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Drivin' their SUV song

Two Unitarian Universalists spoof the SUV craze with a catchy country song, promoting marriage equality as they go.
By Neil Miller
Fall 2006 8.15.06

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Songwriters Suzanne Sheridan and Rozanne Gates

Suzanne Sheridan and Rozanne Gates sing about the hulking SUVs in their hometown. (Robert Zuckerman)

Rozanne Gates and her partner Suzanne Sheridan drive a cozy red 1998 Toyota Corolla (gas mileage: 34 mpg), decorated with bumper stickers espousing a variety of progressive political causes. One day four years ago they were trying to back out of a parking space at their local shopping mall in suburban Westport, Connecticut, and found that they couldn’t see in any direction. They were hemmed in by two massive sport utility vehicles whose drivers—both women—seemed to peer from on high behind the security of their steering wheels.

“Rosie, there is a phenomenon going on—teeny, tiny women in a huge car looking down over everybody else,” Sheridan said to Gates. “I wonder what this is about.”

Gates, a former entertainment agent who sees the artistic potential in almost everything even though it is Sheridan who is the singer/songwriter in the family, replied, “That’s a great idea for a song!”

Once they got home, they pounded out a country-and-western-style tune:

There’s someone a waitin’
To take your parkin’ spot
She’s hell on wheels
She’s the new big deal
She’s America’s true sweetheart
Oh, she’s a
90 pound suburban housewife
Drivin’ in her SUV
Talkin’ on her cell phone
Oblivious to you and me
Kids in the back seat watchin’ the little T.V.
She’s a 90 pound suburban housewife driving in her SUV.

Gates and Sheridan thought they were parodying a phenomenon that was largely restricted to the suburban towns of Fairfield County on the “gold coast” of Connecticut, where they live. “We thought the song would be obsolete two years down the road,” says Gates. “But the cars kept getting bigger and the ladies kept getting smaller. No matter where we went, whether it was California or Arizona, we saw them!”

Flash forward to 2006. The price of gas was rising, global warming was finally making an impact on the national consciousness, and even President George W. Bush was touting the advantages of alternative fuels. And Sheridan and Gates’s song, “90 Pound Suburban Housewife Drivin’ in her SUV” was becoming a minor national sensation. What had started as a “lark” four years before received its first airplay on National Public Radio’s popular show Car Talk in January. By March, Gates and Sheridan had landed on CNN, the Today Show, and the pages of the New York Times and a host of other newspapers. Within two months, starting in March, they had received 288,000 hits on their website, which provided a link to the iTunes store where visitors could buy the song.

“It has never happened before that a song breaks on NPR, then gets up on iTunes, then goes to the Associated Press,” Sheridan boasts. “We have only a demo, we have no one publishing it, we have no well-known person covering it. And it is going places on its own steam. I have been writing songs for a long time, but this is a wild ride.”

In reality, it took a while getting started. “90 Pound Suburban Housewife” had its first “test drive” when Gates and Sheridan performed it at the Unitarian Church in Westport, where the two women are active members. Then came a less-than-broadcast-quality recording with a honky-tonk piano, and, through music industry connections, another recording by an unknown Nashville “demo” singer. Finally it aired on Car Talk, better known for its wisecracking discussions about leaky transmissions and over-inflated tires than as a launching pad for a musical hit. After that, it all came with a rush.

Today, Gates, 60, and Sheridan, 54, are mini-celebrities. Sheridan provides the artistic side, the voice and spirit of the couple. Gates is the business manager, the organizer, the more politically minded. The two women solemnized their relationship at a commitment ceremony at the Westport church late last year.

They are “a couple of balls of fire” with a “wonderful energy and innocence and childlike quality,” says the Rev. Frank Hall, senior minister at the church, who has known them for many years. With a down-to-earth charm, two self-described “chubby lesbians” from a Connecticut suburb have suddenly emerged as light-hearted advocates (although they don’t like the term) for the hot-button issue of the hour—America’s perilous addiction to oil and its most visible manifestation, the SUV.

With “90 Pound Suburban Housewife,” Gates and Sheridan seem to have hit a national nerve. With a series of funny lines and a catchy tune, they speak for millions of sedan drivers who can’t see around corners, who say their prayers before pulling out of a parking space, and who have a hard time making out street signs and traffic lights thanks to the ubiquitous presence of those out-sized SUVs. “We have a friend who says the Compo shopping center in Westport is more dangerous than Iraq,” says Sheridan. “You are taking your life into your hands!”

