Unravel On

‘This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music’ edited by’ Sinéad Gleeson and Kim Gordon


HACHETTE, MAY 2022, 272 PP.

Advice: if you ever talk to Kim Gordon, don’t ask her what it’s like to be a “girl in a band.” “The often-repeated question throughout my career as a musician made me feel disrupted, a freak or that we are all the same,” she notes on Instagram when announcing her new book, a coedited essay collection called This Woman’s Work. “Hopefully this book begins an unraveling of the myth that if you’re a female musician you are ready-made, easily digestible.”

The “girl in a band” reading of women’s musical worlds is clearly a rhetorical opening salvo, but one that Gordon reports (in her 2015 memoir Girl in a Band and elsewhere) was formative to her identity as a woman playing music, most famously in Sonic Youth. She felt objectified and that her complexity as a whole person was compromised, stashed under a reductive label of woman (i.e., the girlfriend, the eye candy). For any human being, stereotyping is terrifying and deeply horrible. But the girl-in-a-band myth has been unraveling—in both women’s production of music and women’s writing about music—for many decades.

To be fair, it often feels like we must rehash the women-and-music conversation each time the mainstream music press determines it “the Year of the Woman” in music (roughly, every third year). Such restarts make illegible the wholeness of women’s identities, creations, contradictions—the complexities. The redo makes it seem like we women who play music are still figuring out what it is like to be a girl in a band, stuck in the obvious rather than moving on to the details of this multifarious project.

One example among zillions: in 2010, the music website and magazine Pitchfork published a list of the “best” music books, sixty in total, with one woman represented as a sole author (the late great Ellen Willis’s posthumously published collection, Out of the Vinyl Deeps). Now, as then, I wish for books and writing and systems of all kinds that are populated (even dominated) by the presence of femmes of all varieties, including cis women, trans people, a heterogeneity of antipatriarchal voices. A “woman writing about music” is important in terms of representation but doesn’t automatically confer upon any project the kind of transformative politics I think are important. I am always skeptical about the woman-and-music project where “woman” is the only bone I am thrown. Skeptical and yet thankful.

When I discovered Gillian Gaar’s She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll (Seal Press, 1992), it became a book around which I built my classes about popular culture. I added Ann Powers and Evelyn McDonnell’s Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap (Delta, 1995), and Angela Y. Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (Vintage, 1999). The 1990s felt like a time when the secret, ignored, wonderful stories of women playing music were just coming to the surface—before you could Google “Aunt Molly Jackson,” for example, and find deep wells of archive, all right there. The presence and accessibility of these stories can have many outcomes, and a revolution against patriarchy isn’t one of them—at least, not yet.

Excerpt from 1962 issue of folk music magazine Broadside, published by Sis Cunningham.
Courtesy of Sing Out!

To recap: there are many books describing women’s relationships to music, and the world of popular music remains sexist (because that’s the way it was built). Thus, bringing out another book of “women writing about music” seemed a little “Year of the Woman” to me at first. What sets This Woman’s Work apart is the presence of many writers who are not, in fact, music writers. They are instead writers whose craft and acclaim stretch across the field of contemporary literature, such as Anne Enright, Ottessa Moshfegh, Fatima Bhutto, Maggie Nelson, Leslie Jamison, and Rachel Kushner. Their contributions in this volume range from personal, memoir-style reflection to more straightforward music history essays. Others, such as Yiyun Li, Simone White, Zakia Sewell, Jenn Pelly, and Liz Pelly, are better known for their critical work. In “What Is Going On in Rap Music, the Music Called ‘Trap’ and ‘Drill’?” for example, Simone White recognizes that “listening has changed me and makes demands,” and that:

Trap and drill . . . insist that we consider what the subject of freedom can do or say together with the one who will not pay the cost yet thrives in the unsettling light of what he owns and what he makes in some narrow strip in an apolitical outskirt that is on no map, defined only by First Class airfare between Chicago and Los Angeles. I wish to extend myself into the thought world of the person who issues a call to discuss this separation.

