Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Our roundtable advises music writers to find a mentor and read the work of other women writing about music.
Our roundtable advises music writers to find a mentor and read the work of other women writing about music. Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Yesterday we gathered nine of the preeminent music writers in the country in an online roundtable. Professors, editors, freelance writers, critics and radio reporters — all women.
We've been collecting responses to a questionnaire about being a woman and a musician since the spring, and we're realizing that women who work in and around the business — but don't pay the bills by playing — face similar challenges.
The following conversation was edited for grammar and formatted to make sense in a linear fashion. We began by asking our roundtable about their mentors.
Cortney Harding [Music Editor, Billboard]: I've had some awesome mentors. My first editor at The Rocket and my last editor at Billboard were great mentors.
Ann Powers [Pop Critic, Los Angeles Times]: Cortney, who was your Rocket mentor?
Cortney Harding: John Chandler! Portland editor.
Tricia Rose [Professor and Chair, Africana Studies, Brown University]: Not on writing about women and music.
Lara Pellegrinelli [Regular Arts contributor to NPR]: Yeah, not so much on writing about music. Female musicians were a real inspiration.
Laura Leebove [Production Editor at eMusic.com]: A couple of my mentors are in this chat, actually... (Cortney and Amanda).
Laina Dawes [Music Journalist]: When I made the transition from hip-hop to R&B, I emailed everyone for advice. Chuck Eddy was great, as so was Carl Wilson. As for women, I wasn't inspired until I attended an EMP conference in 2004-5, I believe.
Ann Powers: Mine, mostly was Robert Newman, who went on to be a big graphic designer at the Voice and Details and other places.
Amanda Petrusich [Freelance Music Journalist and Author]: I loved writing and reading at least as much as I loved music, so for me this job was a natural extension of that. Chuck Eddy, who was then at the Village Voice, was my first "real" editor — he's always been supportive of young writers. And Ann has always been an inspiration!
Cortney Harding: Oh yeah, and Chuck Eddy should be on the list for me, too. He was an editor of mine when I started at Billboard.
Ann Powers: Aw, thanx Amanda. I do try to be a mentor...
Tricia Rose: When I was first researching hip-hop, I found that behind the scenes, gender dynamics were more complex and depressing than the public elements — this inspired a focused gender angle on a genre that was never highly populated with women artists.
Lara Pellegrinelli: Ann, you really are an inspiration.
Ann Powers: Tricia, your writing was a giant inspiration to me, of course, when I was figuring out the theoretical basis of my work
Laina Dawes: Yes, Ann, Maura, Maureen, Cortney ... all inspirations.
Amanda Petrusich: And the first time I read Ellen Willis, my head/heart just about exploded.
Ann Powers: Oh Ellen Willis!! Everyone out there, READ HER. She will change your life.
Ann Powers: Here's a question, re: mentors. I've had MANY supportive male mentors, but are women mentors helpful in a different way?
Cortney Harding: I've never had a female mentor.
Ann Powers: Really, Cortney? Wow.
Cortney Harding: Yeah, it's a bit of a bummer.
Laura Leebove: I actually think almost all of my mentors have been women.
Maureen Mahon [Associate Professor of Music, New York University]: I'd say I was inspired by Tricia's model — we crossed paths at NYU. She was taking the music seriously (and loving it), but also providing a strong race, gender, class, and power analysis.
Ann Powers: Sometimes there can be rivalry among women music writers, though I must say, you younger writers are very cool in supporting each other.
Cortney Harding: There are lots of women I admire, but in terms of being really involved in my professional development, it's been men.
Tricia Rose: I am glad to hear it Maureen — thanks, your work inspires me. I know what Cortney is saying, there are so few women it creates a bottleneck in the mentoring pipeline.
Laina Dawes: I interviewed Cynthia Dagnal-Myron, who used to write for the Chicago Sun Times years ago for my book, and she was the first black female rock journalist to ever write for CREEM and Rolling Stone. She was great — helped me get over my fear of covering large metal festivals.
Ann Powers: Laina, I don't know much about her. Does she have a web presence?
Laina Dawes: Ann, not really, she is under the radar right now. She is now a screenwriter out of Arizona.
Ann Powers: This is why we need a new version of Rock She Wrote, Laina! Another anthology chronicling women writers.
