An Essential Record of a Parallel Universe

An Essential Record of a Parallel Universe
Reviewer: MRoepe
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Rock She Wrote:
Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap
496 pages
April 08, 2014
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

Collects the best of women's writing on music from the 1960s to the present, from the days when women were only tolerated as screaming groupies behind the scenes to the day they took center stage as performers and critics in their own right.

Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap is the definitive anthology on all things female and funky. Edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers and featuring the voices of Pamela Des Barres, Courtney Love, Cherie Curie, bell hooks, Patti Smith, and so many more, this text spans a staggering 500 pages and features 35 individual essays, each a compelling labor of love and courage. In the Preface we learn how and why such a thing came to be: “This book is the record of a search: the literal process of digging through archives and tracking down old bylines, but also a metaphorical quest for a history and a community” (1).

Rock She Wrote as a project means to rewrite music history, and return to their rightful places of glory the women that made rock, pop, and rap bloom into wider cultural movements, as well as give space to the less- frequently-considered realities of being a woman in music. The perspectives in this book are valued gems, a record of intersectional and ancestral knowledge. “Whether there are differences or not,” Patti Smith is cited expressing, “you’re treated differently, so you might as well take the opportunity to write differently” (11). Rock She Wrote highlights those opportunities.

Evelyn McDonnell opens the anthology with the striking Intro, “The Feminine Critique” (1992). If you usually skip introductions, don’t – McDonnell sets the stage for this text well by forcing the reader into the real world, one of sexism, lower pay, threats of violence, bottled anger, and also unending creativity. Not only do the writing styles of women differ from their respected male counterparts’, women also tend to write about different types of music – and different types of artists – largely ignored by men, McDonnell argues. Rock music is male-centered, sure, but it’s rock criticism, the culture of discourse surrounding the music itself, that’s overwhelmingly male. The essays in this anthology frequently move against what’s considered “good,” or even anticipate what’s “good” before the mainstream recognizes it in eye-opening ways.

The first section of the anthology, I Am the Band, consists of testimonies from women in the rock scene. Many of the names in this section are familiar – Marianne Faithfull, The Runaways’ Cherie Curie, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon – but the list of essays also features some lesser known figures like Jaan Uhelszki, founder of Creem magazine and one of the first women to work in rock journalism. From this section I would especially recommend:

• Kim Gordon’s tour diary piece from 1987, “Boys Are Smelly”
• Gretchen Phillips, “I Moshed At Mich” (1994)
The former is an example of hidden writing unearthed through the dedicated archival research the editors describe, and represents a quintessential piece of the female experience in rock and roll: the experience of being watched. Gordon’s frank honesty and photorealistic detail about touring pulls us in two directions: the desire to escape womanhood entirely in order to preserve the un-self-conscious energy needed for performing, or confronting all the outrage at one’s objectification as a woman head-on in order to fuel artistic purpose.
In contrast, the latter fondly remembers the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. The term “womyn” now weighs heavy with controversy these days as debate heightens about the presence of transgender women in the feminist movement – many see the word “womyn” as a waving red flag for trans-exclusionary radical feminists (or TERFs), but the blunt expressions of freedom in a ‘safe,’ entirely ‘female’ space make this piece read more like science fiction than reality. This intimate look into queerness and the history of safe spaces amidst rampant sexism is definitely intriguing, and an irrefutable part of our history regardless of the connotations today. Keeping up the momentum of more recognizable figures, the second section, On the Scene, contains analyses by female rock critics that established the power of the rock scene. From this section, I would recommend:

• Caroline Coon’s 1976 interview with The Sex Pistols
• Holly George-Warren, “Into the Abyss” (1992)

Caroline Coon’s interview in a time before Sid Vicious showcases how women were among the first to document the early beginnings of traditionally-male discourses like punk rock. Coon’s profile poses probing questions indicative of both a building revolutionary energy and a healthy dose of skepticism: “But are these young bands really committed to changing society (or at least the rock musician’s role in it)? Or is their stance just another Great Media Hype?” (95). The Sex Pistols, Coon determines, are designed to shock – rather than explicitly advocating for anarchism, they embody anarchy itself. And that anarchy is tempered by reasonable character under the surface; Coon’s conversation with John Lydon reveals a genuine valuing of education, a distrust of media fixated on violence as a scapegoat to degrade punk, and a hesitance to embrace hatred as a central motivator, instead supporting community initiatives to provide creative outlets for maturing youth. Overall, Coon exposes a much more – dare I say – intelligent side to a band immortalized in equal parts love and infamy.

Similar to Coon, George-Warren explores the complexity of drug culture and its ties to music as she attempts to answer the question of why drugs and booze have such a firm hold on musicians. She opens with frequently quoted words from figures like the Rolling Stones, but quickly transitions into less-often-heard testimony, including those of Olga Gabelman, Claudine Troise, and Lydia Lunch. All of these women, directly quoted, inform a complex argument about the difficulties of coping with pain, bolstered by reference to respected psychologists looking at the scene from the outside in. Ultimately, George-Warren’s essay proposes several answers to her question and displays an incredible range in doing so. George-Warren’s initiative to complicate long-held belief systems by centering women’s words transitions seamlessly into the following two sections about exploring the position of the female fan – at once denigrated and exploited by the music industry – and the complicated intersections of attraction to and admiration for men sharing the rock stage. Fan Mail and Love Letters and Boy Watching include unique perspectives ranging from Pamela Des Barres’ interview with Courtney Love to Patti Smith’s sexualization of Bob Dylan, but among these reflections two pieces stand out in how they reveal a level of nuance to the ideal of the fan:

