Evelyn McDonnell © Evelyn McDonnell

Pop Heroines – an anthology about female »rhythm movers«

This autumn, editor Evelyn McDonnell released »Women Who Rock« (Black Dog & Leventhal), an extensive collection of more than 100 essays and articles about female pop stars, written by female critics. Time for an online-interview.

Evelyn McDonnell, editor of »Rock She Wrote« (1995), in the mid-nineties also participated in the symposium »Majors versus Alternatives« (1996) in Vienna, which was curated by yours truly, skug author Walter Pontis. In the meantime, McDonnell has released five more books – most notably Army of She« (2001) on Björk, and »Queens of Noise« (2013) on The Runaways – and is an associate professor of journalism and new media at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. Her new book »Women Who Rock« came out this autumn, and we took the chance to reconnect for a brief online-interview.

skug: First, let us focus on your work as the editor of »Women Who Rock«. What is your definition of »rock«? And what is your understanding of »to rock«?
Evelyn McDonnell: We think of rock as a verb, not a genre. To rock means to set things in motion. We were looking for artists who were/are game changers – »rhythm movers«, as I say in the intro. And we were explicitly working against definitions of rock that make it the domain of white men. We wanted to reclaim the rock of ages of Sister Rosetta Tharpe etc.

When did the idea for this book come up? »Women Who Rock« is the most extensive collection showing the development of female musicians.
We started working on this book in October 2016. It’s hard to remember this now, but at that time, we thought we were embarking on a historic age for women, and we saw this book as part of that wave. Then the election happened, and the entire context changed. It went from being timely, to being necessary. »Women Who Rock« does follow in the footsteps of »Rock She Wrote« in many ways, but it is also an expansion of the concept, to be all about women musicians, with original essays, and original artwork by female-identifying illustrators.

How did you establish the concept for the book?
I worked closely with the editor at Black Dog & Leventhal, Becky Koh. My agent Sarah Lazin was also instrumental. We knew from the beginning that we wanted this to be of, for, and about women. »The Rolling Stone Illustrated Histories of Rock« were an influence, especially »Trouble Girls«. But that was 20 years old! So much had happened – so many great artists emerged – since then. We also decided we wanted to make each essay a portrait of a specific artist, rather than lumping artists together by style or era. And we wanted original art, not photos. I really wanted us to be broad in our definition of rock, to cover a century of recorded music and not be defined just by guitar bands.

How did you choose the artists?
I came up with an initial list of well over 100 possible subjects. Then I canvassed a group of writers to see if they would be interested in writing for the book, and if so, what ten artists would they pick to be included. I then added their lists to my list. Artists who got multiple votes mostly got in. But I also tried to make sure that we were not favoring any one era, or genre. Sometimes I had to choose an artist, or two, who represented a rich period in history, rather than every artist from that school.

How did you choose the writers?
Again, diversity was crucial. I wanted women who had expertise in a variety of genres and eras, and also had different backgrounds, and represented different age groups. So there are academics, journalists, musicians, poets, novelists, etc. Some of these were writers I had worked with or knew well. Some were writers I had followed but never met. The goal was to have a much smaller editorial board who would each write multiple articles. But it was hard to find writers who had that much time. Anyone with a fulltime job didn’t, which is why a lot of the main contributors are freelance writers.

When you started out, did you have so many – more than 100 – articles in mind?
We were trying to keep it below 100, but that didn’t happen. It was just too painful to cut!

When you finally had to choose which articles would make it into the book and which not, were you ever in the situation where you had to decide: artist first or good story first? I mean: »It’s the singer, not the song« or »terrific story«, take that artist/article in?
We decided who the subjects would be before we commissioned the articles, so there was really no difference between the artist and the story. If you’re asking if we would include someone just because their story is interesting, even if their music is not – no. They all had to be important musically.

Then you write »they are musicians who inspire and compel us«, which they definitely do. But where do you aim at when you say they are »pioneers more than settlers«?
We tended to select artists who broke new ground, not those who followed in others’ footsteps. There’s a gendered way of describing American history that says the men were the explorers, and then came the women folk, who civilized the wilderness. I’m tweaking that concept, honoring the women who explored new terrain.

