25 May 2015
The World Needs Female Rock Critics
by Anwen Crawford
Reposted from http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-world-needs-female-rock-critics
Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t own any albums by the Rolling Stones. They’re just so archetypal, so very rock and roll—and that, I find, can be a difficult thing to admire. Rock music has rarely offered women the same tangible promise of social rebellion and sexual freedom that it has given men—though plenty of women, myself included, have tried all the same to find those liberties in it. “Boy guitarists notwithstanding,” the journalist Lillian Roxon wrote to a friend, in 1966, “I don’t think I can stand the sight of another bloody electric guitar.” I know just how she felt.
In 1969, Roxon—Italian-born, Australian-raised, an experienced journalist and a star of Warhol’s back room at Max’s Kansas City—would publish “Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia,” the first of its kind, a marvel of research and critical acumen. Within six months of publication, the book had entered its third hardcover print run, and Roxon was profiled in the Times. The book has now been out of print for decades. (Roxon died in 1973, at the age of forty-one.) Ellen Willis, a contemporary of Roxon’s, was The New Yorker’s first popular-music critic, beginning in 1968, but a collection of her music writing, “Out of the Vinyl Deeps,” was not published until 2011, five years after her death. This month, the American writer Jessica Hopper, a senior editor at the music Web site Pitchfork, publishes a book called “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.” The title is more provocation than statement of fact, but it is not entirely untrue. Books by living female rock critics (or jazz, hip-hop, and dance-music critics, for that matter) are scant. In an introductory note to her book, Hopper names Roxon, Willis, the English journalist Caroline Coon, and the anthology “Rock She Wrote,” edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers, as precedents for her own work. “The title is not meant to erase our history but rather to help mark the path,” Hopper writes.
That path is not an easy one to discern. The most famous rock-music critics—Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Nick Kent—are all male. Bangs, who died in 1982, at the age of thirty-three, remains the most iconic of them all. Why? Because his hard-living, drug-taking, sunglasses-after-dark-wearing gonzo schtick made him as much of a masculine anti-hero as his rock-star subjects were. The pose doesn’t work as well for female critics, from whom displays of bad attitude are seldom tolerated, let alone celebrated. Rock’s rebel women, including its writers, are rarely assumed to be geniuses; often, they are assumed to be whores. In a 2002 biography of Lillian Roxon, “Mother of Rock,” by Robert Milliken, Roxon’s young protégé, Kathy Miller, recalls being challenged by a male editor who assigned her to write about The Who and then asked for a blow job in return, saying, “What’s the big deal? You’re a groupie.” She replied, “I’m a woman who writes about rock and roll.” His answer: “Same difference.” Groupies have proved an enduring stereotype of women’s participation in rock: worshipful, gorgeous, and despised.
Earlier this year, Hopper interviewed Björk for Pitchfork. In the interview, which is not included in the book, Björk reflected at length upon the ways in which women’s labor and expertise—inside and outside of the music industry—go unnoticed. “It’s invisible, what women do,” she said. “It’s not rewarded as much.” She observed that her male collaborators are typically credited for the sound of her records; because on stage she mainly sings, there is a widespread assumption that she neither produces nor plays an instrument. “I want to support young girls who are in their twenties now and tell them: You’re not just imagining things,” she said.
When I was about fourteen, I stood outside science class holding a folder that was decorated with an array of faces which I had carefully cut out from the pages of music magazines. Pointing to a photo of Björk on my folder, a passing boy sneered at me, “I bet you don’t even know who she is.” (This would have been around 1995, when the music press was having one of its periodic crushes on Women in Rock.) I did know who Björk was, because my mother, who was young and groovy, had raised me on the Sugarcubes, the Icelandic band that Björk was a member of before she launched her solo career. I don’t remember raising this point with my accuser, but if I had I doubt he would have believed me. The record store, the guitar shop, and now social media: when it comes to popular music, these places become stages for the display of male prowess. Female expertise, when it appears, is repeatedly dismissed as fraudulent. Every woman who has ever ventured an opinion on popular music could give you some variation (or a hundred) on my school corridor run-in, and becoming a recognized “expert” (a musician, a critic) will not save you from accusations of fakery.