To them, SUVs “with their tons of steel and four big wheels” are more than just an annoyance, though. With their notoriously low gas mileage, the vehicles are a dangerous example of the American tendency to “live in unreality,” says Gates. “We know that fossil fuels are a limited resource, and we are acting like they are forever.”

The two women see the song’s message as very much consonant with UU values. “As Unitarians, we don’t want to see resources wasted,” Gates continues. “We don’t say that people who drive SUVs are wrong. We say make the cars a little smaller, make them more efficient, make them go at least 25 miles a gallon. The car manufacturers have the technology, and they’re not using it. That is the Unitarian part.”

And even though issues like energy efficiency and climate change are very serious subjects, Gates and Sheridan feel that being funny is the best way to reach people. Humor eventually leads to seriousness, they believe. Their goal is to get people talking, without making them feel defensive from the outset. “If you are in a relationship with someone and you want to say something serious to the other person, you do it gently,” argues Sheridan. “In the same way, when you have something serious to talk about as a country, you have to step into it gingerly, with care and with as much light-heartedness as possible to get the conversation going.”

That same approach extends to another issue they are passionate about—same-sex marriage. The two are legal partners under Connecticut’s newly enacted civil union law, which grants gay and lesbian couples many of the same rights as married heterosexuals. In their media appearances, Gates and Sheridan have been absolutely open about their relationship, but always in their trademark disarming manner. When a CNN reporter noted that they were “a couple,” Gates quipped, “Couple of what?”

Although they have both lived in Westport since the mid ’90s, the two women are hardly your stereotypical upscale Fairfield County suburbanites. Gates, who grew up in a Jewish family in Houston, Texas, graduated from Southern Methodist University and came to New York City at age 21, dreaming of becoming an actress. But, unlike her roommate at the time, future Oscar-winner Kathy Bates, she found her hopes quickly dashed. She returned to Houston, working as an assistant stage manager at a local theater, and moved to Chicago, where she started as an actor’s agent and discovered she had a knack for the business side of show biz. Back in New York City, she spent 25 years as an agent, representing actors like Edward Norton, William H. Macy, and Joe Mantegna, among others. She wrote a book called How to Succeed in the Business of Show Business or Everything They Don’t Tell You in Acting School but I Will.

Sheridan, who grew up on Long Island, also migrated to New York City, in her case to make it as a singer/songwriter. She started off as “a jingle singer,” winning a Clio award as the only female voice in the Pepsi Cola commercial “Join the Pepsi People.” She sang in commercials for Texaco and Hasbro Toys and wrote songs for the PBS children’s program The Electric Company. Working in law firms by day to earn money, in the evenings she wandered from club to club performing her own songs—very much in the style of Bonnie Raitt. As Sheridan gradually learned that “life wasn’t just about love affairs and breaking up,” as she puts it, the nature of her music changed, she says. She wrote a song about the death of her uncle, another about 9/11, still another called “This Child” for her nephew’s birth, which she sings at periodic child dedication ceremonies at the Westport church.

The two women lived three blocks from each other on New York’s Upper West Side but never met until they moved to Westport. After two years of being friends, they became a couple, and have now been together for ten years.

Sheridan, who was raised as a Roman Catholic (“I was the one leading the folk Mass,” she says), had long been curious about Unitarian Universalism. It was she who persuaded Gates to take a look at the Unitarian Church of Westport. The church, built in the early 1960s, is a model of grace and form: shaped like an upside-down ark, all glass on the lower level, it is open to the outside greenery and has an inviting quality. Gates, with her political bent, liked it immediately. “The service was more of a political rally,” she said. “I like the rabble-rousing nature of it.”

The two women started coming up every week. Although there were a number of parents of gay children on the church’s Rainbow Task Force at the time, Gates and Sheridan were the first really out-front gay couple in the congregation. “We came to the church when it was struggling about being a Welcoming Congregation,” says Gates. “They embraced us so fully.” (The Welcoming Congregation is a UUA program that helps congregations fully welcome bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender people into all aspects of church life.)

Without hesitation, the two began to push issues of concern to them. One of their first achievements was to persuade the church to host a gay pride celebration; for five years now, Fairfield County’s annual gay and lesbian pride events have been celebrated there. In 2004, the church’s three ministers journeyed to New Paltz, New York (where Sheridan had gone to college), to perform same-sex weddings in a show of solidarity with the town’s mayor, who was facing criminal misdemeanor charges for doing the same thing.