Laina Dawes: Yes, I think so because Cynthia had some amazing stories to tell!
'The Only Girl In The Room' Syndrome
Frannie Kelley [NPR Music]: So, even if you don't have a female mentor, how much does it matter to just read other women's writing about music?
Ann Powers: Ellen Willis' writing is crucial because she wrote from within her body in the most profound way. Really located in her experience as a woman, a feminist, a New York intellectual. And a punk fan.
Maureen Mahon: Reading other women's writing about music — as well as other topics — is really important. Often the mentoring happens on the page or online or across time, as with Ellen Willis, rather than through actual personal connections.
Ann Powers: Tricia, the bottleneck metaphor intrigues. Sounds like what we used to call "only girl in the room" syndrome.
Lara Pellegrinelli: In the jazz world, Sally Placksin is one of the women — often overlooked — who got the ball rolling, before Sherrie Tucker's awesome work on all-female swing bands.
Tricia Rose: Yes, Ann — the only girl in the room who is expected only to write on the girls outside the room!
Ann Powers: Exactly, Tricia. It can be a lonely feeling. But also it brings a certain power — a very tenuous power, though.
Tricia Rose: True, sometimes. But I'd like some change to go along with that bit of power :)!
Laina Dawes: What I find is that sometimes women musicians are reluctant to be interviewed by women journalists because there is a question of legitimacy.
Ann Powers: Laina, that is so deep. I find that male musicians often seem surprised when I ask complicated questions.
Cortney Harding: Really? I've never had a female musician say she wanted a male interviewer.
Lara Pellegrinelli: Me, neither. Though I've had male musicians quiz me.
Ann Powers: Lara — like, "Are you for real?" Kinda quizzing?
Amanda Petrusich: Laina, I've also found that to be depressingly true (in my case, it was with two different actresses, but still).
Lara Pellegrinelli: Yes, a well-known elder bebop saxophonist who sang riffs and asked me to identify them. He also changed them subtly so they weren't quite right, so I would be wrong no matter what.
Ann Powers: Lara, that is hilarious!! When I was younger, I had a hard time with male subjects, especially rock dudes. They made me nervous and they were rarely forthcoming. My first great interview was with a female musician, Barbara Manning, in San Francisco. And she served me tea and cookies.
Ann Powers: I wonder if somehow a woman journalist signals to some subjects that the interview is meant to be "personal" rather than about the work. I hope not, of course!
Laina Dawes: Yes. I have approached at least six female musicians who didn't seem to think that I was qualified to interview them, even after the vetting process. It was weird. In the metal scene, 90 percent of the journos are men, so they seem to think that they know everything, I guess.
Tricia Rose: Back to “power”: It creates a system of value that even those near the bottom embrace. So, women artists looking for a male journalist signals that they are taken seriously...
Laina Dawes: I met the frontperson for a metal band at a festival a few months back, was set to interview her, but when I met her, she was so rude, I declined. I do think that power had to do something with that particular person.
Maureen Mahon: Regarding Laina's observation: There may also be a nervousness about being pigeonholed as "a woman musician" who talks to a woman journalist, as opposed to being "just a musician" speaking to "just a journalist" who is a guy.
Tricia Rose: Maureen is right; that's part of it, too.
Laina Dawes: Maureen, I agree. There are people who do not even want you to mention it, because then it will remind their colleagues that they actually have a vagina!
Ann Powers: I also did interviews when I was really young with Joan Jett and Jane Wiedlin that were pretty good. I got put on the "women in rock" beat very early.
Lara Pellegrinelli: Shirley Horn and I bonded over The Young and the Restless and a bottle of Drambuie!
Amanda Petrusich: Not being taken seriously can be useful, though, as a reporter — I'm occasionally shocked by what people will say into a tape recorder.
Cortney Harding: Amanda, I know exactly what you mean. Especially when it comes to male music execs.
Tricia Rose: Yes, this is true Amanda...ditto.
Ann Powers: Amanda — that's interesting. I find now that I'm in my forties, subjects relax around me more easily. I think I seem like a MOM to a lot of them.
Laina Dawes: Yes, not being taken seriously does help. I can get into spaces easier because no one expects me to be there.
Lara Pellegrinelli: Me, too, Amanda.
