[This 1993 profile was commissioned but never published by Details.]

WHEN SHE was six or seven, Melissa Etheridge fell under the spell of Barbra Streisand. "But I didn't want to grow up to
be Barbra Streisand," she says, looking perplexed. Then she giggles. "Maybe I wanted to grow up and date Barbra Streisand."

Today, however, judging by this 32-year-old rocker's take on love, she would never have had a chance with Barbra. In
Yes I Am, Etheridge's fourth album, relationships are riddled with torture and disease; motifs like blood, death, and hell abound; and sentimental moments are few. "Resist" equates sexual attraction to "a demon's day in madness." In "If I Wanted To," she can no more easily fall out of love than "fix this hole in my heart leaking into my flesh." Female blues and rock singers have always lashed out at the pain of romance, but not even Pat Benatar can match the agonies expressed here. Some call Etheridge a feminist who unleashes the repressed rage in her listeners; a few others say, lighten up, girl.

The title of her new record bears her trademark defiance. Etheridge came out publicly last January at the Triangle Ball, the gay inaugural party held for President Clinton. But long before that, the butch, unsmiling face on her album covers had aroused speculation. So had the music itself, which invited comparisons mainly to male rock idols like Rod Stewart and John Mellencamp. The resemblance is more vocal than spiritual: Etheridge holds romance up to a much harsher light, and men are not always seen as allies. Take "All American Girl," the story of a struggling black cocktail waitress who "keeps pushing on" even after an abortion and a report from a third party that her lover has HIV. The song's only response: "She will live and die in this man's world."

What's surprising is how soft and relaxed she seems when she's away from her guitar. At a hotel room in midtown Manhattan, Etheridge is seated in a chair, wide-eyed and attentive, her feet up on the sofa. Pretty and down-to-earth, she's not unlike a hip downtown sorority girl. "Well, people keep reminding me of how important it is to be real, to be open and enjoy it all," she says, in a speaking voice that sounds a lot like Jodie Foster's. "Because I've seen so many people who don't. I would see Tracy Chapman in my first year out. She was miserable.
Miserable. It's like, why do it? Go run a kitchen joint."

Etheridge is looking forward to the end of the week, when she'll be back home in the Hollywood Hills with Julie Cypher, a filmmaker and her girlfriend of five years. They met at her first video shoot; now they're inseparable. So how come her songs are so tormented? Etheridge traces it back to Leavenworth, Texas, her hometown. "I grew up in this household that was just like Donna Reed. Everything was fine, and no one talked to each other. There was no abuse or anything, but there also wasn't much love. I didn't know how to get angry at anybody, I didn't know how to tell them anything, so I went inward and started writing songs. It was safe. Even though it was, 'Help me, I'm dying,' I thought, 'Well, it's just something I wrote.'"

Her mother didn't approve, especially when her dad, a high-school teacher, began taking her out to play in bands at the local Skiing Club or at Parents Without Partners dances. "We'd be home at, like, three in the morning on a Saturday night. My mother's like, 'This girl is fourteen years old. What are you doing, taking her to a bar and letting her play?' My dad said, 'Hey, she's making money. She's learning. I'm there to make sure she doesn't get into trouble.'"

He also tried to help by making her listen to Neil Diamond, his favorite songwriter. "He'd put on the
Tap Root Manuscript album and he'd say, 'Listen to all these sounds, and listen to the words and how much they mean.' That's when I started to learn that writing was much more than, 'I love you, yeah, yeah, yeah.' But it was hard to find role models. Janis Joplin scared me when I was younger. I certainly didn't want to grow up and be someone who died. Later, though, when I was about 18, I thought that Bette Midler in The Rose was the coolest thing I'd ever seen."

Etheridge skipped college and studied music for a year in Boston, when she "really discovered what it meant to be gay. I'd had the feeling that I was the only one in Kansas, you know." In 1982, she found her way to the corner microphone at a lesbian bar in Long Beach, California. Her tough-girl stance hadn't yet developed; instead she sang the part of a fucked-over tomboy who wallowed in "precious pain" or moaned, "I got angels crying from up above/And they got rust in their eyes." But she struck a chord in her listeners, a few of whom got a little worked-up. "Sometimes they'd get into brawls. They'd fall into the microphone, and it would go,
BAM! Right into my mouth. Which is very hard on the teeth."

After four years of playing in lesbian bars, Etheridge had been rejected by every record company that had heard her. "They recognized the talent, but they all thought that there was no hit song, no catch, no trend that I was following. Everything was very heavy-metal then, or very Madonna. I played acoustic guitar, so they thought it was folk music. Outta here - dead. The women's labels wouldn't sign me because I
wasn't playing folk songs. And I think there were a couple of companies who thought, 'This is a gay artist. We don't know what to do with her.'"

In 1986, Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, spotted her at a girls' bar. Declaring that women were the future of rock, he signed her. Etheridge's first two albums went platinum; the third,
Never Enough, yielded the Grammy-winning single "Ain't It Heavy." As her renown - and her lesbian following - grew, interviewers began asking the big question, which she hedged. Finally she lowered her guard, due partly to the example of k.d. lang, whom she saw as her soul-sister. "Shadowland was released around the time of my first album, and oh, I loved it. I thought, hmm ... I think we have something in common. I mean, look at that picture!"

Both women were nominated for Grammys in 1988 - "and I searched her out," says Etheridge. "I introduced her to my girlfriend, she introduced me to hers - hallelujah! We made a dinner date, and a fast friendship was born. She's come down to my house and stayed for weeks, and she convinced me to be a vegetarian. I've seen her through relationships, she's seen me through relationships."

These days, Etheridge can hardly wait to talk about her newfound freedom. "I really enjoy being totally honest and open," she explains. ""I enjoy sitting down in an interview and not thinking, 'Oh, I
hope they don't ask me that.' Or I'd do live radio shows and think, 'Please don't have that dyke call in!'" She laughs and waves her arm back and forth. "I mean, please don't have that lesbian call in! But now it's like, 'Go ahead! Ask me!" She holds her hands wide and grins. "I don't care anymore. It's out, it's there, and there's no problem."

Having attained such security, would she ever consider dropping her sword for a few moments onstage and giving us some tenderness? Etheridge looks uncomfortable and a bit confused at the suggestion. She has no answer. After all,
Yes I Am did hit the charts at number sixteen, so clearly a lot of people relate to her violent image of romance. And to Etheridge, it's not about the war of the same-sexes. "I hope there aren't any straight women who are saying, 'I can't listen to this anymore because it doesn't have anything to do with me. I've kept my music genderless so that it can be appreciated by all. It's the same love, the same feeling, and the same passion for everybody, men or women, gay or straight."