Melissa Etheridge

Reaping the whirlwind

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I remember very clearly the moment I realized that Melissa Etheridge was singing her emotionally raw, powerfully honest songs, not to the man in her life, but to a woman.

Because I was a teenager at the time and not the emotionally mature specimen of humanity I am today, the ramifications of that realization in my life were mostly limited to wondering whether my mom knew that the hits she was singing along to with such great gusto were lady-to-lady love songs (the answer: She knew. She did not care. If she’s reading this right now, she’s rolling her eyes at her daughter thinking she could be such a square). In other words, the emotional, social, cultural and professional ramifications of Etheridge’s sexual identity were sort of lost on me at the time, but her openness about it was not.

Although awareness of and attitudes toward the LGBTQ community have evolved more rapidly than even the more hopeful among us could’ve imagined just a few years ago, when a bona fide celebrity comes out, it’s still pretty big news—and it remains an act that does not come without certain risks to lives and careers. Even in our braver newish world of socially progressive thought, it’s pretty easy to assume that a number of celebrities are leading private lives that don’t match up to their public personas.

So, in 1993, when Etheridge, hyped on whatever the ’90s equivalent of Hope and Change was in the wake of the election of President Bill Clinton, got onstage at an inaugural ball and said the words, “I’m very proud to have been a lesbian all my life,” it was a groundbreaking announcement. It was also somewhat of an excited utterance, brought about by that situation, that moment in time.

At the time, celebrities were not exactly coming out in great droves—nor were they necessarily doing so with a guarantee of great acceptance. Hell, Elton John, now an unassailable gay icon and activist, had only officially confirmed his sexual identity five years before Etheridge, so it’s safe to say it was a different time.

While the substance of Etheridge’s off-the-cuff declaration may have been shocking to some (although it was more a confirmation of rumor than out-of-the-blue revelation in her case), her straightforward delivery of it was in keeping with character. No speaking through an intermediary, no massaged message carefully crafted by a public relations team, no scheduled and rehearsed talk-show appearance for Etheridge—just a simple sentence that said it all, without apology, without asking for permission.

She’d sown the wind, now Etheridge had to wait for the world to determine the size and shape of the whirlwind she’d be reaping.

However, coming out wasn’t the only big risk the singer took in 1993. That year would also see the release of Etheridge’s fourth album, the aptly titled Yes I Am. An album of hugely personal songs about all the many forms—from good to not so much—love can take, Yes I Am put Etheridge’s Grammy-winning songwriting, unforgettably raw vocals and naked emotion front and center. If she’d wanted to hunker down and hide until the weather passed, she certainly hadn’t given herself much shelter in which to do so.

But the whirlwind Etheridge had whipped up proved to be pretty exhilarating, and by the time it died down, it had yielded the musician a couple of huge hits (“I’m the Only One” and “Come to My Window”), her second Grammy Award, and a six-time-platinum certification for the album. Already critically lauded and beloved by a devoted fan base, Yes I Am turned Etheridge into a genuine rock star.

This is the point at which Etheridge’s story is supposed to turn into happily ever after, with continuing success, professional accolades and personal contentment. For a time, it seemed that’s exactly how it would go. Etheridge produced a successful follow up to Yes I Am, 1995’s Your Little Secret, which boasted a couple of hits of its own, “I Want to Come Over” and “Nowhere to Go.” Etheridge had two children with longtime partner Julie Cypher (fathered by none other than David Crosby), toured to huge crowds, embraced what seemed to be a natural role as a gay rights activist and appeared to be living out an enviable existence.

Indeed, life was happening as it does—a breakup here, a new relationship there, new children, new music, the endless touring that is Etheridge’s lifeblood—when the musician’s personal circumstances once again thrust her into the spotlight. This time, it was a breast cancer diagnosis, which came in 2004 and put an immediate halt to any and all future plans. Just days after diagnosis, Etheridge had surgery, which was followed by a rigorous course of chemotherapy. While the singer had been open about her diagnosis, she retreated into privacy during treatment, which would, in its way, lead to a moment as iconic and inspiring—and authentically Etheridge—as her inaugural ball utterance of a decade before.

I suppose if you’re going to remind the world of your continued existence, the stage at the Grammys during a tribute to one of your idols is as good a place as any. But if you’re going to do it right, you’ve got to do it bald.

At least if you’re Etheridge, that is.

At the tail end of cancer treatment and before her hair grew back, Etheridge—who had not made a public appearance since her initial diagnosis—sauntered out onstage, flashed a grin that said she knew exactly what she was about to do and brought down the house at the 2005 Grammys with a rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.”

Even though the song was not hers, in the performance of it was a lifetime of honesty, bravery and pure musical joy on full display.

But it would not have been so compelling a moment were Etheridge not such a compelling performer. As she has done every night of her career, the musician—whose live show has been compared to Bruce Springsteen, high praise indeed—left it all onstage. Strong songwriter, nimble guitar work and that passionate, raspy voice are the ingredients that make up this musician, but her live performance is where those ingredients truly come together. An engaging, charismatic performer whether with full band or solo, Etheridge is always at her best when she’s onstage.

It’ll be just her and her guitar when she plays on Mon., Nov. 23 at the Mount Baker Theatre, and along with her back catalogue of hits and favorites, she’ll also rely heavily on material from This Is M.E., the 2014 she released on her own label. The cover of the album, which appears to be a stylized photo of the singer, is actually a mosaic of tiny photos of her fans, a tribute to the steadfast support she’s received over the years.

It’s unlikely Etheridge will drop a bombshell in proportion to those of her past at the Bellingham show, but nonetheless, she’s a woman who can’t help but make a statement everywhere she goes.

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