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Melissa Etheridge on Wolf Trap and why drastic health steps should be weighed carefully

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Melissa Etheridge, gay news, Washington Blade
Melissa Etheridge, gay news, Washington Blade

Melissa Etheridge (Photo by James Minchin III)

Melissa Etheridge
With guest Eric Hutchinson
Tuesday
8 p.m.
Wolf Trap
Filene Center
1551 Trap Road
Vienna, VA
$35 (lawn)-$65
wolftrap.org

When we talked to Melissa Etheridge last year the conversation turned — as one might expect in an election year — to politics. So this time we focused on music. The lesbian rocker plays Wolf Trap Tuesday night. Her comments have been slightly edited for length.

 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Last time you were here you played the Strathmore, which is kind of stately, whereas Wolf Trap is outside and more earthy. Does the venue affect the kind of show you play?

MELISSA ETHERIDGE: Yes, totally. One of the things I do before I even write out a set list is I go stand on stage and look out and really get a feel for what the venue is like. Is it indoors, outdoors, is the first row up close, will people be able to stand, are they soft seats, hard seats? I’ve been touring for 25 years so I’m very conscious of what kind of show can be produced at each place and it does make a difference in what songs I play. This will definitely be different from the Strathmore show. I love playing Wolf Trap and I don’t think I’ve ever sweated as much on stage as when I’ve played Wolf Trap. It was just so humid last time I was there, I was really soaked even before the show. But yeah, it’s gonna be much more rock and roll out there.

BLADE: How do you manage to do those big rock money notes year after year? Rock singing, of course, often doesn’t use proper vocal technique that they teach you in classical singing and some singers get vocal cord nodules while others, like Tina Turner perhaps or many gospel singers, seem to be able to growl and howl for decades on end with no problem. Have you ever strained your voice letting it rip so to speak?

ETHERIDGE: I learned a long time ago playing in bars how to make that growly rock and roll sound but not harm the vocal cords. It’s not really screaming, it’s like a stage scream. That and having a good understanding of how not to tax the voice too much in doing that style of singing, also helps. I usually don’t sing more than three night in a row. I can do four, but it will start to wear down after awhile and the shape of my voice is definitely related to everything. If I’m tired, if I haven’t eaten right, if I’m stressed, all those things affect it. But as long as I can eat right and sleep well, I can be on the road and do the rock and roll stuff out there every night.

 

BLADE: How have you found the right balance throughout your career of knowing when to play up the all-out rock stuff versus having enough of a commercial, pop/AC vibe on your various projects to get some radio and mainstream exposure? Have you given much thought to those sorts of things as you’ve been writing and recording various records?

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it’s been a big part of understanding radio and the music business in general and then just when you kind of have a handle on it, of course it changes much like it did in the mid-‘90s when I was really at the pinnacle of it. As it should — young kids grow up and they have their own stuff and I get that. I stopped, I guess around the turn of the century, trying to make my music for radio because I think that would just have been selling myself out and I realized I had a strong live audience that was not going away and would still come see me play, so I really dedicated myself to making the music that I love and not trying to be so much pop. Which is fine — I mean, I love a good pop song like everybody else does, but I don’t limit myself to that anymore. The most important thing in my mind when I’m writing and recording is how is this going to translate to the live stage. That’s more the guideline.

 


BLADE: And yet many veteran acts who have that loyal fan base have great numbers the first week out with a new album and like you said, do fine filling decent-size venues, yet without any radio traction, the albums can come and go so quickly it seems. Has there been any frustration with that at various times? Any sense of a diminishing return for all the hard work?

ETHERIDGE: Well yeah, of course you always hope there’s maybe something there radio can hold on to a little and you would always like to make your record company a little money, that’s always nice. Yet I really have learned to let it go because I think the music does sort of manage to find its own way. I just stumbled on some online music site where these two rock critics were saying my last album “4th Street Falling,” that if it had been released by some up-and-coming singer, it would have really represented kind of the future of rock and roll or something so yes, there is sometimes an advantage to being not as established but I wouldn’t trade where I am at all to be up and coming. I’m very happy with where I am overall and I feel I have a great deal of industry respect and I’m fine with that.

 

BLADE: You’ve been on Island your whole career, which is almost unheard of in this day and age. I’m sure the whole staff has changed since you started …

ETHERIDGE: Not a single person is still there from then.

 

BLADE: How have you navigated all the changeover?

ETHERIDGE: It’s funny, there was a joke a few years ago there that everytime I had a new album out, “Oh, watch out, Melissa’s got a new one, there’s going to be a complete regime change.” Different times my options have been up we’ve looked around and, you know, Island and Def Jam and Universal — it’s one of the biggest labels there is. I always felt I had good relationships there so why not? The whole business has changed so much, it’s nice to stay someplace if you can.

