Collection Celebrates Women Who Rock
Just over a year ago, NPR music critic Ann Powers introduced the Turning the Tables project by sharing a list of the 150 greatest albums made by women, from 1964 to the present (2017). As she pointed out in her powerful and eloquent introduction, she and the writers who compiled the list hoped to “stimulate discussions of women in music focused on what they make — recordings — instead of how they are perceived as being. The albums named here sparked historical trends, spearheaded sonic innovations, and shaped the lives of listeners and the works of artists who followed. The women who made them claimed authority as producers, bandleaders and songwriters. …These women need to be acknowledged for their vision, not just for their charisma — for the notes they hit and the melodies they charted and the beats they pioneered, for the stories they told and are still telling, every time we really listen to them.” The dynamic conversation that Powers and her many colleagues started last year continues to spark more discussions, and this year the dialogue moves forward with a list of the 200 greatest songs by 21st-century women.
Adding more voices to the swelling chorus now, music journalist Evelyn McDonnell, who with Powers edited the highly respected and acclaimed Rock She Wrote: Women Write about Rock, Pop, and Rap (Plexus), gathers profiles of over one hundred pioneering women artists, written by women writers, with illustrations by women in the stunning collection Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé, Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl (Black Dog & Leventhal). McDonnell arranges the profiles chronologically, dividing them descriptively into sections that illuminate the relationships between the musicians and their context, as well as among the artists and their music. Thus, the section titled “The Birth of Recording and Bessie Smith” ranges over profiles of Smith, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Mahalia Jackson to those of Carole King, Tina Turner, and Aretha Franklin. The section titled “Ladies of the Canyon” includes Joni Mitchell, of course, The GTOs, and Linda Ronstadt as well as Karen Carpenter, Emmylou Harris, and Stevie Nicks. An illustration by a woman artist accompanies each profile; Grace Slick provides a self-portrait to accompany Katherine Turman’s profile of the Jefferson Airplane vocalist.
McDonnell introduces the collection not only by discussing the selection process but also by singing brilliantly the power of women who rock: “All the people in this book are rhythm movers: the musicians, the writers, the illustrators. They have not merely tried to fit into the grooves of popular music … but have jumped the beat. They are musicians who inspire and compel us, the editors, writers, and illustrators of Women Who Rock. They also inspire other musicians — in fact, many of the contributors to these pages are musicians — by carving out sonic possibilities, by kicking down the doors through which their followers charge. They are pioneers more than settlers, explorers but not necessarily popularizers — mothers of invention. They are Sister Rosetta Tharpe, pulling the gospel out of a guitar. Selena, embodying the multiple cadences of border culture. Björk, dancing beside you in a virtual reality video then stepping inside you — or are you stepping inside her? Beyoncé, commanding, ‘World stop!’ in a video alongside her bestie Nicki Minaj … then chuckling, ‘Carry on.’ Women who bend, break, and create code tend to be dismissed as weirdos, freaks, divas, or bitches. This book honors them as heroes, leaders, geniuses, and in Miami rapper Trina’s phrase, da baddest bitches — as women who rock.”
Every one of the profiles in the collection contains little gems of wisdom about the artist profiled and often offers new insights into the artist’s writing process or music. As music critic Jewly Hight writes of The Dixie Chicks: “To them, it was daring fun to simultaneously acknowledge and kick against constricting codes of feminine, middle-class propriety. The Chicks didn’t view themselves as being seriously subversive so much as true to their impulses. Their down-home angle on audaciousness was an expression of personality that connected with country audiences — who needed to believe and identify with performers’ personas before buying into them — and young women who were used to pop stars’ demonstrations of empowerment and alt-rockers’ displays of autonomy.” Singer and songwriter Alice Bag delivers an eloquent profile of guitarist and co-founder of the rock band Fanny: “If you’re a queer woman of color, you can have talent, blaze a trail, work for decades at your craft, and still be largely ignored. Millington rocked just as hard as the boys, played better than most of the boys, and toured as relentlessly as the boys. [She was] ahead of the game.” Patti Smith, writes writer and musician Solvej Schou, has “continuously shown … a path to freedom through the ceiling crack of creativity.” Journalist Neesa Mumbi Moody reflects on the reasons for Beyoncé’s success: “Beyoncé Gisele Knowles has never been one to stay inside her lane; instead, she creates new highways to traverse … Beyoncé is more than a superstar, even more than a cultural phenomenon. She has become the voice of her generation.”
Each profile also features a 10-song playlist that provides a soundtrack so readers can listen to the range and depth of an artist’s music.
Women Who Rock deepens the conversation that Turning the Tables started, but it also joins a conversation that Bessie Smith, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ellen Willis, Georgia Christgau, Robin Green, and so many others started long ago. Women Who Rock is required reading for all of us, for it encourages us to look beyond our musical circles, to listen to those we have far too often placed at the margins of those circles, and to bring those we have marginalized into our circles, embracing them and empowering them as they have for so long empowered us.