Women On Rock

It's a late-'80s night in San Francisco. I'm at a club listening to little-known band called 4 Non Blondes. My friend Lauren and I don't really consider skipping out on the screeching medusa in front of us to nod our heads to longhaired white guys with no shirts on across the street. We've just returned from a night of collecting money for a free women's health clinic, and we are poor, newly urban dyke canvassers with a grand total of $15 to blow. As a rule, we don't spend that money on men. We spend it on bands with girl bass players. We are, however belatedly, "discovering" women in rock. We're reading reports from the front in the local gay monthly. I'm from a place where they didn't teach Patti Smith in school: I'm happy to be thrown around a pit by women I don't know in a strange city where I have no cash and just a few friends. I don't realize we're reinventing the wheel. I would reinvent it again if I could, but seven years and about 200 "Women in Rock!" headlines later, my senses are a little bit dulled. The only way you can rediscover a phenomenon is to forget it ever happened in the first place, which mainstream newspapers, trend watchers, and rock writers seemed to be good at these past few years, pumping out story after story about their discovery of "women in rock" with the patronizing subtext: and not just as groupies! Those discoverers seemed to forget that women have always been in rock. Janis Joplin, Marianne Faithfull, Patti Smith, Suzi Quatro, Lydia Lunch, the Slits, the Runaways, the Wilsons, Joan Jett, and everyone's backup singers -- remember them? -- were minorities in rock just like women in bands (despite the hype) are today.But if truth is hard to come by, some helpful context about women in the industry, up to this point, has been more than MIA. That's why a book called Rock She Wrote, edited by Village Voice music editor Ann Powers and freelancer Evelyn McDonnell, is necessary entertainment for audiences and insiders who are truly interested in women in music. This is an anthology in which the women in music aren't all in lingerie, where they're not posed for the camera with requisite pouty-sexy mouth and guitar. Here they're the writers doing the looking, thinking, complaining, and icon-making themselves.They've been doing it, actually, for a while. Although women may not have been present in the numbers men were and are in the music world, this book shows that their presence has been vital if, not so surprisingly, repressed. In the same way girl fans powered the Beatles' popularity and supplied spandex headbangers with evergreen audiences, women writers have had their fingers on various weak and strong pulses of the body rock since pre-Woodstock days. But women critics, in the locker room that is music publishing, have often been shunted to the side. Rock She Wrote is a book that makes sure we don't forget.CLAIMING THE VICTIM Rock She Wrote's writers, some of whom are musicians themselves, give the literary equivalent of bass feedback to a world that might not have been ready for their uncorked anger. Keyboardist Margot Mifflin, in a 1990 Keyboard magazine guest editorial about some of the forgotten, square-wheel, Jack Daniels-drinkin' women who tried and failed to break out as artists, complained: "The 'new' image of women in rock -- tough, serious, potentially threatening -- applies to looks, not art. It's OK to be a nappy-headed Tracy Chapman or a hairy-legged Michelle Shocked as long as you're a gentle folkie singing about moral integrity in a reassuringly feminine voice."If you have any delusions about becoming the Grace Slick of the '90s -- or, even better, gaining fame as an instrumentalist -- put them to rest. No one in the industry is interested. Throw out those unwholesome Bad Brains records and perfect your waiflike, wounded folkie image. Before you know it you'll be the subject of an article about the changing roles of women in rock."In the spirit of this particular shining moment of keyboardist polemic, the book as a whole takes the long view. Only, given that it was published after a new wave of unwholesome role models eventually did make it, it has to take an even longer one. Paying its respects to the riot grrrls, wherever they may be, and Courtney Love, whoever she may be, this anthology of women writing about men, women, music, culture, and fashion doesn't get stuck in a time warp in which this fall's Ani DiFranco is considered "present" and last spring's PJ Harvey is "past." The book's seven sections parade an ambitious 61 writers covering a period from 1968 to the present: Ellen Willis on the Beatles' packaging in '68; Patti Smith on Bob Dylan in '74; Caroline Coon on the Sex Pistols in '76; Lisa Jones on 2 Live Crew's trial in 1990; and Pamela Des Barres on Courtney Love in 1994.With a critical stroll down lost-memory lane, Evelyn McDonnell opens the book with her search for women music writers, and she stops just short of calling in the P.I.s. Many of those writers had moved on to other