Rock She Wrote: A Letter

Here's the letter to Ann Powers and Evelyn McDonnell, who were then organizing Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop and Rap (1995). I like the letter as a sort of statement of purpose for my early rock criticism, when there weren't many women doing it. -- CD

Dear Ann and Evelyn,

Thanks for your letter of July 16 and very sorry to be so slow getting back. I'm honored to be approached about your interesting project, but the suggested topics made me feel so disoriented that I soon entered that twilight zone between a covering letter and procrastination. The fact is, while I was publishing rock criticism in the Voice during the seventies and early eighties, it was my ambition not to be perceived as a woman writing about women, men, etc. This was for a lot of reasons. One was strategy. I figured that while Voice readers supported feminism, the rock and roll audience would blank out anything too doctrinaire. But then, I couldn't blame them. Just measuring lyrics and stance with a feminism meter seemed like a stupid enterprise that all but ignored the main subject, which was rock and roll. And I thought the main subject itself had plenty to teach feminists or anyone political, because on the one hand so many political issues intersected there and on the other it reflected what the people the Movement was always failing to organize actually wanted. Class had never really had much currency as a political issue in the sixties, and by the mid-seventies the women's movement had if anything taken a few steps backward, dominated by on the one hand, a Ms.-style career feminism in which successful women basically settled for a trickle-down effect to their less privileged sisters, and on the other, a post-hippie feminism with strategies like hugging, astrology, and men baking bread. Race got lip service, but class was dismissed or simplified, with vulgarity regularly mistaken for male chauvinism. By me, vulgarity was part of the solution, just as gentility was part of the problem.

My big passion was demystification. I thought it was extremely important for me as a woman critic to write about more than gender, and to write about gender (or race or class) in ways that undermined the category itself. I got very interested in strangeness, partly because it was so egalitarian. I didn't want to wring my hands about the hardships women faced--I wanted to write about how smart we were, how funny, how honest, how shrewd. I wanted to write about how much reasoning and skill goes into the whole realm of so-called women's instincts. I think I would have liked to prove that beauty itself was an act of will. At the same time, go figure, I cut my hair off and started dressing like a boy.

These were the boy years in the rock and roll world where I was most at home, the downtown club scene, and I fell for the whole thing hard--the slouch, the pimples, the little jackets, the sarcasm. Now I look back and think, oh, golly, was that tomming? Was I just cross-dressing to avoid sexual harassment? Yet at the time I guess I thought showing up in clubs looking like Oliver Twist did more for other women than writing Riffs. I figured women didn't read Riffs that much, and I'm not sure they do now either. In Riffs I was always proving myself in a male bastion, and this I basically did by showing off as a writer. I knew my grasp of the music was far from authoritative, and--let's not be coy about about this--I would never have got into the business if I hadn't been Bob Christgau's wife, but I also figured I could write most of the other guys under the table, and I thought that ought to prove something. But what? I didn't like to kid myself that my little foray into the world of the musical penis would trickle down to other women, but I certainly felt more honor than my own depended on my acquitting myself with authenticity and flair.

Looking back now from the early nineties, imagining the perspective of a generation of women rock critics 15 years younger than me, in an era when feminism really is broad-based, where the battlegrounds are damn near life-and-death, this all sounds so quaint I feel like a doddering fool. You young things with your bustiers and your nautilus machines! Us old things with our t-shirts and little vests! We thought Patti Smith would change the world, and look who really did, Madonna. And--this is what makes me feel oldest--I just don't get her! What gave me most strength in those years were women with the courage not to be sexually attractive. In this era it is a woman with the nerve to project her sexuality larger-than-life that does the trick. Too many feminists--young feminists--seem to really love her for me to dismiss that, but she doesn't reach me very often and when she does it's not for any feminist frisson. The woman who's done most for me as a role model these past ten years is Anita Hill.

Anyhow, here are clips, odd little artifacts of those interesting years. I was generally bending over backwards so hard to be indirect in my rock criticism that I almost never spelled this stuff out, but I was always thinking it. Best wishes and keep the faith.

Oct. 5, 1992