this Saturday night at the Fargo Theatre, it’s valuable to realize that these performers are part of the wider musical landscape, where women have made the musical world their world.


NxNW is an occasional arts and culture column written by Colleen Sheehy director and CEO of the Plains Art Museum in Fargo.