Tuesday, October 3, 2017

List and You Shall Hear (II): NPR's "150 Greatest Albums Made By Women"



In this post I continue my critique of NPR's "150 Greatest Albums Made By Women"; scroll down to the previous post for the first part.

Whose Rankings? Which Recordings?

(The heading is a reference, no doubt too obscure for many, to a book on ethics by Alisdair McIntyre, entitled Whose Justice? Which Rationality?")

It was a choice, not a necessity, to make a list of albums rather than bodies of work. It was a second choice to list them albums according to a ranking of "greatness". Both of those choices were mistaken, in my view.

First of all, choosing one or two albums by outstanding artists is very arbitrary. As mentioned below, I'm happy with ranking Joni Mitchell at the top of the heap; but I disagree with both the album choices made on her behalf, even if they happen to be critically popular choices. The problem is the same throughout popular music. For example, there is some kind of critical consensus that The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is one of the two greatest albums ever made; the other common choice is The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. But I know rock critics and other music fans who think Sg.t Pepper is not even a good album, and certainly not The Beatles' best album, though they would agree that The Beatles are the greatest rock group ever. Ditto Pet Sounds – some think it is highly overrated, though I have yet to meet (and would fight) anyone who thinks the Beach Boys are not at least one of the greatest American rock groups (for me, hands down the greatest). So why honor this or that album when the real achievement is the artist's corpus of work?

Had this caution been taken, it would have been clear, for example, that whatever the merits of Lauryn Hill's 2.The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, it is a bit bizarre to find this effort, which was followed up with nothing, as second in a list of the greatest popular music by women. The work of artists who were excluded from the list, like Joan Armatrading and Grace Slick, would be much harder to ignore if bodies of work were the subject. Picking individual albums opens the door to not only very arbitrary choices but to sidelining women whose overall contributions are greater, whether or not they have an individual album considered to be one of the "greatest".

Having decided to select albums, it was certainly not necessary to rank them #1 through #150. What does it mean to place Liz Phair's 31. Exile in Guyville 63 places higher than Sheryl Crow's 94. Tuesday Night Music Club? It seems odd in itself, but meaningless in the context of all the other possibilities. Why shouldn't Sade's 22. Diamond Life be closer to #1? Why is Bobbie Gentry's 83. Ode to Billie Joe ranked higher than Marianne Faithfull's 129. Broken English? Virtually every entry in this ranking seems debatable when compared with other entries. So what was the point?

My feeling is that the classical, folk, rock, Hip-hop, world music and jazz albums are all incommensurable with albums in the other categories. There's no picking a Pauline Oliveros recording and comparing it with Shania Twain or any such thing, no way Mercedes Sosa can be ranked in greatness with No Doubt. This is all just a big mashup: there really is no order to speak of, though you can speak of a very broad consensus that certain albums are among the greatest ever, some are among the most important, some are among the most original or unique in some way and some are of great interest to women's rights, causes, self-esteem and the like.

Lists of "greatest albums" are in general a lot of nonsense, as is obvious from a comparison of NME's "500 greatest" with Rolling Stone's "500 greatest": neither the top 10, the top 50, the top 100, nor any other grouping is even remotely the same from one list to another. NPR's list has no added legitimacy for being a list of only albums by women; it's an absurdly arbitrary ranking of women's album rather than an absurdly arbitrary ranking of all albums. This is not exactly a great leap for womankind.

Sung (mainly) By Women

The idea is that the list represents albums "made by women"; but that phrase is never defined, and no more than a handful of the selections would actually fit a strict definition of it. Just about all of the choices are collections of "songs sung mainly by women", albeit with male vocals in various harmony and sometimes lead roles, while in some cases the songwriting, production, instrumental performance, engineering, mastering, and just about every other aspect of the album was done by men. It's not the case with all the selections, but having been largely, in reality, "made by men", was obviously not reason enough to avoid including some of these in a list of albums "made by women".

Let's discuss some of the actual levels of involvement women have with these albums:

Overall artistic control by women: In some cases a woman clearly has overall artistic control of the final product - Tori Amos, Mariah Carey and Madonna are good examples. On some of her albums Sheryl Crow wrote the songs, sang lead, played about a dozen different instruments, produced the album and had female recording and technical engineers. That is clearly an album "made by women", even if there were also men involved in various important roles. Later so-called "girl groups" (I guess this NPR initiative might suggest that we re-think that term?) like The Bangles, The Go-Gos and Indigo Girls substantially controlled most artistic aspects of their recordings. I can't say exactly how many of the albums on the list fit into this category but my suspicion is that more than half do not.

