Turbulence at the Rock Hall

Black History Month Spotlight: Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston is the only woman being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame in 2020.

In her 1998 piece Turbulent, Shirin Neshat juxtaposes two videos. In the first, a man in a white button-down shirt stands in front of an auditorium of other men. He turns to face the camera and sings a work by the Persian poet Rumi, accompanied by string instruments that are not filmed. It’s a powerfully emotive performance – a series of ululated exclamations — rewarded by a round of applause; the man takes his bows.

In the second, a woman in a black hijab stands in front of an empty theater and softly begins moaning. The camera rotates to her face slowly. She sings wordless scales, with the only accompaniment the amplified echo of her own voice, panting and bell-like and screeching – a one-woman emotive cacophony. When she finishes, there is no applause. There is no one there to clap.

Turbulence answers the old riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? The woman, Iranian vocalist and composer Sussan Deyhim, makes a mighty sound – as have the other women, across time and space, who have sung their songs in the privacy of their showers, their bedrooms, their walks, their woods because no one could, or would, hear them. Neshat was directly commenting on the fact that in her birth country of Iran, women were not allowed to sing in public after the Islamic revolution (they now can sing only in limited circumstances). But I see the bold, disturbing binary depicted in Turbulent as relevant across cultures.

How many little girls have been told they should be seen and not heard? How many aspiring musicians have auditioned for A&R men – and they are almost always men – only to be asked to trade their bodies for a contract? How many women have gotten past the casting couch only to be told they’re not skinny/pretty/pale/soft/sexy enough? How many were kept off the airwaves because only one woman was allowed on the playlist – because (as one country radio consultant infamously said) they were the tomatoes in the salad, not the lettuce? How many were allowed to be representatives of feminine beauty, but only for one song, one year, before they were deemed too old? How many were recognized for the innovations – the genius — that made them not necessarily popular, but pioneers? How many are saluted as legends? Are in the Songwriters Hall of Fame? Are in the Rock&Roll Hall of Fame?

We can answer the last two questions: 31 songwriters, or 7 percent of the total body, and  — as of today’s announcement of the class of 2020 – 140 artists, or 7.68 percent.

The halls’ omissions are striking. I do not think they accurately correlate to the successes of women in music, though that’s a hard thing to quantify. They certainly do not correlate to the efforts and effects of female musicians, to the percentage of women in the world, or to any known genetic link to musical talent. What they do represent are the gendered tastes of the mostly male nominating and voting bodies that make these decisions. They are today’s version of the Shriners or Masons: bro’ societies devoted to self-perpetuation. They are patriarchies.

Which makes it all the more offensive when they insist their decisions have nothing to do with gender or race, but only with quality (as both Rock Hall Foundation CEO Joel Peresman and former Rock Hall Board chair Jann Wenner have recently said). When they say that, they tell us that Chaka Khan, Big Mama Thornton, Cher, Labelle, the Go-Go’s, Bette Midler, Celia Cruz, Selena, Bjork, Dionne Warwick, Pat Benatar, etc., etc., are not actually good, but are just women. They add insult to injury.

The halls didn’t necessarily erect the obstacles that have historically kept sisters from achieving the fame and fortune of their brothers – though many of the industry insiders who created and run the halls certainly did work for companies infamous for sexual discrimination. But by repeatedly inducting only a puny, token number of acceptable ladies, they enshrine those gags – and then say they were earned.

Look outside the industry. In your home, in your schoolyard, in your gym, around your campfire: who makes the music? Who sings the songs?

And who is listening?

Turbulent is included in Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet the Sun Again, an exhibit currently at the Broad museum in Los Angeles, https://www.thebroad.org/shirinneshat.

You can read my previous writing about the Rock Hall here:

https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/8543758/rock-roll-hall-fame-gender-racial-diversity-guest-opinion-evelyn-mcdonnell

https://longreads.com/2019/03/29/the-manhandling-of-rock-n-roll-history/

https://www.salon.com/2011/12/11/the_rock_hall_of_fames_women_problem/

 

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Rock Hall Keeps Getting More Male and More White

NOTE: THIS POST HAS BEEN CORRECTED TO STATE THAT FOUR PEOPLE OF COLOR ARE IN THIS YEAR’S INDUCTEES.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced the 2020 inductees this morning. The good news is both Whitney Houston and the Notorious B.I.G. are included. The bad news is Houston is the only woman among the 23 people honored (including the non-performer honorees), and she and Biggie are two of the only four people of color. That means 4.34% of this year’s class is female, and 17.39% is POC. Cumulatively, that means the Rock Hall continues to get less diverse by race and gender: 7.68% of the total number of inductees is female, down from the already depressing 7.77% of 2019. For POC, that’s 32.4%, down from 32.77%.

These results should throw down the gauntlet for new Rock Hall Chair John Sykes, who has said that increasing the hall’s diversity is his top priority. He will have to take strong, decisive actions to reverse this steady decline.

Stylistically, the lineup is slightly more diverse than in some years, including T. Rex, the Doobie Brothers, Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails. Chaka Khan was snubbed once again — a fact I consider an outrage. The only other woman nominated, Pat Benatar, was also passed over.

Thanks to LMU graduate student Marika Price for crunching the numers.

You can read my previous writing about the Rock Hall here:

https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/8543758/rock-roll-hall-fame-gender-racial-diversity-guest-opinion-evelyn-mcdonnell

https://longreads.com/2019/03/29/the-manhandling-of-rock-n-roll-history/

https://www.salon.com/2011/12/11/the_rock_hall_of_fames_women_problem/

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“Music Legend”

Somehow I never posted this article about me from a British music school, which may be one of the nicest things anyone has ever written about me. Definitely the first time I’ve been called a legend.

