Section: Women in Rock

FORTY AND GOING STRONG: “Now I’VE GOT THE LUXURY OF CHOOSING WHETHER I WANT TO BE SEXY”

SHERYL CROW FIRST Appeared in the background — singing off in the distance behind the likes of Michael Jackson and Don Henley. Yet ever since she made her solo debut with Tuesday Night Music Club in 1993, Crow has spent a sometimes bumpy but uniformly impressive decade in the forefront. Currently, she’s on the road in support of her latest smash, C’mon, C’mon, which finds her exploring her own roots, thanks to a little help from Bob Dylan. “I called him,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I am totally wigged out and I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing, and I’ve got a lot of pressure to incorporate what’s going on.’ He said, ‘You have to look at what’s out there and realize that it’s not based on anything. It doesn’t have any roots.’ He said, ‘Go back to your roots. Take out the albums that you loved and play those songs. Get your band together and rehearse those songs, and then you will start writing.’ And that’s what I did.”

Who was your first hero?

The first person I can remember wanting to be was Linda Ronstadt. I think it was all about that picture of her in cutoffs and roller skates. That’s what I wanted to look like, and who I wanted to be. And I still want to be her. I’m still a massive fan. She’s really underrated — when everybody is talking about women in rock, they forget her. She was like a white hippie version of Billie Holiday, just strength and sexuality.

What other female musicians do you most admire?

Stevie Nicks. She’s always working and growing up, and when she’s writing she doesn’t edit herself according to what people are going to think. Emmylou Harris is so beautiful and so sexy, and it’s completely uncalculated. She’s still making vital music; she’s growing older gracefully and still really involved. And I’m a huge Heart fan — they’re totally original, and totally full of testosterone. Nancy Wilson is one of the great guitar players.

What effect has being a woman had on your music?

It’s entered into every facet and defined it. When I was first getting started, I couldn’t get a record deal, because I was a woman. It was a different climate then. All of the women who were getting play on the radio or on TV were dance vixens like Madonna, Paula Abdul, Lisa Lisa, and then on the other end of the spectrum you had completely antihero types like Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman. And that was it. You were one or the other.

Did you face a lot of men who were attempting to remake you?

Well, I had a fantastic conversation with Bill Graham a couple of months before he died. I met with him to be my manager and ultimately hired him. And he sat me down and grilled me about whether I was willing to use my sexuality — what I was willing to do to get my music heard. Not what I was willing to do as far as compromising myself, but how far I would take it to have a believable sexual energy in the tradition of Janis Joplin and Tina Turner. Because he said that’s what rock & roll is based on: a sexual energy that is not overt but is threatening. And I remember comparing that to people that I was seeing around me — the Madonnas, the Paula Abduls — and thinking, “We’ve gotten away from the mystery of it: that feeling of coming into contact with somebody you don’t understand. The sexual fire of Mick Jagger and Robert Plant, or Janis. That thing that’s not containable. We’ve made it something that’s choreographed, we’ve made it something that’s calculated.” It had become marketing. Which is kind of where we’re at now, with marketing being king or queen.

How much do you think things have changed in the time you’ve been in the business?

How about in the last three years? Music has become generic, and now it’s all about the images. It’s made it virtually impossible to be ugly and be popular. And it’s really manipulating how young girls see themselves, how they define beauty. I don’t think that you get a chance to develop anymore as an artist, like I did. Thank God I got to hone my craft and figure out who I was without it all being dependent on images.

You caught some flak in the last year for addressing this issue and then being pretty sexy yourself in recent videos and photos.

It does become problematic. For me, it was necessary to explore that part of my personality. Although, unfortunately, I have done it twice before and nobody really cared. I feel like now I’ve got the luxury of kind of choosing whether I want to be sexy or not. I’m happy with my age. I’m proud of the fact that I’m forty. And it’s great to have the freedom to do what I want without having it be interpreted a certain way.

What’s your best advice for a young woman today who wants your job?

Well, God, it’s a different world now. But I would tell anybody to start with the greats, whether it’s blues or rock & roll, and learn how to write music. Learn how to write a song and then don’t let anybody tell you what to do or not to do. If you start following people’s advice, then you’re already behind.

Do you give any thought to the fact that there’s a young girl watching you the way you watched Linda Ronstadt?

Yeah, I am conscious of that. But everything that I’ve done has been based on honesty — even the major fuckups.

Defining Moment: She shattered her docile hippie-chick image with the nasty 1996 rocker “If It Makes You Happy.”

David Wild / Billboard / October 31, 2002

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