I thought that a book called Record Collecting For Girls – for a fellow record-collecting girl – might just be one of the greatest things to ever happen. Ah...NOW I’ve finally got a book to teach me what to look for, a hand-held guide to genres and artists that take MY needs into account the way that music snobs don’t, a road map through the male-dominated world of alternative music.
I’ve got some bad news for anyone who thought like me: this is not that book.
The two problems I have with this book mainly center on Smith as a narrator. The first problem isn’t really a problem, per se, but when your narrator uses phrases like “I kind of accidentally made Fall Out Boy happen too” and “I knew about the Shins a million years before you did” – actual quotes – it’s no wonder you spend unbelievable amounts of time rolling your eyes. Her unbending rules at some times just get downright impractical; in her chapter Top Five Lists she claims, “You must own all the full-length albums released by any artist in your top five.” Listen to, certainly, but own? Dear Ms. Smith, I know that your allowance was only “a mere $5 a week,” but some of us don’t get allowance at ALL.
Smith, like most music critics, has a very distinct opinion on what is "good music," a preference that does not include any kind of popular music. From her chapter Guilty Pleasures: “As a rule, popular music is rarely cool.” Though it is called popular music for a reason, Smith seems to think that the only worthwhile artists and genres are those that either a) no one listens to or b) have been inducted into in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not a bad barometer, but perhaps a bit intolerant.
As trying as a self-important narrator can be, the real problem I have with Smith is her definition and treatment of feminism. I’m not quite sure that Smith understands what female empowerment is, because my takeaway from Smith is that only a very specific woman can be a good record collector, and it’s NOT girls like me.
From her crucifixion of Pamela Des Barres to her snide disdain for the Pussycat Dolls, Smith manages to both isolate and shame girls with tastes dissimilar to her own. “Where’s the female equivalent to the Foo Fighters?” she asks rhetorically in her opening first pages. “I don’t want another Rihanna.” From the get go, it’s very clear that a good record collecting girl does not find her own genre of music, she transforms herself to fit the masculine mold of rock music. She does not admire women like Rihanna, who proudly and unapologetically advertise for sexual agency. The “girly stuff” that often characterizes mainstream female icons has no place in the music community, because that makes women look vapid. We, as women, instead need to look for music that suggests “a depth beyond what Bananarama and Madonna had to offer.” Here is the secret, girls: we must all suppress our femininity, not embrace it!
See, the problem is that mainstream female pop culture icons like the Pussycat Dolls “sing about gender politics with the kind of inane Spice Girls ‘girl power!’ message that’s light on substance and pisses off most women who consider themselves feminists.” Girl power, according to Smith, only comes in certain forms – forms that most typically resemble successful male bands like the Foo Fighters.
I was particularly disappointed in the chapter titled Guilty Pleasures. In the words of Smith’s own icon Dave Grohl: “I don't believe in guilty pleasures, you know? I believe you should be able to like what you like. If you like a fucking Ke$ha song, listen to fucking Ke$ha.” You’re damn right, Dave. This chapter was a perfect opportunity to destroy the notion that we as girls must retain guilt and shame for liking certain kinds of music, to get girls to embrace their tastes and be confident, self-assured individuals rather than continue to be smashed under the male media thumb – or, in other words, to feel empowered. Aren’t we supposed to be encouraging impressionable young girls to carve a niche for themselves out of the fixed stone of the media industry and not shame them for what they like? Isn’t that why a book called Record Collecting For Girls has to be written?
Instead, Smith shames us from the very first sentence: “In my world it’s not okay to like the Black Eyed Peas.” Imagine any fourteen year old girl wearing her Black Eyed Peas t-shirt picking up this book and reading, “How embarrassing for you,” typed neatly across the page, and an even more blunt “you’re boring” following it in another chapter. There is absolutely no regard for that girl, or ANY GIRL, and her self-esteem.