Limited artistic control by women: Here the situation is more mixed. Take The Ronettes, who released just one studio album (in 1964): they were clearly in command of the vocals, and among the songwriters who contributed to the album were two women, Ellie Greenwich and Cynthia Weil. The producer, of course, was Phil Spector, whose influence on the final product was enormous, and the other songwriters, all the session musicians, and many other participants were male. On Shania Twain's zillion-selling album Come On Over she sang all the lead vocals and co-wrote all the songs. The other writer was her husband Robert "Mutt" Lange, who produced and had overall artistic control over the album, and virtually all other musical and technical personnel were male.

Women as more or less equal partners: Many of the mixed gender groups in the list – The B-52's, the Cocteau Twins, Fleetwood Mac, No Doubt, etc. – are more or less equal partnerships between male and female members. As I point out below, if these groups belong in the list, then the #1 group in this category is Jefferson Airplane, due to Grace Slick's foundational role among women in rock; but they are not even recognized in the list. (They are, however, in the similar ListChallenges list mentioned in the previous post, where Surrealistic Pillow is #19 out of 100.) On the other hand, Evanescence is largely dominated by Amy Lee, but they are not included either. It seems that the canonizers have simply appropriated groups or albums they liked as "made by women" without any consistent criteria for what that means.

Sung by women and that's just about all: Albums that are all but the opposite of "made by women" are also represented in the list. There is little reason to question the fact that the #14 choice, Whitney Houston, introduced one of the greatest and most influential voices in the history of popular music – perhaps the greatest pop vocalist ever. That surely deserves recognition, but her own vocal style is virtually all she was responsible for on the album. Clive Davis made the executive decisions, Jermaine Jackson and a bunch of Michaels - Masser, Walden, Kashif (born Michael Jones) – teamed up to write and produce songs for Whitney to sing; add three more Michaels (Barbiero, Mancini, O'Reilly) in the engineering and mixing room, and a host of mostly male studio musicians and vocalists, and you have an album. Britney Spears had practically nothing to do with ...Baby One More Time other than singing the lead vocals (and not with one of the greatest voices of all time, either); she did not select the songs or make other key artistic decisions about the album. On her eponymous Aaliyah the singer did little other than sing: while she gets "Executive Producer" credit, almost all the songwriting and actual production were handled by men. (Missy Elliott penned the lyrics to one song and had some artistic input on the project.) Nico's Chelsea Girl was written, produced, arranged and engineered entirely by male former Velvet Underground members as well as folkies like Dylan and Tim Hardin. Nico did not even like the album, as it was far from the sound she hoped to project, and if she had fans they did not show up in droves to buy it. You could call it one of the 150 Albums Most Inappropriately Dominated By Men, but not really an album "made by women".

So the notion of "made by women" needs clarification, to say the least. Of course, an album with a female lead vocalist gives the impression that she "made" the album, but while the contribution of the lead vocals is of course very important, it can also give a misleading picture of the extent to which it is the lead singer's album. When The Monkees turned out to have done nothing but sing on their first two albums they were ridiculed for it (unfairly, since the session musicians who had played the instruments had done the same for hundreds of other recordings, without any outcry). Singing a song is quite different from the kind of artistic control that deserves the "made by" label.

Here, then, are a few options for a tighter definition of "greatest albums made by women":

1. Albums on which a woman was among the featured performers and had overall artistic control.
2. Albums on which a woman was the featured performer and is credited with writing most of the music.
3. Albums that were almost completely created by a team of women that included the performers, songwriters and key production and recording personnel.

Some of the albums chosen by NPR would not meet any of these sets of conditions, and very few would meet all of them, leaving the impression that "made by women" really came down to having prominent female vocals.

It's not always possible to know how much a female lead vocalist deserves credit for an album. Reba McEntire has recorded 29 albums, on each of which she has written at most one song and almost never plays an instrument. She occasionally receives credit for production, and I suppose the listmakers were careful to select an album (Rumor Has It) on which she is credited as producer. She presumably selects at least some of the songs she will record; or does she only exercise veto power? It would take some research to figure out exactly how much control she has over her albums, and whether they deserve the "made by a woman" label. (She at least gets the blame for both singing and "acting" on her insufferable "Back to God" video.)

1964: It Was a Very Good Year, But...

The decision to begin in 1964 and include only albums (as opposed to a body of work in any recorded format) has the odd effect of eliminating a very large number of black women who set the standard for women in music. Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Eartha Kitt, Mahalia Jackson and Marion Anderson, among many others, seem like they are being relegated to a sort of fuzzy background role for no other reason than that Powers et al. thought it would be best to only consider albums from 1964 on. Not a few critically important white women, like Patsy Cline and Mother Maybelle Carter, are apparently excluded on similar grounds.

