the hideous persistence of the “women in rock” issue

[This paper was written for the MoPOP Pop Conference 2018: “What Difference Does It Make?: Music and Gender”]

Rock criticism has had a false scarcity problem since its inception. While it is most certainly true that there are innumerable ways that non-men have been excluded from making rock music — through social networks, microaggressions based on preconceptions about gender roles, and so on — this analysis is overvalued by predominantly male, predominantly white critics, who until the last five years or so have themselves been overvalued in the industry and have taken up too much critical space, controlling the dialogue. (White male anxiety over loss of status permeates the current moment; in cultural criticism it often appears in the form of dog whistling like the bemoaning of “politics” in critical coverage, as if all cultural production and reception does not carry in its bones the same systemic social issues that are encoded and enforced by government policies, laws, and agencies. “Politics,” here, is a clear stand-in for the incursion into traditionally white male space of a multiplicity of voices.)

As most non-men who has ever participated in this industry from any angle can surely attest, it is not that we were largely prevented from making music, but that our contributions in this space were devalued. As a new age of archival pressings, oral history projects, and non-male critical voices has illuminated, the exclusion of non-male artists from the rock canon has been much more of an issue of being excluded from booking (particularly mixed-gender bills), labels that wouldn’t take a gamble on non-male artists, recordings never making it to the commercial sphere, and the contributions of non-male artists being characterized in very particular ways by critics ourselves. White rock music, too, has been given critical primacy, with black artists shunted off to subcategories and “urban radio” (the modern version of “race music”), and Latinx artists relegated to Spanish-speaking radio only, even artists who record primarily in English. The historical shared and tangled root of rock, R&B, folk, and country somehow divides fairly neatly for most critics, leading to the current overuse of tropes like “genre-defying” to describe music that plumbs this root fully. We still, somehow, have categories like “world music,” too, which lump all music made outside of European countries, the U.K., and the U.S., no matter the genre, into one gigantic “traditional” blob.

This canonical myopia has also led to clumsy, conservative efforts by multiple mainstream and independent publications — infinite listicles and breakout issues that confine coverage of most women to “Women Who Rock.” Initial efforts, crystallized in 1997’s The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock: Trouble Girls, which featured nearly 50 female writers, and the ensuing 1998 3-CD collection The Rolling Stone Women in Rock Collection, took a post-“every girl is a riot grrrl,” Lilith Fair-contemporaneous moment and made of it positively revolutionary work, firmly writing women from multiple genres into the rock canon. This is a project worth supporting — but what stuck from it in critical discourse was not the reinvented canon itself, or the urge to continue that effort, but the banner headline.

As “women who rock” became a regular, recognizable brand of feature, writers industry-wide (not just men, either), began confining their coverage of non-male musicians to such features, save the huge names. Rather than the laudable idea of expanding the general canon, as efforts like Trouble Girls and NPR’s recent “Turning the Tables” series — both helmed by Ann Powers — seek to do, what the current critical conventions focus on make gender, at present, something nearly inescapable for non-male artists in the public eye.

As Marion Leonard notes in Gender in the Music Industry: Rock, Discourse, and Girl Power, “the importance of music journalists as cultural intermediaries and the historical centrality of the music press in the discursive framing of rock music affects how acts present themselves… the way in which rock acts choose to represent themselves (or are represented by their record companies) within the press constitutes a ‘performative’ aspect of their public persona. Such performance is necessarily affected by the dominant discourses of the music press and may often be specifically guided by expectations of what the music press want or value at a particular time.” While the immediacy of streaming music and the general digital availability of the catalogues of all manner of artists has changed the relationship of larger artists, like Beyonce, to the press, press is still hugely valuable for lesser-known artists.

