Music

Pazz & Jop: So, Are Women Here Yet?

Kacey Musgraves, Janelle Monáe, and the Year of the Woman…again

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This year, I spent more time listening to the radio than I have since high school, when the college station was still my primary method of music discovery outside of singles bins. I sensed that the tyranny of streaming services’ endless options was deadening my connection, so, here amid the hissing exurban lawns of Chicago, I kept the radio on. I drank deep from the bygone pleasure of no choice — the options being either “listen patiently and trust the DJ” or “turn it off.” WLUW (Loyola’s student/community station) and Vocalo (Chicago Public Radio’s urban alternative station) were my primary waves, occasionally supplemented by the low-wattage high school station near me for its mix of Soundcloud ultra-now and a previous generation’s Slint carts. It was a direct signal, literally and metaphorically: There was no mediating digital platform capitalizing on my listening habits — what I liked and didn’t was kept to the confines of my nucleus accumbens, and the confidences of whoever was riding shotgun in my car. I routinely found myself patiently parked at my destination awaiting a giddy, too-quiet back announcement of a six-song set, in hopes the DJ would sate my curiosity (most recent discoveries being Serengeti’s “West of Western,” Jean Deaux’s “Energy,” Pill’s “Midtown,” and KGB’s 1995 gem “Bless Ya Life”). While some of the comfort of this routine was fundamentally one of nostalgia, the sense of moderation it offered — wherein algorithmic personalization was impossible, wherein the contract of the music experience was without exploitation — was as thrillingly novel as it was revivifying. It was a world away.

Many of the records crowded atop this year’s Pazz & Jop poll offer a similar feeling; they are albums that built discrete new worlds, or at least felt blessedly different from this one. They are albums that drafted liminal space. They transported. They immersed the listener deep in the maker’s vision. They gave us songs that recognize sexual, social, racial realities, and also imagined what might lie beyond chaos, strife, and dysfunction; these are albums that beckon their listeners forward. They mourn what is lost but they survive it. More than a collective “Thank U, Next,” the eight women-made albums of the Top 10 — Golden Hour, Dirty Computer, Invasion of Privacy, Be the Cowboy, Honey, Room 25, Historian, and the Mimi-murmurs within Low’s Double Negative — imbued potentiality into a year that felt bereft of it; we could trust their vision. These records asserted power that was nutritive, power that was symbiotic and psychically sustentative, amid a year defined by grievous abuses of power.

Perhaps this is part of the reason Golden Hour triumphed like it did this year. With the breezy dissolve of “Lonely Weekend” and the sweet, disco-y kiss-off of “High Horse,” it was a languorous album that offered a space to arrest your very necessary cynicism. In a different but similarly masterful way to Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy, Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, and especially Robyn’s Honey, Golden Hour was a balm of transcendence and possibility. Perhaps, as Marissa Moss suggested, Golden Hour “presents a different breed of protest song: one where there’s protest in kindness, in the appreciation of beauty and a sense of being grateful about the world.” While no one is imagining a praxis of posi vibes in the face of the whipsaw horrors of America’s foreign and domestic policy, Golden Hour was 46 minutes of stony connection and the earth spinning at a reasonable pace. This year’s top three albums, most particularly, felt life-affirming: Monáe’s earthbound resistance-funk was brought into high relief for me as I watched young people holler, dance, and wipe away tears in the aisles of a Dirty Computer screening in Atlanta. And the pure joy of Cardi B, like Sylvia Plath’s imagined Lady Lazarus, rising elegant and powerful from the ash of the earth and eating men like air — may her reign never end.

This year is unprecedented in the history of the Pazz & Jop Critics Poll in the number of women that populate the Top 10, the fact that women make up the Top 5, and that they positively dominate the Top 35 — and, yet, they are hardly a uniform bloc. You don’t even start hitting clumps of cis-het white dudes until the bottom fifty. In the past few years, the Top 10 has crept toward this trend — notably, in 2015, the Top 5 was women-plus-Kendrick, the best showing since the high-water mark of a few PJ/Hole/Phair/Breeders triumphs in the mid-Nineties. It’s hard not to take this year’s results as a sure sign that Music Culture Has Changed, or that the paradigm has shifted and women have rushed the gates. While these are artists making ambitious albums too bold and exciting to be ignored, this momentous occasion cannot and should not be framed as folks being suddenly exceptional. To suggest women have arrived erases the fact that they have, in fact, always been here. As with any group marginalized within music culture, their being continually situated as breaking through has reinforced their exteriority to structural power, framing their successes as an illegitimate seizure of that power. Women have been making ambitious music too bold to be ignored as long as women have been making music (Hildegard of Bingen dropped Ordo Virtutum in 1151!), but that didn’t help them from being ignored and woefully misunderstood anyway. Apologies to L.L., but you can’t call it a comeback when they’ve been here for millennia.