Ann Powers: It's amazing how the anxiety around being perceived as a "woman >>>>>" whatever you do, persists.
'That's So Mad Men'
Frannie (NPR Music): What are all the ways you've been able to use your gender to your advantage?
Cortney Harding: I'll cop to playing dumb to get a source to slip every now and then.
Lara Pellegrinelli: I've had people talk about me when I was in the room waiting for an interview to happen, not knowing I was the writer.
Ann Powers: Gender as an advantage? When I was younger, people used to say the only reason I got work was because I was a woman, actually. I do think there was a knee-jerk assumption, back in the '90s, that you had to get a woman to write about a woman.
Cortney Harding: "Gee, I don't understand this deal, can you explain it...?" when I full well understand, but they tell me stuff they shouldn't because they think I won't get it.
Amanda Petrusich: Ann, that's happened to me, too.
Ann Powers: Cortney, that's so Mad Men.
Cortney Harding: Part of me hates it, and part of me thinks, "Whatever, this gets me a nice byline."
Tricia Rose: Did you all publish the stuff they shouldn't have said? :-)
Cortney Harding: They say it on the record, it's fair game.
Lara Pellegrinelli: I also think it serves them right.
Ann Powers: Absolutely, Lara.
Maureen Mahon: Lara, that's great! Lately, I've been doing a lot of phone interviews with older African-American musicians (in their late sixties, seventies, eighties) and they're interested in having their stories told and have been fairly forthcoming. When talking with women about what it was like for them as women in certain professional situations, I've felt a fair amount of bonding. Over things like how hard it was to get through a 50-minute set when your period started in the fifth minute. Good stuff like that.
Frannie (NPR Music): Are there any stories you feel uncomfortable telling? Subjects you'd rather not cover?
Ann Powers: In terms of what editors want/expect: I have always come from a strong feminist place. And sexuality is a major topic for me. So I do get the "women in pop" stories. And of course many people assume that women and sexuality are the same thing. Like, men don't have sexuality in the same way.
Ann Powers: I have gone through spells where I decided I would only write about male acts, because I felt pigeonholed into the "women in music" slot. But that was long ago.
Laina Dawes: Funny, I think that when I bring up race / racism in the metal scene, I get a lot of resistance. I reported on a band member's grandfather founding the Klan, and man, did I catch trouble. But they were pissed because it was a black woman who said it, not because it was publically put out there. As a woman in that scene, there are quite a few that feel that you should be "seen" and not "heard.” When you have a strong opinion, they get really upset.
Ann Powers: I remember interviewing a woman pop singer (a white woman) and trying to get her to talk about race — she appropriates a very "black" style — and she had a very hard time with it.
Tricia Rose: Oh really, Ann? (add crazy sarcasm to this post!) I am stunned by this, but I see it as well: Black style in a post-racial world. We should talk about this more later, Ann.
Ann Powers: It is a huge subject, Tricia.
Laina Dawes: It's hard because once you comment on it publically — and especially in on online format — you cannot take it back. Artists, especially women artists, seem to be very conscious of that fact, more than men. They know that there is a double standard and they accept it. I don't.
Ann Powers: Laina, yes, that's true. I find that artists want to talk about serious subjects — race and gender specifically — but they're very cautious, they've been steered away from those subjects by their management, I think.
Tricia Rose: I think that we need to have a more documentary drive to get the most stories on record, especially for musicians who are women and people of color — those from all groups that are not equally documented. This is a good place for academics and journalists to collaborate. There is such crucial history in these life stories — more than a mag can get to, some of which needs some context to expose it.
Frannie (NPR Music): That's exactly what we're trying to do with the Hey Ladies project.
Ann Powers: Tricia — yes, I often think about all the stories we have lost/are losing. In my work, I focus on mainstream pop these days. Which I love because I feel like that stuff shapes and reflects the bigger cultural conversation. But sometimes I feel I should be grabbing the historical info that's getting lost instead.
Laina Dawes: The stories that we should be reporting on do not seem to be seen as relevant in the mainstream press. How do we change that?
Lara Pellegrinelli: Not just what is lost in what doesn't get covered, but the leftovers from what does get covered.
Ann Powers: Leftovers, Lara? Elaborate?