The problem for women is that our role in popular music was codified long ago. And it was codified, in part, by the early music press. In the effort to prove the burgeoning rock scene of the sixties a worthy subject of critical inquiry, rock needed to be established as both serious and authentic. One result of these arguments—the Rolling Stones vs. Muddy Waters, Motown vs. Stax, Bob Dylan vs. the world—was that women came out on the losing side, as frivolous and phony. Whether a teen-age fan or a member of a girl group, women lacked genuine grit—even female critics thought so. “The Supremes epitomize the machine-like precision of the Motown sound,” wrote Lillian Roxon in her rock encyclopedia. “Everything is worked out for them and they don’t buck the system.” Judgments like that are still routinely applied to female artists today. In Hopper’s book, under the chapter heading “Real/Fake,” appears a 2012 essay on Lana Del Ray, an artist whose look harks back to those big-haired, mascaraed sixties singers, and whose career has unfolded beneath a cloud of suspicion as to her credentials, musical and otherwise. “As an audience, we make a big stink about wanting the truth, but we’re only really interested in the old myths,” Hopper writes. The myth of women’s deceitfulness is one of the oldest.
For early female music critics like Roxon and Willis, the flashpoint was Janis Joplin. Joplin, like the Rolling Stones, borrowed heavily from the blues; her ragged style seemed to mark her as the real thing. But her lonely position as, in Willis’s words, “the only sixties culture hero to make visible and public women’s experience of the quest for individual liberation,” also left her open to attack. Joplin’s sexual daring, and the contempt she faced for it, revealed the limits and the hypocrisies of the counterculture. “Writers rape her with words as if there weren’t any other way to deal with her,” Roxon wrote. The frustration that many of Joplin’s female fans felt at her treatment, and their sadness at her premature death, was something these women carried over, shortly afterwards, into the first stirrings of women’s liberation. Both Roxon and Willis became involved in the feminist movement; Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch,” published in 1970, was dedicated to Roxon, whom Greer described in the dedication as “Lillian the abundant, the golden, the eloquent, the well and badly loved; Lillian the beautiful who thinks she is ugly.”
Academia, a step or two removed from the machismo of the newspaper room, has proved a more accommodating realm for women writing about popular music. In that sphere, essays and books by writers such as Tricia Rose, Daphne Brooks, Aisha Durham, Alice Echols, Gayle Wald, and Angela McRobbie contribute to a rich and ongoing feminist analysis. Writing by these women appears only intermittently in the mainstream press, but forty years of critical feminist theory on popular music has slowly filtered into the outlook of younger critics; as Hopper noted in a recent interview with the Hairpin, online publishing has given rise to “this ferocious crop of really opinionated young writers writing about race, gender, queerness, the body—people coming in with a pretty immaculately formed critical framework.” Hopper, who started publishing her criticism as a teen-ager in the midst of the early-nineties punk-feminist upsurge known as riot grrrl, mentioned in the same interview that when she began writing she did not have “anything more than a high school education.” Her autodidact tendencies and her energetic, conversational writing style form part of another long music-press tradition, the looser and more playful side of that sixties push for seriousness—though Hopper’s stylistic immediacy does not preclude her from covering difficult subjects, like the endemic sexism of punk rock, or the “banal and pernicious” contrivance of Miley Cyrus.
The often neglected path blazed by female music critics intersects with other related writing traditions. Memoir has long been used by female performers to reflect upon the pressures and contradictions of their roles. Kim Gordon’s “Girl in a Band,” Tracey Thorn’s “Bedsit Disco Queen,” and Viv Albertine’s “Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.” have lately joined earlier classics like Mary Wilson’s “Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme” and Tina Turner’s “I, Tina” to provide female perspectives on popular music. There is also a small but noteworthy strand of contemporary fiction by women that takes popular music as a primary subject, from Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Visit from the Goon Squad” (2010), with its sleazy music-biz manager, to Eleanor Henderson’s impassioned treatment of eighties New York hardcore, “Ten Thousand Saints” (2011), and Dana Spiotta’s mysterious “Stone Arabia” (2012), in which the brother of the narrator chronicles his strictly imaginary success as a rock star.
Perhaps fiction and memoir, more than criticism, provide space for female writers to dissect all that is maddening and wonderful about popular music: the spectacle, the chicanery, the beautiful lies it tells us. But there is plenty of need for female music critics yet. “Take it easy, babe,” Mick Jagger sang in “Under My Thumb,” still as glistering a slice of unrepentant misogyny as ever it was, unredeemed by time or by the million screaming girls who wriggled beneath Jagger’s commands. In a 1971 essay, Ellen Willis argued that Jagger’s “crude exhibitions of virility” were less sexist than the “condescending” pose of a bohemian like Cat Stevens; insofar as rock, she wrote, “pitted teenage girls’ inchoate energies against all their conscious and unconscious frustrations, it spoke implicitly for female liberation.” I don’t entirely agree with Willis’s defense of the Stones, but I do recognize the difficult trade-off she describes, between the freedom that rock can feel like, for a woman, and the subjugation that it might celebrate. It’s between these boundaries that the female critic works, hoping to clear a path.