Rock She Wrote
edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers
2014 (originally published 1995) • 496 pages • Plexus Publishing
Have I ever mentioned how much I love reading women’s voices in chorus? I always love learning about women in community, especially when it involves women that the powers that be prefer to isolate, such as Jane Austen in the Western canon (did you know Jane Austen was influenced by Fanny Burney?) or Dolly Wilde as a footnote in Oscar Wilde’s history. Anthologies of women’s writing can sound a little dry, but something like Women in Clothes can be so astonishing just by the sheer variety of voices it entails. Feminine experience is multifaceted, varied—we’re so often denied this truth in even supposedly progressive media that to encounter it all at once is a choice experience.
Rock She Wrote fights back against the (white, straight) boys’ club of criticism by presenting a sample of over thirty years’ worth of writing on rock, pop, and rap. Editors Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers, in the introduction, describe both the motivation for curating the collection and the treasure hunt of tracking down authors, soliciting recommendations, and hunting for lost fanzines. (As someone who dreams of discovering some secret trove of eighties Star Wars slash zines, I can relate.) And, blissfully, it’s not just a collection of straight white female authors—women of color and queer women also have their voices represented here.
Now, normally, when I review nonfiction, especially large collections of curated essays, I tend to run away with the details rather than the specifics for reasons of sheer volume. (I learned a lot about Riot Grrl!) I usually try to keep my reviews around seven hundred to one thousand words, for my own sanity. (I will admit there have been some books I have been hard-pressed to write seven hundred words about, but it’s a limit that has been more useful than not.) Today, however, I’m going to try something new—I’m just going to grab three selections at random (out of sixty-two!) and talk about them briefly.
“Can the Stones Still Cut It?”, Karen Durbin (1975)
Wherein the rock critic Karen Durbin goes on tour with the Rolling Stones. There are plenty of pieces in Rock She Wrote where the author doesn’t discuss gender, either in general or in specific, but that dichotomy is particularly heightened here. Durbin notes, with a studied eye, the dynamics of the Rolling Stones—how Mick Jagger so utterly turns off when he’s not performing, the appeal of Keith Richards, the strange cosmos of the Stones themselves on tour—before being almost startled back to awareness of being one of the very few women on tour when she interviews Jagger and he turns on her. She asks, tentatively, whether he thinks criticism of the band as macho is accurate, and he’s suddenly petulant and defensive. It’s such a perfect portrait of being shocked back into your marginalized role when you have (or think you have) successfully infiltrated the boys’ club.
Also, Durbin describes “halters that didn’t halt much of anything” and I love wordplay like that (228).
“The Girls Can’t Help It”, Georgia Christgau (1978)
Rock critic Georgia Christgau talks about women in rock in a roundtable with several female musicians working in New York at the time—Miriam Lenna, Adele Bertei, and Nina Canal—along with fellow critic Roberta Cruger. Christgau opens the article by talking about how the B52s reignited her love of rock and roll, seeing, for the first time, a female musician be overtly and aggressively femme by taking a handbag onstage. Since this is a roundtable, we get different perspectives on women in rock as they discuss if the Runaways are really just copying the boys, how to enjoy problematic bands (Christgau can’t take the racism and sexism of the Stones’ “Some Girls”), and whether a women’s band is a free or a limited space.
“One Queen, One Tribe, One Destiny”, Tricia Rose (1990)
Academic Tricia Rose profiles a young (only nineteen years old, holy crow!) Queen Latifah. Latifah is her usual charismatic self, and while I knew about Latifah’s importance in rap, I never knew that her musicianship was so deeply rooted in black female community. Her politics are fiery, but the woman herself comes off as gentle—not a in a way that defangs her politics, but in a way that makes her seem wise beyond her years, sagacious. Rose captures something very essential about Latifah, right down to ending the article by highlighting how Latifah cheers on a young girl practicing gymnastics as if out of instinct.
Overall, Rock She Wrote is a fantastic resource and introduction to female rock criticism. I kind of wish there was a new edition, to cover the last twenty years of female rock criticism.
I rented this book from the public library.