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The Women in Rock Question: Washington Post

“There have always been women at the center of rock music,” as I told Travis M. Andrews of The Washington Post in his self-probing take on “women in rock.” Lots of great artists featured in this article, who all “happen” to be female. 

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Steve Cannon Heckled Because He Cared

I heard Steve Cannon’s voice before I met him. “Read the poem! READ THE GODDAM POEM!” His heckles were a key ingredient of the brand-new slams at the Nuyorican Poets Café in 1989. They sounded like the disgruntled, impatient curses of a drunk – which, okay, they were – but they were also so much more. Steve did not suffer fools silently. He shouted at hapless literary wannabes stumbling over lengthy introductions to their work not to silence them, but to remind them why we were all here — to hasten them to their point: poetry. It was all about the goddam poem.

Steve played the part of the crank, the jester, the barfly. He used his growing blindness as a mask; there was a sort of barbed minstrelsy to his jeers. But he was actually a deep, generous spirit. He heckled because he cared. His lasting legacy is the way he opened his mind, his home, his heart, his wallet to all creative spirits who joined him on The Stoop. The Stoop was exactly what it sounds like: the steps up to his brownstone building in New York’s Lower East Side. Every New York denizen knows the culture of the stoop: the passageway in and out that becomes a hang, especially on days when either the sun beckons you out, or the heat inside is so oppressive you have to get out.

Steve was all about community: He had a permanent stool amid the collaborative space of the cooperatively run Nuyorican. He gently pushed and prodded the think tanks of the salons Stray Dog and the Stoop. The name of the magazine he founded and edited and the gallery that subsequently took over his home says it all: A Gathering of the Tribes. (A poster of the first cover, featuring art work by David Hammons, hangs on my office wall.) In the midst of the heyday of identity politics, Steve wanted us to all to think outside of our boxes.

Sadly Steve is not remembered as much for his own fiction, plays, and criticism, though his 1969 novel Groove, Bang and Jive Around is a cult classic. Once he lost his vision to glaucoma, it was hard for him to write. He relied on others to transcribe and edit his dictations, which were necessarily freeflowing and rambling. How else was a blind, elderly artist supposed to compose? Many people generously donated their time and energy to help him with his scripts, his gallery, his publication, his finances, his health, his life. It was no easy task. Steve always seemed to be on the brink of disaster, of losing his home (which he did, eventually, despite numerous individual and collective efforts to save Tribes), his sanity, his life. He lost the last battle July 7, at age 84.

Steve appreciated creativity and identified and nurtured talent. He was an explorer who encouraged the experiments of fellow black outsiders such as his friends and colleagues Ishmael Reed, Hammons, David Henderson, and Butch Morris. A then unknown poet who spoke directly to Steve’s sensibilities by not messing around with intros or theatrics and just plain-speaking his dense, punning verses won that first series of slams at the Nuyorican, and I can’t help but think that Steve’s heckles somehow, subtly, influenced the judges. Steve became one of future Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty’s first mentors and publishers. Paul was one of many writers and artists Steve pushed and prodded, including Willie Perdomo, Carl Hancock Rux, Sarah Ferguson, and myself.

I was with Paul when I last visited Steve at Tribes about six years ago. It had been several years since I moved away from Loisaida and the literary scene I was once immersed in, but he greeted me like I had never left. He held my hand tightly, introducing me to all the friends and interns and hangers-on and proppers-up in the room – Steve always traveled in a pack – asking me many questions about my work, my husband, my son, my life. He was the most kind and caring heckler you could ever know. The poet Bob Holman has called him, aptly, “the great connector.” For Steve, it was about the work, not the personal trappings. He wanted everyone to cut the crap and just speak their poem, their truth.

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The Feminist Music Bucket Brigade

Matt Giles interviewed me for a Topic magazine story on women in the music industry circa 2000. I’m in great company: Allison Wolfe, Melissa Auf der Mar, Louise Goffin, JD Samson, Amy Finnerty, etc. There are intriguing and often divergent POVs in here, as one would expect/hope. A few comments particularly strike me. One is when Auf der Mar talks about her decision to join Hole being a statement of feminist solidarity:

“I felt a higher calling about women in rock, and quickly understood that this was much bigger than me. It was about women in general.”

And when Samson reflects on touring with Le Tigre, she perfectly expresses what grrrl power is all about:

“We wouldn’t have been who we were without the audience. Those people in that room, thinking about those things, sweating, feeling safe in our bodies, taking up that space, breathing the same air—that’s what we needed.”

On a more personal note, I love the moment when New York Times deputy culture editor Sia Michel talks about starting her career as my intern at SF Weekly, and how San Francisco criticism was led by women including Ann Powers and Gina Arnold:

“In my mind, music journalism was something that women did.”

Elsewhere, Ultragrrrl Sarah Lewitinn reflects on how Michel supported her career (as she did NYT music editor  Caryn Ganz). I see us as a feminist music-critic bucket brigade, passing each other these support lines. These are all examples of the importance of women helping other women, creating safe spaces for each other to exist — musical matriarchies and matrilineals.

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Riot at the Times

I was so excited to be part of The New York Times‘s multimedia package on Bikini Kill and Riot Grrrl, I forgot to blog about it. I co-wrote with Elisabeth Vincentelli the main piece, the essential Riot Grrrl listening guide. And I got to write about my first Bikini Kill show and their first show in years. And I took part in the Popcast! Plus there are historic videos of 1990s Bikini Kill shows by my grrrlfriend Lucretia Tye Jasmine. PRDCT!!!

 

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