- 07 Apr 22
Hymns To Hers
It’s a ridiculous enquiry but Kim Gordon has been asked – more than once - “What’s it like to be a girl in a band?” It’s not known if any of the interviewers ended up leaving through the window but Gordon reckons the question is something akin to her asking a boyfriend, “What’s it like to have a penis?” Ever since it became a business in the first place, music has, for the most part, been a male-dominated affair, and the same goes for that odd sub-species who write about it. I hope, although I’m willing to be corrected, that this has at least begun to change. Certainly in this country there are strong female critical voices like Zara Hedderman, Lucy O’Toole, Andrea Cleary, and many more. “What’s it like to be a girl writing about bands?” I might ask them if I fancied a drink poured over my head, or a well-deserved kick in the arse.
In a perfect world then, it wouldn’t be a selling point, but it is. This Woman’s Work: Essays On Music is an anthology of essays about women in music by women. The website of the book’s publisher, White Rabbit, has this to say; “Published to challenge the historic narrative of music and music writing written by men, for men, This Woman’s Work seeks to confront the male dominance and sexism that have been hard-coded in the canons of music, literature, and film and has forced women to fight pigeon-holing or being side-lined by carving out their own space.” It’s a sad truth but it is a truth. Look who’s reviewing the book here for a start. In that perfect world I mentioned above, it would be enough to say that this is a really superb collection. Pity we don’t live there. Yet.
Rather than go through each essay, which I'd be happy to do because they are uniformly excellent, let me pick a few favourite bits that might encourage you to put your money down, a move I assure you that you will not regret. Anne Enright’s 'Fan Girl' made me laugh out loud because we’ve all been there. It is, and I have some small experience in this regard, hard to know how to act around the famous. Bob Dylan summed it up perfectly in ‘Idiot Wind’, “People see me all the time, and they just can’t remember how to act.” Your mind is filled with “distorted facts” and it’s reassuring to read that Enright is just as capable of tripping over her own tongue as the rest of us. Laurie Anderson's work means the world to her, from her self-playing violin, which Anderson displayed on street corners while wearing skates encased in a block of ice, to her account of Lou Reed’s passing which brought Enright to tears. Does she manage to express these feelings to Anderson when she meets her at the Irish Arts Centre in New York? Let me answer that by telling you this. I met Mick Jagger once. I had a life time of things I wanted to say to him. I didn’t say any of them.
Both Fatima Bhutto (‘Songs Of Exile’) and Zakia Sewell (‘Hearing Voices’) explore the power of music, albeit in different ways. In relating what Otis Redding’s ‘The Dock Of The Bay’ meant to her father as an exile far from home, Bhutto is able to refute Bob Marley’s assertion that when music hits you, you feel no pain, because sometimes you most assuredly do. She also seeks to explain why dictators are so afraid of the likes of Vitor Jara and Fela Kuti. Sewell’s moving essay keeps it personal. Her mother and father were part of a band called Fat Casper, before Mum was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, when her daughter was only six years old. Sewell listens to her mother singing on a recently discovered tape to “hear the voice of somebody I lost a very long time ago.” She is also able to reach back to her grandparents, through recordings made by Alan Lomax in their native Carriacou, an island just north of Grenada. “I will never know that version of my mum,” she writes. “Nor will I ever know my distant ancestors, whose rhythms were immortalised in Lomax’s crackly recordings. But I can commune with her, and with them, through the music they left behind.”
I was familiar with the Lucinda Williams that Jenn Pelly describes – and sure, doing the work you want to do doesn’t necessarily make you happy, but I think it helps - although I didn’t know she played in Flannery O’Connor’s yard as a child. I also knew some of Wanda Jackson’s story, including the bullshit she had to put up with from the Grand Old Opry. Jackson throwing her ponytail at Elvis, as Rachel Kushner hilariously describes it, is, however, a new one on me. Needless to say, Jackson wasn’t available for an interview. She was working. A person I didn’t know a lot about, apart from a vague awareness of her soundtrack work, was Wendy Carlos. Sinéad Gleeson steps out of the editor’s office to champion this electronic pioneer, a genius who was building her own hi-fis and computers when she was still a child.
Carlos, whose 1968 debut album, Switched-On Bach, was surprise million-seller, is perhaps best known for her work on Kubrick’s The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, and was a huge influence on Kraftwerk and Brian Eno but received nowhere near the acclaim. She has all but disappeared from the public’s consciousness, thanks to her decision, perhaps brought on by a Playboy interview that was more interested in the personal matter of her decision to live as a woman than her art, to make her work nearly impossible to get a hold of. During lockdown, Gleeson bid on a vinyl copy of that Shining soundtrack but, sensibly enough, opted out when the price rose past €300. She might regret this because once people read her essay, ‘Sonic Seasonings: The Genius Of Wendy Carlos’ where, and this is just one example of her insightfulness, she points to The Shining as a movie for our time because “fundamentally it concerns a family cut off from the world, and the terrifying impact of isolation on the psyche”, that record is probably going to cost a lot more.
The Kick Inside
Other opinions are available but I believe that the best kind of music journalism is as much about the person who’s writing it as it is about the subject. Think of it as something akin to the observer effect in physics; an observed system is altered by the very act of observation. An interview, if it’s a good one, is a conversation between two people, not just a series of questions. A review should be an experience related, not just a list. Leslie Jamison’s ‘Double-Digit Jukebox: An Essay In Eight Mixes’, which takes the gold in this collection despite some very stiff competition, is about mixes and music but it’s really about Jamison herself, and it’s all the better for it.
She likes the things her older brother likes because she likes him, she listens to some god-awful music as a teenager because of a boyfriend. When she makes it to her early twenties she starts to wonder if there are “other things besides men worth having strong feelings about.” Not that this stoped her turning the radio back to NPR from a top forty station before her partner got in the car so he would think she was listening. Like Anne Enright falling over herself, we’ve probably all done something similar.
Tom is a mortifying eejit with his rating system for their conversations and, looking back at the playlist she made for him, Jamison can see she was “trying to take all the parts of myself, my history, and make something good enough for him.” That’s an awful way to live, of course, but we’ve probably all done that too.
The pandemic brings her to her senses. She has come to understand her taste in music “as a landscape of pleasure not entirely shaped by men.” I might argue that you could substitute the word “others” for “men” here but that’s only because I’m trying to make it apply to my own experience. Jamison also understands her “emotional life as a force structured not only by romance – longing and heartbreak – but also by joy, sustenance, friendship, caregiving, and laughter.” For me – for you, for her, for us all – music is a huge part of the joy and laughter in this life. Sometimes Bob is right; when it hits you, you feel no pain.
What about the old “dancing about architecture” cliché? Jamison addresses that too. “Because I’m most at home in words," she says, "I often find myself invoking lyrics when I write about music. It’s a fumbling, stuttering way to get at what music made me feel, when of course I know the true pulse of music is the sound of it, the way it moves through your body.” Music is magic. You can try to explain it, write paragraphs about it like those you’ve just read, or put dots and squiggles on a stave, but conveying that mystery of the way it makes us feel is a tricky operation. This Woman's Work shows how it can and should be done.
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