You Talkin' to Me?: Women's Work--"Rock She Wrote"

Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop and Rap, edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers; Dell Publishing.We learn early that boys are different than girls. Boys are made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails; girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. Before long, we realize that boys have an entirely different set of plumbing fixtures than girls, which allows them the freedom to not only pee standing up, but do it out of doors at the merest passing whim. Boys go out to the playground on the day that girls are formally instructed about men-stru-a-tion, including the messy details of sanitary napkins and cramps that we can enjoy until the dreaded menopause sets in. Boys form bands. Girls stand around countless garages and watch them practice. As we get older, it becomes clear that there are more crucial differences between the sexes: boys get paid more attention in the classroom, enjoy more freedom at home and are paid more money in the workplace. Girls become women and learn that declaring oneself a feminist has somehow become the equivalent of declaring war on men. Time was that women who cared passionately about music were relegated to the role of groupie, back-up singer, manager, evil spouse (see Yoko). Men were rock critics, women were fans, and thus it shall ever be, world without end, amen. But just as women are picking up guitars, forming their own bands and grabbing their share of the spotlight with both hands, they've also been busy elbowing their way into the pages of newspapers and music magazines as critics. Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap (edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers) celebrates over three decades of female rock and pop criticism, gathering together dozens of disparate essays and features by women. The work here is passionate and highly entertaining, with authors ranging from uber-groupie Pamela Des Barres to academic Ellen Willis to rocker Kim Gordon and poet/musician Patti Smith. And yes, it turns out that girls are still different than boys -- isn't it grand? While male critics tend to be a tad anal -- reciting endless details about band line-ups, record label musical chairs and chord progressions -- women lean more toward the outright personal. It's hard to imagine a male writer revealing their lascivious thoughts as nakedly as Karen Durbin does in writing about Mick Jagger ("I felt bewitched, and for a moment, dizzy, lustful half-thoughts collided in my head"). It's a tricky business to reveal yourself like Durbin does in that 1975 piece for the Village Voice, running the risk of being perceived as yet another flighty female fan. But it's moments like those that make the articles in Rock She Wrote soar above the usual formulaic rock-crit hyperbole. Where male writers are apt to make declarative statements, certain that their opinion is valid, it's harder for their female counterparts to get to the point where they consider their own convictions worth paying attention to. As writers, women tend to use more qualifiers: something seems to be the case, or may be true, or is just their own tentatively stated bias. It takes a good editor to weed out those waffling instincts, and a vigilant writer's eye to come right out and proclaim a point of view. It's a lesson that the women in Rock She Wrote have learned well, setting down their own perceptions as forcefully as any of their male counterparts. The personal is powerful stuff; ignoring the sexual component of rock, pop, and rap is to deny that some music is moving precisely because it provokes a soaked-panties response. Witness Patti Smith's ribald take on Edgar Winter: "I'm a girl see and my eye zeroes in on boy beauty." Or Lori Twersky's 1981 piece for Trouser Press where she deconstructs "rock writer's irritating generalizations about teenage fans," which can be divided into Good Girls Who Don't and Bad Girls Who Do. Jaan Uhelszki's hilarious essay, "I Dreamed I Was Onstage with Kiss in My Maidenform Bra," recounts the Creem editor's four minutes of fame on stage with the painted rock icons, written in a breathless style that perfectly recreates the fleeting moment that every fan dreams of. Gretchen Phillips' piece about the lesbian punkers of Tribe 8 turning the staid Michigan Womyn's Music Festival into a mosh pit is a glimpse inside a female world that no man could have written, while Joan Morgan's essay about Ice Cube, "The Nigga Ya Hate to Love," is an exercise in ambivalence that's made more powerful by the author's internal struggle over the rapper's misogyny versus her genuine connection with his music. Girls are, in fact, different than boys -- and it's more complicated than differing anatomy. Rock She Wrote is a long overdue look at how women writing about rock have transformed music criticism by remaking it in their own image. Vive la difference.

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