Pop Afterlife

Death and the Maiden pnael

Death and the Maiden panel, Pop Conference 2019: Solvej Schou, Michelle Threadgould, Lucretia Tye Jasmine, Holly George-Warren, and Evelyn McDonnell. Photo by Janet Goodman, artwork by Marianne Stokes.

We should have packed tissues. The theme of the annual Pop Conference at the Museum of Pop in Seattle this year was death. It was couched in a lot of verbiage: “Only You and Your Ghost Will Know: Music, Death, and Afterlife” was the official 11-word title. But it didn’t take a seance to locate the ghosts. They were all around, as we tried to pontificate without breaking into tears. I failed at both the panel and roundtable I moderated, suddenly finding myself unable to speak. I believe so did everyone else I shared a dais with. It was weird to find oneself suddenly, repeatedly vulnerable in the quasi-academic space of delivering a paper. As I always tell my kid, weird is good.

MoPop felt like a safe space to let oneself feel, perhaps because in the conference’s 17 years, so many bonds have been formed. I was riding with multiple posses myself. And of course, there was a ghost in this machine: It was the first year PopCon was not run by Eric Weisband, with keynote assistance from his spouse Ann Powers (both of whom I have known since long before there was a PopCon). Charles Hughes, of Rhodes College, nobly and ably ferried us across the Mersey to this Pop afterlife. It was the saddest year, and the funnest year.

There were more than 100 presentations over four days, and I can’t possibly mention even all of those I saw. Let’s just say it began with a keynote panel where Journey frontman Steve Perry was the most solid, emotionally honest classic rock star you could imagine sitting with a bunch of scholars and lesser luminaries, and it ended, for me, with a fascinating rumination on the influence of Franz Liszt on Donny Hathaway by I. Augustus Durham. The highlight, perhaps of any PopCon presentation I have ever seen, was the slideshow duet by Hugo Burnham and Jon King on the strange business of rock-band reunions, a subject they know all too well. They were brilliant and poignant and funny, and they were one-half of Gang of Four!!! Dave Allen was in the audience, and the Gang of Three DJed that evening. Women who write Vivien Goldman and Holly George-Warren and I danced till the midnight hour.

Earlier that day, I moderated What Becomes Legend Most, a panel featuring the authors of the first four books from the Music Matters series, which I not incoincidentally edit (along with Oliver Wang) for University of Texas Press. Fred Goodman delivered seemingly without notes a lyrical summary of the extraordinary art and life of the late singer Lhasa de Sela. At the end, he simply played a video of her performing “The Bells”  a few months before her death from cancer at age 2010. You could have heard a pin drop in the JBL Theater.

LHASA_LIVE IN MONTREAL 2009, part 5 from Vincent Moon / Petites Planètes on Vimeo.

Tom Smucker compared the crazy death of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson to the unlikely survival of his brother Brian. Karen Tongson pondered the suburban tragedy of her namesake, Karen Carpenter. Donna Gaines paid ode to her heroes and friends in the Ramones. Hearing their literary meditations all together made me understand on an emotional level what we are trying to accomplish with this series: putting on the page that ongoing argument you have with every music lover you know, about why your favorite band/musician is the GOAT. That night we held a release party for Tongson’s Why Karen Carpenter Matters that doubled as a launch party for the series; attendees included future authors Caryn Rose (Why Patti Smith Matters), Michelle Threadgould (Why Rage Against the Machine Matters), and Annie Zaleski (Why the B52’s Matter).

Too early after the late night of parties and dancing, Saturday morning I moderated Death and the Maiden, a roundtable of contributors from Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl. The venue was the museum’s capacious Sky Church, so we began the proceedings with Solvej Schou singing “Amazing Grace”, then took a moment to pay respect to Nipsy Hussle and Gary Stewart, two visionaries from the City of Angels who are now angels themselves. We discussed how death – supposedly the great equalizer – can be shaped by gender. Holly George-Warren compared the tragic trajectories of Patsy Cline, whom she wrote about for Women Who Rock, and Janis Joplin; her biography of the music legend will be published in the fall. Lucretia Tye Jasmine spoke hauntingly about hunger, shaming, and Karen Carpenter (yes, I presided over two papers about Carpenter). Schou paid homage in words and song to Sharon Jones. Threadgould weaved a poetic narrative about mortality through the works of Diamanda Galas, Laurie Anderson, and Selena. Folks were smart and deep. I was proud to be their editor/interlocutor.

And then we had fun fun fun. Vivien and I took the theme literally, ghosting for an afternoon to shop at Pike Place. Donna and Tye read tarot cards. There was sushi with Tricia Romano. For the first time at Pop Conference, I checked out Saturday night karaoke, and was glad I did. Attendees’ love of the music they get all theoretical about was on drunken display, and I marveled at everyone’s humility, their lack of embarrassment – as well as at some genuinely great voices (Kate Kay, Kathy Fennessy). Hearing Karen Tongson sing “On Top of the World” made me all weepy again. Girl sings it like she writes it. The day that began with Solvej’s “Amazing Grace” ended with her karaoke of “Respect.” Baby she got it.