Let’s just go over the content page and pick some artists and formulate questions: Wanda Jackson. Which was the first song you’ve heard by a woman who rocked?
I really couldn’t say. I grew up hearing a lot of music. Mom loved Joan Baez, so it was probably her, though I don’t have a specific memory attached. I was obsessed with the Jesus Christ Superstar cast recording, particularly the songs sung by Yvonne Elliman. I was also a young fan of Roberta Flack and Minnie Riperton: »Killing Me Softly« and »Loving You.« It’s funny how strongly I still connect to those songs, which are all very soft, romantic, soprano tunes – very different from the music I would later identify with, but I have come back to cherishing that ultra femininity, which is in vogue again thanks to Solange, etc. Janis Joplin and Patti Smith were probably the first artists I heard that »rocked« in a more aggressive, harder way. Seeing Patti perform on »Saturday Night Live« was definitely a transformative experience.

What is your fave cover song by a woman?
Well, it’s hard to get any better than »Respect«, isn’t it? Aretha took a good song and made it a cultural anthem, maybe the most important song of a century. That’s not my story; it’s all of ours story.

Patti Smith. What are your fave music books?
As with all lists, this will change tomorrow. But for today: Woody Guthrie, »Bound for Glory«. Patti Smith, »Just Kids«. Keith Richards, »Life«.

What are your fave all-time albums?
See same comment as above: »Darkness on the Edge of Town«, »Easter», »Supa Dupa Fly«.

Your fave new albums?
Janelle Monae, »Dirty Computer«. Tracey Thorn, »Record«.

Fave live shows?
Bruce Springsteen at the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He pulled together everyone’s suffering and took us up for The Rising. Also seeing Patti live for the first time after the death of Fred Smith. I drove all the way to Toronto from New York. I was afraid I would never see her live. I think we both pissed ourselves.

Patsy Cline. An incident during interviews?
I was interviewing Paul McCartney and my cell phone rang. That was so embarrassing.

Yoko Ono. What was the first album you bought by a female artist?
Probably »Easter«. But maybe Janis Joplin’s »Greatest Hits«. Or the Go-Go’s »Beauty and the Beat«.

Betty Davis. A female musician you would have liked, or would like to see live?
Nina Simone.

A copy of »Women Who Rock« will hopefully soon be present in many homes. Though, what I somehow miss are so-called contemporary independent musicians. To find one or the other in this excellent collection of big pop stars definitely would have boosted and empowered DIY movements and artists. Why doesn’t it?
I don’t think it gets more DIY/indie than Pussy Riot. They don’t even release records, let alone have a label. Alabama Shakes are on ATO, an indie label. Ana Tijoux is not on a major label, at least in the States. Santigold is on the indie Downtown. I guess I don’t understand your question.

Fortunately, we live in times of global pop music. I wonder, wouldn’t it be nice if »Women Who Rock« also contained a few women from outside the Anglo-American territory?
Angelique Kidjo, Pussy Riot, MIA, Ana Tijoux, Celia Cruz, Selena: Not Anglo-American artists.

Finally, your »Populism«-blog holds a segment called »Music Matters«. The first two books in the series are »Why The Ramones Matter« by Donna Gaines and »Why The Beach Boys Matter« by Tom Smucker. Please tell us about it and can you also divulge what’s next?
Music Matters is a new series of short books about single musical artists, published by the University of Texas Press. I’m the series editor. In 2019 we will publish »Why Karen Carpenter Matters« by Karen Tongson, and »Why Lhasa de Sela Matters« by Fred Goodman. We have several more titles signed, including books on Patti Smith, Paul and Linda McCartney, Dave Brubeck, Solange, the B52s etc. We pair important artists with accomplished writers for unique longform narratives.

It was a pleasure talking to you. Thanks!

»Women Who Rock. Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl.« Edited by Evelyn McDonnell. Black Dog & Leventhal, 2018.

Link: https://www.blackdogandleventhal.com/titles/evelyn-mcdonnell/women-who-rock/9780316558877/