With the incredible variety of music available at a touch, and Spotify’s pernicious curation of playlists (as described in Liz Pelly’s 2017 Baffler article “The Problem with Muzak) a key component of mainstream music discovery, critics have become less valuable in describing what music sounds like, and for a certain kind of artist we are no longer necessary for discovery. For artists who are too challenging for Spotify’s algorithms, though — the algorithmic discovery of niche music is its own issue separate from the playlist issues described above — and who aren’t connected to the right networks, we are still gatekeepers. We also still have great ideological gravity, the kind described by Leonard; the questions we ask artists shape their responses, and the way we write about artists affects not just the way they present themselves but the way audiences receive them. Some of us pretend objectivity, as though we are working from some mythical universal rubric of judgment, but it has never been thus. I do not bring up the following examples as condemnations, but as representative illustrations.

A New York Times headline from September 2017 trumpets that “rock’s not dead, it’s ruled by women.” And while there is some subtlety in the accompanying round-table discussion, the field itself is limited here to artists who all occupy the same rough mid-level of indie rock, all in the same age range, all from a relatively small section of the U.S. There is no trans/non-binary representation, though there is a mention of non-binary people in the lede. The wider range of artists represented in the accompanying Spotify playlist — though all of these artists mention being grown on Bandcamp — is more representative, just slightly. There is at least a small amount of trans and non-binary representation in here, though it is still overwhelmingly cis and white.

This small representative sample is described as “a movement,” as if it is unconnected to a long DIY history, though multiple women interviewed make sure to make note of that history. The article never asks the question Why these representatives, at this time, though it certainly skirts around it. The problem is not the particular women chosen; the problem is the critical narrative created for them. We must ask ourselves as critics: when we choose such a narrow field of representation and uncouple it from its history, when we place such a firm narrative onto artists without asking them how they would like to be represented, are we forcing ourselves to ask the same questions over and over again, and for artists to give us the same answers? Are we replicating harmful tropes? (Maria Sherman had many of the same questions as I did in that piece’s wake, offering critical complication and 50 more artists from a much wider field.)

DIY festivals that center around traditionally underrepresented marginalized communities — particularly those that deal with gender — have been reckoning with these self-criticisms for years. I was an organizer for Ladyfest, the global, decentralized, community-based festival celebrating marginalized genders in music, during its Washington D.C. iteration in 2002 — two years after it began. We were talking then about how to very specifically include trans women (there is a difference between openness and inclusion) and how to address the toxic divisiveness of festivals like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which became known perhaps most famously for its stubborn and bigoted decision to exclude trans women from participation. The messaging around Ladyfest is always intentional; on the official flyer for Ladyfest Shanghai, which took place in late March of this year, all bodies and gender expressions are included. There are fat bodies, bodies with canes, bodies that do not read as traditionally gendered, muscular bodies, bodies dancing together, bodies with Afros. All celebrate together; all are the same size; all are equal.

CLITfest (that’s ‘Combating Latent Inequality Together), a Ladyfest-like tradition focusing on underrepresented genders in hardcore punk specifically, put itself on the shelf in 2013 after community dialogue indicated to all involved that despite the best intentions of its organizers, who opened up messaging and include trans women on bills, the name of the event was just too close to coding biological womanhood to the possession of genitalia to be useful. In its wake, specifically queer and trans punk and hardcore fests have sprung up everywhere — Fed Up Fest in Chicago, FILTH Fest in Milwaukee, Transgress Fest in southern California, Freak Out Fest in New York, and so forth. Chicago’s Black and Brown Punk Fest and the Bay Area’s POC punk fest, The Universe is Lit, are careful to make sure that queer and trans punks are centered, and that gender representation is equitable. Other feminist fests, like Boston’s Smash It Dead, center the needs of sexual assault survivors of all genders, with educational workshops and an annual donation to rape crisis centers. On the margins, the sources of all of the innovation mainstream rock criticism celebrates once it becomes packaged in a commercially viable enough box, we are looking out for one another and listening to one another.

