Women have in many ways dominated discussion and discourse about popular music for a while now– Taylor, Adele, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, etc. – but there had not been a book that fully explored the ways in which they were changing pop history, or that connected them with the figures who paved the way for their success. The Rolling Stone History of Women in Rock: Trouble Girls came close but that was published more than 20 years ago. Writer and editor Evelyn McDonnell recognized that it had been way too long, so she sought to create a new anthology documenting this important history. Women Who Rock — Bessie to Beyoncé, Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl was born.
The book’s model – all women writers writing about women artists – includes essays covering different musical acts from different eras, weaving thematic threads throughout each chapter and marking different eras and innovations via explanatory pages (in pink, just like the book’s cover) written by McDonnell. Illustrations commissioned for the book were all created by women as well. While pink is a “girlie” color, the collection as a whole is anything but demure or soft. It’s bold, unapologetic and celebrates femininity on its own terms, just like the music, subjects and writers themselves. Essayists include journalists Ann Powers, Katherine Turman, Solvej Schou, and Caryn Rose, and music artists include Theo Kogan, Alice Bag, Alison Wolfe, Lucretia Tye Jasmine, Adele Bertei, Peaches and many more.
“There is a continuing theme of struggle in these stories that is definitely gendered, whether it is being told girls don’t play guitars, or being forced to sexualize their presentation in a way that is demeaning, or being delegated to the sole female slot on the radio playlist, or being beaten repeatedly by their husband/collaborator,” McDonnell says of the various stories presented, some taking a personal angle and others a more sociological perspective. “The challenges these artists faced in their personal lives were also the challenges people like them — female, black, Latino, queer — were facing in culture at large. So these songs of self-expression inevitably become songs of social struggle, which is why they resonate so powerfully. I think the hardest struggle is to be heard as themselves, not as some man imagines them to be.”
What becomes clear while reading each piece is that for all that is different in terms of backgrounds, influences and genres, there is even more that women who create have in common. “Women can and have built upon the breakthroughs of women who came before them,” McDonnnell, a SoCal native who has written for L.A. Weekly in the past, explains. “That’s one of the goals of this book: to help younger and emergent musicians learn from figures who broke ground for them, so they don’t have to necessarily bang their heads against the same walls — and so they can be inspired by their brilliant music. I’m sure Beyoncé studied Tina Turner, and has a very different relationship with her marital and artistic partner. Pussy Riot clearly learned from Riot Grrrl.”
Indeed, Women Who Rock succeeds as a look back and a move forward, contrasting the limitations that women encountered making music decades ago with the freedoms and new ways to be heard today (though that doesn’t mean females enjoy the opportunities or treatment equal to men quite yet). “Artists today also have a variety of ways to make end runs around the record and radio rodeo, thanks to digital technology,” acknowledges McDonnell. “And they can build armies of fans through social media that give them incredible backup. Woe the records promo guy who touches Taylor Swift’s ass — she’ll sue his ass and her followers will make sure his name is mud. Whereas it used to be, having your ass touched was part of the job, sadly.”
McDonnell hopes the book will help build an awareness of the powerful musical legacy often ignored by “halls of fame, music magazines, streaming services, and apparel companies,” and she sees it as another step toward change. “Knowledge is power. And women need to come together to call out the vast inequities in radio airplay, artist contracts and female leadership,” she proclaims. “The music industry needs a revolution similar to the one shaking the screen industry. I think it is coming.”
Of course we agree! Read our cover story about women shaking things up in the L.A. music and nightlife industry here. Also, listen to our Luxuria Music podcast interview with McDonnell, Schou, Jasmine and Berei here. See them read from the book at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice; Thu., Dec. 6, 8 p.m. More info here.