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A secret no more

When it comes to enjoying her success of the past year, Melissa Etheridge has not suffered a single moment of ambivalence.

She loves all of it _ driving her plush new BMW 740i, hearing her songs on the radio, appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, winning her second Grammy, having Elton John over for dinner, singing with Bruce Springsteen on MTV's Unplugged, singing Janis Joplin songs at Woodstock '94 and then inducting Joplin into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"There's no need to try to fool anybody; I'm having a really good time," says Etheridge, 34, by telephone while on a tour stop in Denver. "It would be untrue of me to say it doesn't matter."

But most important, she explains, "This whole thing makes me very excited about the next album, putting that out. I feel like I have the trust and respect of the people to put it out."

That won't be until November, when Etheridge plans to reveal her fifth effort, Your Little Secret. But the trust and respect she speaks of is fostered by her latest album, Yes I Am. It's sold more than 4-million copies since it came out in September 1993, launching the radio and MTV staples Come To My Window and I'm the Only One and providing Etheridge with the best year of any female rocker this side of Sheryl Crow.

It clicked not just for the album's music, which is tough and gritty, but thanks to Etheridge's expressive vocals, which are rich in passion and tenderness. An avowed fan of big, arena-sized rock _ yes, Springsteen is an idol _ Etheridge effects a blend of power with sensitive, singer-songwriter sensibilities.

She knows that Yes I Am won a certain number of fans who think of it as her debut and are anticipating Your Little Secret as its follow-up. But Etheridge, born in Leavenworth, Kan., has been putting out albums since 1989, building her career on regular album releases, endless interviews, relentless touring and opening for others.

Her popularity, then, was built the same way as any of the bands she used to travel to hear at Kemper Arena in Kansas City. The wrinkle in Etheridge's case is that prior to the release of Yes I Am she came out as a lesbian, proclaiming her sexuality at the 1993 gay and lesbian Triangle Ball in Washington, D.C. Granted, rock

'n' roll is no stranger to gay performers, but coming out has always been risky; even stalwart hit maker Elton John suffered a significant commercial lapse during the late

'70s after he came out as bisexual.

Etheridge, on the other hand, has only enjoyed greater success. "I'm very surprised," she says, adding that she didn't receive "a single letter saying "You're a bad homosexual.' I didn't know what to expect. I'm really surprised everyone went "Okay, fine,' and went right along with it.

"This tour, for the first time, the audience is more heterosexual than ever. I've got men throwing me flowers, which is like, wow!"

Etheridge cautions it's important that her songs maintain a universal accessibility rather than be too narrowly interpreted.

"I'm not writing songs to women or anything like that," she says. "I still do not believe in limiting myself or my audience or my material at all. I have always enjoyed such a cross-reference of fans and people, it would really dishearten me if any of them felt like I was shutting them out: "Oh, she's singing about a girl, and I like guys, so I can't relate to that.' "

AT A GLANCE

Melissa Etheridge

8 p.m. Wednesday at the USF Sun Dome. Tickets: $25-$35.

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