In praise of women rock writers (who rock)

I am a girl. I like high heels and red lipstick and being called beautiful and having the umbrella held over my head for me when it rains by someone tall, pale and handsome; I by far prefer wearing dresses to pants. (Not that you can’t be a girl and the opposite of all that, of course.) When I ride, I ride a girl’s frame bike, with flowers on it. But when I write, I am a writer. Period. I don’t think of myself as a female writer, or a feminist writer. I don’t subscribe to the Women in Horror month/movement. I don’t study or cover gender relations. I want my work to be judged on its own merits, against my own work and other work of its kind, whether made by women, men, two-spirited people, or asexual aliens.

As a reader though, I do tend to gravitate towards other women writers. Particularly poets and novelists but also journalists, especially those who, like me, cover arts and culture. Well, for many years that’s what I did, reviewing CDs and concerts and when I was lucky interviewing really interesting people who make music. I work more in film and TV these days, but I still do it whenever I can, and I still care about the art of dancing about architecture. And so I read alot of women reviewers, maybe because I’m proud of them, I appreciate what they are doing on a professional level, and I want to support it. Or maybe because when women write about music, you generally don’t get articles like this profile of Canada’s Metric, by Ben Kaplan, in the National Post, in which he focuses on Metric singer Emily Haines as a smart sex symbol and muse who “attracts boys like free beer” and who he once (OMG!) had the opportunity to give an (unwanted) hug. Not suggesting female writers don’t ever crush on their subjects, or that sexy artists can’t be described as such, but I found the tone of this piece downright creepy, and was deeply confused about why the editors chose to run it as-is. (Besides being overworked and understaffed, but that’s another rant.) I’m guessing they too were men, who would find nothing untoward about it. Same as those who handled a piece that ran the same week in the Globe and Mail about Drake vs. Chris Brown by Brad Wheeler, which put Brown’s assault on Rhianna into parenthesis while referring to the singer as “the mother of all must-haves” and making the useless statement “other highly desired females in history include the widow Jackie Kennedy and Hollywood’s Marilyn Monroe.” As bad-ass heavy metal music writer Natalie Zina Walschots tweeted, can you imagine a paper printing “other highly desired males in history include Beowulf and Mick Jagger“? Ridiculous. These articles ignited a flurry of angry responses from male and female readers, including many other music critics. And they got me thinking about how grateful I am that in moments like that one can turn to read coverage written by women instead. The field of journalism is thankfully pretty open to women. Personally, I’ve never felt any discrimination in my career path because of gender and have worked for plenty of talented women editors and publishers. [Waves to Shirley Halperin and Carrie Borzillo]. I’ve looked around many times over the years and noticed how many of the music sections/publications in my country were being run by ladies. (Nostalgic nods to Mary Dickie, Mary-Lou Zeitoun, Betsey Powell, Denise Sheppard). I’ve never been treated like a groupie on the job. (Granted, I’ve never interviewed Gene Simmons.) However, I do recognize things aren’t in perfect balance. This TedTalk video by Megan Kamerick outlines that women make up under %40 of newsroom staff, and how women are underrepresented as subjects and experts in news stories and how all that spins the news towards victimizing and sexualizing women. It’s not specifically about music, but well worth 10 minutes of your time.

My response to all this is to praise those girls and women who are going good work reporting on music. Whose words rock my world as much as the sounds they cover. There are so many, but here are just a handful. Read them. They will inspire you, teach you, provoke you. They are unlikely to write about giving musicians unwanted hugs.

LIZ WORTH is the Toronto author of Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in TO and Beyond and the poetry collection Amphetamine Hearts. I believe our first encounter was her interviewing me for the Goth zine Raven’s Call several years back; our most recent was drinking slushies in the park waiting for an astrological phenomenon. She once gave me the awesome gift of a hardcover copy of Encyclopedia of Rock by Lillian Roxon. She is working on a novel now but I never know just what she’s going to do next. She is mysterious and brave. See what I mean on her Radio Forest blog or her Twitter.

AMY KLEIN is an American musician and writer I discovered when her piece “Tour Diary Day Four: Rock and Roll is Dead”was included in the Best Music Writing 2011.  In it she examines how the lack of images of girls playing guitars or any instruments in Rolling Stone magazine, and what that means for public perception of women making music. I like her blog and when her byline pops up in unexpected places, like this list of Feminist Anthems for Spinner.

JAAN UHELSZKI was a founding editor of America’s legendary Creem magazine and has done more amazing things in her life than I could possibly list here, but much of which is revealed in this interview. When I was working on the TV series Metal Evolution, it was important to me to include female voices; in the world of metal this turned out to be tricky but I am glad we got Jaan in there talking about the Detroit scene in the ’60s and more. If you have an account with Rock’s Back Pages you should read her famed 1975 article “I Dreamed I was on-stage with KISS in my Maidenform Bra.”

ANUPA MISTRY is a hard-working Canadian freelancer and, relative to these others, a new kid on the block, but I find I always learn new things when I read her reviews. She writes mostly about hip-hop, a genre I do need more schooling in, and that can use more smart women commentators, for sure.  Start with her feature on middle-class rap for Toronto Life then follow her on the Twitter.

GILLIAN G. GAAR is the Seattle-based author of She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock, published in 1992 and still my go-to guide for unearthing and understanding overlooked records made by ladies. She worked as a senior editor at the Rocket and was on the scene through the grunge explosion. According to this interview about her relationship/coverage of Nirvana, she got started writing for a Rocky Horror fanzine! Her next book on Nirvana is out this summer.

A must-have for your music reference library

LISA ROBINSON is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and, to me, one of the best magazine writers out there, full stop. For decades now, she’s covered the biggest names in all genres of music for the publications that really matter and is a master of the celebrity interview. Yeah, you might know her for the big Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga profiles now but she was talking to Patti Smith in the 1970s for Hit Parader and her early coverage of  The Ramones helped them land their first management deal.  I aspire to her ability to be a confidante to her subjects without losing her reporter’s instincts. Of anyone, she has consistently inspired me the most. And she does a decent TV interview too:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AC8-YgnGwTc

I welcome your suggestions for others I should read, below…

2 Comments

  1. stu henderson June 25, 2012 Reply

    Liisa –

    My favourite writer (female or no) on music is Alice Echols. Her bio of Janis Joplin is the definitive study of the “bad girl” in pop music, while her book on Disco is amazingly complex and smart and reads more like a cultural history of the 1970s than you’d expect. Check her out, people!

    See also: Ann Powers.

    • Liisa June 25, 2012 Reply

      Yes, of course Ann Powers. I actually find her intimidating so I don’t read her as much as the more populist writers, but she’s a leader in arts criticism by far. Thanks for the tip on Echols. I like reading about disco!

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