On the other hand, some albums seem to have made the list merely because they were post-1964; how else do you explain the relatively unimportant Nina Simone album I Put a Spell On You dropping into the #3 slot, replacing the much better sung and played The Amazing Nina Simone (1959) and other earlier choices? I'm really not sure how the choice of 1964 is motivated. For example, had 1963 been chosen, the list might have included Heat Wave by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, He's So Fine by The Chiffons, and about a dozen other albums by artists who were either left off the list or are represented by later and not necessarily better work. The so-called "album era" in pop music was really ushered in by the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds in 1966; but artists have made albums since the early 1950's at the latest, and made them regularly since the late 50's, so the argument that the list should be confined to "album era" recordings has no particular force and is not actually captured by the choice of 1964.

Nor does the list of "greatest albums" consistently show a choice of great albums, as the above point about Nina Simone demonstrates. For another example, Tammy Wynette's single "Stand By Your Man" is certainly one of the most important (and perhaps "greatest") country music songs (albeit, ironically, a target of feminist ire) but the album of the same name on which the song appeared is of no special importance, being filled out largely with naive tearjerkers about emotionally wounded children and other pap; it is there simply because the single is on it. It's clear that the ill-defined criteria for being on this list could not even guide the selection of albums, leading to many mediocre recordings that contain a notable song or two getting on the list.

To return to the first point, if you want a new canon you can't exclude many of the most canonic musicians because they didn't make albums. For what exactly is a canon of albums? Something like a canon of novels? Which naturally will not include Chaucer, Flannery O'Connor or Alice Munro, since none of their most celebrated works are novels. But a canon of albums seems more arbitrary than one of novels; for even in the so-called "album era" an album may have been more than a collection of songs – a form of composition, in a sense – but it certainly was not always. An album does not have to hang together like a novel (squawck... the Parrot has perused a contemporary novel or two that hangs together about like jungle mist, but forget that for a moment). I suspect we shall soon see a companion list of "25 Greatest Pre-Album Era Recorded Legacies of Women" or some such silly acknowledgment that 1964 is not a cutoff with any real historical merit.

That albums of the woman, by the woman and for the woman shall not perish...

Why not require that the albums really be in some sense for or about women, or that they lend support to the advancement of women's rights or equality or recognition, or somehow make a statement of importance to women, or enhance the position of women in music... or something like that? Now, clearly there are albums on the list that do this; and just as clearly, there are many that do not, and have nothing more to say about women than some very boilerplate expression of a woman's side of romantic relationships. Some of these albums sold a lot of copies; but even if every household in the Western world had one they would have little to say that had not been said before, either musically or lyrically. A truly new and liberating voice in country music is hard to come by. The Dixie Chicks might be on this kind of list, maybe Iris DeMent, but most of the Nashville crowd would not be. Shania Twain, for example, makes some feints in the direction of feminist talk, but the sort of feminism that sells between 30 and 40 million copies is not going to push any buttons or break through any glass ceilings.

Some of the most clearly and consistently feminist sentiments are expressed by worthy folk artists not on the list. What sort of list is this without Holly Near or Peggy Seeger or other outspoken feminists who also have a huge recorded legacy? The idea that the list should favor albums or artists that have something to say about women's rights and struggles seems not to have occurred to the Powers That Be. Reorganize it along these lines and many things would be quite different. Tori Amos would get more than a 27th-place nod for her first album; she does everything but explicitly proselytize about women's issues in her music, and she does that in other ways. Suzanne Vega would not have been overlooked (which is unaccountable on almost any grounds anyway), and even Ferron might have been recognized. Christina Aguilera, bizarrely omitted from the parade of superstars, might have had a better claim to a slot than Mariah Carey, and any of half a dozen country singers could have replaced Reba McEntire (Carrie Underwood and Mary Chapin Carpenter would be two good choices).

To put it in a nutshell, the apparent feminist impulse behind the list and the feminist content of the albums themselves seem to diverge far more than had to be the case.
Nothing would have been lost, and some moral ground might have been gained, by at least taking into consideration what an artist or an album has done for women.

Gratuitous "Greatness"

There really is nothing to the term "greatest" in the list's title, which is why a lot of the comments I have heard both on public forums and in private are, to be nice, dismissive of the whole undertaking. To be not so nice, a good deal of the list appears to be nothing but pop fluff, recordings with absolutely nothing to speak for them other than female lead singers and high chart positions or album sales. The lack of taste exhibited in the selection of various Z100-type pop stars, country divas and disco queens leaves one guessing as to why some of these superficial recordings made the list while other equally, or perhaps less superficial recordings of the same type and caliber failed. Thumbs down on Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Rihanna, for some reason, each of whom has recorded material that ought to be of some interest to creators of a women's music "canon", while others who hardly seem like apostles of anything except Gold, in all its forms, somehow adorn the list. There's no accounting for taste, but there is for judgment, and there doesn't seem to have been much of that exercised here.