Lara Pellegrinelli: Parts of interviews that didn't make it into a finished piece. I did a radio story for example on Bobbie Nelson (a.k.a. Willie Nelson's sister) around two years ago and plan to donate the recording of the interview (90 minutes) the Country Music Hall of Fame. They said they'd be very happy to have it.
Maureen Mahon: I agree with Tricia. It's important to get the stories now, while folks are here to tell them to us. In a lot of ways, coverage of contemporary figures is "history for the future." In the historical research I'm doing now, I've been struck by how the British music press did a much better job covering the work of black American women musicians in the '60s and '70s than the U.S. press did.
Lara Pellegrinelli: In terms of relevancy, I'm always *trying* to think about finding stories that place the arts in dialogue with subjects of national importance. I've used my pieces to get at issues concerning black patriotism, access to public spaces, I did a story on music and torture...
Ann Powers: I wanted to say this about Maura's time at Idolator (lamented now!)... Maura you helped uncover not just lost stories but an under-represented perspective just by being you. Your love of Latin Freestyle, girlie mainstream pop, all that, made the world have to take it more seriously
Maura Johnston [Freelance writer]: Ah, thanks Ann. If only doing that brought in the page views as much as Justin Bieber photo galleries...
Ann Powers: Sigh...
Maura Johnston: And I mean the self-directed media consumption nature of the Internet is something that I think affects the overall discourse in a way that people don't really talk about.
Let's Talk Business
Frannie (NPR Music): So you all want people to read what you write — are you involved in the business and marketing decisions at the publications you write for?
Maura Johnston: As a freelancer, I'm not, although I would say that as someone on the Internet, I'm constantly marketing my writing and my (apologies in advance for using this word) brand. Live-Tweeting American Idol, posting links to my writing, that sort of thing.
Ann Powers: I am not really, Frannie. I do what I do and it works within the larger context of the Times, but I don't make business/marketing decisions.
Cortney Harding: I am involved, but it makes me pretty uncomfortable from a journalism perspective.
Frannie (NPR Music): I'm trying to relate your experience a bit to that of women musicians.
Laura Leebove: I'm involved in eMusic's marketing, in that I can choose a lot of what records are promoted in newsletters, and I can give an opinion on business and marketing ideas/plans, but it's usually not something I actually make decisions about.
Maura Johnston: Conventional narratives are more likely to be Googled, thus they're more likely to be found on Google
Ann Powers: Maura, that's interesting. People think of the Internet in terms of "niche" but in fact, the biggest "niche" remains the most heavily marketed, corporate mainstream stuff.
Maura Johnston: (a la the story about the phrase "Ground Zero mosque" that appeared on Poynter's site on Wednesday; news orgs that don't use it are effectively "punished" by the SEO gods, because that's the phrase being sought out.)
Maura Johnston: (So even though they're philosophically right, the page views take the hit.)
Tricia Rose: Does anyone know the ratio of male to female music journalists regularly featured in "popular" music journalism?
Cortney Harding: What is "popular" music journalism these days, anyway?
Ann Powers: Lisa Rhodes did some work on that in her book, Tricia, but it was historical.
Ann Powers: Frannie, are you hinting at influencing what gets covered? Like, female artists?
Frannie (NPR Music): I'm thinking about how many women musicians have told us they have to do like 40 things at the same time — I'm wondering if women writing about music also lack that kind of institutional support. Like, you're on your own if you want to write about the things that concern you.
Maura Johnston: Frannie, exactly. Or at least on your own personal blog, I guess.
Laina Dawes: I've wanted to pitch stories on black female rock musicians to the metal magazines I currently write for, but I know that unless they fit under a certain aesthetic, my editors are not going to be interested. And yes, it is more about page views than anything. Not economically viable.
Amanda Petrusich: Ha, "writing about music" and "institutional support" don't much go together — for either gender, I think.
Ann Powers: Amanda FTW. Music writing is thriving, but not due to institutional support. Due to the love and passion of those who do it. And their resourcefulness.
Ann Powers: Re: women musicians doing 40 things at once — Well, every creative person now has to promote herself, in more intense ways than in the past...the "branding" to which Maura referred. But I think that has a good side, too.
Laina Dawes: Yeah, but even on your personal blog, where you should have the most freedom, you don't.
