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A New Canon: In Pop Music, Women Belong At The Center Of The Story : NPR

A New Canon: In Pop Music, Women Belong At The Center Of The Story : NPR

A New Canon: In Pop Music, Women Belong At The Center Of The Story : NPR
July 24
10:41 2017

A few years ago, my friend Jill Sternheimer and I started a conversation one night while driving around the streets of New Orleans. Both of us are music nerds, and we regularly attend the kinds of musical retrospectives that have become common in this age of historical exploration via tribute shows and historical playlists. Jill, in fact, often organizes such shows at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, where she is the director of public programs. I sometimes write about them, and often ponder how music history’s being recorded and revised in the digital age. Why, we wondered, was the importance of women so often recognized as a trend instead of a source of lasting impact? We came to a conclusion that, in 2017, will likely strike no one as a surprise: that the general history of popular music is told through the great works of men, and that without a serious revision of the canon, women will always remain on the margins.The 150 Greatest Albums Made By WomenTurning The Tables. This is a truth reinforced in many different ways: by the shelves weighed down with books about Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, while only one or two about Aretha Franklin or Patti Smith sit nearby; by the radio playlists that still only feature women once or twice every hour; even by the “classic rock” T-shirts on sale at big box stores, inscribed with the Rolling Stones tongue and Led Zeppelin’s blimp but not Heart’s swirly pink ticker. Since I became a music critic in the 1980s — my first big pieces for my local music rag were about the Go-Go’s and Joan Jett — I’ve often written about women in music as a category as well as individually; often in these assignments, I’ve been asked to consider women’s music-making as a trend, as something unusual rather than central. My intrepid peers who’ve authored histories or edited anthologies on the subject (most of them women, though some are men) have sought to correct the assumption that rock, soul and hip-hop’s most worthwhile stories, images and sounds are generated by men. Back in the 1980s, in my college women studies classes, I was taught to be suspicious of the pervasiveness of the “pseudo-generic man” — the assumption that a male perspective can stand for all perspectives. Today, myriad identities across the gender spectrum flourish within our shared social media spaces and the conversations generated there. Yet in popular culture, and especially in music, the pseudo-generic man still rules. Writing about gender still feels necessary to me even as our definitions shift. I’m officially tired, however, of writing about music that recognizes women when gender is the topic, but when music itself is the topic, almost always returns its focus to men. Talking about this problem with Jill and then with several of my colleagues at NPR, I began to wonder if focusing on what women have done in music, instead of constantly remarking that wow, they exist, might be a way to begin correcting this pattern.What you see before you is a list that I hope will be read as an intervention. Nearly 50 women who play a role in NPR compiled and voted on this list. It features albums by artists who identify as female — including some by mixed-gender bands, like Fleetwood Mac and X, that, in our view, relied on women’s creativity for their spark. These albums were released between 1964, the year The Beatles invaded America and set in motion what can be called the “classic album era,” and 2016, when Beyoncé arguably ushered in a new period with her “visual album” Lemonade. The point is to offer a view of popular music history with women’s work at the center. The list does not represent an “alternate history.” It stands for music history, touching upon every significant trend, social issue, set of sonic innovations, and new avenue for self-expression that popular music has intersected in the past fifty years.Lists have their limitations. It’s arguable, in fact, that beyond getting the groceries, lists are fundamentally lies. They reflect unconscious biases and whispered compromises; they solidify beliefs that may seem relevant in the moment, but become incomprehensible to the next generation. They are also arguably anti-feminist. As Robin Morgan wrote in the anthology that helped define feminism’s Second Wave, 1970’s Sisterhood is Powerful, “The women’s movement is a non-hierarchical one. It does things collectively and experimentally.” In music, lists are what comes after an experiment — the experiment of listening itself, alone and then together, of sharing music and arguing about it and realizing how an artists’ personal expression might be a listener’s personal (and political) one too. A list says no to the possibility that any other list on the same subject might be valid. It forces authority.Or does it? Another way to look at a list is as the beginning of new conversation.

Source: A New Canon: In Pop Music, Women Belong At The Center Of The Story : NPR

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Martin Nethercutt

Martin Nethercutt

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