‘Women Who Rock’ rewrites the history of pop music from a feminist perspective

By Christina Campodonico

Kate Bush is among 103 musical change-makers profiled in “Women Who Rock” (Illustration by Julie Winegard)

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — inevitably the phrase calls to mind longhaired white dudes trashing a hotel room and getting cozy with girlish groupies. But in the new book “Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé, Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl” women are anything but arm candy or footnotes to music history.

In the 405-page compendium edited by Loyola Marymount University professor Evelyn McDonnell, female artists spanning nearly a century of popular music take center stage to be honored from a feminist perspective. Among the trailblazers highlighted in the book (and given nods in its subtitle) are Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith, Beyoncé “Queen Bey” Knowles-Carter (dubbed “King Bey” in the book), Riot Grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna and groundbreaking girl group The Go-Gos. You’ll also find essays on rock icon Joan Jett, the leading lady of Laurel Canyon folk Joni Mitchell, and the late, great Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin.

“We use rock as a verb, not a noun,” McDonnell, a longtime music journalist and director of LMU’s journalism program, writes in her introduction. “We perceive it not as a static entity, defined by loud guitars and a 4/4 beat, but as an action that defies the containing force of a label — and that evokes a rich lineage of musical motions, from the lullaby swing of a cradle, to gospel’s transformation of the soul, to the sexual call-and-response of rock ‘n’ roll, full circle back to soul rocking your baby.”

An even more radical move of the book (although it shouldn’t really be that revolutionary these days) is that women author all of its profiles, accompanying playlists and illustrations — making the pussy hat hot pink tome not only a celebration of the female musical spirit, but also of female writers, scholars, artists and critics — among them NPR’s Ann Powers, Yale University’s Daphne A. Brooks and music icons like Alice Bag and electro-pop artist Peaches.

“This is all about women appreciating women,” McDonnell says. “It’s not the male gaze. It’s the female listen. … It’s all women listening to and looking at other women and sort of reinterpreting them.”

Next Thursday (Dec. 6), “Women Who Rock” contributors Solvej Schou, Adele Bertei and DJ Lynée Denise join McDonnell at Beyond Baroque for an evening of words and song celebrating the book and the women who’ve forged incredible paths through the tumultuous music industry.

Why was it important to create a book like this?

We needed to have these women, their role in history, affirmed and explained because they’re not always included in the history books, or the halls of fame, or the T-shirt selections. … They had not been gathered in a book like this for two decades. Not only were there a slew of new artists that had not been included in this kind of feminist history, but there’s also a slew of new writers and voices that I wanted to bring in.

We started working on it in October 2016, and at that time we thought that there was going to be the first female president, and of course that didn’t turn out. It was a huge change in context. And then two years later, the book came out during the Kavanaugh hearings. I felt like the book went from being really timely … to being necessary — that we needed to revalue women’s stories.

How did you whittle the book down to 103 profiles?

They’re people that didn’t just follow the beat, they moved the beat. They changed the beat. They shifted the discourse of popular music in some way, whether that was because of musical innovations, or because of commercial breakthroughs, or because of the message in their music. This isn’t a comprehensive list of every female artist who could be considered rhythm movers. … Lord knows the book is heavy enough as it is. We had to go for being really passionate about the artists included rather than trying to shove everybody in.

What are some of the book’s overarching themes?

There’s definitely this theme of a struggle and some of that is personal struggle against often a difficult upbringing, whether it’s coming out of poverty, or coming out of abusive families, or surviving assault, and then connecting that with larger struggles — the struggles of the women’s movement, the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. The personal is political.

There’s a tension in several essays between women being empowered and exploited by the music industry. Has it gotten better for women in the music industry over time?

This book shows that there’s a sad history of this, from Tina Turner to Ronnie Spector to Aaliyah, of women having the very men who are supposed to be supporting and nurturing them being the ones who are also assaulting and abusing them. Is it better now? The thing that’s better today is, well, we do have 100 years of feminist struggle to stand on the shoulders of, and you certainly see some of today’s artists being very aware of that and being proud of it. Then of course you have the internet providing an alternative around sleazy radio guys and record company people.

Has social media really made it easier for women artists to claim their power?

I think it allows artists to get their work out there in different ways. Also, it allows the fan base to connect with the artists and support their artists in ways that keep the industry in check. God forbid somebody tries to mess with Beyoncé or Taylor Swift. Their social media army is not going to just let that happen.

Do you think the way female artists have reclaimed their sexuality in the last five to 10 years has helped?

I think there’s certainly more awareness of being in control of your own image, and how you express your sexuality, and use your sexuality to help make you feel powerful. That said, the relentless focus on image in our selfie culture also puts a lot of pressure on women. I’ve had a lot of artists talk to me about this, that it’s very hard to stay in power in a photo shoot because the photographer is telling you to do this and telling you to do that.

I’m grateful for Beyoncé for doing a photo shoot with her makeup extremely downsized for a cover of a fashion magazine. … PJ Harvey, from the beginning of her career, worked with one photographer who was a friend of hers, who was a woman. It was someone who she trusted, and together, they very carefully crafted her visual image.

Definitely women are playing with fire and learning how to do that better, but it can be dangerous.

Has the #MeToo movement made it better for women in the music industry?

I think that there’s going to have to be more of a day of reckoning in the music industry. How institutionalized and structural the gender inequities are in the music industry has not been fully understood. And I think that day’s going to come. And I hope this book is part of it … because I think it shows how many powerful women artists there have been who’ve had
to keep pushing that rock up that hill.

The celebration of “Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé, Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl” starts at 8 p.m. Thursday (Dec. 6) at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. Tickets are $6 to $10 at beyondbaroque.org.