We should have organized a jazz line. That’s how I felt flying back from Portland on Tuesday, having followed the conference with a visit to my oldest bestie, Cindy, who has been busy the last seven months kicking cancer’s butt. If you’re going to spend four days talking about death and music, book a New Orleans brass band to march you outta there. And then on Thursday came the Tweet. Thanks, Beyonce.

 

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Who Cares About the Cock Rock Hall?

My Longreads piece on the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame and other perpetrators of gender inequity, “The Manhandling of Rock’n’Roll History,” seems to have hit a chord (so to speak). Future Rock Legends, THE watchdog site for the Rock Hall, published an article about it. And I did a really fun interview with Who Cares About the Rock Hall?, a podcast by comedians Joe Kwaczala and Kristen Studard.

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Women Who Rock and Whales!

Celebrate the last day of Women’s History Month with myself and other contributors to Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl tomorrow, March 31, at 4 at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro. I’ll talk/read a bit and sign books. Come early and stop by Corny’s KAUFhof and House 1002 for a little shopping. Stay late and watch the whales.

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Manhandling Rock’n’Roll

Kudos to Stevie Nicks and Janet Jackson for their inductions into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. Sadly, as I broke it down for Longreads.com, women still make up less than 8 percent of Rock Hall inductees. The Hall exemplifies the historical manhandling of women’s roles in rock, from Rolling Stone to Mystery Train to, now, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I don’t just critique: I offer plans of action, including an (almost) all-female inductee list next year, and removal of Ahmet Ertegun’s name from the museum’s exhibition hall and industry award, in the wake of charges of sexual harassment. This isn’t the first time I’ve called the Hall to task for their systemic exclusion of female artists; sadly the numbers haven’t improved a bit since that 2011 Salon article.

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Feeling Yoko Ono’s Space

Shirley Manson, La Marisoul, Saint Vincent, and Madame Gandhi will be among the artists paying tribute to Yoko Ono at the Walt Disney Concert Hall tomorrow night (March 22) for BREATHEWATCHLISTEN, part of the Fluxus Festival, copresented by Girlschool LA. I wrote the following to accompany the 2017 rerelease of  Ono’s album 1973 Feeling the Space.

Like many of the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators parading through downtown Los Angeles at the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, the young woman with pink streaks in her hair carried a handmade sign expressing its carrier’s personal sentiment. On the day after the  presidential inauguration ignited a massive global protest, this marcher waved a distinctly original three-word message: In block letters on black paper it read, “Yoko Sent Me.”

The fact that the once-reviled Yoko Ono is inspiring a new generation of activists comes as no surprise if you’ve listened to Feeling the Space, her personal-is-political 1973 album that resonates remarkably 44 years later. On such songs as the righteous chant “Woman Power,” the empathetic ballad “Angry Young Woman,” the hilarious proto-grrrl “Potbelly Rocker” and the satirical “Men Men Men,” Ono sings in surprisingly straightforward fashion about the burdens carried by women and the mandate for feminism. Supported by such skilled studio vets as guitarist David Spinozza, sax player Michael Brecker, and drummer Jim Keltner, this is perhaps Yoko’s most accessible album, and her most intimate. Feeling the Space was recorded during the time of the infamous “lost weekend,” when the avant visionary artist became estranged from her rock-star husband John Lennon. He plays only briefly on the album (billed as Johnny O’cean); she produced and wrote all the songs.

The album’s sheer musicality should have shut up the detractors who denied her abilities. Yes, she sings; the album contains only a few examples of the atonal vocal experiments for which she became famous. Mostly, Yoko’s pain and vulnerability, and also her declaration of independence, are communicated simply and gingerly, as if she were still sorting out very strong emotions that needed clear expression, not, this time, the purging power of a wail. “Run Run Run,” a gentle tune from which the album gets its title, is almost like a directed meditation, as a woman explores the territory that opens around her, that she forces open, as she takes flight (to a splendid keyboard dance by Ken Ascher). Ono was literally feeling her space. But rather than striking a separatist vibe, this album is also notable for the quality of the singer’s collaboration with the musicians, the way the male instrumentalists answer her articulations with stirring solos, and her call and response with the female vocalists, the sisters who have her back.

The result is a definitive soundtrack/document of the era of consciousness raising and of radical critique of the family structure. Yoko and company deliver this hard message soft rock style, or as soft as Yoko could get – think of Feeling the Space as Tapestry with talons, or the second-wave godmother of Lemonade. Yoko was inspired by the women’s liberation movement – it freed her from the burden of being a celebrity wife. Dedicated “to the sisters who died in pain and sorrow and those who are now in prisons and in mental hospitals for being unable to survive in the male society,” it’s an emotional exploration of the psychological toll of oppression.

