LOS ANGELES – Melissa Etheridge can barely stop herself from uttering a swear word as she surveys her unfamiliar surroundings.
The 48-year-old rock singer is sitting in a trailer backstage at "Dancing with the Stars," a talent show watched by virtually everyone in America, except for her.
Etheridge, on the promotional trail for her 10th album "Fearless Love," has just finished rehearsing a song that she will perform live on the telecast a few days later.
"I feel like I'm going into the belly of the beast here," she said with a resigned laugh.
At the Etheridge household northwest of Los Angeles, her four young children are allowed to watch television and log on to the computer only during the weekend, and even then with conditions. "They TiVo 'American Idol' ... No commercials. That's bad stuff."
Etheridge views "Dancing with the Stars" as "the epitome of ... this hypnosis that our media has on us. That's what we care about. Who got kicked off 'Dancing with the Stars?'"
Yet, she also understands that the show strikes a chord with millions of Americans who appreciate the varying degrees of artistry on display.
And of course, with some 20 million U.S. viewers, it's an enviable showcase for music stars as the industry's decade-long decline shows no sign of ending.
While her personal life might also be in the doldrums -- Etheridge just split with her girlfriend of almost nine years -- her career is on the upswing.
Classic rock influences
After floundering for the better part of a decade, Etheridge enjoyed a creative renaissance with her previous album "The Awakening," which peaked at No. 13 on the U.S. pop chart in 2007 despite the absence of a big radio single.
"Fearless Love," released this week, is a classic-rock homage of sorts to her favorite artists such as the Who, Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen. The songs dwell on fear and love, and the choices people make between the two.
Fans will inevitably look for clues about Etheridge's break-up with Tammy Lynn Michaels, an actress 13 years her junior. But Etheridge says she writes on an almost subconscious level, and often realizes only much later that her songs are rooted in events she was not ready to face at the time.
She denied a recent tabloid report that the couple had drifted apart over time. "It wasn't that simple," she said. "People grow. Growth happens. If you ask her you're gonna hear a whole different story than if you ask me."
She talked cryptically of certain choices, behaviors exhibited and her fear of loneliness, but was not ready to go into detail less than two weeks after announcing the split.
"Fearless Love" is the second entry in a spiritual triptych that she expects will be rounded out in 2013 with an album titled along the lines of "Oneness" or "Unity." By that stage, Etheridge will have hit the 25-year mark that makes her eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Her life has rarely been dull since those long-ago days when the Kansas native broke through with the anguished single "Bring Me Some Water" and almost immediately started to be compared stylistically with Springsteen and Janis Joplin.
Not surprisingly, Etheridge is a little jaded by now. "It's a challenge to challenge myself," she said.
She came out as a lesbian in 1993, and released the biggest album of her career later that year, "Yes I Am," whose hit singles included "I'm The Only One" and "Come to My Window."
She made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 2000 with the startling revelation that her two children borne by then-girlfriend Julie Cypher had been conceived with the sperm of folk-rocker David Crosby.
The couple eventually broke up -- Cypher returned to the heterosexual world -- and Etheridge exchanged vows with Michaels in a 2003 commitment ceremony. In 2006, Michaels bore twins conceived with sperm from an anonymous donor.
Etheridge was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, and triumphantly performed Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" in her bald glory at the Grammys the following year. The whole experience shook her out of a creative torpor that had led to such albums as "Breakdown" (1999) and "Lucky" (2004).
Now cancer-free and living a healthy, balanced life, Etheridge relishes her victory over the disease in the new song "Drag Me Away." In "Miss California," she recalls the 2008 referendum that banned gay marriage in the state.
But unlike others in the gay community, Etheridge is not too aggrieved about the electoral defeat. The California campaign got people talking, and she sees how youngsters view gay rights the same way her generation viewed civil rights.
For now, the new album is the big campaign. Etheridge plans to tour the United States this summer and the next, visit Europe in the fall, and Australia early in 2011.
Presumably, she will watch "Dancing with the Stars" on TiVo.