 

BLADE: Last time you played here, the album was just out. Do you feel freer to sing more of it live now that it’s been out awhile and people have had time to let it sink in or do you skew more hit-heavy for the summer shows?

ETHERIDGE: Last fall I did kind of the “4th Street Falling” tour and I did a lot of new stuff but at that stage, I’m still listening to the new stuff, experimenting a bit and finding out which songs seem to pop more live. So I kind of play the new stuff and see which cuts were really fun for the audience and they tend to stay in the show. But yeah, it’s a summer show — we’re going to be doing all the hits too. We’ll be singing “Come To My Window” at the top of our lungs.

 

BLADE: You had so many great TV duet shows over the years in terms of collaborations with other artists — Joan Osborne, Sophie B. Hawkins, Jewel, Dolly Parton. Any of those especially stand out in your mind?

ETHERIDGE: Well singing with Bruce Springsteen was a dream come true. It was like, “Oh, please let time stop.” That one and singing with Dolly was just one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. I felt like our entertainment ethics were the same. She’s such a great entertainer and we kind of threw things back and forth. It felt like a good game of one on one.

 

BLADE: One that I really remember was when you sang “You Can Sleep While I Drive” as a duet with Amy Grant. Here she was this gospel singer singing a sweet duet with you, which sort of gave it a lesbian undercurrent. It seemed kind of shocking at the time. Do you remember how that came about or if there was any hesitation in her camp to do it?

ETHERIDGE: Trisha Yearwood had covered that song sometime in the ‘90s, so it had kind of been in the country world, then when Amy came in and we were talking about songs we could do, she said, “Well, I want to sing ‘You Can Sleep While I Drive.’” I’ve sang that with more people than any other song. It just kind of lends itself to that harmony duet feeling. I’ve known her for a long time. I met her in Europe back in ’88 and have been friends with Vince too. You know she kind of went through her own tabloid-y thing but she’s just so open and very very easygoing so that wasn’t even part of it. It was just like, “Let’s sing together and just enjoy it.”

 

BLADE: How prolific have you been in the studio over the years? Did you overcut tracks for very many of your albums? Is there going to be a killer Melissa Etheridge box set of outtakes and rareties someday?

ETHERIDGE: I can’t believe you asked that because yes, I’m working on that right now. The record company came to me and said, “You know, it’s been 25 years, let’s put out a box set.” But I didn’t want to just say, “OK, here’s my songs again.” I think my fans will enjoy some of these other things so I started going back into the vaults and into my storage space and found some tapes I hadn’t even remembered. So it’s going to be eight CDs and there’s live tracks, covers, solo demo tracks, a recording of me made when I was 14, everything that didn’t make it onto an album, pictures and videos. I even found a TV show I did back in 1982 in L.A.

 

BLADE: ETA?

ETHERIDGE: I don’t know the exact date right off, but it will be in November.

 

BLADE: Where do you keep your Grammys, platinum albums and Oscar?

ETHERIDGE: I have a lovely office I share with my gal, Linda.

 

BLADE: You and Linda (Wallem) are still together?

ETHERIDGE: Oh yes, yes, yes. I finally got it right. It’s a bunch of things. It’s a grown-up relationship.

 

BLADE: As a breast cancer survivor yourself, what did you think of Angelina Jolie’s announcement?

ETHERIDGE: I have to say I feel a little differently. I have that gene mutation too and it’s not something I would believe in for myself. I wouldn’t call it the brave choice. I actually think it’s the most fearful choice you can make when confronting anything with cancer. My belief is that cancer comes from inside you and so much of it has to do with the environment of your body. It’s the stress that will turn that gene on or not. Plenty of people have the gene mutation and everything but it never comes to cancer so I would say to anybody faced with that, that choice is way down the line on the spectrum of what you can do and to really consider the advancements we’ve made in things like nutrition and stress levels. I’ve been cancer free for nine years now and looking back, I completely understand why I got cancer. There was so much acidity in everything. I really encourage people to go a lot longer and further before coming to that conclusion.

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At 15, restored ‘Shortbus’ is still a movie ahead of its time

Depictions of real sex among actors raised eyebrows

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Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy in ‘Shortbus.’ (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

When it debuted in 2006, John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” – which this month receives a special 15th anniversary re-release in the form of a sumptuous new 4K restoration – was described by Variety as being “unquestionably the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the realm of the porn industry.”

That description arguably still holds true, and it was not hyperbole. Mitchell, fresh off the success of both the stage and film versions of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” had deliberately set out to make a film exploring “the language of sex as a metaphor for other aspects of the characters’ lives.” He solicited videotaped submissions from would-be cast members – whether they were trained actors or not – who were open to the experience of performing in sexually explicit material, then collaborated with the chosen players over a two-and-a-half-year process of improvisational workshops to create the story and script. When the cameras finally started rolling, the cast had already developed a level of emotional and physical intimacy that allowed them to deliver unprecedented authenticity. Almost all the sex scenes were un-simulated – and indeed, according to Mitchell, all but one of the many orgasms that take place in the film are real.

