Jen Girdish

Writer, editor, reformed shut-in.

Don’t forget about Georgia: Some thoughts on gender and the Pitchfork People’s List

There was a lot of chatter about the Pitchfork People’s List only having a 12% female participation rate, and 0% of female solo artists appearing in the top 50 albums. Some I agree with, some I don’t. Jody Rosen at Slate called the list a scandal because it was largely white and largely male, though, he notes, nothing about this list is surprising to anyone who reads Pitchfork.

He’s right, it’s not. There’s no question that music nerdom and the “indie” music industry is a white boy’s club. I dare you to find someone who doesn’t agree. Do it! I’ll wait.

There’s no question that it’s a huge problem.

Rosen counts two records by female artists in the top 50 of the People’s List, and 23 in the top 200. He notes that he “makes room” for co-ed bands like The xx, Beach House, and Portishead.

Rosen’s list is more crazy-making to me than Sleater-Kinney not showing up on the People’s List at all.[1] It doesn’t help this huge gender imbalance in rock to discount females playing in mixed-gender bands—or, to even “make room” for them—because when you do that, you automatically count their contributions as male. Do female musicians in mixed-gender bands not count as much as the men? Do you think that the ladies in these bands are just following the men’s lead? Do you assume that one girl in a band is there to be that girl in the band? Do you think we all have too much sperm in the brain?

This kind of thinking just perpetuates the boy’s club mentality, and is yet another kind of gender stereotype in rock: that women are there to look pretty. They’re with the band, not of the band. It’s a really reductive way of thinking about female participation in rock.

I don’t know what 23 records made Rosen’s count, but is Yo La Tengo one of them? Does Georgia Hubley–one of the founding members who sings, plays drums, and writes a lot of the songs–not count because she’s married to Ira? What about the ladies in Broken Social Scene? What about Meg White? Do we write off half of the White Stripes because Jack taught her how to play the drums? The Arcade Fire? When you say that you’re making room for Beach House, are you trying to make room for the possibility that Victoria Legrand’s contribution isn’t as valued as as Alex Scally’s?

If you’re not going to count those records as female artists, then you can’t count them as male either.

I counted 46—with my own murky gender math—which is in no way a great number, but it’s better than 23.


[1] I mean, what the fuck, guys.

Ellen Willis, my mom, and the option to be a bad ass


My mother always told me that when she went to college, women had three career options: secretary, teacher, or nurse. Because she liked books, she became a teacher.

She then spent the next thirty years incredibly bitter about a choice that didn’t seem like her own.

She spent most of the nineties hunting for the career she never got to choose. She hopped from seminary, to writing bits of short stories, to starting her own quilting business. I worried that she’d never find what she was really looking for because it was too late.

By the time I was in college, she stopped trying, got remarried, and became a full-time fundamentalist Christian. She’s now part of a community that gives her less options than she had when she graduated college.

I recently finished Out of the Vinyl Deeps, the essay collection of the first pop music critic at the New Yorker, a woman who was 7 years older than my mother. I’ve never read rock music and feminism through quite so clear a lens. Ellen Willis’s essays focus on music in the 60s and 70s through her deeply personal and critical filter. I have a notorious, self-perpetuating blind spot when it comes to the 60s and 70s rock music, and if anything could inspire me to give the Rolling Stones a fair shot, it’s somewhere in these essays.

But what I keep churning around in my brain is in the introduction written by Willis’ daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz. Aronowitz writes about the moment she realizes her mother’s work had helped her shape her own writing.

“It was then that I realized I’d absorbed it all: the stacks of records, the visits to the Village Voice on Take Your Daughters to Work Day, those filing cabinets in my mom’s office crammed with Rolling Stone articles. I realized more than ever—my mom is a serious bad ass! Emboldened by my mother’s approval, I wrote more.”

The first time my still-learning brain put together that there were women my mother’s age who became something outside of a teacher, secretary, or nurse, I was fourteen. Or maybe fifteen. I read something in the newspaper about Katha Pollitt—a woman I hadn’t heard of before, but she seemed to write things about being a woman in publications outside of Cosmo that people respected—and I noticed her age. It was exactly the same as my mom’s. Then, I realized that the woman who wrote Sleepless in Seattle—a movie that my mom could quote at command—was even older than my mom. The jig was up.

How did I not notice that these bad ass women existed before? Did I assume these women had found their careers later in life, or that they were exempt because they weren’t specially born in 1949, or that there was a council of men who allowed a few women to do things, to keep up morale? Or maybe—because I wanted to be a SERIOUS WRITER as long as I could remember—I didn’t notice these other women because I didn’t think any career other than a writer mattered.

The only female authors my mom exposed me to were either contemporary young adult mavens or ones who had been dead for years—we read Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and L.M. Montgomery. Did I assume that women writing as SERIOUS profession died out?

My mom had lied to me—she must have. If Katha Pollitt was out there, what else was my mom hiding to mask the shame she surely felt over her own weakness? Why wasn’t she tough enough to break through her perceived career straightjacket? Even if she had been wrong, why wasn’t she trying to teach me about these things? Why didn’t she try harder to be a bad ass?

I was mad at her for weeks. I’d thump my Keds around our hard wood floors with all the torment that an only child could muster. I practiced my scales on the piano as forte as I could. I’d make a point to list the careers of friend’s moms at any opportunity. “Alison’s mom is an editor at a knitting magazine. Dana’s mom is a chemist.”

Even now, every time I meet or read about a bad ass woman that’s close to my mom’s age, I feel that twinge of betrayal all over again. Ellen Willis was born in the forties, and she also liked books.

But Willis was from New York, and my mom grew up in a Southwestern Pennsylvanian town that didn’t have a stoplight. No one lied to my mother—the sixties just hadn’t made it to West Alexander, PA yet.

