Friday, March 21, 2014

A Girl Who Writes About Music

First - to anyone who actually remembers me as Stereogirl over at diaryland - hello!  My first internet posts were there, before I was agincourtgirl over at livejournal (and then twitter) and before Carrot Rope.

Stereogirl was a place I could write about anything and everything - music, tv, culture, my health, my friends, etc.  When I wrote it I was (as I hope I always am) direct and personal.  Amiable, even.  When I write my main hope/aim is to make sense to myself first, and thus if I do make sense I may well be able to connect others to what I am thinking and feeling.  It is as simple as that; it is as if I am speaking instead of writing (hence my love of dashes & semi-colons, as I think I speak with them too).

One thing that I tend not to think about that much is my being a female.  This is likely due to the fact that I am a female no matter what I do, whether that is shopping, cooking, reading, listening to music, and so on.  In writing I am of course representing myself and that includes being a female; and being a female and listening to music (which includes not just sounds but images) is getting some attention lately, mainly because for some odd reason the idea of women writing about music makes others a little nervous.

Paying a great deal of attention to music - listening, reading others' takes on it (from the past & present), educating yourself on musical history/trivia, paying attention whenever you can as to how music does in the charts vs. how music is remembered in culture and memory - all this takes an awful lot of time, and the more music you want to comprehend, the more time you need.

Women, in general, are expected and even encouraged to have a different relationship to music than men, and this starts quite early.  Boys, generally speaking, are supposed to be more serious, getting over their musical puppy loves early, to be sophisticated and snobby loudmouth teenagers who are die hard fans of this band/artist or the other, and who are openly dismissive of women - either as musicians or as fans.

This was my experience in 1981; it may well still be the case.  As a girl I was supposed to have had one pin-up idol after another since 1977 or so, just at the time when I was getting to think of boys as something besides potential friends.  But it didn't work out that way; Tiger Beat gave me no one to truly worship or admire, no cute boys to crush on even.  It was a whistling void of Leif Garrett, Shaun Cassidy and others I couldn't take seriously.  And there wasn't anyone in 1981 either; I had yet to really hear New Pop or see anybody's videos.  (I didn't grow up in a home with MTV; eventually I did get to see some on the CBC's Video Hits, but it wasn't the same, really - nevertheless I got home after school as soon as I could to see whatever was on.)  Gradually I found some guys I could at least have minor crushes on, but by that time I was aware that there was something else that was even more important to me than that - the music itself.  The musicians I knew I would never encounter, living as I did in a place where nothing happened.  But the music was right there on the radio, on cassettes and records, there at the school dances.  I grew up in a household where art was held in high regard, music too, but idolatry of any kind was discouraged.  (My father would've teased me about any musician he caught me crushing on, because if I was supposed to be crushing on anyone, it should be an actual guy I knew at school - this didn't, sadly, pan out either.)  But I put up the various pictures of musicians on my closet's sliding doors anyway, male and female, but mostly male.  They weren't cute young fops but types like Tom Waits and Ian McCulloch, guys who had an attitude and some mystery.  (I must admit this all looks as if I was a terrible snob even crushwise, I mean if I was more typical I would've been a Durannie or a Bryan Adams fan, but I cannot fake being interested in anything.  I think I put up an ad for David Sylvian's Brilliant Trees in my locker, just as other girls had Springsteen.)

Now, I happen to write for two music blogs - my own Music Sounds Better With Two (currently coming out of winter hibernation) and Then Play Long, a blog that I share with my husband, Marcello Carlin.  It didn't start that way - he wrote about the #1 UK albums of the 50s, 60s & 70s himself, though intrepid readers may have noted that I am quoted now and again, commenting on this song or that, as part of the blog.  As the 80s dawned I started to write posts myself, and these are done on an equal footing to Marcello's, though in a markedly different style, but still with a unified voice.  I don't know of any other blog about music that is shared in this way by a husband and wife - My Husband's Stupid Record Collection notwithstanding (and I will get back to it in a moment).  I am not sure why this is, save for the fact that women seem to be perfectly content to buy, browse, listen and experience music without having to sit at a keyboard at any time and  how get down in writing how this music makes them feel.  Objectively, that is just fine; music in & of itself is more than enough, sometimes too much to translate to clumsy and limited language.