As an extra track in this reissue and also in the 1992 Ono box set, there’s a live version of the eternally prescient “Coffin Car” – as spectacularly right-on a song as her spouse ever wrote. In its prologue, she tells a humbling story about how the intense pressure on her as a Beatles wife – and an artsy, foreign, weirdo wife to boot — caused her to develop, in her 30s, a stutter. She’s humble and humorous in her famous childlike accent, seeking not pity but to explain by example the cultural damnation of women — n words of the world, as she and John sang.

At the International Women’s Conference organized by the National Organization of Women in 1973, Yoko met an attendee from the Midwest who had left her husband and children. This figure inspired one of this album’s best tracks, “Angry Young Woman,” as well as, one guesses, Yoko’s own separation from John. The banker’s daughter sings with impressive understanding about the everyday struggles of women in families: the way a demand for a shirt or dinner can become a daily insult, a reminder of patriarchal servitude, of domestic “duty.” After all, who more than Yoko suffered the sexist – and racist – derision of 20th century culture, both Western and Eastern (no refuge for Yoko!).

Yet one of the qualities that makes Yoko Yoko is her eternal optimism. “There’s no way back, so just keep walking,” she tells the “Angry Young Woman.” “When you turn the corner you’ll see the new world.” It’s a message of encouragement that, tragically, is as needed in 2017 as in 1973. The young women are still walking, sent by Yoko.

 

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WWR on Muses and Stuff Podcast

Congrats to Chantel Leah and Lynx O’Leary, the wonderfully named hosts of the Muses and Stuff Podcast, for their 100th episode, which focuses on Women Who Rock! There was a glitch with the podcast but you can listen to the correct version on their website: https://bit.ly/2ItE3Zx

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Turn It Up!

TIU

Liz Warner, Allison Wolfe, Kate Nash, Solvej Schou, Evelyn McDonnell and Mar Sellars at Turn It Up! mixer. Photo by Lucretia Tye Jasmine.

What happens when 50 female-identified musicians, DJs, journalists, scholars, publicists, sound engineers, podcasters, etc., come together in a subterranean hotel bar on a rainy Superbowl Sunday? “I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the sky come tumbling down.” On Sunday, February 3, Turn It Up!, a collective of women working in the music industry that has been meeting since December, had our coming-out party at the Hotel Figueroa. It was an invitation-only mixer — an initial step to broaden our base as we take aim at gender inequality in the music industry. The feeling in the room was electric, the ideas that came out of small brain-storming sessions were provocative. A change is gonna come.

Alice Bag, Lynnée Denise, and Shana L. Redmond

Turn It Up! evolved out of a special December issue of KPFK’s Feminist Magazine Radio show. Valecia Phillips interviewed myself and six contributors to Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl. Inspired by each other’s stories about the musicians they profiled for the book, we decided we didn’t want this to be the, er, final chapter of our work together. As Alice Bag said Sunday, Women Who Rock is “the big, hard, pink seed” that must be planted and grow.

The mixer was a tremendous first sprout. Opening up our “rolodexes,” our steering committee — Alice, Adele Bertei, Allison Wolfe, Lynnée Denise, Mukta Mohan, dIA hakinna, Shana L. Redmond, Solvej Schou, Valecia Phillips, Lucretia Tye Jasmine, and me — were able to draw a pretty impressive group of artists, scholars, writers, workers, engineers, publicists, and activists, including Phranc, Lysa Flores, Kate Nash, Anna Bulbrook, Carla Bozulich, Anna Joy Springer, Abby Travis, CJ Miller of Dimber, and Katie Gavin and Naomi McPherson of MUNA. There were representatives of other rad feminist warriors, including SoundGirls, 50/50 by 2020, the Kilroys,turn it upGirlschool, and Chicas Rockeras, as well as folks from KXLU, Fly PR, Girlie Action, etc. My favorite moment was when the hotel’s staff couldn’t figure out how to get the microphone working, so Kathleen Hanna got up and fiddled with the cables, and voila, sound. Turn it up!

Turn It Up! somewhat coincidentally happens to be the name of a great song about self-expression by Alice Bag: “You’ve made a playlist and it’s locked inside your head, Toss it out play something new instead.” In just two months, we’ve got a name, an anthem, and a logo: the women’s symbol with the computer icon for volume inside it. We’ve also got a mission statement:

“Turn It Up! is a collective working toward gender parity in music. We advocate for equal airplay, media coverage and industry employment of groups who are historically and structurally excluded from the business and the institutions of music-making. Women WILL be heard.”

The Hotel Figueroa generously housed us and donated a fabulous spread including warm cookies. The building has a feminist history, having been built as a YWCA and served as the first place where women traveling alone could find lodging in downtown LA. Sunday we plotted the next steps for change, breaking up into small groups that brainstormed a number of ideas to put our mission into motion. Stay tuned for further developments.

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