In the previously mentioned exchange between Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, Morris comments that "I think that the list is trying to strike a balance between greatness and importance. But sometimes, I think it assumes that importance is a form of greatness." To which Wortham says (a little later in the exchange), "It’s literally called the 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women." Well, that's just it, and I think Morris is being overly charitable: while selling itself as a "greatest" list it tries to strike a balance between greatness, importance, fairness and mere popularity. A popular album, no matter how popular, is not necessarily either important or great. The two commentators then seem to agree that a recording by Destiny's Child doesn't really merit inclusion. But the other question is why they chose The Writing's on the Wall rather than Survivor, with its feminist anthems? (I agree that neither of these has the degree of inventiveness one finds in Beyoncé's later solo work.)

In general: if you are going to do a list like this – a curated list, not the results of an online poll or the choice of a specialized audience – it ought to have some clear criteria for "greatness", which this list doesn't. Here is one example of criteria for a list of "greatest" albums by women:

1. It should be important for its musical and lyrical qualities, not merely another blockbuster entry in a tired genre.
2. The level of women's contributions should be considered carefully: being sung by a woman is important, but songwriting, production and any other significant contribution are important too.
3. It must have some quality – in the lyrics or any other way - that speaks to the liberation of women in some important respect or other: emotionally, economically, sexually, politically, even musically, but in any case it must have something significant to say about women per se.

This is just one example of a set of guidelines for critical judgment. The choices should be based on something more than record sales, or having been listened to enthusiastically by your friends at college. Or being boldly presented by someone in the selection group and receiving nods of assent, which, I suspect, is something like how many of these choices and rankings came to be.

Political notes

The last of these guidelines deserves some comment. What I do not mean by it is that in order to be on a list like this an album should have some explicit feminist content. My worry is that Powers and her associates think that many of these albums already do. But if so, I suspect that what counts as being a feminist statement is something like Lemonade, and I have to demur from that view. A woman stating forcefully and eloquently how hurt she is by a man's infidelity, and poetically describing the pain, anger, recovery, reconciliation and redemption that follows is a great thing in itself, but it is not a political statement at all. A sensitive male who has been similarly hurt could express the same set of feelings, go through the same emotional process. (I know I have; I don't suppose I have any claim to uniqueness in that respect.) Many, many other descriptions of relationships gone bad pepper these albums, and popular music in general, but have no feminist political content on account of that.

The country song "What Hurts the Most" describes in aching detail the aftermath of a breakup: written by two men, it was recorded by both male and female groups and solo artists without change of content. Another example is "Since U Been Gone", the Max Martin-Dr. Luke song made famous by Kelly Clarkson but also covered by various male vocalists. The song is also a bit of an emotional echo of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright". Emotions like "I can breathe for the first time" and "You just kind of wasted my precious time" are not political statements. Infidelity, emotional abuse, control issues, and the like, are gender-neutral hazards of relationships.

Political claims for music have to be judged according to the context in which they are made. Neither "Respect" nor "The Greatest Love of All" are necessarily statements either about either racism or the oppression of women, but they came be perceived that way due to the larger social context. "Respect" was written by a man (Otis Redding), about a man looking to get little respect at home for working to support his family. The lyrics to "The Greatest Love of All" were written by a woman, but as the theme song for a biopic about Muhammed Ali, who had long ago adopted the title "The Greatest". But in an era when there were still serious limitations on the respect a woman could expect either at work or at home, Aretha's forceful (and slightly rewritten) version of the song rang out with an unmistakable message. So did Whitney Houston's version of the Michael Masser-Linda Creed composition, at a time when the oppression of minority women had begun to be recognized as a struggle with its own dynamics. But though this can happen, it does not mean that every time a woman sings of respect or self-fulfillment a political statement is being made. Plenty of women, like plenty of men, are too full of themselves already to be honored as apostles of feminism for being independent, sexually explicit, or critical of something perceived to be a male defect.

What my third criterion suggests (and as with the other two I do mean they are simply suggestions, conversation-starters) is that the album either (1) represents a particularly original aesthetic accomplishment that focuses attention on what women can contribute to popular music (this, I would argue, is why Lemonade belongs on the list; ditto for Horses and many others); or (2) turns our attention to the experience of being a woman (which might include explicit political issues like rape and abortion, but need not), to issues of sex role stereotypes, or to women's efforts at self-realization and the challenges that faces, in a forceful and original way. I don't know how many of the albums on the list would survive this requirement, but I do know that several albums not on the list would do so. A lot of them come from the folk music genre, whose severe underrepresentation is one of the worst things about the list. Joni Mitchell's "Roses Blue", Janis Ian's "At Seventeen", and Suzanne Vega's "Luka" are subtle but intense contemplations of particularly female experiences. The first song is on neither of the selected Joni Mitchell albums, and the latter two artists are not even represented.
*****
Well I guess I have made enough noise about the general considerations that went into making the list. In the next (and last) post I turn to consideration of specific selected albums, and to some omissions.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

List and You Shall Hear (I): NPR's "150 Greatest Albums Made By Women"



The Culture Vulture – pardon the temporary ornithological mutation – has been sitting on this egg even longer than his (? – egg?) usual dinosaur-era posts; such that it originally began, "This week...", then "Last week...", and is now past the point of "last month..." In the meantime this has also become, I think, the longest post ever delivered from the Parrot's perch, if not simply the longest thing anyone has ever dared to post on a blog, period. Or it was until I decided to split it up into several shorter, slightly more manageable posts. So this will be the first of a series.

