The black and white photocopy is riddled with thumbtack holes, pinned to various bulletin boards over the years. A photo of four women music journalists: Patti, the punk poet, Ellen, the trailblazing New Yorker critic, Sue, the one who dared write about rave music and Danyel, who grabbed your arm and took you along to a hip-hop concert.
The image illustrated the 1992 Village Voice article by Evelyn McDonnell, “Feminine Critique: The Secret History of Women in Rock Journalism.”
When that article came out, I was a devoted music writer and “listings editor” for the City Paper, a Philly alt weekly. For me, the photo offered — and offers — hope, inspiration, a reminder to be myself. The variety of faces and scenes (from Bleecker Street to a bedroom) suggest that great writing can come from anyone, anyplace, anytime, with any approach. Which kind of had nothing to do with being a woman, and yet had everything to do with it.
Your voice, your point of view, might be intertwined with gender but it also surpasses it. Just like music itself.
In her 1977 piece, “Beginning to See the Light,” Ellen Willis wrote about the Sex Pistols, “Music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated — as good rock-and-roll did — challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation.”
Thanks to an uber-cool literary non-fiction class (gratitude, George), I first read Willis’ work in college and her words stuck with me. Music is a more powerful thing than anything we can describe, legitimize or even evaluate. Busta Rhymes wants to bang someone’s face in? Crank it up. You love it because you love it. Can’t explain.
Which is partly why I left music writing behind. I love music, and I love writing, but I never really liked writing about music (that dancing about architecture thing). The words never lived up to the sound.
More goofy awestruck fan than the erudite critic, I preferred to write about the behind-the-scenes reality that gave me tactile anecdotes: the time I slam danced with Happy Flowers, watching as Eugene Chadbourne played drums in a cramped West Philly bathroom, or interviewing Patti Smith while she made her daughter a sandwich.
You could argue that I only allowed myself a backstage glimpse because didn’t feel worthy to take that front-row seat; the room of rock scholars was mostly men. But I was less concerned with gender than just accurately conveying how it made my heart burst wide with joy.
I didn’t ditch music writing, as much as slowly let it drift away. It had run its 10-year course, stacks, and stacks (and stacks) of CDs felt like work, not pleasure.
Or just, life moves on.
“So much has changed for me since that article came out; unfortunately, not as much has changed for the world,” author Evelyn McDonnell, in an email to me.
“I’ve written books, raised children, and become a teacher. But many times, I hear the voices of the women I interviewed two decades ago echoing in my head. I particularly remember someone, I think it was Leslie Berman, remarking that it was not the fact that these women had left music criticism, but the way they left the field, that was troubling. I don’t at all mind the path down which life has taken me. But I can’t help but think – I know – that if I were a man, my options would have been different.”
So I wondered, 21 years later: where are these women in the photograph now?
I know where Danyel Smith is, because we often run into each other when she’s here in Brooklyn or follow each other’s check-ins on Foursqaure. (Welcome to 2013) She’s now a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford, and has had a long, illustrious career as an editor-in-chief for music mags (Vibe, Billboard) and as a cultural and political pundit.
Sadly, Ellen Willis passed away in 2006, but she leaves a legacy of feminist, political and in-the-rock club journalism (Start with Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope and Rock-and-Roll)
Patti Smith, at 66, is a National Book Award winner (Just Kids) and still one of the best concerts you’ll ever see (if you’re in NYC, add her traditional New Year’s Eve gig to your calendar.)
Former LA Weekly editor Sue Cummings left music criticism and is now a nurse practitioner in Olympia, WA.
“Just about everything in my life has changed radically since then…” Cummings emailed me via Facebook. “I got fed up with the instability of relying on journalism for a living. I think most music writers now have either retreated into academia or they are blogging for free and doing something else to pay their bills. I feel very lucky that I got to write about music at the end of the time when you could still make a decent living at it. As for women writing about music [today] I don’t feel that many of them have a feminist sensibility. They take for granted the freedoms that feminism won for them. However it is a kind of victory that they can even do so.”
McDonnell, however, noted several women who have made remarkable achievements as music writers since she wrote “The Feminine Critique.” or the compendium of women who write about music, Rock She Wrote.
“Ann Powers, Danyel Smith, Lorraine Ali, Sia Michel. And there are some fantastic younger voices, like Julianne Shepherd and Maura Johnston. But I also still think these women fit Amiri Baraka’s definition of the token: Their success is held up as proof that women have the same opportunities as men. Unfortunately, that still is not true for all women. The fact is, there is only one female music editor in the Village Voice/New Times chain. There are no female music critics at the New York Times – never have been, not on staff. I won’t even mention the age-old Rolling Stone ceiling – it’s not glass, it’s granite. While the women I mentioned, and the women in “The Feminine Critique,” and the women in Rock She Wrote give me hope and inspiration, the boys club has not been torn down, it’s just been infiltrated.””
Sure, there was a manscape of music critics back in the day. But I have to say, there was a good number of women writers and editors, too — just not in the power seat. There’s a shelf life and a burn out to this kind of work, too; it’s tough to make a living writing about music (or writing about anything.)
And as the photocopy tatters and fades, the faces become slightly haunting. They look straight to camera, evoking what once was, what might have been and how things change.