Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  Expert Witness
Books:
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Writings:
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Playboy
  Blender
  Rolling Stone
  Billboard
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
  Recyclables
  Newsprint
  Lists
  Miscellany
Bibliography
NPR
Web Site:
  Home
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
  Archive
Venues:
  Noisey
CG Search:
Google Search:
Twitter:
Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Look at That Stupid Girl

I have not made an exhaustive study, but I have been struck by how little writing has appeared on the subject of rock and women. A woman should be writing this. But no woman has written it yet, and I've felt for at least a year that somebody had better. Because I believe women's oppression demands the most far-reaching analysis of social structures ever attempted, I feel obliged to ignore the certain ridicule of the satisfied oppressors and the inevitable resentment of the conscious oppressed and try to analyze the problem myself.

I received my own sexism sensitivity training from a militant feminist who is almost as fervent about rock as I am, and I know that to a lesser extent such enthusiasm is shared by many active women's liberationists, so I don't believe indifference causes the silence. On the contrary, many women are explicitly perplexed by the paradox of their attraction to a music that is not only male chauvinist--almost everything is--but even, to call upon a useful distinction, male supremacist. I think a similar paradox plagues the women's movement as a whole.

To charge that the typical feminist wants to "be like a man" is a canard. She wants only the freedom to explore what it is to be a woman. But in order to gain such freedom she is obliged to gather power, and in the process of gathering power she accrues "masculine" characteristics. Without some minimal share of "male" autonomy/activism/energy (these may seem like perfectly unexceptionable qualities, but they aren't when, as is so often the case, they block their equally unexceptionable opposites: communality/responsiveness/equanimity), she would never be able to assert herself in the first place. And it is with self-assertiveness, counted so "unfeminine" by many men (and women), that her struggle must begin. Of course, that is not where it's supposed to end. In the most productive pattern of self-liberation the new feminist both declares her independence--from her man, her job, her life training--and discovers her solidarity--with other women.

A like pattern of release and new community emerges from a political analysis of rock and roll. Musically, rock has always been an affirmation of energy--aggressive where pop was acquiescent and folk reflective--and it has always instilled in its audience a penchant for activity, beginning, I suppose, with foot-tapping and ending, I suppose, with state-smashing. The independence this activity implies and reifies has also led to solidarity, mostly generational, with music the great adhesive. In fact, insofar as the new feminism results from a certain style of heightened political awareness that began with the civil-rights movement, it can be said to have some of its roots in the adolescent rebellion symbolized by rock and roll. This is a far-fetched rationalization, and there is no need to take it as more than a curiosity, but it does help resolve the paradox. Women like rock not only because it has human value but also because some of that human value is, or has been, good for them as women.

I assume that by now I have lost most of those who begin this column every time in the hope that I will be writing about rock and roll. I have lost them, dudes and chicks both. After all, they're in it for the sex in the first place. The metaphor around which rock's liberating energy collects itself--the content of that energy--is sexual. Since we grew up in an antisexual society, we have tended to embrace that giant breakthrough with the total passion we think it deserves. But because rock draws upon traditional folk attitudes dating back (at least) to African tribal dances and Scottish ballads--or, more directly, blues and country music--its sexual energy, like all formalized sexual energy I know about, is also sexist energy. It posits the classic pattern of man the pursuer/actor and woman the pursued/acted-upon. The subculture that is identified with rock--and the more precise the identification, the more this is true--has instituted this pattern with a vengeance that is almost literal, sloughing off all the genteel post-Victorian camouflage so many of us grew up with and getting back to basics. For the hard-core rock freak, a chick's place is not only in the home but between the sheets, and a feminist is more fucked up than fucked over and better off just plain fucked.

The sexist message can be discerned in one form or another in just about every rock song that concerns men and women, but lyrics, except when they are clearly audible and blatant, are the least of it. It is in the theater of rock, both in the media and in live performance, that sexism really prevails. Don't even think about groupies--just name female rock musicians. The idea, of course, is ridiculous. Among concert-calibre groups, the total is two drummers--Maureen Tucker, of the Velvet Underground, and Ruth Underwood, of the Hamilton Face Band--and the two women who perform with Sly Stone. There are also a few singer-pianists and many folkies who accompany themselves on (low-energy) acoustic guitar. No electric guitarists at all.

