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!”