National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Man Enough for Melissa?

When I told a friend that in a nine-day period this month, I’d been in the front row of a Melissa Etheridge concert at Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall and in the second row of a Paula Poundstone comedy performance in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and loved them both, he exclaimed: “At last I’ve finally got you figured out. You’re a lesbian!”

It’s true, the audiences for both shows were composed overwhelmingly of lesbians. But why?

The question has me puzzled, honestly. There are plenty of shorthand answers, but I think they miss something more basic, perhaps a little more unsettling.

While I fully embrace and honor notions of “different strokes for different strokes,” and respect for the diverse tastes of the “eye of the beholder,” not even with teen pop idols do you find top-drawer performers confined to such a narrowly defined fan base as was there for Etheridge and Poundstone.

Admittedly, Etheridge is an “out” lesbian, herself, but her music isn’t about that. Her driving, energetic country rock is just as much her stock in trade now as it was before she “came out,” and before her courageous personal battle with breast cancer.

I never associated, in my own mind, Poundstone with what I’d experienced at Etheridge’s fantastic, three-hour concert, until I was seated at her show in the midst of a virtually identical fan demographic.

In the case of Poundstone, she is not a lesbian (she is very asexual, by her own, at least comedic, admission). Still, it’s not that I didn’t expect a big part of her audience to be lesbians. After all, it was in Rehoboth Beach and she is a raunchy, if highly intelligent and hilarious, comedienne. But only lesbians? Where were the gay men?

Moreover, where were all the adults, males and females alike, who bring their families to that vacation destination from all over Pennsylvania, Maryland, the District and New Jersey who knew Poundstone as a virtual household word on comedy television until about five years ago?

Etheridge is a superb rock musician and performer. She operates tirelessly with an amazing, Canadian-born lead guitarist, a bassist and a drummer, all males. She’s not Janice Joplin, but she’s about as close as you can come, and when she performs Janice’s songs, it’s spooky.

Poundstone is a fantasic stand-up comic who spent a full two hours, without a break, moving back and forth between set routines and pure improvisation involving her audience. She’s that rare kind of comic who creates laughs by subtle intonation of her words and phrases. She can say just one simple word, like “refrigerator,” that brings down the house. She has as close to an in-born talent as you can find.

The world is in terribly short supply of the art and entertainment that both these figures bring. The world hungers for both. So what’s going on here?

Go into a men’s dorm at any college and yell out that you’ve got great Melissa Etheridge tickets for anyone who wants them, and you maybe won’t get your answer, but maybe you’ll get a clue. Dorm room doors will slam shut. Your sexuality will become suspect. Guys will either veer away from you for weeks or secretly wink at you. You’d better run out and do a bungee jump or something like it to emit more testosterone smells.

It doesn’t matter if you explain that her music is not like Cher or Barbra Streisand, but that it’s real hard rock, real good stuff.

I don’t have all the answers to this. I can suggest that, among other things, what’s common to Etheridge and Poundstone is that they’re both wounded women. They’re not fake wounded, not Hollywood garden variety wounded, but real wounded.

Etheridge has to cope with being “out” and a breast cancer survivor. Poundstone had her loud fall from grace bullhorned all over the news five years ago. It sounded at first like she’d committed heinous crimes, but it boiled down to a drinking problem. It bounced her off daily gigs on Hollywood Squares and To Tell the Truth.

Neither is young or pretty, both are intelligent, driven and enormously talented.

What’s wrong, men? These women run into trouble, and you don’t run to the rescue, you run for the hills. Is it so simple that it’s part the usual intimidation at the thought of an independent and self-actualized woman, and part raw fear at the thought of coping with the distress that real life, and real people, bring? Can it really be, in our modern age when chivalry is dead, that there are simply too few men who are man enough to enjoy the talents that these performers bring?