''God help you if you are an ugly girl, 'course too pretty is also your doom/cuz everyone harbors a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room,” sings Ani DiFranco on her self-penned “32 Flavors,” a track recently covered by Alana Davis and turned into a minor hit. The song originally appeared on DiFranco's 1995 collection, Not a Pretty Girl, an album title that's less about autobiographical truth than a declaration of the singer-songwriter's allegiances. The line quoted brings traffic to a halt with its borderless empathy; what could have been a pedantic rage against fucked-up beauty standards is, instead, a quiet affirmation of sisterhood.
DiFranco's version of the song offers a vinegary undertaste, with the singer alternately snapping off her words and letting them melt from her mouth. The production is deceptively low-key, with gentle African-style percussion and chants in the background underscoring emotions that seethe and simmer. Davis' delivery is modeled closely on DiFranco's, but her musical frame is pure pop; the song's structure has been made much more conventional. In the original, chorus and verses flow in and out of each other on the same bumpy melodic plane. Davis pulls the chorus center-stage, penning new and specific lyrics for spaces that DiFranco had left abstract. In the process, she transforms the song into a feel-good, self-empowering anthem, complete with a dramatic build and release. And it works. DiFranco's lyrics are sharp and spiky, and with Davis' structural sugarcoating, they're beguilingly bittersweet.
Davis is a standout among '98's early crop of musical femmes, some brand-new, some familiar but overhauled, and all making some noise with their current single releases. While Matchbox 20, Third Eye Blind, the Backstreet Boyz and Savage Garden make testosterone seem like nature's own lobotomizing agent, women are quickly shaping up to own this year as completely as they did last. That's good news and bad.
In the latter category is Brit singer Billie Meyers, currently sailing up the charts with the VH1 angst of her hit single, “Kiss the Rain” (Universal). The same seal-yelp that's Alanis' signature vocal tic is the chief weapon in Meyers' arsenal, her every word rounded off by a hiccup. Slickly produced, with a slow rise toward a pseudo-Edge guitar blast, the song's a parody masquerading as high drama.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Lysette Titi's gorgeously understated “Young Sad and Blue” (Freeworld), a track that has fallen through the cracks due to problems with the label's distribution. Little more than beats and voice, with keyboards swirling softly forward and back, it's a classic breakup song. In a strong, crystalline voice, Titi runs down a crisp list of everything she's washing her hands of: crank calls, lies, tears and weak sex. And when she delivers the final punch (“Your sex was just tactics for things you couldn't do/and now that we're not together, I don't have to fake it through”), she steps right into Ella's vibe.
Titi's single was co-executive-produced by the underrated Dallas Austin, one of the few real saviors of R&B, who also produced Joi's “Ghetto Superstar” (Freeworld). Having made waves in '94 with the album The Pendulum Vibe and the single “Sunshine & the Rain,” Joi's back with a slab of simmering funk, swaggering her way through a groove that's scorched by a flaming organ, wailing soul-girl chorus and swampy, smelly bass. Old-school without being cliche, it sounds like nothing else out right now.
If you blinked, you may have missed Brigette McWilliams' lovely, lilting “Morning” from her album Too Much Woman (Virgin). So Chaka it's scary (and the next best thing to Herself), this lovestruck five-plus minutes of sound is postcoital bliss caught in a bottle.
And finally, there's Aretha. After her performance of Puccini's “Nessun Dorma” at this year's Grammys, a friend quipped, “See, that's what every aria needs – a little fatback.” The performance was a shock not only because Aretha was stepping into the classical arena, but because her voice has seemed thrashed beyond repair for years now, offering little more than an asthmatic wheeze where blasts of emotional power once used to be. But the Fugees' Lauryn Hill, acting as writer and producer of Franklin's latest single, “A Rose Is Still a Rose” (Arista), has found a way to retrieve that power. Cloaking the Queen in hip-hop-reinforced R&B for an apropos tale of female strength and recovery, Hill cribs and sings the key line from Edie Brickell's “What I Am” in the background, gives a nod to Stephen Stills' “Love the One You're With” in the chorus, and evokes Aretha's own version of “Spanish Harlem.” If that sounds overly busy, it's not. Aretha's voice isn't just better than it's been in ages, she sounds genuinely pumped to be singing. And when she serves the line “Tossin' and flossin'/tryin' to fill the void that heartbreak brings,” she even manages to erase the lingering horrors of “Freeway of Love.”