Music writing has come a long way since the days of the inkies – the papers that would leave marks on their readers’ fingers – when a handful of male gatekeepers dictated the tastes of Britain’s music-loving teens. While female writers were occasionally admitted to this hallowed club, they were the exception rather than the rule. Since then, the music press has been at once democratised and straitened by the advent of free content. Previously marginalised voices are now being heard, even if the rates of pay are largely paltry.
This Woman’s Work, an anthology of 16 essays by female writers compiled and edited by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and the critic Sinéad Gleeson, is a piquant reminder of the talent, musical and literary, that has always been under editors’ noses, if only they cared to look. Billed as a “challenge [to] the historic narrative of music and music writing being written by men, for men”, the contributions cross genres, decades and continents, and are less about casting judgment on artists and their work than the process of discovery and the ways music can influence and enrich lives.
The best of these pieces alight on the intersection of music and identity, and how politics and personal relationships are often intertwined with our listening. The American novelist Leslie Jamison’s Double-Digit Jukebox: An Essay in Eight Mixes is built around mixtapes and reveals how the author spent her formative years experiencing music through the preferences of the men in her life, from her older brother to friends and partners. For her, music was bound up with male approval, though this changes as she forges 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.
The author Fatima Bhutto, niece of the former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, reveals her childhood homesickness for a land she had never visited. This longing was passed down from her father, the politician Murtaza Bhutto, who, exiled from Pakistan and living in Syria, was forever telling his daughter that they would go back soon. He would play Otis Redding’s wistful (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. Music, she recalls, “carried us over the swells 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 to have stood up to oppressive regimes. “Tyrants fear music,” she observes, “because no matter their force and their power, they will never, not ever, be able to control what is beautiful.”
Grief, whether for the dead or for the past, is a recurring theme, with music simultaneously offering comfort and re-opening old wounds. The London-based writer and broadcaster Zakia Sewell unearths cassette recordings of her mother, since devastated by mental illness, as a young woman singing in an acid jazz band. “She sounds happy,” Sewell reflects, “but there’s something telling in her vibrato, in the way it swells and quakes. My mother: a ghost, immortalised on tape.” Author Maggie Nelson’s vivid and heartfelt My Brilliant Friend recalls her childhood friendship with the Mexican-American singer Lhasa de Sela, stalwart of the all-female music festival Lilith Fair. Nelson had long ago lost contact with “my first and only truly bohemian friend” when she learned, in 2010, that she had died from breast cancer. 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, charismatic and sometimes maddening artist.
Elsewhere, Jenn Pelly writes on Lucinda Williams’s Fruits of my Labor, describing it as “a requiem, a road song, an escape hatch, a poem”; Juliana Huxtable composes a febrile, if occasionally impenetrable, “praise poem” for Linda Sharrock, leading light of 1960s avant-garde jazz; Margo Jefferson looks at the life of Ella Fitzgerald and the multiple ways she was cruelly judged; Rachel Kushner traces the early career of Wanda Jackson before she found sobriety and God; andYiyun Litells of her relationship with Auld Lang Syne, which for her is best sung in July. Gleeson’s own essay pays tribute to the composer Wendy Carlos, the criminally overlooked brain behind The Shining soundtrack and more; while Kim Gordon has a conversation with the Japanese artist Yoshimi P-We, drummer in the Boredoms, about the purity of self-expression.
If this all sounds a little serious, let me point you towards the Irish novelist Anne Enright whose Fan Girl finds her reflecting on the “beautiful disaster” 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 incapable of saying anything other than “a single gloop of word-sentence-blurt”, which she renders as “fiffloopidiggllyblop”. She may have failed to form coherent sentences in Anderson’s presence, but she makes up for it in a lively and entertaining piece that paints the artist as a trailblazer, mischief-maker, kindred spirit and personal hero whose haircut Enright flagrantly copied. As the title suggests, the author makes no bones about 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 has strived to avoid what she calls “the music conversation, the one where people gather into tribes, swap favourites, judge, include, exclude, bond, claim status or coolness or an identity because of their choices. Music undoes me. It does not tell me who I am.”
Judging by the other essays in this book – the title of which is taken from the Kate Bush song – you sense that Enright is not alone in rejecting musical tribalism and perceptions of what might be cool or otherwise. 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 music writing, but in the loosest possible sense. Here, music is the soil in which all manner of stories take seed and bloom.