Artists, writers and teachers share deeply personal stories about female musicians who changed their lives
By Bliss Bowen
Instead of honoring the canon of “women artists” pre-approved by the likes of Rolling Stone, why not revisit artists whose songs have lifted spirits and made quantifiable differences in people’s lives — regardless of whether they topped mainstream charts?
That was the questioning genesis of “Here She Comes Now: Women in Music Who Have Changed Our Lives,” a collection of essays examining the personal and cultural impact of Bjork, Mary J. Blige, Kim Gordon, Kathleen Hanna, PJ Harvey, Stevie Nicks, Sinead O’Connor, Dolly Parton, Nina Simone, Poly Styrene, Taylor Swift and Tina Turner, among others.
Published by Rare Bird Books, “Here She Comes Now” was conceived by The New York Times food writer Jeff Gordinier and co-edited with Marc Weingarten, a producer of reality TV (“The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette”) and music documentaries (“God Bless Ozzy Osbourne,” “The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir”).
Gordinier and Weingarten asked writers to bypass cool analysis and focus on artists “from a fan’s perspective.” Instead of musical journalists, they invited Kate Christensen, Elissa Schappell, Marisa Silver, Margaret Wappler and other award-winning essayists, food writers, magazine journalists, novelists, playwrights, poets, screenwriters, producers and teachers to contribute. That approach yielded more emotionally honest and revealing essays than what might have been produced by scribes more professionally invested in the industry.
“The process of discovery as an editor is really a lot of fun when you have writers of this caliber,” Weingarten observes. “I want to do more of these.”
He says they encouraged writers to “bring their own memories and their own sort of epiphanies into the pieces — you know, their experience as an adolescent turning on Kate Bush’s album for the first time. Virtually everybody who wrote for the book talked about how music is so important to forging one’s identity, especially when you’re younger. It’s amazing, the power of an artist to help you overcome something you want to conquer, or to look at your life in a different way.”
Welsh singer-songwriter Katell Keineg, Ada Limón and Alina Simone, a regular BBC contributor, take the perspective of singers. Limón’s piece travels from teenage years in Northern California listening raptly to “women of the words” like Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones and Billie Holiday to an underground karaoke club in Brooklyn, where the “angry twisted knot” in her poet’s chest loosens when she belts out anthems by Aretha Franklin and Loretta Lynn.
Bart Blasengame’s “Exile in Godville” explores how Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville” awakened him to the basics of sex ed as a horny teen in sexually repressed Arkansas, and taught him to “consider what the girl underneath me might want.”
“I find meaning, hope and spiritual communion in the voice of certain poets and songwriters, and in the pages of serious literature (other than monotheistic texts),” Jennifer Nix writes in a movingly detailed piece inspired by June Carter Cash. “But all these years later, I do channel a peculiar yen for devotional ritual whenever I hear June’s renditions of gospel folk songs like ‘Church in the Wildwood’ and ‘That Lonesome Valley.’ What I yearn for, however, is not the myth or rules surrounding any ancient prophet, but my father’s Panasonic on the dash, my mother’s pretty voice harmonizing with June’s, and the family closeness of our Turtle Top days.”
The most intellectually provocative essay is Dael Orlandersmith’s “Not a Rock N Roll Nigger,” which unsparingly depicts challenges she encountered growing up in Harlem and the Bronx in the 1960s as a black female who loves all kinds of music but is “specifically moved — defined — by rock and roll.” Initially galvanized by Patti Smith’s “Gloria,” she later confronts hard questions sparked by Smith’s “Rock N Roll Nigger.” It reads like an open-ended request for Smith to respond, but Weingarten says eliciting response from subjects was “not a priority.”
“I disagree with that piece, so I grappled with that piece,” he acknowledges. “I guess that’s what I want the reader to do too: Think about them, talk back to them in their own way.”
Working moms may laughingly identify with Phyllis Grant’s hormonal “Wreckage,” which details her youthful infatuation with Madonna and how she now views Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” video from a hallway desk where she can simultaneously eyeball her rambunctious toddler. She also makes an ironic confession for a writer: “I rarely listen to lyrics. In fact, most music misses my brain entirely.”
“It’s an honest statement,” Weingarten says. “It’s the way a lot of people listen to music.”
But that doesn’t mean that women’s voices aren’t honestly or adequately represented in pop culture, he insists. Look at Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.
“These women are very empowered, very in charge of their careers. Taylor Swift just stared down Apple Music, for God’s sake. She’s a badass. There’s no doubt that [women’s voices are] stronger than ever.”
Marc Weingarten moderates a panel discussion about “Here She Comes Now” with Ian Daly, Felicia Luna Lemus and Marisa Silver at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 16, at Diesel Bookstore (at Brentwood Country Mart), 225 26th St., Santa Monica. Free. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit rarebirdbooks.com.