MMusic writing has come a long way since the days of inkies – papers that left marks on their readers’ fingers – when a handful of male gatekeepers dictated the tastes of music-loving British teenagers. While women writers were occasionally admitted to this hallowed club, they were the exception rather than the rule. Since then, the music press has been both democratized and constrained by the advent of free content. Previously marginalized voices are now being heard, even if pay rates are largely paltry.
This Woman’s Work, an anthology of 16 essays by women writers compiled and edited by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and critic Sinéad Gleeson, is a piquant reminder of the talent, musical and literary, that has always been under publishers’ noses, if only they took care to watch. Considered a “challenge [to] the historical narrative of music and musical writing being written by men, for men”, the contributions cross genres, decades and continents, and are less about the judgment of artists and their work than about the process of discovery and how music can influence and enrich lives.
The best of these tracks lands on the intersection of music and identity, and how politics and personal relationships are often intertwined with our listening. Double-Digit Jukebox: An Essay in Eight Mixes by American novelist Leslie Jamison is built around mixtapes and reveals how the author spent his formative years experimenting with music through the preferences of the men in his life, his brother eldest to his friends and partners. For her, music was tied to male approval, although that changed as she forged a life and identity of her own. As a single mother locked down with her daughter in the early months of the pandemic, she listens to old songs with fresh ears and finds them transformed.
Author Fatima Bhutto, niece of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, reveals her childhood homesickness for a land she had never visited. This desire was transmitted by her father, the politician Murtaza Bhutto, who, exiled from Pakistan and living in Syria, kept telling his daughter that they would return soon. He would play Otis Redding’s melancholic (Sittin’ on), The Dock of the Bay, about A Man Far From Home and Ho Jamalo, a Sindhi folk song played at weddings and parties. The music, she recalls, “carried us over the waves and tides of loneliness”. In the same essay, Bhutto also examines music as a means of resistance: Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Noor Jehan and Fela Kuti are among the artists who resisted oppressive regimes. “Tyrants fear music,” she observes, “because no matter how strong and powerful they can never, ever be, control what is beautiful.
Mourning, whether for the dead or for the past, is a recurring theme, the music offering both comfort and re-opening of old wounds. The London-based writer and animator Zakia Sewell unearths cassette recordings of her mother, since devastated by mental illness, as a young woman singing in an acid jazz band. “She looks happy,” Sewell thought, “but there’s something telling about her vibrato, the way it swells and quivers. My mother: a ghost, immortalized on tape. Author Maggie Nelson , My Brilliant Friend, recounts his childhood friendship with Mexican-American singer Lhasa de Sela, mainstay of the all-female music festival Lilith Fair.Nelson had long since lost touch with “my first and only truly bohemian friend” when she learned that she had died of breast cancer in 2010. Her essay is a visceral account of female adolescence and the ebb and flow of friendship as well as a moving epitaph for a complex artist, charismatic and sometimes maddening.
Elsewhere, Jenn Pelly writes about Fruits of my Labor by Lucinda Williams, describing it as “a requiem, a road song, an escape route, a poem”; Juliana Huxtable composes a feverish, if sometimes impenetrable, “poem of praise” for Linda Sharrock, a leading figure in 1960s avant-garde jazz; Margo Jefferson reflects on the life of Ella Fitzgerald and the multiple ways she was cruelly judged; Rachel Kushner traces Wanda Jackson’s early career before she found sobriety and God; and Yiyun Lite recounts her relationship with Auld Lang Syne, which for her is best sung in July. Gleeson’s own essay pays homage to composer Wendy Carlos, the criminally overlooked mastermind behind The Shining soundtrack and more; while Kim Gordon talks to Japanese artist Yoshimi P-We, drummer of the Boredoms, about the purity of self-expression.
If this all sounds a bit serious, let me direct you to Irish novelist Anne Enright whose Fan Girl finds her reflecting on the “beautiful catastrophe” that unfolded one day in New York when she met the artist and musician Laurie Anderson. Enright’s brain suddenly seemed to disengage from her mouth, rendering her unable to say anything other than “one word-phrase-blurt gloop”, which she renders as “fiffloopidiggllyblop”. She may have failed to form coherent sentences in Anderson’s presence, but she makes up for that in a lively and entertaining piece that portrays the entertainer as a trailblazer, troublemaker, kindred spirit and hero. staff whose haircut Enright blatantly copied. As the title suggests, the author doesn’t shy away from being a “fan girl,” a pejorative term invariably used to separate serious male musical appreciation from music-loving girls supposedly driven by idolatry. Enright notes how she strove to avoid what she calls “musical conversation, where people gather in tribes, swap favorites, judge, include, exclude, bond, claim status or freshness. or an identity because of their choices. Music defeats me. It doesn’t tell me who I am.
Judging by the other essays in this book – whose title is taken from the Kate Bush song – one senses that Enright is not alone in rejecting musical tribalism and perceptions of what might or might not be cool. . What binds these writers is their emotional connection to music and their experience of songs as a portal to memories – whether painful or joyful – and a broader understanding of the world. This Woman’s Work is a collection of musical writing, but in the loosest sense possible. Here, music is the breeding ground where all kinds of stories take root and flourish.