It is a challenge to get down in words what is by definition ineffable; if you think in a binary way, like it/hate it, and avoid metaphors, then you are somehow (to my mind) not immersing yourself enough in music...but then for some music is just this nice stuff to have on in the background as far more important things get done, and it doesn't need to be life-changing/hip/cool/avant-garde/jaw-droppingly amazing, man.  If you are a woman who is doing housework/looking after kids/out on an errand, your relationship to music is bound to be quite different to someone who is doing absolutely nothing but listening to music.  (And I sometimes wonder if the distracted listener is hearing things that the super-attentive one isn't - a forest for the trees situation.)  And guess what?  It's still largely the women who are stretched for energy and focus in listening to music and keeping up, because (and any househusbands out there will attest to this) a woman's work is never really truly done.  (Dare I say that if she's really busy she won't have any time to listen to music?)  How many women have heard a DJ say "You NEED this in your life" apropos a new song or album and thought, "Oh, yeah, um, I like that but your NEEDS are not my NEEDS, pal."  Thus the noticeable gender gap in music shops, thus the girlfriends sitting on the couch in Phonica (or any other independent music shop of your choice) waiting for their boyfriends to find what they were looking for/chat with other guys/listen to records, thus the lamentable phenomenon of compilation after compilation of songs that are supposed to chill you out, relax you, make you happy, help you get the dishes done faster, all put together for women, women who do not have the time/energy/money to buy lots of albums but damn well know what songs they like...and do not want to hear anything much new, because new means effort and music should be effortless....   

And if your idea of music is that it should be there, for you, on tap like water, effortless, then that doesn't necessarily mean you as being some lazy unimaginative tadpole with no feeling for music, or for musicians.  Perhaps that DJ would do better than REQUIRE the listener to do something and talk more about how the musician(s) feel, the emotions involved with the song, the profound experiences (birth, marriage, death) that inform the music.  Of course this is just one kind of female listener I am talking about; those girlfriends in Phonica and elsewhere probably have their own favorite albums/artists; but essentially there is still a gender gap in how music is made, who buys it, who it is marketed to, who is supposed to like it, who decides it is important and worthy of writing about/awarding, and so on.  Though women are part of some of these decisions (and indeed make some as well), it is still a male-dominated experience on just about every level, including the humble art of writing about it.   

Which is what book-oriented Sarah O'Holla is doing.  She is going systematically (she is a librarian) through her husband's many, many albums and giving each one her best shot.  There are 15 boxes of the things to get through, and whether she will make it through them (as Julie Powell made it through Mastering The Art Of French Cooking) without becoming...tired or bored will be interesting to see.  But I doubt it.  Here she is on the blog itself:

After I had the idea for the blog, I almost didn’t do it because I thought, “but I don’t know how to write about music.” But then I decided to put a record on and write stream of consciousness reviews. I decided to be courageous enough to talk about something as a layman, to focus on emotions and the way the music was making me feel, and certain memories or stories it would conjure up rather than the fact that I don’t know how to write about music. These thoughts are me. These are my opinions formed from my experiences. And yes, I happen to be a woman writing about her experiences and having an opinion. I guess that’s still controversial these days.