Furthermore, she actively advocates that in regards to “inauthentic [and] crude” women like the Pussycat Dolls to “think yourself above them.” Coupled with the downright bullying in certain chapters, this right here is the major problem of this book: if we as girls think ourselves above certain types of women and create a hierarchy in which the masculine female is the only one that will succeed, we are NOT promoting feminism. We are in fact playing by the patriarchy’s rules and doing nothing to empower ourselves.
In addition to the absurd notion that masculinity is superior to more “feminine” forms of musical expression, Smith also reduces the plight of the teenage girl to exactly what she claims to hate about mainstream popular culture. Two chapters of the book, Making Out With Romeo And Juliet and Are We Breaking Up?, are perfect examples. In the former, Smith discusses “songs that can go on any make-out playlist,” as if this is some record-collecting essential that every girl needs. Despite this chapter’s fantastic and insightful analysis on music in film, it doesn’t relate to the audience well at all. Emotionally abusive films like Twilight, and destructive, thoughtless tragedies like Romeo and Juliet, should not set the standard for romanticism, at least in my opinion.
This chapter continues to use stereotypes to define the kind of media that should appeal to Smith’s demographic. What about films like The Breakfast Club, where music is used to connect struggling teens – male and female alike – in a completely platonic BUT STILL MEANINGFUL way, from surviving a broken home to the construct of identity? Why must music in female terms revolve around romance? My life doesn’t revolve around boys, and I’m not just a bleeding heart.
All that being said, the second half of the book hovered closer to the end goal that I was hoping for, which is arming girls with resources for constructing their own record collection and personalized taste without shaming them for being an individual. Smith will occasionally write something insightful, like, “It’s less about diversifying your [top five list] for the sake of looking smarter and more about making yourself listen to a wider swath of music in a smarter way.”
Her chapter Where Have All The Girl Bands Gone was enlightening and refreshingly objective, various historical trends analyzed and the anti-feminist conspiracies of the seventies exposed. Her chapter The Smiths Syndrome, which vehemently and in italicized bold stated, “Never date a guy who likes the Smiths too much,” was unexpectedly real – and anyone who’s seen the movie (500) Days Of Summer can attest to this one universal rule.
In Our Song, Your Song, My Song, her stories about how music connected her to her friends were much more fun to read than her self-centered boasting. This chapter showed how women can define music in their own terms and strengthen bonds in doing so by focusing on all kinds of love and even death. Here Smith challenges us to consider the impact of music in every facet of our lives as women. The chapter Rock ‘N’ Roll Consorts tore down the dream of the perfect rock star boyfriend and, in doing so, teaches girls to protect themselves from the “jerks,” or at least be a little more cautious when entering the music scene from another angle.
What nearly redeemed Smith’s backwards feminist shame arguments in the first half of the book were the resources she provided for all young collectors in the Interludes: a list on page 107 of all the angry punk girl bands she could think of, the website Scrobble, an explanation of free music and how the industry works, a guide to navigating music blogs with three options so that a girl can choose how a way that’s easiest for herself, an introduction to the website Second Life (an exploration of digital platforms not necessarily intuitive to the music collecting process). In this part of the book, Smith gives girls the tools to discover on their own.
Finally, on page 71, Smith calls upon the example of one of my own idols, Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious adapting a classic Sinatra song, which was emblematic of the attitude she should have taken in this book: he took something deemed uncool, owned it in his way, and turned it into a statement. I’m not saying girls should take their cues from Sid Vicious, but maybe we could all learn a little something about being unafraid to be yourself.
Despite all its significant good points, I would not recommend this book to any girl I knew. It was a struggle for me to read through the whole thing, and there were points where I got so frustrated that I had to put it down for a few hours.
Girls: listen to whatever music you want to listen to, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do exactly that. The real guide to Record Collecting For Girls is as follows:
1. Be a girl.
2. Collect records.
Take notes, Courtney Smith.