professions, and their writing, for the most part, had been forgotten. McDonnell heroically places them back in the music-writing canon where they belong. But she has to do some redefining to get them there. Previously undervalued "women's work" in the field -- gossip columns and fanzines -- have to be defended and reconsidered. The result of the sweeping search is a book that parallels other feminist projects in its combination of high- and lowbrow pieces. Here you find the washed and unwashed of women music writers, as well as the personal, the political, and the entertaining, with gossip columnists and groupies, musicologists and players, celebrities and 'zinesters, metalheads and blues lovers, rock sociology and precious memories.The sprawling result of a journey that took its editors to the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center to track down old Creem and Crawdaddy magazines is a mix that's both jolting and writerly, as in a story by Lisa Robinson in a 1975 Creem story about the stark new Television/Patti Smith scene at CBGB: "I don't miss the Technicolor at all." Or Caroline Coon, whose '76 article on the Sex Pistols in Melody Maker commented: "Nor is Johnny writing protest songs as such. He is protest. In 'Anarchy in the U.K.' he is not advocating anarchism. He is anarchy. It's a subtle shift of emphasis." Or Jaan Uhelszki, who, in a '75 issue of Creem, wrote the story of her live, onstage interaction with Kiss in "I Dreamed I Was Onstage with Kiss in My Maidenform Bra."Groupies come in all shapes and formats, as appreciatively presented in this book. A lifestyle most often associated with adolescent adulation and lack of self-esteem, being a groupie (rock's comfort women) rates lowest on the rock-world totem pole. As Patricia Kennealy-Morrison saw it in 1970, "You can't exploit anybody who so obviously wants to be exploited." But here, Pamela Des Barres, the most famous groupie of them all, topples the hierarchy in a brilliantly conceived interview with Courtney Love in a 1994 Interview, outspoken sex-toy to outspoken sex-toy.Fans, too, in this book's pages at least, are a little sturdier than the screaming-girlie stereotype. They're also not necessarily reverent toward their objects, many of whom in this collection could only be called odd. Lisa Carver (a.k.a. Lisa Suckdog) writes on "Why I Want to Rape Olivia Newton-John (Because I'm a Troubled Young Lady)" in a 1993 issue of Rollerderby. Sally Margaret Joy chats with Juliana Hatfield about anorexia; Patti Smith unwraps Bob Dylan's wounded exterior to drool over him as an erotic fixation; post-prep school womanist Joan Morgan reluctantly admits to liking Ice Cube.A LITTLE RESPECT This is a dissonance that doesn't add to a symphony, and to their credit the editors haven't tried to fit all these inharmonious female voices under one sound-bitable feminist banner. Strains of female-male essentialism (women are emotional, men analytical) float around in an all-woman soup in which women get angry and technical too, where the theories of Carol Gilligan and Donna Haraway both take root in pop- culture analyses. Amid essays where, alternately, Axl Rose gets lauded, Heart gets appreciated, 2 Live Crew gets understood, and feminist folkies get chastised, the only truly unifying factor, actually, may be a certain anonymity that has plagued seminal women music writers when compared to male household-name counterparts like Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, and Dave Marsh.That anonymity was taken up like an emblem by the so-called riot grrrls, whom Emily White wrote compellingly about for the LA Weekly in 1992. Riot grrrls, as the "manifesto" White summarizes says it, were committed "to create revolution in our own lives every day by envisioning and creating alternatives to the bullshit christian capitalist [sic] way of doing things." They wanted to resist "psychic death" and encourage "girls" to "cry in public." They didn't want to get signed. Which is probably why the public kept hounding them.Riot grrrls weren't simply playing hard-to-get -- separatism in music was being born from longtime frustration. But while sexism in the music industry -- where women are minorities, objects, and, when they're famous, novelties -- echoes throughout Rock She Wrote, the anthology doesn't limit itself to a two-dimensional boys-versus-girls rant. It acknowledges that not all the women who left rock criticism were pushed out (some went on to greener analytical pastures) and it doesn't push (too hard) the nature-versus-nurture arguments.It even offers a few great woman-to-woman moments. Thulani Davis offers a brutally elegant one in her 1980 critique of Rosetta Reitz's independent women's blues projects, which collected blues songs from the '20s on (Mean Mothers, Independent Women's Blues Vol. 1, and others), when she says, "the producer's vision [of not supporting 'victim blues'] ... ignores the complexity of the artists' work, confuses the singer with the song, and promotes, at best, a shallow