The references to temps perdu pertain to the occasions on which Ms. Vulturess and I alighted on a couple of concerts featuring music by women. To say that this did not feel like some really new and unusual experience is an understatement: I guess I've been sufficiently impressed with the musical contributions of the fairer sex since, I don't know, my first Joan Baez album, or maybe my Mom singing a verse of some Tin Pan Alley tune every time I'd utter a phrase that reminded her of a song. (She briefly had aspirations to be a pop singer in the 50's.)

But these concerts, both at Lincoln Center – one by Ricki Lee Jones, in a perhaps slightly underrehearsed performance of her album Pirates, the other in honor of Pauline Oliveros, the influential composer who passed away this year – were related to a new initiative on behalf of music by women, courtesy of the tastemakers at National Public Radio. On what seems to me highly questionable evidence, they have argued that the contribution of women to popular music, and music in general, is under-appreciated, a situation they propose to remedy by the promotion of a List, that paradigm of web-based obsessiveness.

Now, lists are one thing on which parrots prefer to pontificate, as witness our previous disquisitions on the the so-called Top 1043 Classic Rock Songs of All Time or The Tommasini Ten. So excuse me if I ruffle some feathers, but I plan to say a few (thousand) words about this list, its rationale, and its method of selection.

One of the reasons this was a bit like a pregnancy is that I am addressing a list of 150 allegedly "greatest" albums by women, and I started out knowing about 20 of them fairly well. I was familiar enough with many of the other artists, but I am just not the type to alight on a Madonna album (much less some of the less sassy and more anodyne commercial pop, country and R&B entries) and remain there long enough to listen to the whole thing. So to write about this I had some more or less reluctant catching up to do. Roughly 45 albums and one Spotify Premium account later I am still discovering 12x platinum albums I never paid any attention to. It's not a case of "How could I not have known about this?" but rather "Am I supposed to care about this now because it's on this list?" Should the Powers That Be find this a sad confirmation of their beliefs in the underestimation of female popular musicians, I must inform them that I couldn't name a Steve Miller, Journey or Bon Jovi album I've listened to either, and hope I am never so inclined to write about them that I feel a need to. Whether Madonna or Mary J. Blige, Max Martin or Mitch Miller, I have a fairly dim view of commercial popular music and remain short on contrition about it.

The list does include a representative sample of albums outside the pop mainstream; in these cases I may have crossed paths with the artists but not necessarily with the selected album. Here and there I discovered something that was never on my radar, much to my own loss. X-Ray Spex' Germ Free Adolescents: who knew that one of the greatest punk rock albums was sitting in a record store bin under a strange name like this? Ditto for Against Me!'s Transgender Dyphoria Blues. Cris Williamson's The Changer and the Changed: A Record of the Times was a rediscovery of an artist I have known of for 35 years but clearly have not paid enough attention to. On the other hand, it looks suspiciously like nearly every woman who has made a prominent hip-hop/R&B crossover album has been added to the list, to the point where it is very hard to discern what is particularly notable about some of the choices in this category. (Rihanna has unaccountably been excluded from it, but there are so many curious oversights in the list as a whole that this is no more weird than the others.) I am not going to do any mea culpas about not having listened to most of them before, because having now done so I still don't know what is especially great about some of them.

Another issue is that I was constantly revising my judgments, or ways of expressing them, and that in part reflects the wish to avoid the perception of delivering some crass version of the Dominant Male Perspective. (Parrots cannot be accused of acting like King of the Forest, but it's true that we are situated high above the other denizens of the Urban Jungle.) The other part is that judgments in the arts are by nature partly subjective, and I was constantly rethinking the criteria supporting my judgments, reaching for something more objective. In this I don't think I've had more than minimal success; what I have to say still rests heavily on my perceptions, albeit perceptions guided by decades of listening to, performing, writing and commenting on music in many different genres.