“Rozanne and Suzanne have been the path makers,” says Hall. “They have been the spirit behind the Welcoming Congregation, behind the Rainbow Task Force. But they are not just a one-note song. They touch people’s lives in spirit and spirituality.” Adds EdWard Thompson, the church’s minister of music, “Inclusivity and policy statements don’t mean anything until people like these walk in and become part of the community.”

The two women say that the support of the church provided them with the confidence to become part of the larger Westport community. Gates is the director of First Night Westport/Weston and production manager for the Westport Arts Center, which produces 20 concerts a year. She organized an antiwar rally on the town green before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, at which their neighbor, actress Joanne Woodward, spoke.

Spurred on by church support, Sheridan ran for election to the town’s version of a city council, called the Representative Town Meeting. Members of the church’s Spiritual Reading Group, of which Sheridan is a part, went door-to-door campaigning for her. Sheridan lost in a close race but she was proud of her showing and the backing of so many church members. “I probably wouldn’t have run in the first place if I hadn’t felt so supported by the church,” she maintains.

On October 29, 2005—less than a month after Connecticut’s civil union law went into effect—the couple held their commitment ceremony at the church, presided over by Hall and the Rev. Barbara Fast, the former associate minister. Some 250 people attended, including many of Westport’s movers and shakers. The event was full of music—“the only wedding in history to have its own bluegrass band and its own Unitarian gospel group,” according to Gates. The Spiritual Reading Group wrote a song for the occasion. And, of course, the brides couldn’t resist singing “90 Pound Suburban Housewife” at the reception that followed. “The place was jumping,” says Hall.

Gates and Sheridan had been determined to wait to have their commitment ceremony until their relationship could be recognized by the state. Although they are not recognized as married under Connecticut law—Massachusetts is the only state in the United States to legalize same–sex marriage so far—they insist that their civil union status for all intents and purposes is a marriage. “We have access to every [Connecticut] law that married couples have,” says Gates.

For Sheridan in particular, the Unitarian Church in Westport has provided a creative outlet. She is one of four members of a musical group at the church called The Key Ingredients, whose style she describes as “Crosby, Stills, and Nash meets gospel.” The group, which includes Thompson on keyboards, was originally established to create entertainment for a fellowship dinner. Now, it performs every three months or so at the church and has had gigs at various local coffeehouses, performing songs like “Lean on Me” and “Down by the Riverside” in rousing fashion.

Sheridan leads church workshops called “You Can Sing,” which help people who were prevented or discouraged from singing when they were younger. Sheridan relates how a Chinese woman—who hadn’t been allowed to sing during the Cultural Revolution, when any unapproved activity was banned as counter-revolutionary—stood up and started swaying silently at one workshop. Sheridan stood beside her with a guitar, ready to accompany her, and the other participants sat mesmerized, wondering what would happen next. Then, the words confidently began to emerge: “If I can sing, so can you.” By then, Sheridan recalls, everyone at the workshop was in tears.

“The church has been the springboard for my creativity,” says Sheridan: “the ‘You Can Sing’ workshops, The Key Ingredients, gay pride. There is a way in which everything flows into everything at the church.”

Right now, though, the creative part of their lives has been taking a back seat to the business side as they enjoy their proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. Sheridan and Gates have been promoting “90 Pound Suburban Housewife” as best they can, hiring a media agency, which has sent copies out to various country music stations across the United States. In order to reach a wider audience, they are also trying to get a major singer to record it. (Dolly Parton “loved” the song, according to Gates, but the star bowed out, busy with other projects.) “Our job right now is to get it to a well-known person, to feel it has an international voice,” says Sheridan.

In all this, they are trying not to lose sight of the values that are at the heart of the song. “If you believe certain things,” says Sheridan, “you have to act on them, to move into the three-dimensional world. The song does something about stuff we have been frustrated about. That is why it is hitting the chord it is hitting.”

Meanwhile, they are having fun, appearing on various radio shows and receiving a stream of emails and letters. Two fans have contacted them with the promise of “turning in” their SUVs. And Gates and Sheridan, always on the lookout for a song, have come up with a sequel to “90 Pound Suburban Housewife Drivin’ in Her SUV.” They plan to call it “He-Man in a Hummer.”

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