Would it be controversial if she was writing about food, books, sewing, childcare, clothing, perfume?  No.  Music though?  Aren' to do all that music writing thing? Notice how she just literally puts the record on and listens and writes.  That's courageous, to just flat out write with no props, just some help from the internet (and, I suppose, her husband).  No received bullshit opinions from authors who are dead or may as well be (deep breath here....Lester Bangs isn't always right), no record store clerk giving you the hairy eyeball because you're not buying what he thinks you should be buying.  Just a record, perhaps something nice to drink, and one person's eagerness to hear and learn and express herself.  She likes to listen to music that is new to her - in some cases, very new - and then to write about it.  Does she give a crap about being a woman doing this?  She's barely able to stop noting that this is all people seem to care about:

A lot of the criticism of this blog is that it plays up this idea that women’s voices are marginal or less important, but for all that has been written, no one has made any effort to reach out to me for comment, or even to ask me a question. One article got my name wrong throughout. It’s clear that critics are more interested in making me a symbol of some harmful stereotype than understanding what this is, or who I am. Talking to me might make that difficult. It might humanize me.

And that, in writing, is the bottom line.  Everyone hears music differently and needs different things from it.  Oh look, some say, a woman is getting attention for her writing because she isn't a music nerd but is an explorer, a person who has probably been lugging these boxes around for some time and thinks she ought to know more about them.  She is, quite literally, appreciating (or at least listening to) what she has and is getting to know her husband again through these records; is having that most intimate of audio experiences, finding out music that they like together.  And she is just one woman doing this; other women have their own collections, their own systems, their own habits which may or may not end up in writing.  Though he doesn't really need to write on the blog, her husband does anyway, worrying about whether O'Holla would like this or that record (and, inevitably, doing some "mansplaining" - but not so much that it detracts from the blog).  The fact that O'Holla is not a professional writing about something she has taken a great deal of time, energy and money to master but an amateur who simply wants to listen & write is worth pointing out if only to note that there aren't nearly enough women writing about popular music/culture, period.

Is it really true, I think to myself, that the last time a woman was trusted to write regularly in The New Yorker about music it was...Elizabeth Wurtzel? (I'm sure other women have been pop music critics for them since then...I hope so, anyway.)  Is it really true that Rolling Stone published a Women In Rock book in 1997 and have not bothered to update it since?  I know it is true - since Maura Johnston said so recently - that the only woman in the US who writes full-time professionally about popular music is Ann Powers.  How can this be?  (Yes, I know the answer is "not enough money to publish writers.*")  But that cannot be the only answer.  It's also the case there aren't many women because women aren't really welcome, still; based on this account, you can understand how women might well turn against the music establishment altogether...or become even more determined to get known, respected and yes published.  (Flashback to 1988 when an English radio journalist - not a DJ, but more a broadcaster - discouraged me from writing about music at all, let alone attempting to get anywhere in the UK music media, which was [compared to now] a thriving beast.  He meant well, but it was crushing nevertheless, and I will talk about this when the time comes on TPL.)

And so O'Holla has her music education to pursue, as do I; in writing at TPL I am learning a great deal and am now able to reflect the differences I have in being a female listener in being a female writer.  So far I think I am doing quite well, but I must also say I am lucky to have such a good and loyal readership who enjoy what I write and are willing to hear me out, even if they disagree with me.  I am particularly happy to know that so many of my readers are also writers and music fans & lovers who are interested in what I have to say, even if (I know!) I sometimes is just this discursiveness that women, I feel, can bring to writing, that can smash up so many of the boring received wisdoms.  The girlfriends on the couch and the woman in the supermarket buying that compilation and O'Holla and me and Sally O'Rourke and Ann Powers and Lisa Jones and so many others all have our different takes on music; one way or another we have been or are being read, and the more voices and takes on what it means to be female and listen to & respond to music there are, the better.

But how awful it is to have so many women's voices not there, or if they are there, presumed to be wrong or inappropriate or too girly...and yet those responses are what the music industry banks on, decade after decade.  And that is perhaps the most glaring gap of all - how women are expected and demanded to respond, but not in writing....not really, truly all the way expressing themselves.  This has to change, and perhaps this is happening; just in writing this I hope to give a big virtual hug to ALL women who write about music, online and in print, and also to all the men who have encouraged them, mentored them, published them and been loyal friends and fellow writers.  We are all in this, as the man said, together... 

* This lack of money in publishing hits all writers, male and female, alas.