WHERE THE GIRLS ARE
Why the Wrong Women Always Make the Year-End "Best Of" Lists
Even though men and women are now (finally) equally represented on the music charts, most "best of" lists are compiled by publications staffed mostly by men. (If you go by the masthead, there are twice as many men as women on the staff of Rolling Stone, and only one female among 28 contributing editors; Spin also claims a staff that's two-thirds men, with only two women among 13 contributing editors.) Given that, it's not surprising that almost all the "best of" lists -- from Spin's "Top 90 Albums of the '90s" list to dumbass boyfriend glossy Gear's "100 Best Albums Ever Made: The Poll of the Century" -- are so shameful in the ways they include and exclude women. It would be laughable if it weren't so detrimental to perceptions about rock music. Essentially, these lists not only steer the music-buying public toward specific artists, they also tell aspiring musicians who they should be influenced by. Trust me when I say the world doesn't need another Liz Phair or more Jewels.
This being the last year of the last decade of the last century of the millennium, I anticipated with bemused weariness the onslaught of everybody and their brother's "best of the century" list-o-rama. Because this year's timeline was so broad, I expected there would be as much to laugh at as there was to be learned. Most of the lists would be written by critics born no earlier than 1970, I imagined, which promised a shitload of notable yet cliched nominations, simply because most critics don't bother to educate themselves about music made before they were born.
I've been writing about music for nearly a decade, so I know as well as anyone how tough it is to be a woman in any part of the music industry. However, thanks to these testosterone-flooded publications and their stupid lists, the way the world views women's contributions to music has been distorted. Some who've made very important contributions are being ignored altogether or placed very low on the lists. Rebecca Gates, lead singer of Spinanes, the first successful two-person band of the '90s, comes to mind, as does Helen Reddy, who in the bra-burnin' '70s sang one of the most memorable feminist power songs of all time. And let's not forget Mamie Smith, who waxed the first blues disc in 1920, and Loretta Lynn, who shook up the country music world with her 1974 song about the Pill.
Conversely, some female musicians have been included for reasons that have little to do with their talent. When Spin ran their '90s picks list a few months back, they set the precedent by featuring Nirvana's Nevermind in the top spot. While that was perfectly acceptable, the sixth-place ranking of Hole's Live Through This was not. Live Through This is a fine album, even if it did take several months and the radio saturation of "Violet" for me to appreciate it. That said, had Courtney Love not been married to Kurt Cobain, it's doubtful Live Through This would have placed so highly on Spin's list (even if former editor and close-friend-of-Courtney Craig Marks was still second in command). That's sixth in an entire decade of releases. Remember, my criticism is not that Live Through This isn't a good, important album. What bothers me is its ranking by association, which should leave a bad taste in every woman's mouth.
Though the bulk of the end-of-century lists have yet to be published, a more realistic portrayal of women's contributions to music can be found in the five CDs and generous liner notes of Rhino Records' recent box set R-E-S-P-E-C-T: A Century of Women in Music. Each decade is represented by long-forgotten artists that are a joy and privilege to rediscover: Bessie Smith, the Go-Gos, Rose Maddox, Lena Horne, Nina Simone, the Runaways, and k.d. lang. Unfortunately, when Rhino gets around to the '90s, the historian label and its distinguished panel of collaborators used Spin's "Top 90 Albums" as a blueprint.
Perhaps because of the proliferation of music journalists in the '90s -- where there used to be a handful of major authorities there are now hundreds, and that's not including the frenzied discussions taking place on the Internet -- no man or woman, critic or musician, seems able to see our decade clearly. In Spin and just about every other mainstream music publication, we find goddamn Liz Phair, Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, and Paula Cole sucking up all the recognition. Arguably, each of these women is important, though their contributions vary in importance: Cole is the weakest benefactor, DiFranco the most deceptively uncommitted.
But Liz Phair and no Alanis Morissette? Both say the same thing within the same genre, only in different languages (with Morissette employing some sort of sign language, even). But Phair gets included because she has more indie cred than Alanis -- who, it must be pointed out, has achieved greater fame with her louder, more abrasive voice -- and Phair is more appealing to men. In contrast to Alanis' earth-mother persona, Phair's knack for sexually enticing hot talk garners her a devoted -- albeit panting -- male audience.
The showboating and sex-obsessed Tori Amos' artistic embrace of her own rape was chilling at first, but it's become an insincere show-ender that always feels tacked on. Amos' Siamese-in-heat performance style and loopy between-song references to being drunk negate her supposed statements of strength -- if the audience is intelligent enough to look past these manipulative, desperate affectations. (Apparently they aren't, because they eat it up every time.)
Paula Cole? Come on. Fuck those seven Grammy nominations. R-E-S-P-E-C-T's liner notes rightly point out that Cole's 1996 album, This Fire, showed an impressive versatility (though a strong argument could be made that such genre-hopping ultimately reveals itself to be nothing more than shallowness). But who, outside of women without the wherewithal to stand up for themselves in the first place, remembers anything more about Cole than the refrain from This Fire's chart-topping single, "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone"?
