Lee Aaron Shows Her Mettle
(plays guitar, does laundry, and picks up the kids after school)
Main Entry: met·tle
Etymology: alteration of metal
1a: vigor and strength of spirit or temperament; b: staying quality: stamina <equipment that proved its mettle>
2: quality of temperament or disposition <gentlemen of brave mettle — Shakespeare>
2a: mettle; b: the substance out of which a person or thing is made
In recent years Lee Aaron has found a comfortable reconciliation of her parental ideals and rock ‘n’ roll heart. Tempered by the wisdom that motherhood brings, she’s no longer concerned by the stereotyping that relentlessly pursued her since the 1984 release of her iconic album Metal Queen. Instead, she’s now able to understand why the label stuck, and can – almost cheerfully – discuss her relationship with the mythology that is actually an acute counterpoint to her fundamental artistic vision.
Lee Aaron has a right to feel co-opted. Recurrent themes of her writing – from teenager to maturity – have been female empowerment and positive energy, feminine strength and wisdom. The song ‘Metal Queen’ was inspired by a scene from animated fantasy movie Heavy Metal, in which a female protagonist responds to sexual harassment with extreme – male – violence. Aaron’s point – specifically – was to show the stereotypes of male strength and feminine weakness are as much social conditioning as biological reality. Lee says: “The song was never meant to be autobiographical. It was an era where women were objectified, especially in hard rock music. I’d hoped it would empower women.”
‘Metal Queen’ wasn’t the best song from that recording session, and would have been a deep track on the album, but for her record label and manager. From the ‘old school’ of record-industry, they latched onto the track as a breakthrough image-maker, completely ignoring its metaphorical subtext in the process. They convinced Lee to pose in the famous shot – fur loin-cloth, wild tousled hair, and the sword – for the album cover, and a video for the song. Lee, barely out of her teens and unaware of the ramifications of such an approach, agreed.
Lee Aaron as ‘Metal Queen’ clicked; big time. And with it came some seemingly unshakeable assumptions – Lee Aaron is a heavy-metal diva. A Jagermeister-drinking, hard-partying, sexy rocker chick. Music video had emerged as the hot new medium, and the song’s video quickly became a coming-of-age fantasy for teenage boys everywhere.
From a statement of female empowerment, to objectification as a metal sex kitten – a complete reverse of her artistic intentions.
Lee has always been an entertainer. She was singing Broadway standards in Junior High School theatre, and a recent archival DVD set includes an brief clip of her sincere version of ‘You Light Up My Life’ on local television. She joined a rock band by the time she was 15, and had already recorded and released her debut album by the time of the Metal Queen album release. That album opened doors to the rapidly-growing heavy metal subculture, and she was soon hitting stages across Canada and Europe, showcasing her excellent vocal range and technique. She was on her way to becoming a full-fledged rock star.
To some listeners, ‘Metal Queen’ overshadowed her subsequent releases. She constantly emphasized to interviewers – TV, radio, newspapers, fanzines – that she was not a ‘Metal Queen’ – that the song was about female empowerment. But the message rarely got through. She turned to her art, creating the #1 single ‘Whatcha Do To My Body.’ A tongue-in-cheek send-up of the concept of objectification, the video made it all the more obvious (and fun): Aaron in unrevealing stage clothes, surrounded by beautiful, half-naked men shown in typical music video girly-style, glistening and posing unnecessarily, seductively and aimlessly selling sexuality with no real connection to the singer. The song was a huge hit – but the message didn’t drive home.
Her records subsequent to ‘Metal Queen’ show wide artistic range and a stunning diversity. Collectively, they offer ample evidence that she is far more than a one-dimensional metal diva. Over the next decade, she received 10 Juno nominations, a Much Music Best Video Award, a pair of Best (Toronto) Female Vocalist Awards, and a CMPA Songwriters Award.
BodyRock went multi-platinum, and was voted one of the 20 most influential albums of the decade by Chart Magazine. The same magazine later listed such diverse musicians as Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morrisette and Shania Twain as all being “under Aaron’s influence.”
Despite the considerable commercial success, she began to feel suffocated by the limited expectations of some fans and the media; “Every news headline would attach the label ‘Metal Queen’ to me,” Aaron recalls, “and every show would include small groups of die-hard fans chanting ‘Metal Queen’ in unison. I thought ‘Why can’t people let go of this? I don’t get it.’ It felt stifling.”
The recent Academy Award nominated movie Anvil: The Story of Anvil shows how that group were ineptly-managed and marketed by their record company. Well, guess what? Lee Aaron was with on that same label, at the same time. Unlike Anvil, she was able to achieve international success, topping several music magazine polls. In the spring of 1985, Lee toured Europe as support act for to Bon Jovi; her live performance clicked with European audiences, and she was able to return in the fall as headliner to the very same concert halls.
As the most prominent artist on the Attic label, her records were used unsuccessfully as a bargaining chip by the company to acquire a distribution deal for the entire roster. When that failed, the label tried to get funding to implement U.S. division, again holding the Lee Aaron records out of the US market, with plans to make her the debut artist on the new label. That idea ultimately failed as well. Stuck in a binding contract, she had no recourse but to sit tight. Throughout the whole ordeal, there was considerable – and continued – interest from US labels to sign and promote her. As a result, Lee Aaron’s records were never released in the USA, condemning her to the less than lofty status of a cult icon in the world’s largest market.
By the mid- 90’s Aaron had stopped performing ‘Metal Queen.’ If fans got angry, she tried to explain. Then she tried another tack; recording an album anonymously, under the name IIPrecious. She brought in the ¾ of the musicians from Vancouver’s acclaimed Sons of Freedom, and together they created a first-rate collection of textured, alternative-leaning songs.