Given the nature of what follows, I should make it clear that I think the idea of calling attention to music that deserves wider recognition, through a list or whatever, is a fine thing. My whole experience of popular music has been that popularity just barely intersects with greatness; so for example I have argued vociferously that Tori Amos and Loreena McKennit, to take two examples, are grossly underappreciated considering their merits relative to other better-known artists. But while it does, as noted, contain some lesser known works of genius, ultimately this list is not very helpful in turning perceptions around. It rather seems to endorse one zillion-selling recording after another, even when "great" seems quite a stretch to describe the album's overall contribution.

I've never seen a list of this type that I really liked, but this one is particularly irksome because on the one hand, it wears the mantle of authority, coming from two elite institutions (NPR apparently teamed up with some musical magpies at Lincoln Center, though it sort of wears the NPR label on its chest), and on the other, everything about the methodology seems off: the putative reason for the enterprise, the criteria for inclusion (or exclusion), the ordering of the selections - all seem to have been handled so badly that the legitimacy of the list suffers greatly. Or so I shall aver from my avian outpost.

The series is divided as follows:
This post: The focus will be on some of the arguments offered by the list's creators and supporters for the enterprise as a whole: the rationale for the list, in short.
Next installment: A discussion of some of the criteria that were used in selecting albums for the list.
Last part: A highly opinionated critique of the particular choices of albums that were included, and a short list of those that were not but should have been.

Taking a potshot at the notion of "a new canon"

That is how Ann Powers characterizes the goal of the list in the title of her lead article for NPR, followed by the rhetorical flourish that "In Pop Music, Women Belong at the Center of the Story". (Does this mean that men belong on the periphery? Or is everyone at the center, as in Lake Wobegon where "all the children are above average"?) Powers is not entirely oblivious to the cultural implications of declaring "a new canon", but nevertheless considers this a good thing to do and a gift to women everywhere. Coming from the bully pulpit of these relatively conservative cultural institutions I think we should not let that go by without comment.

The feminist critique of canons is that they express the dominant ideology of a culture, which is typically male and sexist. The response cannot be "let's make an alternative canon" or "let's make a women's canon" – that is just a different form of dominance, which can come at any level of power or control. Cultural elites who attempt to make musical canons in the interest of some disadvantaged group will end up creating a new class of culturally disadvantaged musicians: those who have made equally interesting contributions but were not recognized by the compilers of the list.

Before pursuing this, it is worth pointing out that canons are not generally created on the fly, they evolve over long periods of time through the judgments of entire peoples and generations. The "canons" that pertain to classical music or English literature, for example, are the result of judgments made, and discarded, over the course of centuries. Lists can be created at any time, by anyone, and some may have more value than others; but canons are at most captured after the fact by lists. I say "at most" because I think of canons as fluid and vaguely defined, which no list can ever be by its very nature. So any canon-making enterprise is suspect from the start. (Only the Vatican is exempt from this observation – by self-definition.)

Second, the recognition and itemization of canons – which is more to the point of what this list is really about – can have two aspects, one of which may be positive, the other of which is clearly negative. For the purposes of basic education and sometimes other reasons, it is useful to have a set of "canonic" texts, pieces or whatever, which can help guide individuals towards familiarity with the outstanding works of a nation, a period, or a social group. Fluency with the canon then becomes a sign of a culturally literate person.

But canons also tend to create an orthodox cultural norm that delegitimates marginal ideas and may stifle creativity. They offer an artificial paradigm against which both old and new works must be compared for authenticity, and are therefore one of the very things that can keep valuable contributions by women, minorities or third world peoples out of the "center of the story". They get established by prejudices that are often not manifest, and blind us to other ways of looking at cultural artifacts. The NPR list's inclusion of a few albums by third world and classical artists (about 10-12 and 4-5, respectively, out of 150 entries) suggests that the listmakers were hoping to avoid this, but the token-ish nature of these entries shows that it can't really be done.

Therefore I don't think it is either possible or desirable to establish "a new canon" with a list of recordings "made by women". To the extent that there is an old, intellectually calcified canon that suppresses the contributions of women, we should question and resist the canonization it represents. Yet what is being offered is not a canon-free world, or a revised, more inclusive canon, or even a revised list, with the underappreciated contributions by women restored to their rightful place; rather, it is simply another list, so that we now have some allegedly male chauvinist lists and a putative feminist one. Since this answers absolutely no questions about the relative position of women's musical offerings in a gender-neutral culture it does not do anything at all to support the claim that the other lists are biased. 