• Lori Twersky, “Devils or Angels? The female teenage audience examined” (1981)
• Christina Kelly, “I Hate Going Backstage” (1991)
The female fan is often considered by big-brained critics to be vapid and boy-crazy, and because of this vapidity also the easiest to exploit; this denigration increases exponentially the younger the fans get, and even male artists with predominantly young female followings are taken less seriously because of their association. Twersky’s and Kelly’s essays complicate these reductive pictures of girlhood and fanhood – Twersky by opening up about some common myths about the young female fan perpetuated by the ‘isolationist Ivory Tower’ of rock criticism, and Kelly by commenting on how uncomfortably intrusive it can feel to be backstage as a woman, and the shame we may feel as devoted fans of male stars. Both pieces show awareness and conflict not often acknowledged (let alone respected) by men in power.

The next two sections, Wimmin, Grrrls, Queens, and Divas and Talking ‘Bout a Revolution capture various prismatic shades of the radical potential that femininity can offer musical creativity. I would especially recommend:

• Daisann McLane, “Heart Attack” (1980)
• bell hooks, “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?” (1992)
• Lisa Jones, “The Signifying Monkees: 2 Live Crew’s Nasty-Boy Rap on Trial in South Florida” (1990)
• Dana Bryant, “Canis Rufus” (1992)
McLane’s endearing Rolling Stone portrait of the Wilson sisters examines care, vulnerability,and the place that tenderness has in the larger zeitgeist of rock music. McLane captures soft details of the sisters’ relationships to each other and female friends with touching sincerity, like when Nancy Wilson points out where her thirteen-year-old self had painted “I LOVE YOU” on the window sash in her childhood bedroom. “‘I’d written a song about the rain, and I wanted to let the rain know how much I loved it,’” Nancy said (292). Details like this might be overlooked or even mocked in other outlets, but it only made me appreciate the Wilson sisters more. Details like McLane’s here stand out because they create well-rounded portraits of grown women with multifaceted personalities, vulnerabilities, and histories – this essay is a pleasure to read.

Identity was then, just as it is now, intersectional, and thankfully Rock She Wrote does its part to highlight intersectionality. Famed activist bell hooks wrote on the complexities of everyone’s favorite controversial feminist figure, Madonna, “Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?” while Lisa Jones goes to Florida in 1990 to cover the trial of rap group 2 Live Crew, still one of the most intense legal battles over censorship in the history of popular music. Jones’ description of events reveals crucial realities about the perception of race and privilege not only in the music industry, but also in the wider public arena: “In a county where thirteen percent of the population is black and only five percent is registered to vote, black people are automatically under-represented in jury pools” which leads to a “narrower frame of reference with which to judge community opinion” (387-388). Spoken word artist Dana Bryant’s 1992 poem “Canis Rufus,” a tribute to Chaka Khan, is also definitely worth a read, picking up on Jones’ exploration of what truly makes music to different people.

The final section of the anthology is titled Sound and Vision, and I would recommend
• Susan McClary, “Same As It Ever Was: Youth Culture and Music” (1994)
• dream hampton, “Confessions of a Hip-hop Critic” (1994)
Musicologist McClary discusses the philosophical tradition behind humanity’s need for music in wider society, and pairs well with pieces like the psychologically-focused “Into the Abyss” from On The Scene. From the church to the state to patriarchy, McClary explores how old structures of power just continue to be recycled through popular music – have you ever thought of a Bob Dylan song as a reinterpretation of a Calvinist hymn? McClary has. An intriguing piece that gets readers to think more critically about the musical patterns that we often take for granted.

In her article for Essence magazine, hampton writes about the very real threats posed by misogyny, especially when a woman becomes critical in male spaces. She recounts a threat on her life made to her by Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man following one of her album reviews, and links it to Dr. Dre’s assault on a video show hostess who dared to air an interview with Dre’s rival, Ice Cube – and like McClary’s piece, the patter she draws is only the beginning. Hip-hop is often criticized for its underlying misogyny, and hampton explores effects of the culture both physical and immaterial, from the inside looking out, in ways that are both insightful and sensitive. Her article reminds us of what’s truly at stake when women enter these male spaces of music: how our presence alone can be taken as a sign of disrespect, punishable by violence. Her article also reminds us that while hip-hop “may be guilty of pimping and parading the worst of black America, rap music cannot be made responsible for this government’s institutional racism and sexism and our family’s subsequent decimation” (458).

The Outro, “Who’s That Girl?” written by Ann Powers, conceives of the female aspect of popular music as monstrous: originating from outside ourselves, turning around within the female body to broaden our imagination of what creativity and what power means, to then be adored in a way that was never intended by the men that created it. Powers writes that for women, music necessarily undergoes a “symbolic transformation” wherein what is “honest” and what is “real” is not always so clear (462). This honest transformation involves confronting the misogyny that we internalize just as much as the liberty it affords us. It’s a powerful note to end on, and frames the anthology not just a celebration of womanhood, but also a critical look at the work still required of women as we move forward. While it could use an update for the new millennium, overall Rock She Wrote represents the tenacity of women (whatever that word means) throughout music history, and successfully builds both a lineage and community on common ground – whether that be love, pain, or a mixture of both. Though not without its flaws, I highly recommend this book for any - and everyone to learn from. An essential for every rock historian.