Remember when Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" came out back in 1988? Maybe you were in high school then. Maybe all the idiots in your high school only noticed that Chapman was kinda fat and had baby dreads. Maybe all they talked about was how she looked like a dude. They probably never listened to rock critics, who kept comparing Chapman to that ultimate chick-dude, Ms. Joan Armatrading (and if they did, it's a pretty good bet they didn't know who Armatrading was).
But maybe you're old enough to remember 1983. You might've only been in grade school, but you might've had a cool, avant-garde older brother who brought home a copy of The Key, an album that introduced a generation of young, hip white folks to Armatrading's fury and scorn and hopeful tenderness—Armatrading wanted to melt the cold little Popsicles stored deep inside your chest.
Armatrading has been releasing discs—probably 8-tracks, even—since 1972, when she was almost 22 years old. There are more than 15 of them now. And yes, her severity sets you up for the bleakness of Chapman's "Fast Car," the bitchiness of Me'Shell Ndegéocello's "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)," the raw, foul-mouthed no-bullshit of Queen Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." and the bitch-slapping of 702's "Where My Girls At." That's right—Armatrading will kick your ass.
The West Indies-born singer was the first black woman singer/songwriter to gain prominence in Great Britain, where she moved when she was a child. She's never really been successful here, but over there, she's major—she's Tina Turner and Cher wrapped into one, but with songs that don't suck.
Here's a sample from "I Love It When You Call Me Names": "And he loves it when she beats his brains out/He's scared to death but he loves the pain/And he loves it when she calls him names."
Here's "Crazy": "I don't mind if you tell me/That you're never coming back no more/Don't mind if you say/A dozen women got babies/And they're all yours."
Here's "Tell Tale": "I saw you kissing all the boys/And kissing all the girls/But you got obsessed with the boys/You got obsessed with the boys!" (So you know what she does? She tells all his friends! That's right! Armatrading is a vengeful bitch!)
But when you least expect it, Armatrading turns vulnerable, her big, foghorn man-voice pleading for you to stay. "Foolish Pride" has her promising she'll drop her foolish pride, but unlike an unusually icky Bonnie Raitt song on the same topic, she's not going to let you grind her under your heel like some cigarette butt. Nor, like Chapman, would she spend two weeks in a Virginia jail for you. It's not like she won't have any pride left at all—it's only the foolish pride she'll leave behind.
Armatrading has gotten mellower on her later albums, like 1990's Hearts and Flowers, which is kind of saccharinely un-Armatrading. Despite the title, though, and the pleasantness of the lyrics, Armatrading still bays at the moon and tears at her heart.
Armatrading will be 50 this year, and she looks hot. I don't know if she's got Tina Turner legs, but she looks at you from eyes that know both your secrets and her own, and, somehow, she still manages to smile. She plays the Sun Theatre on Wednesday—rock critics will be there, crying their eyes out with love for her. You—if you've got any sense in your pretty little head—will, too.
JOAN ARMATRADING AT THE SUN THEATRE, 2200 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 712-2700. WED., 8:30 P.M. $29.50-$35.
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