Undersung Heroines: Women in Rock

The phrase “women in rock” evokes memories of magazine covers and Grammy ceremonies, suggesting momentary flashes of hype that bundle all female musicians into one faddish debutante package.

The stamp, a source of frustration to performers and fans alike, tends to dilute the diverse musical contributions that women have made.

With the release of Trouble Girls: the Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock , editor Barbara O’Dair confronts the tension that

exists between the tendency to pigeonhole female artists and the desire to cement their rightful place in history. The hefty paperback includes perceptions from more than 40 female writers and photographers of legendary artists, cultural icons (or iconoclasts), songwriters, producers, and pop divas.

Far from being simply a pep rally for women’s achievements, Trouble Girls examines its subjects with a critical eye, recognizing the differences between women who have made their mark on the business of music-making and those who have contributed to or left an artistic legacy.

“I didn’t want this book to be a puff job,” says O’Dair. “There are many fabulous women who have been overlooked one way or another, but I didn’t in any way want to suggest that just because these performers or creators were female, they were more deserving of attention or praise. I felt that taking that kind of reductive view would only hurt the subject matter. I wanted to be critical, and luckily the writers I went to are largely critical by nature.”

Their criticism sometimes concerns the performers themselves, and sometimes greater issues in the music industry or society. O’Dair’s journey toward getting Trouble Girls into print is reflection of some of the stories in the book; “A few publishers turned me down and said ‘We already have our woman’s book for this year,’ ” she says.

In her introduction, O’Dair asserts that she wanted “to compile a collection of essays about those who have lasted, those who otherwise may not, and those who should.” It explores the ways in which the musicians have been, as she terms it, “undersung,” and struggled with constant labeling. The stickiest label of the lot being “feminist,” since it is so often construed as “rebellious” and little is more entrenched in the lexicon of rebellion than rock ‘n’ roll.

“When the book was launched, ‘women in rock’ was once again a catch-phrase, and there were a lot of really good arguments against that categorization,” says O’Dair.

“I really sympathized with a lot of the young musicians coming up who didn’t necessarily have a feminist education. They might have been living it as a matter of inheritance, but they weren’t necessarily schooled in feminism, and bucked against that label as something that could keep them back.”

“I tried to address the fact that I understood the kind of queasiness that could come about as a result of that labeling… what I felt was both an understandably reticent take on that mantle, and sort of a knee-jerk conservatism.”

In spite of the long-term superstardom of Madonna and Whitney Houston, Rock ‘n’ Roll does still appear to be an industry with a glass ceiling. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s inductees are around 10 percent female.

Gillian Garr, a contributor to Trouble Girls , noted this early on in her book, She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock ‘n’ Roll .

“It reflects the perception that these people don’t see the contributions women have made as important,” says Garr, citing that influences like Big Mama Thornton haven’t made it into the Hall yet. “It seems that a lot of times with women, they tend to place more of a value on whether or not they were successful, got good chart placings, and so on. That isn’t as big of a consideration with others.”

But for now, the compilation of anthologies that showcase the complexity of women’s music history may be creating a to

ehold that can shake off the trendiness of “women in rock.”

“I think it is a constantly recycled trend, like what we just saw with Lilith Fair and people saying ‘female singer-songwriters are making a comeback,’ ” says Garr. “You do get the feeling ‘when are we going to get past this this?’ “I do think, though, that each time we go through one of these periods, more and more people on all sides – musicians, writers, record label folks – begin to say ‘this is kind of ridiculous. Women have been in rock for ages, have had hit records for ages… why is this new?'”


This story is © Tracy Zollinger Turner, it cannot be reprinted without her express, written permission.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Columbus Dispatch, 1997.

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