Singing for Themselves : Essays on Women in Popular Music
Edited by Patricia Spence Rudden
Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007
280 pages. ISBN: 1-84718-345-X. ISBN 13: 9781847183453
Reviewed by Claude Chastagner
Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3
This is not the first collection of essays on women in popular music. Among its more famous forerunners, one could quote Sarah Cooper’s Girls, Essays on Women & Music, Andrea Juno’s Angry Women in Rock, or Amy Raphael’s Grrrls: Women Rewrite Rock. All published around the mid-nineties, as if the untimely demise of the Riot Grrrls movement was a propitious period for an assessment of the role and power of women, they shared another common characteristic, particularly Juno’s and Raphael’s, in that they equated the presence of women in popular music with a refusal of the status quo, both within and outside the industry, with a capacity for anger, and with a keen sense of rebellion. This is also the subtext of Gillian Gaar’s survey of women’s role in rock music, She's a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock'n'Roll. It is also the conviction of Neil Nehring, who devotes a whole part of his excellent and stimulating Popular Music, Gender and Postmodernism: Anger is Energy to the political potency of Riot Grrrls artists, and to their capacity to empower both male and female fans, and prompt them to organize and fight against the various forms of oppression exerted by the various forms of power.
Singing for Themselves is thus not a newcomer on the scene. Where does its specificity lie, then? To start with, it is one of the most multifaceted books published on the subject. The agenda, for once, is not specifically political, nor feminist, nor militant. The angles are extremely varied, from aesthetical readings to more radical works on pleasure. The authors are perhaps the most unusual, refreshing feature of the book. Some of them are associate professors or professors, a sizeable percentage, PhD candidates, and if all have been writing extensively on the subject, sometimes in well-established publications, they do not belong to the classic, sometimes monotonous, group of scholars writing on women musicians. They have in common to be all American [with two male authors against eleven women] and to have given papers, between 2002 and 2006, at the Women’s Caucus for the Midwest Modern Language Association, of which most of these essays are substantively expanded and augmented versions. The musicians under scrutiny also constitute an eclectic range of individuals, both in terms of time, space, and genre, from Etta James, Laura Nyro and Patti Smith, to the Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, Björk, Joan Jett, Le Tigre, Destiny’s Child or the Dixie Chicks. And there is nothing on Madonna.
In her introduction, Patricia Spence Rudden considers the dominated, subaltern position of women in popular music, who for long were merely considered as “the objects of desire, the false sirens, the temptress in the garden, the ones to blame when everything went wrong” [vii]. Her central thesis is that “the ways women make their music are shaped by their resistance to the barriers they face in the culture from which the music springs” [viii]. If the theme, as the titles of earlier books quoted noted above exemplify, is not new, it is also admittedly one difficult to avoid. The argument of most essays, is thus, unsurprisingly, that by making their own music, women can create a space where barriers can be broken, “fulfilling the rest of rock and roll’s freedom-ringing mandate” [viii], which implicitly suggests that they can do it better than men in rock have. Whether it be the Dixie Chicks, who have "redefined notions of female subjectivity within country music” and “created a free space in which female fans could imagine themselves , Destiny’s Child, whose “empowerment discourse endows their sexualized performance with postfeminist legitimacy” , or punk musicians who “demonstrate that women playing their own instruments are more than a novelty act-they are serious musicians with plenty to say, who are changing the soundscape of our lives” , women are posited as the ultimate rebels in popular music.
But has the mere fact that women have stepped on stage, sung their own words and music, plugged their guitars in amplifiers, really carried one step further the rebellion that so many have claimed is the essence of rock’n’roll? Does the fact of doing what you have been denied for so many years imply not only empowerment for those who do it, but also for those around them? In other words, do we (and this includes me) have benefited in terms of access to greater freedom, from the music, and the lyrics, and the performances of girls’ bands and women singing folk, blues, or rock music?