As one of the writers who regularly gets called up when some jeremiad or pronouncement about women in music is needed (a living (sorta, still) that I am goddamned grateful for), I’m keen to note it is year 24, for me, of pounding my shoe on the table yelling, The time is now! In his 1993 P&J missive, Robert Christgau notes it’s the fifth (or sixth) “Year of the Woman” in the poll’s history, and that was a quarter-century ago. This summer, amid some research, I stumbled onto Women in Rock trend pieces and Women Finally Have Arrived pronouncements from as early as 1968. That’s a long-ass insurgency. Fifty years of perpetual arrival. If this was the Old Testament, we woulda been back in Canaan a decade ago. So, are women here yet?

If the poll’s results have any relationship to #MeToo, perhaps it is that they evidence a wizened deliberative body (lord, hear my prayer). The toll of music’s Great Men is known, and just who has been obscured by their long shadows is no longer going unexamined; all that has been ignored in the name of a Great Man, all that has been justified by saying the music industry is by nature a tough business (note: that was Kim Fowley’s wretched excuse) — it’s a weight the culture can no longer bear. All this reckoning, overdue and exhausting and triggering and enraging as it is, presents a challenge to anyone who truly gives a shit about music, and presumably, the nearly 400 folks (85 percent male respondents) that voted this year. For every Pazz & Jop poll, there is surely a shadow Top 10, comprising othered artists whose work didn’t fit the image prescribed, whose albums were the wrong kind of confrontational, or flamboyant, albums that were created to speak to or uphold a community which those critics were not part of, or that threatened their critical agenda. From #MeToo’s rupture of music’s mythologies, a phantom canon emerges.

The other obvious factor, as my friend and colleague Laura Snapes suggested, is that “#MeToo has made it suspect to undyingly praise the male auteurs who would otherwise have populated the upper reaches of these charts.” Plus, in 2018 a bunch of revered dudes released albums that were vestigial at best. Despite claiming the top slot twice since 2010, and being tied with Bob Dylan for the most number ones in the poll’s history, Kanye only tied for 273rd place this year, with just three measly votes for Ye total. Drake’s at 82, Jeff Tweedy at 84, Jack White a squeaker, tied for 95th; the poll’s historically lauded artists David Byrne (tied at 69), Elvis Costello (at 45), and Paul McCartney (tied for 120) are left behind. The failure of male genius is often written off, and even celebrated as evidence of a calculated experiment from a risk-taking visionary, so, I am sure they all will be just fine despite their collective paucity of resonant ideas in 2018.

Robert Christgau rather keenly diagnosed the dominance of women in the 1993 poll, writing of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville and its distaff cohort, “The big story in 1993 was girls learning to play a boys’ game by boys’ rules, and play it to win,” and suggested that the critical body of voters were a bunch of rockists (true then, less true now, but c’mon, Parquet Courts?) who were just waiting, rather prescriptively, for women to “come on strong.” Later in the essay he shuts down some racist grousing in the critical ranks about certain artists not being black enough, but even so it’s another grim fucking reminder of the havoc that whiteness and patriarchal mores have wrought on both the canon and individual artist’s careers. What is the white heteropatriarchy if not the biggest algorithm of ’em all? 

Yet, what is “girls learning to play a boys’ game by boys’ rules” if not the game itself. Was there ever a time in the music industry and music journalism when those weren’t the terms? Music’s cruelest lie has always been the assertion that it’s a meritocracy. The idea that if you play by their rules, and are exceptional enough, the rules might change in order to allow you in; it’s an awful paradox, one that keeps people jumping and performing like trick poodles. And it’s a lie I certainly believed for, well, too long. When I was all of 22, I wished, in my Punk Planet column, for something like an all-girl Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, which perhaps we have right now in the form of Boygenius (at 26) or Pistol Annies (at 15), but at the time I was hoping for an equalizer and not an analogue. What I wanted, really, was not liberation in the form a femme David Crosby, but something to remediate the sad ache I felt as a young woman at shows, or reading music history books and reviews sections. It was the feeling that the bands, big ideas, and people I valued in music were without consequence to those men. I thought that it was a matter of women being inscrutable, that it was on women to puncture and petition the boys’ club. It was a faulty reasoning that disregarded any hierarchy but theirs, disregarded the fact that women had been putting out works of virtuosic genius since the dawn of recorded music.

It contorted my opinions and writing about music, warped my experience of it, my goals and allegiances, where I believed I belonged and what I had sanction to do. I was just looking for some magic key that would fit the lock. I spent a decade as a Sherpa for patriarchal bullshit before I realized that in playing a “boys’ game by boys’ rules,” there is no way to ever actually “win.” As Sasha Geffen writes in the forthcoming Glitter Up the Dark, “Patriarchy relies on the illusion of its own inevitability to survive.”

