The singer Shelby Lynne shocked the hell out of us when she came out on stage. In person, her body was smaller than the voice on her records would lead you to believe, and her voice was much bigger (not louder—BIGGER) than the voice on her records. She does with her voice what all great troubadours do: drug you into wanting things that you thought, or been taught, you’d never ever want. Like when she sings a sad lyric comparing herself to an old mangy dog: you want to feel love so hard that you feel that depressed. You want to be the dog she turns herself into with that song.
The desirability she produced on stage was something I haven’t experienced in a long time. That smaller-than-the-voice-would-allow body: it’s not just that at 42 years old, Shelby Lynne is so thin and fit that she embodies everything that I want to be in seven years. (In an interview a couple years back, she famously declared: “I wouldn’t trade my life for what Carrie Underwood has. I’ll be 75, and someone will ask me to sing. And I’ll still be cute.”) As a woman artist working in an industry that prizes toothless girlishness or over-the-top “artsy” femme decadence (you know the cultural perpetrators I’m talking about), Shelby Lynne is, right now, the kind of girl I want to be. Not just physically, but in work. No big hits, eight-album combined record sales that fail to add up to a million, yet she’s still working and working passionately at her art. I like to think that Shelby and I travel the same road: it takes at least three rough decades of work to become a proper girl.
But back to that body that houses and manufactures that voice. That night, Shelby wore, without a bra, a simple black lycra camisole (Probably Victoria’s Secret. My little sister and I too wore black tank tops to the show that night, except ours were Rick Owens. This is the only night when Victoria beats out Rick for coolness and beauty), black Rock & Republic jeans (tight, but not too tight: wrinkly calves) and black buckly boots (“Like you buy on Polk Street,” my sister assessed). The ensemble was apt uniform for the booming femininity she projected on stage. Her interaction with her band (well, a guitarist and a percussionist) and audience revealed a femininity that was stretchy and tough as that black lycra tanktop. Bossy (getting pissed at her guitarist for changing keys: “It’s in G now, Ok?” followed by angry silence. Was she joking? Hard to tell!), gracious (“I appreciate your lovin’, I really feel it in my bones now” she said before her encore), never pandering or cutesy (Never a flirty sexpot, she scowled and worked her way through her guitar playing and communication with her guitarist. Lynne’s reaction to some male geek audience member who yelled out at the end, “Don’t be a stranger!!”: SILENCE). “She’s so hard!” my sister whisper-exclaimed to me moments after Lynne took the stage. She was right. Sensitivity that shoots through a perforated black carapace: that is Shelby Lynne’s femininity.
At the San Francisco Yoshie’s where my sister and I saw her this week, we were seated at our table with a cheerful middle-aged middle-class couple from Concord who had just discovered Shelby...through NPR. “I’ve been following her since the 90s!” I snottily and warmly offered. And while I’ve been co-opting her voice to blow up my own little heartaches since 1993 when I bought a tape of her Nashville album Temptation, Shelby’s look has never compelled imitation in me. Until now. Not because she’s not pretty (she is very pretty) but because she’s always been a bit too pretty (blond, blue-eyed, blah blah blah). But Wednesday night, she showed up with short hair and made me want to crawl inside her black carapace. Her hair was pitched—and I mean, pitched, like a bale of hay or a wall of Phil Spector strings—somewhere between a Teddy Boy’s ducktail, Morrissey’s flop top, and Etta James’s peroxide poodle cut. The hair could have gone so wrong (i.e. small town white dyke) but instead it went so right. (And note: the short hairdo was not a Rihanna ‘do. Rihanna cut her hair to be a “good girl gone bad”; Shelby Lynne has never been a good girl. Plus, Lynne’s hair is not ironic/ flamboyant/ science fiction. Instead, it’s historical fiction that is indecisive about the particular decade. Rihanna’s hair poses aggressively towards the future; Shelby Lynne’s hair muscles aggressively into the past. Shelby’s short hair is definitely retro—but it decreates itself and its human source.)
For the first time in many years, I felt not only a bit dowdy but downright boyish in my scraggy long locks. Shelby Lynne made me believe I could achieve a better kind of femininity if I chop my hair off short. It gives some hoping room for the futurity of a girl whose male genetic destiny may include a receding hairline. I haven’t taken up the scissors yet, but I’m not afraid to think about it. I don’t know if a floppy beehivey ducktail will work with my hair, but Shelby made me want to find out.