Most of the articles in this collection do not tackle frontally the issues raised by Patricia Rudden in her introduction, but they show us women going their own way and doing their own thing alongside in a quiet way, others taking more aggressive stances, and the collective picture which results constitutes a convincing demonstration of women’s potency against the hard-set archaisms of the music business. Among the most moving texts are those written from a sensual, fan’s perspective, David Jone’s on Etta James, Patricia Rudden on Laura Nyro, or Ellen Lansky on Melissa Etheridge for example. Without resorting to the usual and somewhat tiresome paraphernalia of cultural studies, and its heavy-handed use of (too often) French theory, these essays manage to give a subtle, intimate picture of these artists, yet inscribed within the larger social context. More than with militant words, they convey the joy and bitterness of artists fighting, more or less successfully, against the various humiliations imposed by the entertainment industry. They also managed to remain focused on the musical and human aspects of their lives, and do not systematically turn every performance into a sociological statement. For this at least, we should be thankful.
However, as the reader turns the pages, doubts crop up, a slight feeling of boredom, an impression of déjà vu. “What is the point?” is actually a fair question, despite the annoyance it causes a writer like Frank O’Connor, as Valerie Shaw insists. What is the point of such a collection of disjointed essays? Why don’t we feel in the essays on the Riot Grrrls, the energy, the passion, the commitment, yes, the anger, an author like Neil Nehring manages to infuse his prose with? Why should the reader experience a mounting feeling of frustration? Is it the strident emphasis on heteronormativity, in Kathleen Torrens’ essay on the Indigo Girls, or on the I Ching, in Susan Morris’ text on Ferron, which, however serious an issue, cannot be dealt with in such a solemn manner, utterly deprived of the humblest expression of critical distance, or sense of humor, without running the risk of losing the most sympathetic reader? I do not wish to scapegoat a most of the time really fine author, nor draw too much attention to my own limits, but wouldn’t my impatience be triggered by utterances such as “There is further implied a tolerance and acceptance of the use of the discursive spaces created in the performance for Habermasian dialectics, wherein the active, engaged cultural participant explores and expresses her identity and self”  or “reframing the female ass as a site of defiance” ? I have to admit I find difficult to adhere to the combination of commonplace theses with overblown jargon. Is my reluctance due the routine descriptiveness of Deborah Kennedy on Patti Smith or the presence one yet one more article on the deterritorializing process set in motion by “Grrrls with Gibsons” ? Or is it the lack of coherence, of a central thesis that despite the freedom it allows the different authors, turns this collection into a mere kaleidoscope, beautiful images, indeed, but lacking a clear, or at least a clearly stated, sense of purpose? Is it the sometimes irritatingly numerous typos, or the annoying choice by the publisher of a system of continuous numbering of notes in Roman figures, which ends up on the ludicrous “ccclxxxix”!
Let us be fair. The collection, despite its shortcomings, contains very convincing essays, such as Michael Dwyer’s ironic, fast-moving text on the limits of Grrrl-hood. Besides, it boasts a little gem, a precious and rare text: a 45-page long, extremely complete, annotated bibliography of books and articles written about women in popular music (yes, it does feature Georges-Claude Guilbert’s seminal book on Madonna), and this alone could justify the acquisition of the volume.
But allow me one last word, one last complaint, an ultimate expression of my dissatisfaction. After reading dozen of books by and on women in popular music, from the most committed, rebellious, learned, radical writers, how come some of the most extreme women making popular music are almost systematically ignored? Why are there so few scholars and journalists writing on Jarboe, Kathy Acker, Diamanda Galás, Lydia Lunch, or Irène Papas? Would they be too difficult to grasp, by any chance, too difficult to pigeonhole? Does their extreme individualism, the shocking singularity of their art deprive them of the reassuring comfort of a sociological perspective, of a fan’s reading? Let’s hope that one day the present reviewer will have the pleasure of praising works on such formidable women in popular music by a new generation of researchers like Valery Rauzier.
Cercles © 2010