“I think the future of rock and roll has a female face.” – Chris Blackwell on Melissa Etheridge
Three and a half decades ago, Melissa Etheridge was a small town Kansas native who had dropped out of Berklee and saved the money to buy a car that would take her and her 12-string across the country to Los Angeles to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a recording artist. Today, she’s one of Rock and Roll’s iconic female artists. She’s honest and uncompromising in her lyricism, with signature raspy vocals that carry her words straight to the hearts of her fans. Throughout her life and career, Melissa has broken down barriers, blazed trails, and solidified her place in rock and roll history. She became eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, but has yet to be recognized.
Melissa Etheridge hit the LA scene in the thick of a male-dominated rock era devoted to hair bands and metal music; local paying venues weren’t exactly looking for a female acoustic act. Instead, she found supportive and loyal audiences in lesbian bars, where she would ultimately be discovered. Her first attempt at a debut album was turned down for coming across as too glossy. She stripped it down for her second attempt, and in just four days, she had the record she’d meant to record all along. In 1988, Melissa’s eponymous debut would reach number 22 on the Billboard charts, and the single, “Bring Me Some Water,” scored Etheridge her first Grammy nomination and a place in the top 10 on the mainstream rock charts.
Radio disc jockeys were reluctant to play Melissa’s music on rock stations, but after a hard-fought battle, she proved that her voice belonged amongst her male counterparts — that there was, in fact, an audience for women in rock. The significance in that rock is the fundamental sound she never strayed away from. Etheridge was and is naturally and sincerely rock and roll. More than that, her songs are incredibly universal, in that they don’t need to be heard in a gender specific way. There’s nothing isolating about her songwriting. It’s for everyone who has ever hurt, been in love, fallen out of love, been broken, and gotten back up.
In 1993, Etheridge released the aptly titled “Yes I am” — the album considered to be her mainstream breakthrough. It spent over 2 years on the Billboard top 200, scored Melissa two hits on the mainstream charts with “Come to My Window” and “I’m the Only One,” and was eventually certified 6 times platinum by RIAA. The success of “Yes I am” would also drive sales of previous albums to multiplatinum and platinum status. That same year, Etheridge, who was already openly gay in her most inner circles, made her sexuality known to the public; she’s been a passionate activist for the LGBT+ community ever since.
Over the next decade, Melissa would release three more albums (one of which went platinum, with the other two reaching gold status) leading up to 2004’s “Lucky.” Not long after the release of “Lucky,” Etheridge was diagnosed with breast cancer. During this time, Etheridge returned to the stage bald from chemotherapy to perform “Piece of my Heart” as tribute to Janis Joplin. The performance would be immortalized in India Arie’s song “I Am Not My Hair,” which earned a Grammy nod at the following year’s ceremony.
In addition to Grammys, platinum albums, songwriting awards, and recognition for her activism, Etheridge also has an Academy Award to her name for her song “I Need to Wake Up,” featured in “An Inconvenient Truth” — the 2006 documentary about Al Gore’s campaign to educate people on global warming. Her influence and impact has garnered her recognition across the board. It’s time for the Hall of Fame to take notice.
Melissa Etheridge is a fighter. She fought for her music, her career, and her life. She’s survived, and she’s shared it all in song with countless people. This is why artists like Melissa are endeared and endure. They have a lasting impact. More than that (and more than her accolades), she wasn’t turned into a rock and roll artist. On some inexplicable, innate level, rock and roll is Melissa Etheridge and Melissa Etheridge is rock and roll — unapologetic, uncompromising, and persevering. Her place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a no-brainer; the only question remaining is when?