Maura Johnston: I would imagine that, for a freelancer, the prospect of pissing off potential clients is one factor, Ann/Laina... But I could be wrong?
Laina Dawes: No, you are not wrong, Maura! You have to think about that. I have suffered from that, but you have to be true to your self and take the risk.
Maura Johnston: Yeah.
Ann Powers: What do you mean by "clients"? Artists? Publications?
Maura Johnston: Publications, yes. Not artists!
Maureen Mahon: The current model of the artist as artist and the artist as person-who-has-to-figure-out-how-to-market-herself is really tough on artists. They know how to make the music, but selling it is a completely different project. Even the music industry can't figure out how to handle it.
Maura Johnston: Maureen, definitely.
Ann Powers: I was talking to someone the other day about web publications, and how they're still male dominated....but the overt machismo has given way to a kind of "sensitive guy" attitude that can hide sexism pretty effectively.
Maura Johnston: Ha. OH YES.
Maura Johnston: Deep Dude In The Dorm Syndrome.
Lara Pellegrinelli: Ha ha.
Maura Johnston: It's not just for college anymore.
Tricia Rose: True Ann, but not in black pop music so much! :-)
Ann Powers: In general, this era is a very confusing one, re: gender politics. It's like both feminism and sexism have dissolved into the atmosphere and can't be traced.
Frannie (NPR Music): Is the criticism and comments you get on your work different from the criticism and comments men who write about music get?
Laina Dawes: I do get more criticism that comes from the "who do you think you are" ethos than my male colleagues. But in all honesty, as I craft something, I think of all the "holes" that could be commented on and ensure to fill them, to avoid such criticism. I've been somewhat lucky.
Ann Powers: You know, my recent experience has been with the likes of Janelle Monae and her crew and they are very progressive so I am lucky.
Lara Pellegrinelli: As a freelancer, I have so little phone or face contact with people, often I don't know what is going on if something is awry. Except for NPR. :-) We are on the phone all the time.
Ann Powers: Back in the '90s, there was actually a cartoonist who made a satirical cartoon about rock critics and depicted me and Evelyn McDonnell as ugly, "hairy legged feminists."
Lara Pellegrinelli: No armpit hair?
Ann Powers: Hahaha! I had a bowl haircut in the cartoon.
Ann Powers: Lara — so your contact is mostly online, with editors and artists? Does this "disembody" you in a way that makes your gender less important?
Lara Pellegrinelli: I really don't know. I've had some experiences with editors recently, where we've made first contact at a lunch or over drinks. Then I never see them again. I think there's something about that initial contact that may cement some kind of gendered image.
Frannie (NPR Music): Has anyone ever used a fake name to get something done? A number of women who filled out our questionnaire have done it — or pretended to be their own publicist or label head.
Ann Powers: I know male writers who have done that. Well, one male writer. And a couple of prominent male writers whom editors initially thought were female....can't say if that helped them get work.
Amanda Petrusich: No, but in moments of supreme distress I've thought, "If I ever have a daughter, I'm giving her a gender-neutral name."
Lara Pellegrinelli: I've found doing drinks is hard — I don't drink much and some of the older guard in this town is still bent on three-scotch lunches. At least in the jazz/classical realm.
Ann Powers: There was a thick rock-writing anthology that came out about a decade ago, and it had only three women contributors I think, and then it turned out that one was Richard Hell writing under a female pseudonym!
Laina Dawes: Lara, I agree. There is a stereotype about the female rock / metal critic and they seem disappointed when you don't fall under it!
Frannie (NPR Music): And there are writers whose names seem to imply an ethnicity not their own. Does that give them freedom to write about some music they wouldn't otherwise have?
Ann Powers: I don't know about that, Frannie. If anything, white writers have had an easier time writing about stuff like hip-hop and R&B in the mainstream press. It's shocking, still, how few writers of color make it into the big publications.
Cortney Harding: I had a country music guy get mad at me when I assigned a piece to a woman with a Costa Rican last name.
Ann Powers: Wow, Cortney that is lame!
Cortney Harding: He asked me, "What does a Spanish lady know about country?"
Laura Leebove: WOW.
Ann Powers: Two words: Freddie Fender
Cortney Harding: I hung up on him.
Amanda Petrusich: Good for you, C.
Lara Pellegrinelli: You should have.
