Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers, eds.
Rock She Wrote: Women Write
About Rock, Pop, and Rap
Among my high school circle of friends, collecting rock & roll records was a compulsive habit. I remember extended afternoons after school, combing through the used bins at the stores in Harvard Square. These were places where we--boys, mainly, but a few equally fanatic girls as well--could hide away, zones of safety in a world of complex social pressures. They were also halls of study: In those bins you could chart the rise and fall of fortune and the perseverance of talent, and cop some tips about how to be sexy in public--not to mention lust after a sex object, whom you could then take home and start a conversation with on your turntable.
Now, at last, someone has successfully captured in print the obscure yet significant world of the used record store. I've never read any piece of writing that so well captures that particularly claustrophobic, eroticized culture as High Fidelity -- a first novel by Nick Hornby, whose previous book about British football, Fever Pitch, was a bestseller in England. High Fidelity is narrated by Rob Fleming, a witty malcontent who dropped out of college following a bad breakup, got a job at a record store, and eventually opened one of his own.
Fleming's tiny Championship Vinyl is less a commercial establishment than a refuge from women and careers, a place to accumulate information and bring order to the universe through that last, best refuge of the obsessive, lists: top 10 records, top five first songs on first sides of albums, etc. The novel begins with Rob enumerating his "desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order" (from Alison Ashworth, his girlfriend at age 12, to the epochal Sarah Kendrew). The lists which fill the rest of the novel provide the only way Rob and his two employees, Dick and Barry, know of giving shape to their unmotivated lives. Reflecting on a horrible party at the apartment of an ex-girlfriend, Rob reflects:
The difference between these people and me is that they finished college and I didn't... as a consequence, they have smart jobs and I have a scruffy job, they are rich and I am poor, they are self-confident and I am incontinent, they do not smoke and I do, they have opinions and I have lists.
High Fidelity is also filled with perfectly tuned observations about pop culture and those hapless souls who try to find love through it -- everyday people who can't talk about romantic pain without quoting Al Green or the Shangri-Las. Hornby depicts Rob and Dick and Barry's insular zone of pop references as more than a bit pathetic. But he's also sympathetic to these characters' chosen means of hiding out from a world unkind to those without ambition and good social skills: their private rock & roll haven contains beauty and enlightenment as well as defensive snobbishness. As Rob eloquently says in defense of his obsession, "it's not like collecting records is like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There's a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colorful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the one I live in."
By the end of the novel, Rob is trying to enter a world beyond his record store, and even to make peace with people with bad taste in music. High Fidelity is perfunctory in its development; its few events, revolving around Rob's brief affair with an American country music singer, serve primarily as excuses for his freewheeling observations about love, life, and records. But as a reflection on the pathologies and pleasures of a life hopelessly entangled in pop music, High Fidelity is first rate.
A new anthology, Rock She Wrote, which gathers writing by women about pop music from the past couple decades, proves that for every Rob Fleming there's been a Roberta--though she was perhaps more likely to have been turning up the radio at home than sorting through old LPs in the back of a store. Among other things, editors Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers (current music editor of the Village Voice) have provided a rock-crit version of the feminist inquiry into the possibility of Shakespeare's sister--the elusive silenced or marginalized woman's voice in a male-dominated system.
Pondering the large number of '70s female pop critics who moved on to other things in the '80s, McDonnell wonders if "maybe the field and the music became more conservative together, and women were sent a subtle message to get back into the kitchen." Along with reprinting work that did see the light of day, Rock She Wrote also attempts to reveal some of the conditions of production that may have discouraged other such work from ever getting written.
Part of the explanation, I think, lies as much in the dominant paradigm of the field as in simple sexism. Since the profession was more or less invented by writers like Richard Goldstein and Robert Christgau in the 1960s, the Rock Critic has tended to embody a machismo of epistemological mastery and control probably carried over from baseball-card collecting days; they're experts who flaunt exact and detailed knowledge of a canon as the required foundation for any discussion of rock & roll. Christgau's two volumes of graded albums, where an A or A-minus means you have to know what it is and why it's important, defines this mode of criticism, in which the bottom line is aesthetic merit, defined objectively in reference to the history of the genre.
A female rock critic pal insisted that whatever I write, I must not say that "girls don't make lists"--they do, of course. But most of the book's writings seem motivated out of a very different impulse than canon-building. If the Christgau-vian critic soberly assesses an album's merits and tells you if it makes the cut or not, many of the critics in this volume take pop music as an opportunity to theorize on the complicated pleasures and problems of pop fandom. Aesthetic merit isn't irrelevant to the issues raised by fandom, but it's not always the trump card, either. That's why Rock She Wrote is important for reasons other than gender; it offers a much more flexible model of pop culture writing, one based more in ideas about desire and pleasure than the criteria of aesthetic judgment of traditional models of criticism.
Some of the book's best pieces are analyses of the culture of rock & roll, and psycho-social investigations into the conflicted experience of being a fan of what is often politically retrograde music. Powers and McDonnell have emphasized writing that either celebrates strong, form-challenging music--by women or men--or that investigates troubling and fascinating contradictions in female listening pleasure. Why is novelist Mary Gaitskill turned on by Axl Rose, the racist, sexist singer for Guns N' Roses? Why does critic Joan Morgan ultimately give in (to a point) to the formal skill behind Ice Cube's misogynistic lyrics? Why does onetime Sassy writer Christina Kelly hate going backstage? What is Creem reporter Jaan Uhelszki doing getting lessons on make-up from Kiss's Gene Simmons?
Rock She Wrote offers dozens of witty, probing and exuberant engagements with every aspect of pop music and the pop industry, raising many new questions about gender and rock & roll for each one it answers. It's a great read, and a valuable rethinking of the position of pop music in our lives, suggesting that our most inexplicable or embarrassing flashes of desire--directed at or filtered through a pop song-- deserve to be embraced as part of critical practice, rather than banished from it. CP