Women in Rock (Criticism)

Rock criticism has long been kind to a certain species of (male) character: wannabe experts who are prone to ranting and/or raving and proudly displaying their knowledge of niche subjects. It’s hard to think of an analogous stereotype for women critics, a fact that points to the historical lack of opportunity for women in this area as well as the diversity of hard-to-pin-down work that standout writers like Ellen Willis, Ann Powers, Daphne Brooks, and Jessica Hopper have produced.

When Willis was the New Yorker’s pop-music critic, from 1968 to 1975, it was unusual for a woman to have such a prominent cultural perch. She used her position to raise questions about gender and politics in rock, always conveying the power of the music and articulating why it mattered that women were being left out of the conversation. As she wrote in a piece titled “Women’s Music” in 1974: “Rock is, among other things, a potent means of expressing the active emotions—anger, aggression, lust, the joy of physical exertion—that feed all freedom movements, and it is no accident that women musicians have been denied access to this powerful musical language.”

In recent years, the tide has started to turn, with music publications striving to diversify their mastheads. There hasn’t been nearly enough progress since Willis wrote the above words. Still, to read features like NPR’s guide “Turning the Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women” is heartening—not just because women have been put at the center of the history, but also because roughly fifty female-identifying critics from a wide range of ages, professions, and tastes have contributed. Many of the writers are in conversation with one another and with the critics listed below—a legacy of cross-pollination and influence that uncovers a whole secret history of music writing. What follows is a small sampling, and while writing this list, I kept coming across more and more books that I wanted to include: Tricia Rose’s Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Anna Beer’s Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us. Surprisingly—and thrillingly—the list goes on.

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

Riot Grrrl “existed first and foremost as an incantation, an idea,” and it’s challenging to pin down the feminist punk rebellion for that reason. But Girls to the Front manages to weave a narrative out of the songs, zines, secret meetings, debates, and acts of resistance that fueled the scene. Marcus talks to seemingly every player in the movement, from the members of trailblazing bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy, to their fans, who internalized every lyric. Marcus shows why these groups mattered and how their music pushed for social and political change, but doesn’t gloss over Riot Grrl’s shortcomings—particularly around issues of race. Girls to the Front proves that Bikini Kill’s rallying cry “REVOLUTION GIRL STYLE NOW!” is an eternal one.

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music By Ellen Willis

Ask your average music fan to name a rock critic. If their first response is Ellen Willis, buy that individual a drink immediately. In 1968, twenty-six-year-old Ellen Willis became the New Yorker’s first pop-music critic, and though she would largely leave music criticism behind after departing the publication seven years later, the mark she left on the canon is indelible. 2011’s Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music is the place to go for those in search of an intimate history lesson and a pop-culture master class. This deceptively slim book contains a majority of Willis’s New Yorker Rock, Etc. columns, alongside essays about Bob Dylan’s shape shifting, Elvis’s Vegas residency, and Janis Joplin’s feminism. As Willis’s daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, writes in her introduction, Out of the Vinyl Deeps “could single-handedly prove just how effective a mass medium like rock and roll is for revealing human desires and both a national and countercultural identity.”

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

Unlike the other books on this list, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is not about a genre or a particular band. Though of course Brownstein’s band Sleater-Kinney features largely in her story, Hunger is more about the life-altering power of music in general. “My story starts with me as a fan,” Brownstein writes in the book’s opening lines. “And to be a fan is to know that loving trumps being beloved.” From her first concert (Madonna) to the final Sleater-Kinney show before an extended hiatus, Brownstein digs into that sublime moment when the music starts and reality fades away. “My favorite kind of musical experience is to feel afterward that your heart is filled up and transformed, like it is pumping a whole new kind of blood into your veins. This is what it is to be a fan: curious, open, desiring for connection, to feel like art has chosen you, claimed you as its witness.”

Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap Edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers

This anthology was born from a simple desire: to break “into the canon and restor[e] the women who belong there to their rightful place.” Weary of male-dominated music criticism, Powers (author of the new book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music) and McDonnell searched high and low in books, magazines, archives, and zines for writing by women who shared a similar political, personal, or cultural experience. Featuring a vast array of authors such as Cherie Currie, Kim Gordon, Lisa Robinson, Vivien Goldman, Patti Smith, Mary Gaitskill, Tricia Rose, bell hooks, Dream Hampton, and Susan Shapiro, Rock She Wrote is just screaming to be underlined, photocopied, memorized, and shared. Absorb the names you don’t recognize and seek them out; they speak the truth. Sadly, Rock She Wrote has been out of print for years. If you manage to find a copy, cherish it forever.

Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound by Tara Rodgers

After noticing “a curious lack of representation that profoundly underestimates the presence and diversity of expressions by women working with sound as a creative medium over the last century,” Rodgers started in 2000. The website aimed to highlight female electronic musicians as well as provide accessible information about production techniques and studio setup. Rodger’s book expands on the website’s material with twenty-four interviews from a wide assortment of DJs, electronic musicians, and sound artists. Each woman offers productively different insights on representation, reception, discovery, formal training, and access to technology, tools, and opportunities. Pink Noises encourages women to continue challenging and questioning gender norms while exploring what sound, time, space, and voice mean to them.

Quinn Moreland is a writer in New York and an assistant editor of Pitchfork.