Of course, some of the lists do include female musicians who came out swinging but lost it early on. They're touted as "gate openers," but no one stops to consider how quickly the gate slammed shut. The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock heralds Ani DiFranco as "a woman who's really doing something for the revolution" (that revolution ostensibly being the one centered around DIY ethos and empowerment without heading into "precious" territory). But DiFranco, like Phair, is the YM magazine equivalent of structure-building personal awareness. And like the 20-year-old girls who trade YM for Cosmo, DiFranco's fans outgrow her as quickly as DiFranco outgrew her own convictions. Ani DiFranco, the lesbian's saint, recently married her male bandmate. Polly Jean Harvey made a hell-to-highwater jump from Dry -- a caustic, scorching look at what it means to be female -- to the male-friendly To Bring You My Love; Phair leapt from the intelligent man's wank album Exile in Guyville into the resale-bin-bulging Whitechocolatespaceegg. DiFranco joined in the party, all but abandoning the danger of her convictions for a safe, slick lyrical style that blows her earlier ethos right out of the water. Of course, the lists still trumpet her as a revolutionary because of something she did for a year or two back when she was a lesbian.
Given all that, I have to wonder whether it would be any better if women were more involved in making the end-of-the-year/decade/century picks. Certain types of women are getting all the recognition from other women right now, and it's the ones who are safe, the ones who wouldn't steal our boyfriends for fear of hurting a sister. Thanks a lot, Lilith Fair.
Part of this stems from an audience that needs someone else's support to find a purpose in life. This is the same audience that shouts out, "We love you Tori/PJ/Sarah!" during live shows, as if their icon of strength needs to be coddled lest she gather up her shaky convictions and flee the stage. I once saw someone try this at a Mazzy Star concert to ill effect. Just as the icy Hope Sandoval -- a woman who has instilled great fear in not a few journalists -- was about to sing the first note of Among My Swan's "Rhymes of an Hour," a woman in the audience yelled out, "We love you, Hope!" Sandoval, in perhaps her only documented public display of emotion ever, shouted back, "Shut the fuck up!" I'd like to see an audience member at a Pretenders concert shout out this kind of "support" to Chrissie Hynde without suffering a verbal black eye. These women quite obviously need no such reinforcement.
Once music was about listening to someone else sing about their pathetic life instead of complaining about your own. In the '90s, has it become about living vicariously through women who we think need our moral support? The answer to that question is YES, and we can all blame that on Lilith Fair. Sarah McLachlan created an arena for female musicians who can't hack it in the man's world. That might have seemed like a noble goal, but it only served to separate the sexes and segregate "women's music." It was all about "support" and reassurance and validation -- by providing these warm squishies, Lilith Fair set women's hard-earned advances in music back about 20 years.
While a small group of female fans thrived on Lilith Fair, an enormous contingent despised it (including artists who organizers were salivating to sign up, like Debbie Harry and most men thought it was ridiculous. It will be remembered as a bunch of fragile-seeming women playing to women who were more fragile still.
Besides, if women were truly so supportive of each other, there'd be more girl-group bands like the Go-Gos and Sleater-Kinney, and even L7. Instead we see women climbing over each other for the spotlight. It seems that there was a more real "community" 20 years ago, when women -- and musicians in general -- knew what it meant to be in a band. Look at Heart, or even Fleetwood Mac, which boasted two female singers as well as Lindsey Buckingham. Actually, if you look at the past 10 years with any objectivity, the '90s have been one of the least supportive decades ever for women musicians.
The lack of attention to former Pixie Kim Deal's post-breakup projects shows that it was really Black Francis who the fans held to be the core of the band, despite adamant proclamations to the contrary. And before you drag out the Breeders as an argument, ask yourself where that band is these days. Infighting was so prevalent among female band members that co-frontwoman Tanya Donnelly left when she wasn't getting equal face time, and went on to create Belly, a band in which she was the indisputable focal point.
At first, Gear magazine's "Poll of the Century" issue seemed encouraging. While Gear is a cheap rip-off of Maxim, aimed at an even more crotch-oriented demographic, the panel included people like Lou Reed, Tricky, Sebadoh, Sean O'Hagen, the Wedding Present, Kurt Bloch, Run-DMC, Arto Lindsey, Juno, and Sandra Bernhard. The list also included Kevin Martin from Candlebox, Steve Perry from Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Britney Spears, and Fabio -- but the good, vested artists still seemed to outnumber the dunderheads. Even so, of the 100 Best Albums, the first female-made record to appear (if you don't count Fleetwood Mac's Rumours) is Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis at no. 29. Next comes Blondie's Parallel Lines at no. 40, followed by Joni Mitchell at number 59 with Court and Spark and 64 with Blue. Carole King showed at 71 with Tapestry , the Pretenders' self-titled debut hit at 72, and Lauryn Hill made number 88 with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The short parade of women finishes with Ella Fitzgerald's Porgy and Bess (with Louis Armstrong) at number 96.
Here's a panel that ignored Madonna, for crying out loud, shrugged at Hole and Patti Smith, and didn't even mention TLC -- who should be a shoo-in on a list even as ridiculously ill-conceived as this. The Police's Synchronicity (a blatantly male choice for inclusion if there ever was one) is on their list, for God's sake, right ABOVE Iggy Pop's Raw Power.
Which illustrates once and for all why these lists are so detrimental. First and foremost, they think for you, and no one should be allowed to do that. By excluding and mislabeling women, they create a culture where women feel like they need encouragement and validation in order to stand proud. They carelessly shine a spotlight on a handful of female artists who, from that moment on, represent us all, sending out the message that women are either whiny and wimpy or corrosive and out of control. Finally, the cliched offerings of magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone create a backlash that influences lists like the one in Gear, where women don't really figure at all.