But the oddest thing about the whole endeavor is that this is not a "new" canon at all: in fact, five years ago, Rolling Stone presented a shorter list, entitled "Women Who Rock: The 50 Greatest Albums of All Time", that virtually duplicates a third of the artists and for the most part the albums on the NPR list. Yes, the very magazine whose longer, non-gendered list of the alleged 500 greatest albums is maligned by the creators of this one (see below), produced practically the same list in abbreviated form! The web site ListChallenges.com also has a list of this sort, with a similar title but twice as long as the RS list, and a publication date of 9/26/13 (per the source code); it once again very largely overlaps the NPR list, but includes several artists or albums that (as I suggest below) were inexplicably left out, like Grace Slick, Mama Cass and Bette Midler. (The list also, in my opinion, has some superior album choices for the artists they include, such as Laura Nyro's Eli and the Thirteenth Confession rather than New York Tendaberry, and a more courageous Madonna choice, her Kaballah-inspired Ray of Light.) So what exactly is "new" or revolutionary or liberating about this NPR list? Nothing – it's been done before, and at most NPR has added another 50 albums, some well chosen and some not.


A dubious rationale

Powers' article does not get better after the curious title and subtitle. The attempt to provide a rationale for the list in terms of the alleged under-recognition of women in popular music falls apart under scrutiny. First, consider a version of this rationale given in a WNYC interview by Jill Sternheimer of Lincoln Center:

Well, in all of these lists, you know, you have the famous Rolling Stone lists, the famous Pitchfork lists and so many lists through the years. Women, they're on the list, but they're sprinkled in sort of as an afterthought. And after four albums by Bob Dylan comes a Joni Mitchell album or three albums by the Beatles, then there's Carole King. They feel like an afterthought and not the main meal.

Bad examples, perhaps – I think there should be at least 10 Beatles albums before Tapestry. That the latter is a brilliant album is hardly news to the world of pop music, since all but one or two of the songs on it were regularly on FM radio playlists from the time it was released. But the work of one top notch songwriter, who was also a decent singer and keyboardist, does not really even begin to match the output of three brilliant songwriters, four perfectly blended voices, four very creative instrumentalists and the greatest producer in rock music, to say nothing of the cultural significance of some of their recordings. I have to wonder what Carole King thought when she saw this – "Gee, she's right, my album shouldn't have to follow three Beatles albums!", or, more sensibly, "My work is great, but would I really rank it in front of any Beatles album – even the one where they covered one of my songs?" (That would be "Chains" on their debut album, Please Please Me.)

In any case, there are actually only three Dylan albums before Joni Mitchell's Blue, which comes just ahead of Bringing It All Back Home. Joni and Dylan have a lot in common and are both truly essential, but as with The Beatles, I would put several Dylan albums ahead of almost every singer-songwriter album ever made, so it does not seem shocking, much less a sign of implicit sexism, that three should turn up ahead of Joni's album – which, incidentally, is ranked in this allegedly gender-slanted list a full 20 places ahead of any Simon and Garfunkel album, a choice that is certainly open to discussion. Perhaps an even better comparison for these solo artists is with Elton John, who finally checks in at #91 on the Rolling Stone list, well after Joni, Carole King, Patti Smith, Aretha and Dusty Springfield. To my taste, the four or five best Elton John albums would be in a dead heat with the four or five best Joni Mitchell albums. So it's hard for me to see how Joni has been disrespected by the RS list.

Another piece of alleged evidence can be found in Powers' introduction to the NPR list, where she refers to,

the shelves weighed down with books about Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, while only one or two about Aretha Franklin or Patti Smith sit nearby.

I went to Amazon and stopped counting when I hit twenty (20) books entirely or largely about Aretha Franklin, not including sheet music and the like. I counted about the same number for Hendrix, though there are many more books of sheet music. So whatever may be weighing down the shelves, the statement does not seem to be an accurate representation of the comparative critical attention devoted to these artists.

And this, from the same source, once again on those other lists:

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, compiled in 2003 and updated in 2009, includes no women in the Top 20. Pitchfork's "People's List," a reader-determined Top 200 list spanning the publication's lifetime, included two bands with women in its Top 20. Recent lists by publications ranging from SPIN to Entertainment Weekly, Time and NME showed similar results. And the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has never remedied the problem of significant female underrepresentation in its ranks.

Now, Rolling Stone and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, at some points all but united under the dominant influence of Jann Wenner, are institutions almost as famous for their musical prejudices as for their lists or inductees, and can be safely ignored as either barometers of mass opinion or widely accepted indexes of musical value. But again, Powers does not try to correct these or the other lists by showing which albums by women really belong in the top spots, but chooses to go with a brand new list of women only. That seems to cede ground, while also sewing doubt about whether the contribution of women is truly underrepresented.

Are these lists good indicators of the overall recognition of women in popular music? It's true that of the 50 best-selling albums of all time, perhaps 15 at most have women in the most prominent role. (What albums count as the best-selling depends on the criteria you use, so this is a rough number based on various lists.) This is not the critics speaking but the music-buying public. Far from defending this hodge podge of sublime and ridiculous best-sellers, I merely want to say that it reflects the relative number of female and male artists who have gotten far enough in this rough industry to make claims on our attention. If there is a problem here, isn't it that the aggressive nature of hard rock music, the sometimes barbaric incivility of both the (mostly male) musicians themselves and other industry players, the egos that tower over everything related to the rock music industry, are a discouragement to women's participation in the first place? So that while women have been prominent stars in soft rock, folk rock, pop, country, R&B, techno and many other forms of popular music, they are generally underrepresented in the world of electric guitar-driven hard rock.

