Music

Pazz & Jop: A Promise Realized

The most remarkable thing about this year’s Pazz & Jop poll results is how unremarkable they are

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I like to think about all 45 (or 46) years the Pazz & Jop poll results have been tallied. I like to think about all the different iterations of editors who’ve done the tallying, and the luminaries who’ve done the voting, and the assorted grimy nooks and crannies throughout New York that have become littered with coffee cups and cigarette butts and half-eaten donuts and god knows what else in an effort to get the thing done. I like to think about all those Wednesdays, just before dawn — the only semi-quiet time in New York City — when delivery trucks made their way through empty streets depositing bound bundles next to telltale cherry-red Voice boxes. If you stayed out late enough, you could grab a freshly baked copy on your way home. I like to think about how, in this four decade–plus span of Pazz & Jop, there have been six times that all top five albums happened to be by male artists, and, until this year, zero times that all top five albums happened to be by female artists. I like to think about how that happened.

The Pazz & Jop poll has been a mainstay of a certain kind of New Yorker’s winter ever since its inception in 1971. I am that kind of New Yorker. In 2002, the first year I lived in the city, well before I had any hope of actually getting paid to write about music, I would grab the Voice on my way to the subway, then devour it on the F train during the long journey from the LES to the UES, where I was teaching second grade at an all-boys private school. That year was a good one: The top five albums included Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Beck’s Sea Change, and Sleater-Kinney’s One Beat. By 2006, when I’d started working at Rolling Stone, and was still brimming with enthusiasm about following in the footsteps of Lester Bangs and Ellen Willis, the top album of the year was Modern Times by Bob Dylan (great record). But TV on the Radio and the Hold Steady, two bands I would go on to write about, made the top five, too. My people were coming up! By the end of the decade, my optimism about my future as a music writer had deteriorated considerably. I’d been told by one real live boss that I was best used not as a writer but as a talking head (but also that I was too chubby for TV — he bought me a gym membership), and by another that I was not talented enough to handle assignments longer than 800 words. By decade’s end, as the recession was cresting, I was freelancing, broke, and spending a lot of time watching Alias, imagining life as a ninja spy — when I wasn’t quietly berating myself for not having gone to law school like a good girl. I was also listening to Pazz & Jop’s top album of 2010, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which felt appropriate.

I spent the first decade of my career trying to be taken seriously enough to be allowed to get better as a writer. I’ve spent these last years feeling grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had — the remarkable editors (two of whom, both men, incidentally, are behind this essay you are currently reading) and the remarkable subjects — all while simultaneously trying to avoid the tractor-beam pull of being a Woman in Music. When I first started out, I was often treated as the Girl in the Room, which both hindered and helped my career at times. Later, once I became more established, I was often treated as the Female Rock Writer. This still happens. In the #MeToo era, you would be staggered (or not) by the number of offers I’ve gotten to write a hot take (“We’d need it in two weeks!”) on this zeitgeisty new subject called sexual harassment in the music industry. Could I get some fellow ladies to speak real quick about the worst experiences of their lives? It’s of course offensive that the subject would be treated as a trend, but it’s also understandable why editors trying to cover that trend would sound so desperate when reaching out for help; the relative lack of music journalists with the background needed to write an exposé on institutional misogyny in the music business is a symptom of the very scourge that story attempts to uncover.

You notice, as a female music writer, that even the best-intentioned attempts to make up for the chasm that stands between women and their male counterparts can wind up feeling unintentionally marginalizing. The Women in Rock package, where we showcase this rare creature called the “female musician” and often bring temporarily to the fore her companion the “woman rock writer” to document her, mean well but feel terrible. For a while, I rebelled against this request by holding kind of pathetically firm to one rule: I will not, ever, no matter who requests it (and it’s female editors as often as male) ask a woman artist the dreaded question: How does it feel to be a woman in this business? I will also not say or type “this business.” Ever. You can see how that’s worked out.

This is all to say that for me the most remarkable thing about this year’s results is how unremarkable they are. For the first time ever, the critical establishment and the Recording Academy were in agreement, with Kacey Musgraves and Childish Gambino topping Pazz & Jop’s albums and singles lists while also taking home Grammys for Album and Record of the Year, respectively. Further, in this year’s poll, five artists made the top five albums, and those artists were female. It’s just what happened. It’s not the result of a deliberate attempt to recognize art by women, it’s a result of the fact that art made by women was, according to P&J voters, this year’s best. And for all kinds of reasons. Take Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer and Musgraves’s Golden Hour, the top two vote-getters for Album of the Year. The former is an explicitly activist piece of art as cultural analysis and joyful revolution, and the latter is a trippy pop-country record about falling in love in hypercolored slow motion. One has been called “feminist” because it’s overtly political (a favorite lyric of many: “Hundred men telling me cover up my areolas/While they blocking equal pay, sippin’ on they Coca-Colas”), but both are works of resistance against the patriarchy, because they are albums made by women that say what they came here to say and refuse to be held to any other standard of success. What’s promising is to see both recognized as such, as good purely because they are good, not because they are good for a girl or good because they were made by a girl, which are both, of course, just different framings of the same prejudice.

When I was a dirty city kid, going to Strokes shows by night and teaching boys in blazers by day, dreaming of one day getting to be sent somewhere, anywhere, on assignment — or, you know, being able to expense a sandwich — I didn’t read the Pazz & Jop poll as a female rock fan, I read it as a rock fan. Like all good local rock fans, I then went to the Library with my other rock-obsessed friends and played the Gun Club on the jukebox, drank too many vodka sodas, and debated the rightness or wrongness of the results. I didn’t notice until later, until I was experiencing the limitations of sexism in my own professional life, how comparably few women there were around the office. And on the charts. And in those bars with me in the first place. I assumed, when I fell in love with the world that made it, this poll was a result of some of the best critical minds in music, spending reverential time reflecting on that years’ best noise, and rendering a verdict. I thought the whole process, and the realm it served as a portal to, was sacrosanct, beyond the petty limits of bias, beholden to the bigger, better, purer metrics of rock and roll, of New York City, this place where you can go to get free. This year, it feels like that promise was realized.

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