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POP MUSIC

Rock's a hard place -- ask Evanescence

October 01, 2006|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

New York — YOU might not immediately recognize Amy Lee's name, but you'd know her if she plummeted past you from the top floor of a tenement building. That's how anyone with basic cable first saw the singer for the band Evanescence, in the video for the song "Bring Me to Life": falling backward in slow motion, her hair unfolding like a long black veil as she headed for hard pavement below.

"Bring Me to Life," with its mix of voluptuous singing and metallic guitar (the latter steroidically enhanced by guest vocalist Paul McCoy's rap-rock declamations), began the groundswell that resulted in U.S. sales of nearly 7 million copies of "Fallen," Evanescence's 2003 Wind-Up Records debut. The song also set off a chain of associations that made Lee, whose band releases its latest album, "The Open Door," this week, the most successful uncool rock star of the last few years.

"I've always been a very passionate, sometimes overly emotional person," Lee, 24, said in a cafe down the street from her apartment near Gramercy Park here. "Sometimes things affect me more than they should. That's the struggle, because that's part of what makes me a good artist. These very powerful feelings that make me want to write music about it, and just bleed my heart out on the page."

Bleeding on the page is not a good credibility move for a woman in rock. Evanescence's sound aims for mainstream radio; it's also trying to forge something new from influences as diverse as choral music, trip hop, heavy metal and Tori Amos. But "Bring Me to Life," with its lyrical drama and crunchy guitars, branded the band as overdone nu-metal. A Gothic streak hasn't helped, giving rise to the double standard that afflicts women in pop who strive too openly: eyeliner-loving boy bands may mine Goth glamour to counter emo-rock's earnestness, but Lee's unironic interest in high art and religion have pegged her as sophomoric and pretentious.

Then there was the Jesus problem: Lee met band co-founder Ben Moody at a church youth camp in their hometown of Little Rock, Ark., and when the band signed to Wind-Up, the label pushed "Fallen" toward the lucrative Christian market. The band objected -- Lee calls her music "spirit-driven," not specifically religious -- but couldn't shake the association.

New and abused

IN 2003, the year of conceptualists the White Stripes and OutKast, a 21-year-old former Arkansas choir leader singing about immortality while four beefy, tattooed boys bashed out aggressive rock stood little chance of being an "It Girl." The band did win the best new artist Grammy, but fellow nominee 50 Cent felt so little respect that he bum-rushed Lee's acceptance speech. And so the dichotomy unfolded, as it had for female rockers, mainstream rockers and God-minded rockers many times before: Evanescence became huge, and hugely unhip.

Still, somebody has to like Evanescence. Wind-Up Records Chairman Alan Meltzer says that the band occupies a rare spot in the hearts of today's savvier-than-thou music fans.

"Amy is a guilty pleasure for male fans," he said in a separate interview. "We commissioned some market research to find out exactly who Evanescence's audience is. The demographic ran from 13 to 54. There was something for everybody there: 18-to-24-year-old boys go to the show with their girlfriends, and they like it.... They're not supposed to like a female singer. It's a cultural thing, almost."

Lee hopes that "The Open Door," Evanescence's absorbingly ambitious new album, will be heard as transcending limits, both personal and artistic. "The Open Door" comes after several crises for Lee that could have been ripped from the Women in Rock handbook -- a struggle with her male songwriting partner and ex-boyfriend Moody over leadership of the band; her lawsuit against ex-manager Dennis Rider alleging, among other things, sexual harassment; her breakup with longtime boyfriend Shaun Morgan, whom she says inspired the first single from "The Open Door," "Call Me When You're Sober"; and the menacing attentions of an overzealous fan, which gave rise to another song, "Snow White Queen," a harrowing account of a stalker and his victim.

"I was really, really looking forward to being able to trust," Lee says of writing and recording "The Open Door." "The studio was like a free place where we could just be musicians and see what came out....I was going through a lot of personal drama unrelated to the band. But the actual music-making was the best it's ever been."

"The Open Door" is Lee's debut as Evanescence's undisputed leader. She stands firmly at the center of its whorl of personal confession, high theater and head-banging rock. The music probably won't convince the cognoscenti: It's too pop for some and too hard for others. The lyrics are youthfully earnest and sometimes obvious. But it is exciting to hear, throughout this avid music, a major young talent kicking against the restrictions of the rock she loves.

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