But the thing is, my mom was really good at being a reading specialist. All of her students adored her, she tutored kids whose parents would drive them forty minutes to get to our house, she was on a thousand committees. I was her only difficult student. She was the bad ass of reading specialists.

Sometimes, I imagine what my mother had felt when she realized that she could’ve been something else, that someone like Willis was her peer. I bet it’s a similar feeling when I remember that Karen Russell is a year younger than me, and I realize that I’m closer in age to Fiona Apple than Lean Dunham.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think I could be a writer, but I’ve inherited some of my mom’s hesitation at being a bad ass. I know that women can do anything—have it all, or some of it, or more than we had—but often I don’t translate that into *I* can do anything. I always make myself an exception—I’m not that talented, my idea isn’t good enough, I’m too busy watching Friday Night Lights.

My husband and I have conversations about the children question, and if we do have, them what we will give them: the finest dinosaur toys, near sightedness, and a belief that the Velvet Underground was more important than the Beatles. But if I do have a daughter, I want to give her the understanding that women can do anything—and that’s not just in theory. We are all capable of being bad asses. And that means she can be, too.

The last things I’ll say about Klosterman and tUnE-yArDs. Definitely, maybe.

One positive thing to emerge from this whole Klosterman guffaw, is that it got me to spell tUnE-yArDs as the way Merrill intended. I think we owe her that much. I’m still working on whokill.

Other things that it has done include making the internet, or a certain part of it, hysterical. A good thing, I think. Both sides of the gender aisle are talking about what his piece means and doesn’t mean about music criticsm. Here are my favorite takes on Klosterman’s take on tUnE-yArDs:

Somehow, I forgot that Klosterman did write about Andy Rooney:

“He’d open a can of mixed nuts on 60 Minutes and separate the various nuts by type, and then he’d count how many of each nut were in the can. What made this so interesting (at least to me) was not the metaphor this act represented; what was interesting was that there was no metaphor at all. It wasn’t a veiled sociological commentary or a criticism of advertising or a meditation on consumerism. It wasn’t about anything, except the contents of the can. This, I suspect, is why Rooney’s seemingly banal essays were so infuriating to a certain kind of person: We have come to assume that whenever a media personality talks about something basic, he or she is actually trying to explain something complex. The idea that someone on television would just sit at his desk and complain about mixed nuts and have it only be about the ostensive subject — without a larger meaning and without a defined purpose — seemed facile and ridiculous. ”

Is Chuck Klosterman the Next Andy Rooney?


Maybe you already have, but read this Chuck Klosterman piece on tUnE-yArDs.

Then, compare it to this Andy Rooney segment on fruit.

Both pieces are by old white dudes, ranting about the new ways of the world. Both seem to be phoning it in. Andy Rooney doesn’t think tomatoes are a fruit. Klosterman stumbles into the fruit store of the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll and starts yelling at the tomatoes he finds at the top of the list, first calling the album obscure and meaningless and then finding a way to compare it to Cop Rock.

If he doesn’t watch out, Klosterman will soon be sporting bushy eyebrows and making a few comments about homosexuality leading to premature death.

[1] I’m all for using faux-naiveté as a device, but it shouldn’t be the lazy critic’s crutch. Especially a critic who is so well-established. How are we supposed to take anything Klosterman says seriously after, “I’m not really in a position to argue for (or against) the merits of tUnE-yArDs, simply because I’ve barely listened to w h o k i l l”? And more importantly, how is his supposed point about the “pitfalls of critical adoration” for indie artists able to get across to the reader when he then goes on to be needlessly, well, mean, for several unending paragraphs.

[1a] Remember when all of those people were yelling “Who is Arcade Fire?!” on Twitter last year because they won the Grammy? This piece is the 1,000-word equivalent of that.

[2] Whether you like tUnE-yArDs or not, the crack about Merril’s asexuality is gross and dumb, and not just because he confuses asexuality with androgyny. There are a bunch of “superficial” tUnE-yArDs lyrics that overtly refer to sexuality. It’s RIGHT there in the music. But he wouldn’t know that because Klosterman admittedly didn’t want to do his homework. I can’t help but think he wouldn’t have mused about this if she dressed a little more Lana Del Rey-ish.

[3] If this is supposed to be a comment on the fickleness of indie-taste-making, why not attack the hype culture that creates this kind of thing, instead of making fun of her for being a “fucking puppeteer”? Here is a better piece on how you might write something like that.

[4] When all’s said and done, I’m hella angry about this piece simply because how many female musicians make it to the top of any sort of critic’s poll? This is the first time in over a decade that a female-fronted record made #1 in the Pazz & Jop Poll. And, THIS is the record/artist—a bold, empowered record with a unique statement and voice about gender and power dynamics—that Klosterman chooses to be a douche about?

[4a] This should be a clear cry for help that we need more lady voices in music criticism. Pazz & Jop is a poll of polls, which more or less comes closest to reflecting the true critical consensus throughout this lovely nation. Three times in the last 15 years, P&J thought Bob Dylan made the best album of the year. I think this reflects the true landscape of professional music critics: old white men. Let’s please get some ladies all up in here. I keeping thinking about the She Should Write post on Feministing last year. If you’re a lady, and you have something to say about media/music, write it! Publish it via blog, Tumblr, Twitter, zine, carrier pigeon. This subject may all seem trivial or minor—some critic called an indie rock girl an asexual weirdo, who cares—but it should matter. Music criticism is largely still a boys club, and they are helping us form our opinions by the hour, by the Tweet. We should be making it harder for old white dudes who are too lazy to look at a lyric sheet, to publish uninformed, vaguely sexist ideas just because they have a large, accessible platform. Talk about dangerous ideas.