Join UCLA Professor Shana Redmond and I in conversation June 9 about the soundtracks of social change, from “We Shall Overcome” to “Fight the Power” to “U.N.I.T.Y.” to “Alright.” A Turn It Up! Tuesday Instagram Live eventa!
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:
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.
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.
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!!!
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.
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.