It’s not surprising that “Shortbus” would garner a lot of attention 15 years ago for its bold approach to onscreen sex, considering that real sex on film is still largely considered a taboo in the mainstream. What’s surprising is that it generated relatively little outrage or backlash from the conservative crowd. There were detractors, of course, whose pearl-clutching reaction to the idea of such a film was simply to decry it as “pornography,” and it was banned in some foreign markets with draconian censorship laws regarding sexual content; nevertheless, thanks to Mitchell’s established reputation as an artist and the enthusiastic response it received at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie managed a reasonably widespread release across major markets in the United States without raising too many eyebrows, meeting with a mostly favorable response from both critics and audiences – at least the audiences who weren’t too squeamish to go and see it.

Those who did quickly found themselves drawn into the lives of a collection of young New Yorkers, all struggling to find meaning, connection, and gratification in a city still reeling from the tragedy of 9/11 and the frustrations of Bush-era politics. There’s Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm, and her attentive but increasingly bewildered husband Rob (Raphael Barker), whose own sexual needs are not being met, either; there’s Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson), a former child TV star and his ex-hustler boyfriend who are looking to open up their relationship to others, and Caleb (Peter Stickles), a voyeuristic neighbor who lives vicariously through stalking them and obsessively following their lives; and finally, there’s Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a professional dominatrix frustrated over her inability to make emotional connections. Along with other sexual pilgrims of the New York underground scene, they come together at Shortbus, a weekly “salon” dedicated to art, music, politics, and polysexual carnality.

At the time of its initial release, “Shortbus” felt for many – perhaps even most – like a glimpse into another world, an erotic utopia where sexual freedom and experimentation were not only “normal” but incorporated into a holistic view of life and used as a valid avenue for achieving personal growth. Seen today, what strikes the viewer most is just how far ahead of its time Mitchell’s purposefully transgressive movie really was. Though we haven’t quite reached a cultural place where the freewheeling and permissive sexuality it depicts has been fully embraced by all, many of the then-arcane sexual concepts it presents – polyamory, BDSM, “pegging” – no longer carry the same sense of transgressive danger they once did in the mainstream cultural imagination. More importantly, the attitude of sex-positivity it champions has become far more widespread in our modern world, thanks in no small part to the increased visibility and acceptance of “non-traditional” sexual practices in popular media.

There’s also an unexpected – indeed, almost eerie – resonance to be found in the underlying zeitgeist of the film’s post-9/11 New York, as reflected in the existential crises with which its characters resignedly grapple. This is particularly notable in the secretly depressed James (Dawson’s sensitive portrayal of his mental health struggles provides the emotional heart of the movie), but any of the characters could easily be transplanted into the COVID-exhausted world of 2022 and seem just as much at home.

For all that looming heaviness in the air, though, “Shortbus” remains as refreshingly upbeat and unexpectedly joyful as it was 15 years ago – and that’s not just because of the sex. Mitchell, in talking about making the film, says he did not “necessarily seek to be erotic.”

“In the years I was making ‘Hedwig,’ he says, “I welcomed the fact that movies were exploring sexual frankness again, as some had in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I regretted the fact that most of the new ones were so grim and humorless. Sex seemed just as connected to negativity as it was for, say, Christian conservatives. I guess it’s understandable. I was brought up in a strict Catholic/military environment where sex was the scariest thing imaginable, which, of course, made it fascinating. I decided to make a New York-style, emotionally challenging comedy that would be sexually frank, thought-provoking, and, if possible, funny.”

True to that goal, “Shortbus” feels for most of its running time like a light-hearted romp. Justin Vivian Bond, playing themself as the host of the film’s titular salon, brings a buoyant sense of humor to the movie that pervades even when they’re not onscreen, and the colorful community of background characters – including an Ed Koch lookalike who confides in a young potential hook-up that he was “once the mayor of New York City” – provide a constant stream of memorable comedic moments throughout. There’s even an overtly farcical sequence involving a remote-control orgasmic egg, which would not seem at all out of place in a 1960s screwball comedy from Blake Edwards.

Still, to downplay the sexiness of “Shortbus” would be to ignore its most enduring legacy. After all, it’s a film that features graphic sex between various combinations of gender, including extended scenes of three-ways, orgies, rimming, cunnilingus, fellatio, self-sucking, and full-on penetration of multiple orifices. Yes, some of it may arouse you – but the real power of sex in this film has to do with the fact that, unlike porn or even most “tasteful” Hollywood sex scenes, the intention is not so much to turn us on but to help us get over it.