view of what it is to be female, black, and independent.... Reitz's concert and albums suffer from her attempt to make sassy back talk sound like feminism."If Rock She Wrote is successful, it's because it's careful to avoid those traps: it doesn't confuse the writer with the thing written about, and it doesn't ignore complexity. But in the course of making feminism at least as potent as sassy back talk, it also manages to give pop-culture writing by women a respect that's long overdue. SIDEBAR: EXCERPTS FROM ROCK SHE WROTEGretchen Phillips, "I Moshed at Mich," Village Voice, Sept. 6, 1994: Despite the protests [about their presence at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival] Tribe 8 triumphed.... My friend Alexis was so inspired that she designed commemorative T-shirts on the spot: 'I saw you moshing naked at Michigan,' 'I moshed at Mich,' and my personal favorite, 'My moms moshed at Mich and all I got was this goddess-awful T-shirt.' I decided that next year I would lead a moshing workshop for the curious yet uninitiated. Wimmin had already shown their ignorance by referring to it as "the mush pit" and "the nosh pit." Or maybe they were just redefining language again.Lori Twersky, "Devils or Angels? The Female Teenage Audience Examined," Trouser Press, April 1981: The basic Rock Writer's Irritating Generalizations about Teenage Female Fans can be summarized as follows: Female fantasies consist of wanting to fuck rock stars. Teenage female interest in rock consists of wanting to fuck rock stars. Teenage females long to be their idol's groupie. Girls who like wimpy, soft pop don't daydream about sex, just romance and marriage. Girls who like tough music with "street credibility" (urp) have free and easy sexual attitudes. Women hung up on rock stars who are notoriously into drugs, violence, and icky forms of sex are themselves into drugs, violence, and icky forms of sex. If not many females show up at a concert, not many females want to fuck that band. Girls don't like heavy metal. Bands girls don't like are subliminally homo.Courtney Love interviewed by Pamela Des Barres, "Rock 'n' Roll Needs Courtney Love," Interview, March 1994: Anyway, one night Hole was in London performing. We had just gotten off tour with Mudhoney, and I decided to stage-dive. I was wearing a dress and I didn't realize what I was engendering in the audience. It was a huge audience and they were kind of going ape-shit. So I just dove off the stage, and suddenly, it was like my dress was being torn off of me, my underwear was being torn off of me, people were putting their fingers inside of me and grabbing my breasts really hard, screaming things in my ears like "pussy -- whore -- cunt." When I got back onstage I was naked.... Later I wrote a song called 'Asking for It' based on the whole experience. I can't compare it to rape because it's not the same. But in a way it was. I was raped by an audience -- figuratively, literally -- and yet, was I asking for it?Susin Shapiro, "Patti Smith: Somewhere, Over the Rimbaud," Crawdaddy, December 1975: I want to know why all her heroes are men; are all her heroes men? "Most of my heroes are men simply because most of the heaviest people in the world have been men. There hasn't been a woman who has done what Jimi Hendrix did. I don't blame that on anything; if a woman wanted to do it, she'd do it. If I wanted to do what Hendrix had done I should have learned to play the guitar 10 years ago. Too bad I don't have the discipline. Actually, I like women. One of my biggest heroes is Jeanne Moreau. She has perfected all the moves, the high art of smoking a cigarette ... or walking with a straight skirt. Perfecting those kinds of rhythms are, to me, just as worthy of worship as somebody playin' a great harmonica. It's completely coincidental that most people I admire are guys."Susan Brownmiller, "Yoko and John," Rolling Stone, Jan. 22, 1981: Yoko Ono's great talent was not her art or her dance or her music, it was her ability to transmit maternal love through her body to John and from John's body to their son....Nicole Panter, "Fuck You Punk Rock/1977 and 1979," Fiz, 1993, and Fuel, Summer 1993: Imagine the exhilaration of knowing that you are part of something that is completely and utterly new and different. Imagine that all your life you have felt cut off from the rest of humanity at the most elementary level -- you do not communicate well with others. Imagine feeling so lonely and twisted that at times you have really, really tried to kill yourself, even though you were just a kid. Imagine that the people who were supposed to love you, your family, have continually and deliberately brutalized and betrayed you in ways other people couldn't begin to imagine. Imagine that you are at the end of your rope. Then walk into a room where for the first time in your miserable, horrifying life, you feel a part of things. These people understand you because these things have also happened to them....

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