Friday, June 19, 2009

The Heart of rock & roll

Gender, pop culture, and the (now) historical legacy of the Wilson sisters

I was engaged in the quintessential act of postmodern life – channel surfing – late the other night when I came upon an unexpected and welcome sight: the rock band Heart performing at the Orpheum. (The “info” button on my remote control didn’t specify which Orpheum, which in a way was fitting, since part of what touring bands did during Heart’s heyday was create a national rock culture, even if the homogeneity of that culture was the source of much criticism.) The twin pillars of Heart, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, were in fine form. Ann’s voice still seemed strong, and Nancy’s guitar skills remained impressive as she did her well-known acoustic intro to the band’s 1975 hit “Crazy on You.” The elegantly intimate setting of the show befit an act of their stature – you can’t listen to classic rock radio for long without hearing old chesnuts like “Barracuda” (1977) or "Straight On" (1978)– but was also a reminder that their arena days have long since passed. Well into their fifties, it would not surprise me to learn that the two sisters carry AARP cards in their purses. "Barracuda" has been used by the last year or so by Honda to sell its Odyssey minivans (of which I own one) with the slogan "Respect the Van" -- a charmingly transparent play on counterculture rhetoric to help middle-aged drivers with children feel a little less old.

When Heart burst onto the national scene in the mid-1970s, the sisters were widely regarded as rock mavericks of a sort – bold women seizing ground long regarded as a male preserve – but they were never really regarded as feminist icons the way their contemporaries Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde were. That’s not really surprising. Unlike Smith or Hynde, the Wilsons were not transgressive in their gender politics; indeed, much of the band’s commercial power was rooted in the sisters’ willingness to leverage their considerable sexual power as objects of male fantasy. The band, moreover, was founded by men, notably brothers Mike and Roger Fisher, who paired up with Ann and Nancy Wilson respectively. Nevertheless, by the time of their breakthrough album Dreamboat Annie in 1975, it was clear that the two sisters (especially Ann) were the front men, as it were, a role that was increasingly a matter of fact as well as image.

In any case, Heart was a remarkably good rock band. Sinuous rhythms and a muscular guitar-based sound fused with an exceptional knack for melody that has stood the test of time. Despite growing anxieties about a weight problem, the raven-haired Ann projected a tremendous sense of authority and joy in her singing; despite evident shyness, blonde Nancy’s devotion to her craft onstage only made her seem more alluring. Even when presumably celebrating male sexual prowess, as they do in their signature song, “Magic Man,” it’s the narrator’s own pleasure – and power – that are foregrounded. For many years, the band covered Led Zeppelin’s “Rock & Roll” in its live repertoire, staking a credible claim to the very core of cock rock. Heart’s commercial and artistic crest coincided with the apogee of album-oriented FM radio with the album Bebe le Strange (1980), which featured the swaggering hit single “Even It Up.”

When, in the early eighties, the band’s moment in the spotlight began to dim, the Wilson sisters reinvented themselves as an MTV-friendly pop act, a de facto duo with a backing band and a stable of outside writers. They enjoyed a string of hits in the second half of the decade with songs like “What About Love” (1985), “Nothin’ at All” (1986), and “Alone” (1987). By and large, this music is less interesting, though it continues to get a lot of airtime on light radio stations. My favorite record from this phase of their career is “All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You,” the 1990 smash written by Mutt Lange, the great Def Leppard and AC/DC producer who went on to make some terrific pop records with Shania Twain. The title of the song has a sharp ironic twist revealed in the final verse, one made all the more vivid by Ann Wilson’s vocal, which she infuses with memorable anguish and regret.

Heart was never really at the forefront of my youthful musical obsessions; I always considered the band as the equivalent of an acquaintance I’ve long liked from a distance without knowing very well. My guess is that the group’s very skill at capturing its moment – its album covers of the eighties look like gaudy fashion caricatures of the time – will steadily fade as its core demographic gets displaced to the margins of pop culture. But I’d like to take this moment to do the Internet equivalent of flicking my bic in the blogosphere. Thanks, ladies. I’ve been grateful for times we shared in these swing decades of the millennium.