Right out of the box, there were glowing reviews, and campus airplay across Canada. Plans were in the works for both Canadian and European dates when everything ground to a halt: once the media realized it was Lee Aaron, the ‘Metal Queen’ tag emerged in full force. College radio stopped playing the record, and tour dates vanished; there was simply no credibility – no matter how great a record – because of the stereotype.
It was too much. Aaron had by now moved to Vancouver from Toronto, and took a year-long hiatus from the music business. She came to the conclusion that the only way to be represented clearly was by being independent – producing and releasing her music herself. It was time to make a record she would enjoy making – regardless of genre, or other’s expectations.
“I’d had a great affection for old jazz and blues. This is where rock and roll came from in the first place. I needed to prove that I could do something completely different. Mostly to myself, I think” Lee later explained. She resurfaced in 2000 with Slick Chick, an album of finely-performed jazz standards. The stylistic change suited her voice perfectly, and the reviews were more than favourable:
“Lee Aaron has pulled off one of the biggest musical transformations…while it may be hard for some to believe that she could tread so confidently in so many jazzy sub-genres, the fact is, she did.” – GLOBE AND MAIL
A subsequent ten country tour garnered great reviews. The switch in musical genres finally let people see her as a musician and vocalist; not a comic-book character. Her next release, 2004’s Beautiful Things was another turn in the road, featuring original songs and a few choice covers, combining her musical influences – jazz, blues, rock – to create a shimmering pop record that again received positive reviews:
“Beautiful Things features Lee Aaron producing music of rare beauty, that not only captures the power, range and sensitivity of her voice, but also melds her rock, blues and jazz influences.” – Larry Leblanc (BILLBOARD)
She again showed her diversity by accepting a role in an award-winning modern Baroque opera, but music, for once, was not her main focus.
Finally, after years of hoping and waiting, Lee Aaron had the biggest career growth of her life – she became mother, in quick succession, to daughter Angella and, a year later, a son, Jett.
Her focus and dedication to her family has happily usurped her music and career, and without the pressure of ‘the next record’, she has had the time to reconcile the ‘Metal Queen’ within herself, and to understand that many of her fans are there for her voice and her songs, not her stereotype.
In 2007, Lee was invited to perform with Heart at Thunder Bay’s prestigious Rockfest festival. Having focused primarily on the jazz circuit, it had been almost a decade since she had last performed her older rock hits.
She realized playing with Heart would bring an older, rock’n’roll crowd, and, after reflection, accepted the offer. She put together a top-notch band, and an entirely new show, incorporating her earlier rock hits along with the new material, re-arranged to create a seamless concert experience.
The show went beautifully – fans welcomed Lee back to rock ’n’ roll with resounding acclaim – and when she returned home, she realised she had had a ball, and more importantly, had finally made peace with her entire catalogue. Continuing to hone the new hybrid rock set, a new goal emerged; performing again when her children got old enough for Mommy to do some live performances. “I realized (after stepping away from rock for a few years) that embracing my past doesn’t have to prevent me from moving into the future. Plus, I really missed picking up a guitar and rocking out. I guess I’ve grown up a bit!”
It would probably be easier to give up – put together the heavy metal boy band, and go out there on the casino circuit, pumping out carbon-copy arrangements of ‘Metal Queen’ and all of her hits, costume and make-up frozen in 1989 mode. Just this year she was approached by Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, to be part of a Vegas revue that would include Stephen Pearcey (Ratt) and Lee singing their hits, working the smoke machines overtime. ‘It would be cartoon fun’, laughs Lee. ‘but maybe for a weekend,’ she smiles. ‘We’ll see.’
Her priority is with her children, and the idea of spending endless weeks on the Las Vegas strip is simply out of the question. But playing rock ’n’ roll again? Heck, yes! Since 2010, Lee has been making frequent forays to stages across Canada with a rock show that revisits her greatest hits and seamlessly introduces newer tunes.
Having reconciled her Metal Queen image with real life, she understands her audience has matured with her. ‘Metal Queen’ is now more than just a rock chick shouting an anthem line to her fans – it belongs to a girl who grew up, and now embraces motherhood, music and life, with all its diversions and challenges, setbacks and joys. The song itself is an innocent postcard, a rocking memory from a time and a place that Lee Aaron and her fans shared together; maybe even a reflection of our collective memories of youth and promise, optimism and ideals. It is a celebration of our staying power, and the people we have become. We may be older, but we still know how to have fun!
In 2013 Lee Aaron met Sean Kelly (Canadian author and guitarist for Nelly Furtado) and the two became fast friends. Lee contributed an interview to Kelly’s historical book about Canadian hard rock and heavy metal, entitled Metal On Ice and over the course of the book and subsequent companion cd, the two discovered they had a lot in common musically. They began bouncing song ideas back and forth and before long, with several tunes Lee had already written for a planned rock album, they had enough material for an entire original CD. Lee headed into the studio with Sean and her live band, Dave Reimer (bass) and John Cody (drums) and by late summer 2015 all the finishing touches on a brand new rock album were completed.
Fire and Gasoline, with international distribution from ILS/Caroline Records, hits the streets March 25, 2016!
Lee Aaron is looking forward – to taking her new rock show to the stage, to creating new music, to watching her children grow. Fire and Gasoline sees a resurgent, revitalized and energized Lee Aaron re-emerging into the rock ‘n’ roll world with an album that is sophisticated, thought-provoking, sublimely entertaining and a whole lot of rockin’ fun.
It leaves no doubt that Canada’s rock queen is back – better, and with more mettle than ever!
“She proves that at this point in her career, we underestimate Aaron at our own risk.” – The Georgia Straight