It may seem a little odd, this soon after her official coming out, to suggest that Melissa Etheridge got to be the most successful female rock star of the '90s by first being the most conventional female rock star of the '90s. But clearly, whatever wrinkle her unabashed sexual identity adds to her public persona pales alongside the fact that she nearly alone among contemporary singers offers a kind of musical comfort food for boomers who miss the unhealthy passion that used to clog their arteries. Her message: Damn the doctors, destructive relationships are fun. Etheridge posits a no-guts/no-glory, emotionally retro world in which Janis still gives away pieces of her heart, obsession is a life philosophy as well as a fragrance, and it's still socially acceptable to crawl across broken glass to win back the sexy cad who deserted you for another babe. Codependent some more? Hers are the cassettes your therapist is praying you won't play in the car.
A good third of Etheridge's lyrics over the years have been variations on the same theme: the singer feistily battling her way back from the losing point of a romantic triangle, at any cost. For fans of this brand of rock & roll bodice ripping, her fifth album in just seven years, Your Little Secret, has plenty more in the way of ballsy neediness. The title song gets things off to a characteristic start by warning, in playfully peeved tones, that ''one and one and one, baby, makes three''; in the next ode to infatuation, ''I Really Like You,'' she's offering to ''forget about all my friends, tell outrageous lies.'' By the time she's hiding in the dead of night, watching her lover's other lover's car pull out of the driveway wailing ''I know you're alone'' and making plans for a visit Etheridge has pretty much elected herself poster girl for the local chapter of Women Who Stalk Too Much.
In a culture that increasingly substitutes irony for feelings, it's easy to see why these wildly exaggerated emotions would find a sizeable audience among traditionalists, 5 million of whom picked up her last album. If she's a drama queen, at least her volcanic rasp is ideally suited to a blowhard text. And at her hammy best in old songs such as ''Like the Way I Do'' her electric bluster can fleetingly convince you that maybe these illogically inflamed crushes and juvenile romantic tricks aren't just for kids after all.
Though her success is based on this wronged-blues-mama stuff, Etheridge does aspire to a more mature, singer-songwriterly style. And you'd hate to discourage anyone so fixated on the joy of dysfunctionalism from cultivating a more reflective side. But describing real love after all this lust in the sawdust is vexing. And when Etheridge has to sing something more tender than the blues, she turns up a blue collar, populating her less fiery numbers with increasingly arbitrary and clumsy working-class details. Disfranchised lovers meet ''past the Wal-Mart and the prison, down by the old VA,'' with Etheridge in ''just my jeans and my T-shirt, and my blue Chevrolet.'' In another tune she's longing for a bar with cheap drinks and hoping to ''find me a car with only one headlight.'' Most of these middle-American minutiae could've been picked at random out of a Cat tractor hat, but they leave little doubt that Melissa is down with Bruuuuce; she's not a lipstick but a Löwenbräu lesbian.
Secret (like the last album, coproduced with little flair by Hugh Padgham) does venture outside some overly familiar territory: ''I Could Have Been You,'' for one, is a dynamic rant against intolerance that may state the obvious (''Take a walk inside my shoes/A path I didn't choose'') but at least skirts referring to her position in the pop community. And it makes good use of a few offbeat power chords to boot. Elsewhere, though, Etheridge is less concerned with the politics of empathy than with continuing to stake her claim as arena rock's grand doyenne of desire. Her heaping portions of flame-broiled passion and want would seem to point in just one direction: the next meeting of Overstaters Anonymous.