It’s been 35 years since she got her start playing dyke bars, three decades since her unforgettable self-titled 1988 debut forever emblazoned her name across the hearts of tens of thousands of lesbian fans, and 26 since she came out publicly with Yes, I Am, but Melissa Etheridge is proving she’s as relevant as ever. Her new 15th studio album, The Medicine Show, sees the rocker reconnecting to some of the pain, passion, and hope that has fueled her best work.
More than just a musician, the twice-divorced mother of four has changed public perceptions about queer parents, sperm donors, marriage equality, breast cancer survival, and medical cannabis. Etheridge has sold over 25 million albums, won two Grammy Awards and an Oscar, and earned a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. With the rocking new The Medicine Show — and the gig as the closing act of WorldPride this summer — Etheridge won’t even entertain ideas about slowing down.
The Advocate: What has it been like, as a woman in her 50s in this industry?
Melissa Etheridge: It’s funny because as I have aged this industry has changed. I don’t see myself the same as actually some of my male counterparts… When you see the rock 'n roll that was going on in the ‘70s and ‘80s…well, let’s look at Bon Jovi. Let’s look at them, their first few albums, and John and his long hair. Rock ‘n roll was taking on sort of this androgyny, they were taking on a female role that they were, as males, taking on. When I came into the business, I was starting from a whole different place — and I’m still that female [at my] core, whereas they have either lost their hair or those female things are gone in them. So I don’t look at my trajectory as the same as my male friends.
I think that my music gets more interesting as our society gets more comfortable with female role models.
Hard to argue with that.
Last night I took the kids to see Captain Marvel. Oh my God. So I’m watching that going, finally, it won’t be so weird to look up on stage and see a female rock star. You know, it will be understood as a place of power. I’ve always felt this power, so I think that I’ve been sort of riding this underdog track for a long time and I feel like finally, this is opening up. Over the last couple of years, we’ve definitely, the feminine, come to the forefront in great strength. I don’t look at my aging as any hindrance. I look at it as, “Oh, it’s my time. Here I go.”
Some things are changing so swiftly now, as well, that what's really interesting to me what this means of the world that your kids will be living in.
So swiftly! My children are already living in it and I’ve seen things like, you go back and you watch a movie from the ‘80s, and I’m like, “Holy cow. That’s a lot of guys and one really dopey girl.” How did we ever think of this as entertainment? But it’s just that our insights have changed. And that makes me so excited because there’s so much untapped talent that isn’t white and male out there. And that’s where we’re getting now, and that’s super exciting.
So this summer you’ll be performing at WorldPride and the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. Does that performance hold any special significance to you?
Oh, yeah, for heaven’s sakes, just the thought of WorldPride. We’ve done so much in America. When I came to Los Angeles in Southern California and found there was a super-strong women’s community in Long Beach — and this is during the AIDS crisis and all the organization and how we all came together. I remember going to a gay Pride parade in L.A. in 1984 and just what that was like. How you kind of look around and go, “Okay, I’m out and we’re all out, but are they going to arrest us all or something?” It was a weird thing. And knowing now as the years — 30 years have gone by, that here in America, in cities all over America, we can have our gay Pride celebrations, and yet there are still countries in the world where we’re imprisoned or we are put to death. So, there’s more work to be done. But yeah playing WorldPride just helps me see how far we’ve come, the work that we have to do, and how strong our community is.
What do you think of the early activists who came before us, the people protesting at Stonewall or Black Cat or Compton’s Cafeteria?
Oh, I think they did so much beautiful work. And it was so hard in the '60s and the '70s, so hard. And I think that my children don’t, fortunately, they will never know that sort of struggle. And I used to say this 20 years ago when I would do interviews, when I came out, 25 years ago, I’d say that my children and my children’s children, they’re going to go, “Really?” When I say, “Yeah they wouldn’t let us get married, they wouldn’t let us—” It’s going to seem weird to them. And it does. The work that the people that came before us, whew! The ones that are still alive, I hope that they know how grateful we are for the work that they did.