Laina Dawes: Frannie, that is an interesting question. A friend of mine who is white was a hip-hop writer for XXL at one time and had a difficult time with commenters. I think she quit over it.
Ann Powers: I think there are two realms here. One is the "hang": who feels comfortable in a room with musicians. For a woman, that can be hard with guy players, I think. The other is the publication space, where white hetero privilege still dominates.
Maureen Mahon: Frannie, my immediate response is that if you're a person of color, you're expected to write about people of color and what's presumed to be their music. As Laina's example shows, it's very challenging for someone who's not white to write about rock. If you're white, you have much more freedom, both in terms of the music you play as an artist and the music you write about as a critic.
Laina Dawes: For my friend, it was more that because she was white and female that she should be providing sexual favors, not writing. They never criticized her skills, but seem offended that she had the platform that she did.
Frannie (NPR Music): So, writers get pigeon-holed just as much as musicians.
Ann Powers: Yes, Frannie, definitely.
'If I Don't Do This, Who Will?'
Frannie (NPR Music): A lot of women who filled out our questionnaire complained about being lumped in with other "girl" bands in reviews/pieces.
Ann Powers: It's the usual bias: the white male is the generic identity. That person can move among different realms. Anyone else has to fight to get beyond her particular identity space. (Men included, if they're not white.)
Maureen Mahon: Writers definitely get pigeon-holed. I suppose it's connected to building that brand.
Lara Pellegrinelli: Well, beyond being pigeon-holed, I think there's a sense of responsibility — that if I don't do this, who will?
Ann Powers: Lara FTW!!!! Balancing between what is NEEDED and what you might be actually sick of doing, personally.
Laina Dawes: Lara, I agree! If you do not do "this" who will? But it is emotionally taxing.
Laura Leebove: I definitely agree with you, Lara. I've gone out of my way to pitch a lot of women artists for anywhere I've written because I assume some of those artists won't get covered otherwise.
Maureen Mahon: Lara's exactly right about the double-edged sword. It is taxing, but I also think it's rewarding.
Ann Powers: Right now, in the mainstream, women artists are by far the most interesting subject. There's just much more meat in writing about Gaga or Katy Perry or Rihanna...
Ann Powers: In a weird way, the mainstream is just a narrow slice, though....consider that in rock, or jazz, or rap, women are still barely visible. Only in mainstream pop are they the main thing. Maybe country is even....
Cortney Harding: We had several male cover subjects in a row recently and everyone came to me asking me to advocate for female covers.
Cortney Harding: I thought, "Oh, I still have to do this? Really?"
Ann Powers: When I started out I would get asked to write the "women in rock" piece at least once a year. Some editor was always noticing, "Hey, there are women playing music!"
Frannie (NPR Music): Ann, what do you mean "much more meat"? Why are the male acts less interesting?
Tricia Rose: Yes, there is more meat — I just can't believe how much sexuality (and predictable types) primarily frames nearly all successful women in music — still.
Frannie (NPR Music): Prof. Rose, why does that keep happening? Labels? Consumers? The musicians themselves?
Laina Dawes For me, the female singer is not interesting because she is in a metal band. She has to have a unique quality to either her presence (live) or her vocal style or guitar playing, etc. I think it is kind of a disservice to try and craft a story simply because of her gender. There has to be a hook.
Laura Leebove: Definitely, I agree.
Lara Pellegrinelli: Although, I love when artists both seem to play into those stereotypes and manage to subvert them at the same time. I like to think we're seeing more of that.
Ann Powers: Lara, agree. Gaga!
Lara Pellegrinelli: But also older artists, like Dolly Parton. I love that woman.
Ann Powers: Dolly Parton is a stealth bomb. A sexy lady but more importantly an amazing, amazing songwriter and a great singer.
Ann Powers: Sexuality is one of my main topics, so for me it's very useful and fascinating. I am interested in how pop creates our conversation about sex in this culture.
Ann Powers: But on the other hand — I think this is a big frustration for artists — women who DON'T want to be confronting sexuality directly still barely have a chance. Orianthi is an interesting case, for example.
Amanda Petrusich: But Gaga is also blonde and thin and white, so her "subversion" comes from an easier place, maybe?
Laina Dawes: Gaga is sexual but not sexually intimidating. Does that make sense?
