Lisa Loeb looks like the kind of girl whom boys picked on in fourth grade. She wears big, goofy tortoise-shell glasses; her knees knock and she has a tendency to stand pigeon-toed. But right now, Loeb, 26, is as popular as any girl could dream to be. Her hit song "Stay," a folky bit of fluff from the "Reality Bites" soundtrack, is No. 2 on Billboard's singles chart and has sold more than 500,000 copies. And the video, running in heavy rotation on MTV, is directed by cute "Reality Bites" star Ethan Hawke.
Geekiness is actually the secret to Loeb's appeal. A Dallas-born singer-guitarist who spent the last few years struggling in New York folk clubs, Loeb landed on the "Reality Bites" soundtrack out of nowhere. She had no record contract, no manager, no following to speak of -- except, that is, for Hawke, a Greenwich Village neighbor who recommended her for the slot. (She is on the verge of a deal with Geffen.) "Stay" has struck a chord with the MTV audience that the desperate-to-be-hip film ironically missed. An ode to a botched relationship, the song, written by Loeb, uses the tangled language of adolescence: it's full of lines like "The lover's in love, and the other's run away" and "I think that I am throwing, but I'm thrown." The lyrics may be amateurish, but Loeb's voice is pretty, with an air of hesitant fragility, and the production has an uncluttered acoustic ease.
Yet it's visually that Loeb makes her greatest impact. In the video for "Stay," she is wandering around an empty loft apartment, flailing her arms and biting her lip and acting as though she could fall apart at any second. Like the MTV veejay Kennedy, who has a similarly wacko on-screen persona (as well as the manic hairdo and kooky glasses), Loeb flaunts her geekiness for all it is worth. Most people don't like to admit it when they feel awkward or clumsy; Loeb and Kennedy seem to thrive on it.
These new geek heroines have come along at a time when there are more interesting women in pop music than ever before. Just in the past year female-led bands like the Breeders, rappers like Salt 'N' Pepa and singer-songwriters like Melissa Etheridge have managed to score hits and put across no-nonsense, self-reliant attitudes at the same time. One of rock's original tough chicks, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders recently scored a moderate comeback with the album "Last of the Independents." Less commercial bands like Sonic Youth, L7 and Luscious Jackson feature women whose styles range from the offbeat to the outrageous. Even a macho mainstream rocker like John Mellencamp duets with an unconventional female, bassist Me'Shell Ndegeocello, on his current hit "Wild Night."
In other words, female pop icons are slowly but surely inching closer to reality. It used to be that attitude kept women out of the mainstream; these days it's something of a marketing tool. MTV still has its share of bimbos: Aerosmith's "Crazy" has a grossly implausible story line in which a couple of modelesque parochial schoolgirls go out for a frolic in a convertible and wind up writhing like stripteasers in a nightclub. (Mellencamp, too, has a leggy model starring in the "Wild Night" video.) But at least now there are alternatives. Whether you find Loeb's geek stance annoying or endearing, there's no doubt that she's making the pop landscape a little more interesting to look at.