What constitutes feminist music?
Need it be political? Does it have to advance an idea or cause, or can it simply take the form of a pop song with a universal theme written by someone sympathetic to the women's movement?
Only in the latter case can June Millington's latest album, "Heartsong" (Fabulous LF 929), be described as "feminist," even though that term often has been applied to her since she left the all-women rock 'n' roll band Fanny nearly 10 years ago and went on to work closely with Chris Williamson, a like-minded songwriter with a large feminist following.
No, Millington, who performs tonight at the Bayou, isn't an outspoken feminist performer any more than she's an over-the-hill rock 'n' roller. Rather, she writes, sings, plays and produces sweet pop-soul music. On "Heartsong," the melodies are bright and inviting, the harmonies smoothly crafted, the instrumentation tasteful and discreet.
Each number is sung with obvious affection, and careful attention has been paid to production details despite a limited budget. The trouble is, all that is not enough. These qualities, as well as Millington's diverse talents, often are wasted on trite, forgettable lyrics.
"I'll Keep Holding On" and the equally uninspired "Right Time," for example, could be recorded by any number of pop singers with more distinctive voices than Millington's and they'd still go unnoticed. Ironically, one of Millington's finest lyrics, "Your Own Way"--and just about the only selection that suggests her feminist background--points to the biggest challenge she's currently facing: finding her own voice as a songwriter. Well, my mama raised me to be strong She taught me how to face the world, She said, "Girl, you've got to understand, They'll think you're just another girl But how long can you keep on, keep on believing What people on the corner say? You got to do what's best for you, You gotta make it your own way."
Unfortunately, "Your Own Way" and the tropical whimsy of "Coconut Mentality" are all that keep Millington from sounding just like so many other pop music "girls" on "Heartsong."
A far more distinctive songwriter, and one whose writing often takes an expressly feminist slant, is Meg Christian. Her latest album, the excellent "Turning It Over" (Olivia LF 925), includes some of her best work.
So personal are Christian's songs that it's often hard to imagine anyone other than herself singing them. In "Southern Home," for instance, she examines her own ambivalence about growing up in the South, first "fleeing Confederate closets of pain, losing the accents we learned to disdain," and now finding herself "holding those old Blue Ridge Hills in my heart, I can dream of the place that has known me the best."
Humor also accounts for much of Christian's success. "Gym II," a sequel to her popular "Ode to a Gym Teacher," is the album's centerpiece. Over a bouncy, infectious beat, the sort that sends Richard Simmons into spasms of delight, Christian bemoans her early years of "muscle oppression": When I was a little girl, my mama said/ "What's happened to your arms? Guess you got those bulges from beating up the boys in school." She said, "Biceps do not go well with white gloves And feminist charms. Get your priorities straight, go do the breast stroke in the pool."
In mid May, Christian will perform at Georgetown University with two other forces in women's music: Robin Flower and Band and the Canadian folksinger Ferron.
Flower's new album, "Green Sneakers" (Flying Fish 273), may prove to be one of the year's sleepers. Actually, it's the work of nine women, including the leader, a nimble guitarist with a lovely, often plaintive voice. Distilling the sadness of a mountain ballad like "Blackwaters" is easy for Flower, but more often the band's polished ensemble work eclipses individual contributions. Chugging rhythms and high harmonies color Merle Watson's "Southbound." The crisp exchange of guitar, dobro and mandolin spark the "Temperance Reel." A gentle electric sway gives "Lemonade Sue" a subtle momentum all its own. "Green Sneakers" is an eclectic offering, an album that touches on traditional country, bluegrass, swing and new-grass forms with taste and style.
If folk music ever returns to bloom as it did in the early '60s, Ferron doubtless will become much better known in this country. Her album "Testimony" (Philo PH1074) is full of provocative images and imaginative wordplay. Unresolved Dylanesque passages are also common in the way guitarist Stephen Nikleva echoes Mark Knopfler's playing at times. Yet despite these similarities, Ferron's best songs--such as "Who Loses" and "Ain't Life a Brook," which find her skillfully dissecting relationships--are incisive and original enough to make all comparisons seem irrelevant.