It is not just representation that should be the goal, obviously; representation without complexity and complication, diversity without reorganization of the power structure, is a hollow enterprise. What we can learn as journalists from what community DIY festival organizers are doing is not just that representation matters; it is that there is always more work to be done, and that we must listen to the margins about the stories those artists and listeners tell about themselves. Rather than placing every artist into identity-shaped plastic wrap, we must view them as individuals who exist in social and political contexts both of their own making and much larger than that, as people with agency rather than objects for bigoted systems to act upon.

In an accompanying story to the New York Times “Rock’s not dead” piece, a profile of Katie and Allison Crutchfield, who, despite being 28, are described as “DIY punk’s twin elders,” the opening question critic Jon Caramanica asks is… why there are no men in Katie’s band and crew. Then he asks nearly the same question again later on: “What about the emotional labor of touring with dudes, of being the only woman in a van with five guys?” Why are men centered in this article about two talented women who are doing quite well making their way without them? In fact, nearly half the article is taken up talking about men; even in their absence, imaginary male foils exist as representative of the status quo. When we frame women and non-binary people this way, as creatures indelibly shaped by masculinity and patriarchy, we reify the system as it stands. And we ask marginalized people to perform traumas of various kinds over and over — the reiteration of exclusion, of comparison, of microaggressions, of physical and/or sexual violence. Be constantly bleeding, so that we may consume your pain.

There is no shortage of critical bemoaning of the “death of guitar music,” which has been going on for decades at this point. The Times roundtable mentions it in its lede: “For years now, we, the pop music team of The New York Times… have wondered where exactly the guitars went. While there’s never been a shortage of quote-unquote traditional rock bands — say, a mostly male, mostly white four-piece — their cultural impact has continued to wane in the face of increasingly diverse musical tactics, distribution networks and messengers.” This is a far more fair assessment than the Washington Post, which claimed in 2017 that falling guitar sales are at least partially due to a lack of “guitar heroes” (all mentioned are men, save Lita Ford). She Shreds, a magazine dedicated to coverage of women and nonbinary musicians often not found elsewhere, responded to the Post incisively, sharing the statistic from Fender Chief Marketing Officer Evan Jones that “50% of new guitar buyers in the last five years have been female,” and that the future of the industry depends on killing off the last vestiges of the industry’s historic misogyny, appealing to a much wider market. The landscape, in other words, is changing, thanks to a lot of very intentional activism.

In this year, the year that Sister Rosetta Tharpe was finally inducted into that bastion of rock conservatism known as the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, let us finally retire critical projects that reinforce false scarcity rather than interrupt and complicate it. Let us stop asking anyone structurally marginalized what it is like being an x in rock music. Let us stop producing lists of “female-fronted” bands and “women in rock,” and confining coverage of women to those lists and special issues. Let us complicate our understanding of what a woman even is with reality, and open up our understanding of gender beyond the binary.

And let us stop pretending, too, that we as journalists do not have a significant historical role as gatekeepers of the status quo — which includes patriarchy and white supremacy. “Music journalism can be understood to be informed by a culture of masculinity that is reproduced in a number of different ways,” writes Leonard. It’s not just the dominance of men in editorial that produces this effect, though that’s certainly a large part of it, she argues; it’s also the centrality of mythic male journalist-heroes, the way women are written about, the appeal to men that music magazines traditionally have (passionate millennial males, anyone?), and the way women are forever characterized at the periphery. I’d also argue, again, that the narrowness of representation for non-men is just as significant an issue — the fact that one still must in most cases be traditionally attractive (and cis, and white), to get ahead in music — one must be commercially salable, and what does that entail? It is time to stop reusing the tools of the past, take a cue from the intentional self-criticism of small festivals, and start digging deeper. That self-criticism and responsiveness to the community comes from a sense of responsibility to the community. Artists and readers both deserve better from us — -and it is also through understanding our interconnectedness in this industry ecosystem and the shared seeking of humanity that music creation and fandom inspires that we improve our skills as critics, by gaining a greater sensitivity to and understanding of cultural contexts. Only then can we begin to rebuild power structures in this industry in a truly equitable way.