It is possible to argue that women--as a function of cultural deprivation, of course, not innate disadvantage--have little bent for instrumental improvisation. As rock exists now, that may be true, although if so, it is even more true of jazz. But the deeper truth, I think, is more unpleasant than any cant about cultural deprivation. First, women cannot play rock guitar because men won't listen to them, and there is no need to belabor phallic analogies to explain why. Second, women cannot play rock because they cannot and/or do not want to create in blues-based male styles.

Granted, this is speculation, and granted too that there have to be a lot more men with guitar chops than women. The nice thing about such speculations is that anyone is free to make them because they're never fairly tested. I know by name of three female rock groups: Joy of Cooking (wonderful pun), the Enchanted Forest (who according to a recent Rat were put through the wringer by a male manager), and the Ace of Cups. I saw the Ace of Cups two years ago. They were strong vocally but didn't have much instrumental kineticism. They were, however, much more than professional, and I think it is significant that the group, despite its professionalism and gimmick appeal, never got a recording contract. I hope for my sake and for the sake of the music that women see fit to defy the odds and enter rock in capacities other than Resident Female Principle.

You see, I have felt over the past year and a half a steadily increasing disaffection with rock's male chauvinism. I am acutely uncomfortable with songs of cock-pride (Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," for instance), even though I still dig them as artifacts. I perceive all too well the other side of the born-to-be-wild theme--sorry to break your heart, babe, but the road is calling me. I am so far gone that I am offended by the Guess Who's "No Time" and uplifted by Janis's "Turtle Blues." I listen to "Do Right Woman," purportedly a hymn to the equality of the sexes, and hear its message: A well-fucked woman has nothing to complain about. I can't even take the good-hearted condescension of John Sebastian without wincing a little. So far, of course, I have managed to overcome my distress. Music is one of my great pleasures, and I'm not about to give it up. But there are times when I wonder how acutely conscious women continue to stand for it.

The carrot-and-stick of sexism is subtle and pervasive. Sexism predates any political or economic system, and it is carried by the entire culture. Just because it can be so far-reaching, feminist analysis fascinates the kamikaze left. A woman in a properly destructive frame of mind can justifiably reject almost all the art that has ever existed in the world. I can't, and I won't. My love for popular culture has always been nourished by one overriding assumption--that there is a human spirit strong enough to break through the distortions of any structure imposed upon it.

Whether we admit it or not, we always perceive art through a built-in set of compensations; we judge it and respond to it not only in terms of what and how it does and says but also in terms of what we feel about the limitations of its creator. No civil-libertarian atheist blames John Locke for having been a deist in 1690. Unless a woman wants to contend that it was only masochism that induced her to dig on "Heart of Stone" in 1965, then she has to admit that there was something there--some energy, as my rhetoric would have it--that was good for her. Even if the energy of rock is nothing more than sublimated (or not so sublimated) machismo, such machismo can be a step on the way out, a na´ve reaction against apparent sources of oppression, and in that way it is beautiful.

There is another false trap here. Aesthetic reactions ought to come from the whole person. When a woman is turned off by some cocksure chauvinist on the stage of the Fillmore East, she is not "judging art politically." On the contrary, she is responding naturally to what she has come to feel as her own experience, just like the black man who doesn't want to be called boy, even by D.W. Griffith. The quality of a man's response to such implied insults has a lot in common with the quality of a white's response--secondhand, perhaps, but also gut-level if he's conscious enough. Nevertheless, I think hypersensitivity ought to be avoided. There is a sense, for instance, in which "Back Street Girl" is a sexist song, but there is also a sense in which it is a biting, accurate indictment of sexism--not to mention class oppression--at its most humiliating. In this and other vaguer cases I tend toward the kinder interpretation and reaction. When you love something as much as I love rock, that's probably a good rule and instinct.

I am rarely sanguine about politics these days. I believe the women's movement is going to make a lot of people, male and female, excruciatingly unhappy before it starts doing a whole lot of unequivocal good, but for all that it must continue, and it will. The prospects for a sexually integrated music in the near future are nonexistent, but it's nice to think that the next time music is revitalized, women may do the revitalizing. Maybe the sensibilities of all of us will be extended in ways difficult to imagine and trying to undergo, but deeply pleasurable when we get there. Whenever that is.

Village Voice, June, 1970
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


In Memory of the Dave Clark Five A Musical Weekend