Some essays describe the strangeness of knowing or admiring another woman who is a musician, as with Maggie Nelson’s description of growing up with and losing her friend Lhasa de Sela, dead at thirty-seven from breast cancer, a brilliant and formative memory of someone who “levitate[d] above the gross vicissitudes of adolescence, their soul having already ascended to the next realm.” And some describe the lives and careers of (women) musical artists whose contribution to the culture was unique—for example, Liz Pelly on Broadsheet founder Sis Cunningham, who “came from a musical tradition in which songs functioned like musical newspaper articles, documenting and reflecting the current struggles and stories,” or Sinéad Gleeson on Moog virtuoso Wendy Carlos: “If you are a pioneer and outlier, there is no one to compare yourself to, and no one to compete with . . . . A practitioner who has preceded a movement can find it difficult to either assimilate, or remain outside of it.” These writers set the context for listening into a variety of women’s lives—their own and others’, connecting the listening to sex, decolonization, parenting, queerness, and coming of age.

I am always skeptical about the woman-and-music project where “woman” is the only bone I am thrown.

This book is strongest where it uncovers and elucidates some complex and deep stories of women musicians. (The standouts here are Margo Jefferson on Ella Fitzgerald, Jenn Pelly on Lucinda Williams, and Rachel Kushner on rockabilly renegade Wanda Jackson.) Many of the essays describe and discuss the ineffability of musical “power,” the force and merging that sound and language holds for practitioners and listeners alike, and the limits of language in this process. Anne Enright describes how an otherwise articulate person can get jumbled when trying to speak as a fan; Yoshimi Yokota (member of Japanese noise experimenters Boredoms and collaborator with Gordon in the band Free Kitten) describes her experiences playing music with people whose language she barely understood.

As a whole, the collection has a bumpy feel. Brilliant, funny, formally innovative essays hobnob with feminism 101 pieces. Sub-Pop CEO Megan Jasper offers the milquetoast “. . . it hasn’t always been easy being a woman in the industry,” in her otherwise entertaining stories about her career in the midst of the life and afterlife of grunge. But then Juliana Huxtable’s “praise poem” for jazz singer and genre pioneer Linda Sharrock hits the reader with her stylish lyrical analysis and a densely layered philosophical tract. Drawing on Fanon, Fusco, and Glissant, Huxtable’s conceptual frame squarely addresses the eminence and circumstance of an experimental Black woman jazz singer in 1975 and lends language to a much nuanced picture of the “girl” and the “band”:

At work in what I’m proposing here is a communicative noise, a noise that emanates from encounters in which speech is both foreign (unintelligible) and sovereign . . . where noise, which frames the outbursts that reconcile or recompense audibility for the multiple denials that frame the strictured life of the dispossessed.

Connecting the female body with the voice of the musician is central to writer Liz Pelly’s contribution to the volume, “Broadside Ballads,” an artistic biography of the activist and musician Agnes “Sis” Cunningham. Pelly’s portrait of the blacklisted Almanac Singer and publisher of the folk music magazine Broadside conveys that Sis Cunningham was the connective tissue between civil rights struggles across the long midtwentieth century, but the piece strips back the problems of power and access in the music industry until we can make out Sis in her kitchen, with her kids and her mimeograph machine, sneaking zines out in a baby buggy.

“Can feelings, induced by mind-numbing and brainwashing propaganda, be called genuine?” Yiyun Li wonders as she describes hearing “Auld Lang Syne” and reckoning with the shame and pang of nostalgia from her childhood in China. We all have songs, or even whole albums, that conjure moments of coercion into and rebellion out of the clutches of what bell hooks called the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”—and, as Li wisely notes, “Arts are only placeholders for life. Some are masterful placeholders, some, less so; but all the same it is the life held by those holders that has to be lived through. One does not wrestle with life’s placeholders, but with life itself.”

I think of this when I sift through the boxes of mixed tapes from 1985 and 1993 and 1999 that I can’t throw away, or look at the song lists handwritten by friends and lovers, given on the occasion of my first tour across the US, or the Australian tour, or the Japan tour, when I was a touring musician, when the boredom and loneliness of the long rides was lessened by the cassette player and rereading the message written on the J-card. Coming as I was at the end of, and on the edge of, the flourishing of queer women musicians in the late-1990s Pacific Northwest, I always found the “girl in a band” question to signal that the unreconstructed person asking was someone I could easily disregard. My political and social orientation—arrogant, perhaps, though it was—suggested they didn’t get it, so why should I waste my time? This Woman’s Work reminds this reader to keep searching for the complexities of—and to keep rejecting the purported novelty of—the “girl in a band.” It’s useful to remember Sis Cunningham’s suggestion in issue 138 of Broadside (1978), that “. . . this country’s musical world, as well as the rest of its media, is controlled by stupid and illiterate capitalist pigs.” The girl is always and already in a band. If anything, this volume uncovers the ways in which we all need to keep working at the discovery and description of women’s lives in and with music.

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