I’ve told you before that your song, "You Can Sleep While I Drive," is one of my favorite songs. I was thinking about it when I was listening to "Wild and Lonely," where you say, “Don’t you wanna save me, drive me in a highway.” It feels lyrically like a 360 degree turn from the earlier song. Can you tell me about the inspiration?
Wow. Well yeah, as I grow older I write from where I’m at, and I’ve definitely come a long way. I’m no longer in that sort of, “Oh you’re going to leave me” place, thank God.
Yes, thank God we're no longer in our 20s.
Thank God! I talk about that on stage all the time. But hey, I got some hit songs out of it, very happy, it’s all good. This album, Wild and Lonely, is about just because I’m not in my 20s anymore doesn’t mean I don’t have fire in me. It doesn’t mean that I’m not desiring. That’s a love song, a passion song, where I’ve got my wife in mind, but I’m just on the road, and on the bus, and you’re just going. You don’t know where you are, in the middle of nowhere, and don’t you wanna save me? I could use some of that old-fashioned drama right now. It’s just a moment of that, it’s kind of wallowing in that for a moment.
"Medicine Show" feels like a huge anthem, like stadium rock at it’s best. A lot of your songs that people love are so intimate, but Medicine Show" feels so big and fun. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
I’ve been, the majority of my work and my life is spent on the road on stage. In front of people, that’s where all my work ends up, living on stage with me, so I really went into this album going, “Okay I’m going to make songs that are going to be fun to play live.” Because nowadays, record sales are who knows what they are anymore. "Medicine Show" is one of the later songs, it’s like one of the last two songs I wrote and I wrote it really quickly. The idea came to me because, as you know, I’ve been a cannabis advocate now for years and I believe very deeply in the medicine and the wellness, and this new health paradigm that we’re going towards.
How do I make that sexy and rock and roll? After my run-in with John Law at the border in 2017, I was like, “Hey, let’s make some lemonade out of those ol’ lemons.” And just really touch on the freedom of where we're headed and then some of the issues and then also the social justice or prison reform that’s going to have to happen. I wanted to throw all that in while everyone was singing along — that’s kind of what I like to do.
Talk to me about “medicine.”
When I went through my cancer, about 15 years ago in 2004 and 05, it really opened up my mind and my heart to what health was, and I realized that we’ve kind of been led down a strange path with Western medicine and pharmaceuticals. This idea that whatever’s wrong with us can be fixed with a pill. And manipulated from outside of us. I have a system inside me, my own immune system that was created to heal me.
Do you think we will see federal legalization of cannabis in our lifetimes?
Oh, yeah, there’s way too much money being made. To have it not be taxed and regulated, it needs to be regulated right now. It’s, “Well criminals!” It’s because it’s criminalized! Stop making it criminal and we won’t have those criminals, you know?
In 2007 you won an Academy Award for “I Need to Wake Up” from Inconvenient Truth, and now kids are striking over climate change.
It is part of changing our minds as a society. The thought that our world is disposable and that we are here just to rule over everything... What we need is that new thought of Wait a minute, it’s actually cooperation, not competition [that’s the solution]. We are just moments from it, I think. We’re just a new administration away.
What advice can you offer younger people who might not feel as hopeful as you under Trump?
“Oh, honey, I’ve seen leaders come and go.” I just came back from Europe this weekend. When I was in Berlin, I remembered how in 1989 I had a show in Berlin... the very weekend that the Wall fell down.
And I watched them actually tear down that wall, and at that moment as a 27-year-old, I knew that people can do anything, can bring about any change. Do not despair, someone who has just learned how to divide us over our fears, it doesn’t last long. The only thing — as corny as it sounds, love is always stronger than fear, and there’s not enough darkness in the world to put out one candle. So be that candle, be that hope. Hope is what inspires the rest of us, so be that.