As Mitchell puts it, “In the current and important campaign to correct social wrongs, sometimes sex itself gets a bad name. To some today, any kind of sex on screen is exploitation… Let’s not let our need for safety and justice boomerang us back to our default American Puritanism. Sex between consenting respectful adults is one of the great joys and mysteries of our lives. No need to panic. 

“Let’s just lie back and think of each other.”

The new 4K restoration of “Shortbus” opens theatrically in New York City on January 26, followed by an expansion to other cities across the US. You can find information about theatres and dates at the Oscilloscope Laboratories Website.

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Arts & Entertainment

Amy Schneider’s Jeopardy! winning streak ends at 40 games

Transgender contestant is the highest-earning woman in competition’s history

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(Photo Courtesy Casey Durkin/ Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

Amy Schneider‘s record-setting Jeopardy! winning streak came to an end on Wednesday’s show after getting tripped up on the Final Jeopardy! clue.

Schneider is the first transgender contestant to qualify for the Tournament of Champions, and she’s the highest-earning woman in the competition’s history, with a total of $1,382,800 from 40 wins.

Schneider was leading by $10,000 as the contestants headed into the all-important “Final Jeopardy!” category, she failed to answer the clue. It was, “The only nation in the world whose name in English ends in an H, it’s also one of the 10 most populous.” Contestant Rhone Talsma managed to overtake Schneider when she answered, “What is Bangladesh?” the correct response. Schneider ended up with $19,600 versus Talsma’s $29,600.

“I think that the best part for me has been being on TV as my true self, expressing myself and representing the entire community of trans people,” Schneider told Good Morning America this week. “And just kind of showing a different thing than maybe some people have seen, of just being a smart, confident woman and just doing something super normal, like being on Jeopardy!.”

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A Revolution for Women in Baseball

Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball.

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Rachel Balkovec was hired as a hitting coach in the Yankees’ system in 2019. She will now manage the Class A Tampa Tarpons.Credit. Photo Courtesy of Rachel Balkovec/Instagram.

The Yankees were late on introducing an African-American player to their roster, adding Hall of Famer Elston Howard to the team in 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson starred for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The Yankees seem determined not to repeat that bad history.  Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball when she takes the helm of the Tampa Tarpons this spring. 

It has been just over ten years since Justin Siegal threw batting practice to the Cleveland Guardians and five since she was the first woman to coach a MLB squad with the Oakland Athletics.  Two years ago, Kim Ng became the first female General Manager of any of the four major professional sports when the Marlins hired her to run their team.  In the two years since then, the dam has burst.  Women have been hired to important on-field positions with professional baseball at an impressive clip.  As baseball has lagged behind other professional sports in bringing women into the game, the current pace of hires indicates that baseball’s embrace of analytics and objective measures have finally penetrated the walls of one of the most enduring old boys clubs in the U.S. and given talented women opportunities they have long been denied.

Ten women will be coaching with major or minor league teams in 2022.  In 2021, Bianca Smith became the first African-American woman to coach in the minors when the Red Sox hired her. Alyssa Nakken became the first woman in uniform during a Major League Baseball game when she coached first base for the Giants in a July 2020 exhibition against the Oakland A’s.  Her jersey now belongs to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  Cuban-American Veronica Alvarez is not only the coach of the U.S. Women’s National Baseball team, she also served as a spring training coach for the Oakland A’s.

The proliferation of women in baseball is not an accident.  More girls than ever are playing baseball.  Here, in the DC area, 160 girls participated with D.C. Girls Baseball in 2021.  Baseball for All, an organization that supports and promotes girls in baseball, held a tournament last summer that drew nearly 600 girls who play baseball.  There are more women than ever on collegiate baseball rosters.  Major League Baseball has also devoted significant resources to girls and women in baseball, running several development camps for girls in baseball.  Six of the women now coaching professional baseball participated in MLB’s Take the Field initiative, which is designed to help place women into baseball positions. To top it all off, the classic film about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, A League of Their Own, is getting a reboot on Amazon Prime this year.

The pace of hiring is exhilarating.  Unfortunately, every report of a woman being hired is followed by predictable hateful commentary on social media.  Many cannot imagine that a woman may be hired for a baseball position on merit and resort to making sexist and derogatory comments.  As women in baseball, the coaches are used to that vitriol and have developed thick skin and sophisticated defense mechanisms.  However, also reading are thousands of girls who are inspired by the achievements of these women and they are, sadly, learning that to achieve in baseball means enduring the sexist taunts, gross come-ons, and hurtful comments.

Baseball has a long way to go.  Other leagues have women officiating games, so it should be reasonable to expect that baseball will have women umpires in the near future.  The possibility of women playing professional baseball is tantalizingly close as 17 year old Genevieve Beacom made history last week as the first women to play Australian professional baseball, when she threw a scoreless inning against the Adelaide Giants.

We are watching a revolution in baseball unfold before our eyes. 

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