Arena rock may not be the most sexist popular music performed today, but it does tend to support the Freudian formula "anatomy is destiny." There are women working this vein of hard rock, but they're very much a minority; for the most part, the performers are harmonizing he-men who reinforce their male dominance with displays of masculine pride.
Considering the sexual connotations common to the style, it would be fair to assume that "Sex as a Weapon," the first selection on Pat Benatar's "Seven the Hard Way" (Chrysalis 0V 41507), is a feminist critique of just such macho posturing. Benatar, after all, has never particularly savored the fact that her initial acceptance in the arena rock world had as much to do with her spandex as with her singing. Her fondness for message songs dates back to the anthem against abuse, "Hell Is for Children."
"Sex as a Weapon," though, ultimately is more concerned with its own sound than with any outside issues. The lyrics are, for the most part, incomprehensible, having been sacrificed in the mix to the surging mass of synthesizers, guitar and drums, leaving only the chorus -- "Stop using sex as a weapon" -- to convey the song's central idea. Not that it's a bad slogan, but in reducing a complex problem to such simple terms, the song renders itself almost meaningless. That's not to say that "Sex as a Weapon" is completely without content, for the song does manage to convey at least a sense of the singer's concern, no matter how unfocused. Still, shouldn't a message song be something more than a self-congratulatory advertisement for social conscience?
No doubt, but in the world of arena rock, the only content that counts is the sound, and that's precisely the approach Benatar and her producer/guitarist/husband Neil Geraldo take. "Invincible," from the movie "The Legend of Billie Jean," is less an anthem than an exercise in sounding anthemic; the lyrics may be muddled, but thanks to the arrangement, there's no denying the power of the chorus' catch-phrase: "We will be invincible."
Trouble is, Benatar and band churn out the same furious sound for almost everything, and after a while, that lessens even the most exciting music's impact. Their version of the Four Tops' "7 Rooms of Gloom," in fact, is almost comic in its overkill. Nonetheless, it's worth noting that Geraldo at least knows how to keep up with the times; the high-tech polish his production applies fits Benatar's sound perfectly, from the electronic clatter of "Red Vision" to the spacious synths in the Gary Numan-esque "Walking in the Underground."
Stevie Nicks also makes a point of sounding modern on her new album, "Rock a Little" (Modern 7 90479-1-E), but on the whole it seems more a matter of wanting hits than wanting to keep current. "I Can't Wait," for instance, is a terrific takeoff on the sort of hook-happy dance remixes Arthur Baker is famous for; unfortunately, most of the best bits in the recording seem to have been afterthoughts, tacked on by Jimmy Iovine and Chris Lord-Alge after the initial session.
"I Can't Wait" is a winning single no matter who deserves credit, but it also illustrates how haphazard a piece of work "Rock a Little" is. At its best, as on the title song or "Talk to Me," Nicks manages to work her idiosyncratic voice and semi-impressionistic lyrics into a convincing pop package that, though lacking the nostalgic warmth of her work with Fleetwood Mac, more than matches its melodic appeal.
Ironically, Nicks' downfall is that she doesn't do as Benatar does and make the music more important than the message. "Imperial Hotel," for instance, is built on a wonderfully Dylan-esque rhythm track by Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, but Nicks' episodic, ungrammatical lyric is unable to bring the music's power into focus. Similarly, "Sister Honey" goes absolutely nowhere as Nicks murmurs on about "some kind of temptation" over Les Dudek's bluesy backing tracks.
Had either been presented as sonic showcases, their failings would hardly have mattered, but the very clarity with which Nicks presents her lyrics is proof enough of what a botch the songs are.