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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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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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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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