Ann Powers: On one level yes, Amanda, but she really turns her whole thing grotesque,
Lara Pellegrinelli: Parton always seems like she's having a good chuckle over the people who think they are laughing at her.
'Everyone's A Paparazzo'
Frannie (NPR Music): A lot of women who filled out our questionnaire said they were just sick of dealing with their sexuality and appearance all the time. They say, "Dudes just get to practice; I have to think about all this stuff all the time."
Cortney Harding: I think dudes still have to project an image, but they have more freedom to pick the image.
Cortney Harding: Like the dude in Les Savy Fav is a big, old bearded guy, but he still has to cultivate that look.
Amanda Petrusich: And what a look it is!
Maura Johnston: I agree, Cortney. But I think that's in part because this is a culture where everyone's a paparazzo... the visual has overtaken so much else (look at the frequent disconnect between "popular" female musicians in the gossip press and on the radio).
Tricia Rose: Well that Q has a long answer, Frannie. :-) But basically, sexuality has been the primary means by which women are most effectively dominated and defined. So it has thus also become the frame where what some would call female power is allowed.
Ann Powers: Dudes can also choose to NOT project sexuality. Tricia is right — women=sexuality in many people's minds...
Ann Powers: Chris Daughtry for example is a very ordinary-looking guy who writes songs almost exclusively about being in a long-term monogamous relationship, yet he is a HUGE star.
Laina Dawes: I really have an issue with how some metal / hardcore guys can essentially get away with being unwashed slobs in a photo but knowing that the most talented woman musician would never be able to get away with that. Never.
Ann Powers: Carrie Underwood, on the other hand, had to put on the hot pants at a certain point. Or felt she had to.
Amanda Petrusich: Exactly, Ann. It seems like there are very few roads around that for women artists.
Frannie (NPR Music): Does your appearance affect your work at all? Do you ever dress a certain way to get a certain result?
Maureen Mahon: Women always have to think about their sexuality and the image they project on stage. Even if the choice is to downplay it, they have to spend time considering it. And women in music and everywhere else are judged a lot on looks.
Ann Powers: Years ago, the first time I saw Sonic Youth, I was astounded at how dirty Kim Gordon looked. I mean, like she hadn't washed her hair in weeks. It was extremely liberating. Yet, she too glammed up.
Tricia Rose: This is not to say that women who rely on sexuality to remain viable are bad or are not smart and amazing — they are both. I love Dolly — and many others, I am just describing this as a limit and a point of containment, because it is. Many people use the tools that have been designed to contain them to find pockets of freedom. And, the promotion of self via a highly public sexuality should be a choice — not a requirement.
Ann Powers: Tricia, yes very true. In jazz, for example, a player like Esperanza Spalding may be a virtuoso, but she's getting attention at least in part because she is a fox. That's unfair to her.
Laina Dawes: I have witnessed a handful of women metal journalists who are really playing the "groupie" role to gain access. This really upset me, but I am about 15 years older than these women and I am hoping that they will grow out of it.
Amanda Petrusich: There's a really weird sense of betrayal when women artists suddenly "glam up."
Lara Pellegrinelli: And there are still many writers in the jazz community who are dismissive of Esperanza. There are writers who have intimated that she has too much self-confidence and hasn't paid her dues. Which may be a reaction to all the mainstream attention.
Amanda Petrusich: I'm thinking of Joanna Newsom.
Ann Powers: Oh, Joanna......sigh.
Ann Powers: I couldn't believe when she was criticizing Gaga for being too much about surfaces, and just the week before I'd seen her perform in a gown with huge cutouts showing off her gorgeous skin and curves.
Ann Powers: Lara — "too much confidence" — so similar to the flak Gaga gets.
Lara Pellegrinelli: Yes, actually.
Tricia Rose: Right — but without the fox factor, we'd not likely know about her. That's the rub (no pun!).
Maureen Mahon: Sometimes it feels like whatever a woman does, she's wrong: too glam, not glam enough, overly sexy, too plain. Whatever. This is one of the burdens of being a woman in a public space trying to create.
Maureen Mahon: Tricia's right about Esperanza. "She looks great, let's cover her." I also think there's some fascination with her biracial background that attracts attention to her. Like there's more story there or something. Like her ability to play isn't enough.