The first time I voted in this poll I was 18 years old. I am 42 now. As scholar Mary Beard writes in Women & Power, the cultural mechanisms that silence women are deeply embedded. Even in ourselves. Too often Pazz & Jop’s findings legitimated women’s exclusion in music, they gendered and racialized genius, designated music’s mythopoetics as white and male. The poll served many purposes and helped legitimize music criticism as a crucial form of cultural dialogue, but it also served to reinscribe patriarchy, prescribe heteronormativity, and center whiteness. Early on, Pazz & Jop celebrated work that reflected the identity of its voters — predominantly white, heterosexual, and male, the deliberative body was basically 25 guys and Ellen Willis. Typically, between two and five of the thirty slots went to women artists or bands with frontwomen, with Joni’s Court and Spark (1974) being the lone album by a woman to claim number one that decade; the total doesn’t crack double-digits until it hits 11 of 40 in 1981, though 1979 is a solid showing with Donna Summer, the Roches, and the Slits. (Also, how the actual fuck did Labelle escape making a single P&J appearance for the whole of the Seventies?) The results stay pretty seriously white until 1980, and diversify significantly after 1986 as hip-hop’s presence grows. This deliberative body, incomplete as it may be in 2019, are heirs to such malignancy.

The 45th (or 46th) Pazz & Jop poll — with its Top 35 that celebrates queer, nonbinary, and trans voices, womanist work, multiple albums steeped in Afrofuturism, one sung entirely in Spanish, an album by a teenage girl as well as two by women over 40, women delivering third-person character studies — might signal less a paradigm shift than, forgive me, conscious uncoupling. It’s an unmooring from some of music criticism’s faultiest frameworks and conventions, and its most painful omissions and enshrinements. It is a necessary move in order for music journalism to have any argument that it is (still) crucial to music’s community.

There’s unquestionably been a progressive shift within music journalism in recent years, owing in part to a host of writers whose work is incandescent, and has drawn even more new talent in. Notably, there’s Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which has beckoned folks in with open arms, and the exceptional work of Doreen St. Félix, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, Hazel Cills, Lindsay Zoladz, Jia Tolentino, Hua Hsu, Sasha Geffen, Carvell Wallace, the Pellys. Others have risen up through Remezcla, She Shreds, Bandcamp, or Rookie (RIP), drawn in by what those sites mirrored back to them. Some have arrived via the mentorship of Ann Powers, Greg Tate, Charles Aaron, Jeff Weiss, Kim Kelly; others through their professors Amanda Petrusich, Karen Tongson, Josh Kun, and more. In this moment, wherein music journalism feels strikingly akin to the final verse of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” it’s hard to get a handle on how music journalism sustains itself long enough to hand a generation of bright and enterprising young writers the reins. Music journalism has no bulwarks; unlike poetry, fiction, and investigative reporting, it has no formal institutions; there are no stalwart journals to endow-into-eternity like Ruth Lilly did Poetry magazine, no Sunday special sections dedicated to album reviews; unlike book critics, we do not have prestigious awards to honor the artists we revere. There are no dedicated grants or residencies for music journalism, no cash-prize honors. It’s glory-free, operates on net 90-day terms, and there’s hardly a toehold to be had. The upside: At least there’s plenty of room to build something.

And what could be next? So many music freelancers are subsidizing low word-rate assignments by doing un-bylined bios and blurbs for Big Algorithm or corpo #content; only a handful of paying, music-focused publications and sections still exist. Will the next Greg Tate get a come-up when there is no Village Voice? Does the Eve Babitz of 2019 miss her East Village Other stepping stone and just detour into teaching hot yoga instead? A decade ago, when shit went sideways for print and digital media, some folks that didn’t or couldn’t break into books or academia got by on in-flight magazine bylines, lifestyle pubs, B2B gigs, the ever-nebulous “editorial consulting.” Doing the scammy side hustle you have to in order to keep on doing the meaningful work elsewhere is old hat for many freelancers, but for that equation to work, there has to be an elsewhere. It all calls to mind Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell“To whom shall I hire myself out? What beast must I adore?” What happens when the only career opportunity left is entry-level Beast Adoration?

Journalism is one of many industries gripped in the gnashing maw of surveillance capitalism (call social media’s con by its true name), but there has to be a future beyond servitude to merciless info-mining Goliaths, one seemingly sustained only by the heroic enterprise of billionaires, and, uh, the wild ideas of the dude from Bustle. It’s grim, to be sure. Yet, still, there are folks in our midst who remember how to build a thing and tend a flame. I am heartened by the publication of the LAnd, the passion project of a bunch of former LA Weekly staffers. There’s also the incredible turnaround of my old country home, the Chicago Reader, despite just barely surviving successive perilous changes in ownership. The newsroom successfully unionized, and the paper has been righted by a dynamic consortium of four women who are veterans of local independent publishing; they are expanding and diversifying the paper’s coverage and reach to better serve the city, and they brought back comics. So maybe it’s time to pivot back to fanzine. Pivot to local underground newspaper. Pivot to supermarket circular. Pivot back to listservs and anonymous blogspots. Pivot to a publication for teenage girls that doesn’t die because it refused to be an app and a vehicle for selling things to an elusive and valuable market. Pivot to a publisher who doesn’t nuke the newsroom for unionizing. Pivot to a music journalism where the fate of young freelancers of color doesn’t depend on one white editor staying employed at a dying publication. Pivot to bartending or shifts at California Pizza Kitchen because weeklies still only pay 9 cents a word but at least they let you go off when a record sucks and you gotta make rent somehow. What the hell can you do but keep on swinging?

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