We know that women can play electric guitar when they want to; indeed, even if we didn't have plenty of such examples, there is no shortage of women among the greatest classical music performers on string instruments like the violin, viola, cello and classical guitar, so what sense would it make to think that they could not conquer the electric guitar? But maybe this form of expression, which requires not just manual dexterity and musical taste but (in most cases) loudness, attitude and aggression, does not appeal to women to the same degree or with the same frequency that it does to men. Or if it does, then the prejudices may lie at the point where women are discouraged from taking up the instrument, that is, in the minds and hearts of parents, peers and other musicians. Whatever the reason, a core type of popular music is not heavily populated by women. (At least, this is historically true; see this recent NY Times article for suggestions that the situation may be changing.) It is only to be expected that both record sales and lists of favorite albums will reflect this.

I can understand the frustration that leads to the following comment by Jenna Wortham of the NY Times: "the way that even women just get categorized in the types of music that’s acceptable for women to make, or even the idea that something soft and tender and vulnerable and about emotions and feelings is somehow the antithesis of what it means to make rock music... that somehow these things are in competition... is just a little bit mind boggling." Let's not exaggerate the dichotomy, for besides the already noted fact that women do make hard rock, examples of "something soft and tender and vulnerable and about emotions and feelings" made by all-male hard rock bands are not difficult to come by: the Rolling Stones' "As Tears Go By", the Beatles' "And I Love Her", Grand Funk's "Mean Mistreater", Led Zeppelin's "Thank You", and the list goes on. But – to return to my original point – given the historical male domination of rock music it is no surprise that women are less well represented in lists that are comprised largely of rock music.

On the other hand, looking at the Wikipedia list of sales figures by artist rather than by album we get a slightly different picture. Among the 10 top-selling artists of all time are Madonna, Rihanna, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion (40%); among the top 15 add Whitney Houston and ABBA (still 40%); Taylor Swift is next at #16; and as you count down the list, out of every five artists you find at least one or two women. Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Adele – all very new artists, in an era of supposedly diminished album sales - have each sold more records than Bob Dylan, Jay Z, Paul McCartney or Prince.

But sales do not and should not directly translate into critical recognition. The sales figures show what albums people find entertaining, and the standard for entertainment seems to be set by a largely teenage and easy-listening crowd. Britney Spears set all kinds of sales records with her first album, but like Madonna, Mariah Carey, Shania Twain and so many others on the NPR list, her appeal is not based primarily on originality in songwriting, vocal performance quality, instrumental chops or even tasteful selection and interpretation; it is based on presenting smooth, safe, musically non-challenging, somewhat catchy material delivered with airbrushed production qualities. If artists like Dylan, Bowie, McCartney, Springsteen and Prince appear higher on "greatest album" lists than more popular albums by women, it's because they take risks and challenge us musically in ways that many of the highest-grossing female artists do not. (Needless to say, there are more safe, dull, insipid albums by male singers and groups than by women, but the references in the comments by Powers and Sternheimer were to the likes of The Beatles and Dylan, which is quite another story.)

But women who do take risks and have moved popular music forward in some way are well represented in hearts and minds, and have generally achieved considerable critical recognition. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Roberta Flack, Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading, Deborah Harry, Patti Smith, Sade, Amy Lee, Lauryn Hill, Beyoncé – those who are not in the grip of some rank prejudice already recognize their outstanding contributions well enough, list or no list.

Indeed, one of the NPR list's surprises – the very recent Beyoncé album Lemonade occupying 6th place among these 150 albums – even if it lacks the perspective of time, at least points to one of the great role reversals in music history: Beyoncé is, and arguably has been for a while now, taken even more seriously as an artist than JayZ, who is himself a kind of legend in his own time. (Now, thanks to Lemonade and 4:44, sharing a part of the legend spotlight occupied by Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton.) And it has arguably been that way before: consider how The Mamas and Papas were all but represented by Mama Cass; how Big Brother and the Holding Company came to be seen as little more than a backup band for Janis Joplin; and how female lead singers like Bjork and Natalie Merchant went on to successful solo careers without their former male bandmates.

So neither lists nor album sales may be a good indication of the recognition of women in popular music. Music by women appears to be critically recognized when it is made in a spirit of originality, creativity and artistic integrity rather than for purely commercial appeal. While this may exclude a great many very popular artists and albums, it includes a great many as well.

*****


In the next post I plan to talk about the criteria for inclusion on the list. Once again I have a few brief squawcks.