Frannie (NPR Music): Is there a feeling that women writers have to pay their dues, too?
Laina Dawes: Frannie, YES.
Laina Dawes: It never seems to be enough, sometimes.
Ann Powers: Women writers often fly under the radar for years. There are great veteran writers out there, like Edna Gunderson, who are just not taken as seriously as the males of their generation. And it's not right.
Laina Dawes: There are male colleagues who have been around for a year, and they always trump you in terms of legitimacy.
Ann Powers: Also — women writers have often worked in derided formats: the teen mag, the women's mag. Not the "serious" music mags.
Maura Johnston: Not to argue your point, Ann, but I wonder if Edna's status is also because people don't take USA Today as seriously as other outlets? Which speaks to your point about derided formats.
Ann Powers: Yes, Maura. Both.
Frannie (NPR Music): Do you all have a community that people need to break in to? And do you have advice for anyone starting out? Or in the middle? Is there still less credibility in writing for a blog? Or online anywhere?
Ann Powers: Advice: Get a mentor. Connect with a community. There's a yahoo group called girlgroup you can join for women writers. Though it's become less active now that Facebook is ruling all of our lives. Or Twitter.
Laina Dawes: In the metal scene, there is definitely a community. Jeanne Fury could probably tell you more about that!
Cortney Harding: Find a good mentor.
Laura Leebove: Yeah, girlgroup is great! And definitely get mentors.
Tricia Rose: Yes, being in touch with people who get you and support you matters so much. Like this convo — it counts toward this. We should do this again!
Laina Dawes: You need to find a community who will let you be you and that wants to focus on the task at hand. Not necessarily about you.
Laura Leebove: And as far as writing for the web, I don't think there's less credibility at all. One writer actually told me he'll write for the web for less money than he will for print, because not as many people would see it in print.
Ann Powers: Also, advice: Develop your voice and be fearless. Two young writers I like a lot, Nikki Darling and Alie Ward, first caught my eye because they had very strong voices.
Ann Powers: More advice: Read a lot. Read outside your area of interest.
Cortney Harding: Learn about the music biz.
Ann Powers: Read books by the likes of Tricia Rose and Maureen Mahon! Hee hee.
Cortney Harding: Know how publishing deals work and stuff, it's actually really cool and gives your more angles to work with.
Laina Dawes: Learn about the technical aspects — amps, petals, what people use and write about how they use them.
Lara Pellegrinelli: It would have been great to have had more female mentors in the writing field, but you might find them elsewhere in the music biz: at labels, programming concerts, radio, among musicians. I think it's good to network across the field. And it's been gratifying for me just in the last year to see some women my age finally in leadership positions.
Tricia Rose: All of the above, and pay attention to how power works, but don't let it deflate you. It's a fact of life that all kinda folks grapple with and create joyful noise out of it.
Maureen Mahon: Ha! Thanks, Ann. This forum has been great, Frannie. Thanks for putting it together. Laina's got a great book coming out soon, too, on black women in the metal scene.
Ann Powers: Also, don't get discouraged by haters. I still get tons of reader comments to the effect that I am a stupid girl who just wants to sleep with rock stars.
Maureen Mahon: I'd echo Ann's comment about developing your voice and also say it's important to remember that if you're interested in the topic, there's someone else out there who's interested in it, too. Even if some of the gatekeepers don't get it.
Ann Powers: I think it's interesting in the age of the Internet how much more contact writers and artists have. Direct contact. How do you all deal with becoming "friends" with artists?
Amanda Petrusich: I always think of Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer. Don't trust me! We're not pals!
Cortney Harding: I'm not friends with artists, really. I keep my social life very separate.
Laina Dawes: Ann, I find FB really good for that, but you have to know your limits when friending musicians. They are not your "friends" per se, but it is good to keep up with what they are doing professionally.
Frannie (NPR Music): Right, Ann, how do you deal with commenters that go after you (because you are a woman) online?
Ann Powers: I am always very polite. "Thanks for writing." Never respond in anger.
Ann Powers: Honestly, it's not just in reader comment boards, I've been attacked plenty by bloggers and "industry insider" types. It's partly because of my writing style. "Too academic," some say.
Frannie (NPR Music): This has been really amazing. I know you're all really busy so we should probably call it for today. Let's definitely do this again.