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On women writing about music

As a woman who has written about pop music since the days when people who wrote about pop music were called “rock critics,” let me add my two cents to the discussion that began with Sarah O’Holla’s adorkable blog, “My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection.”

In case you’re smart enough to enforce Internet downtime in your life and have no idea what I’m talking about, O’Holla, who works as a librarian and is not a professional music critic, is reviewing all 1500 albums in her husband’s record collection, in alphabetical order. (Her husband, Alex Goldman, is a producer for NPR and a major music geek.)  The blog blew up this week across the Internet and while a lot of people like it, some women music writers have lamented that the premise of the blog is inherently sexist, in that it reinforces gender stereotypes about music geekdom being the domain of men, and that the acclaim for O’Holla, who is a self-proclaimed know-nothing when it comes to deep knowledge of music, is a form of gender bias in itself. Meaning, male music geeks would happily read the musings of a non-threatening novice who knows less than them, whereas women who write about music professionally are perceived as a threat to their manhood that must be crushed.

As the original debate was cooling, Jezebel posted a piece called “Oh, the Unbelievable Shit You Get Writing About Music as a Woman,” in which music writer Tracy Moore approaches the O’Holla blog uproar as a jumping off point to detail the creepy and deeply sexist comments, behavior and threats she has been subjected to in her career. There is currently a robust sub-discussion online stemming from that piece, in which women music writers have been sharing their own similar stories of sexism and gender bias.

I’ve got my own battle scars from my career as a music and TV critic. Before I air them, here’s the thing, though:  I don’t think that the existence of “My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection” devalues women who write about music professionally. It’s one blog from the viewpoint of one woman and maybe it got some attention for the wrong reasons, but it is not going to negate every serious piece of music writing ever written by women. We need to stop the self-victimization and stop looking for gender bias in this blog. It’s simply not there. Look, some — definitely not all — male music writers and fans are going to try to mansplain to us. It’s what they do. It doesn’t invalidate our opinions as women music writers. It just means that they’re jerks. Ignore them and keep at it. Writing well is the best revenge.

Allow me to set a spell in my rocking chair and reminisce about the days when I was coming up in the music writing world. This was the late 1970s, early 1980s. At the time, music writing was truly a boys’ club, with few women I could look to as rock critic role models. Ellen Willis, Ariel Swartley, Janet Maslin. Lisa Robinson and Sylvie Simmons. That’s about it. My mentors and editors in the music writing field were all male. And somehow, even in those prehistoric days, I was never made to feel lesser, stupid, objectified or that my opinions were undervalued. If it were not for Kit Rachlis, Milo Miles, Dave Marsh and Mark Moses, I would not have had a career. They were my champions and they treated me as an equal. Was I just extraordinarily lucky?  Maybe so. It’s depressing that some young women writing about music today feel so unwelcome in the job and the scene that they love, are subjected to more open sexism and flat-out workplace harassment now than I was then. We’ve gone backwards and I don’t know the answer to this problem, except to keep fighting for equality.

Look, I encountered my share of asshole guys in the music writing community. But I contented myself with the knowledge that I could write circles around them with one hand tied behind my back. And while I interviewed a lot of male artists, I can only think of one who directed a sexist remark at me.  The readers, on the other hand, were another story. The majority of the letters I received were from from male readers, and they were sexist, gross and hurtful. Oddly enough, I was never called a whore or a groupie, but “dried up feminist bitch” used to come up a lot. (The fact that I was married seemed to piss readers off too; what that has to do with credibility as a music writer, I don’t know.) I was not well liked, let’s put it that way. Maybe I was ridiculously naive, but I looked around at my male colleagues who were also getting hate mail, and I just figured, “Eh, it comes with the territory.” In most cases, it was clear that the vitriol I received from fans and bands always stemmed from and was, at bottom, directed at the “harshness” of a review, not simply at me for being a girl. And, it needs to be said that not all of my hate mail came from men. Some of the loudest complainers were women that I had written unfavorable reviews about. Fun fact:  The performer who got me dropped from the roster of freelancers at Rolling Stone was not a guy,  it was a right-on, sisters are doing it for themselves woman. Imagine that.

Here’s the other thing:  Women writing music criticism today need to know that piggy comments from male readers are not reserved solely for women music critics. When I was a TV critic, I was subjected to comments that were a million times more explicitly sexual, sexist, gross and hurtful than any that I received as a music writer. ( I even got a death threat once as a TV critic — a TV critic! — that was serious enough to be turned over to the FBI.)  The Internet was, in this respect, the worst thing that ever happened to critics of any field and gender, music, film, TV, male, female, LGBQT, whatever. Commenting, and trolling, is oh so easy now. Which is why you should NEVER READ THE COMMENTS.

I’ve had a lot of awful shit thrown at me by readers in my career as a critic, but, at the same time, I know male critics who have been torn apart by readers in similarly non-productive and hurtful ways. So this is the lesson I’ve taken away from all of this:  It’s not that I’m a woman, it’s that I’m a critic. Nobody loves critics. If you expect blanket approbation of your critical writing, you are in the wrong field. Certain people are so insecure that they are threatened by strong opinions that differ from their own, whether they are expressed by female or male writers. But you must remember that the stronger, more confidently your opinions are expressed, the bigger a target you will be. Wear that target proudly.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

About Joyce Millman

I've been a professional journalist for, let's just say, a long time. I started my career in the early '80s as a pop music and TV critic for the Boston Phoenix, relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area in '87, and never left. I was the TV critic for the San Francisco Examiner, then a founding staffer of Salon.com and its first TV columnist. My freelance TV reviews and pop cultural criticism have been published in the New York Times, among other places. Check my website and my blog The Mix Tape for more. I like hockey. I'm a terrible guitar player. But enough about me...

2 responses

  1. All I asked was that writers think like devils and write like angels.

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