Last week, I wrote about the stunning new collection Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé, Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl (Black Dog & Leventhal), edited by Evelyn McDonnell. In this week’s follow up, I talked to McDonnell about the process of putting the book together, her influences, and the challenges women face in music and publishing today. McDonnell is associate professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and she is the author of four books, including Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways. The former music editor of The Village Voice, McDonnell will be speaking about Women Who Rock in several cities over the next few weeks. She is currently the series editor of Music Matters (University of Texas Press).
Where did you get the idea for the book?
In some ways, it was 30 years in the gestation. I’ve always wanted to do a history of women in rock. But, the timing was never right; I never found the right format. I didn’t want it to be a one-voice narrative. It was really the publisher, and the editor Becky Koh, who came to me with this idea. She suggested doing a book that’s somewhat like The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock: Trouble Girls (Random House). We knew that book’s two decades old by now and that we wanted to cover artists who’ve had an impact since then. I wanted every chapter to be on a single artist. I liked the idea of having multiple voices writing about single subjects, getting really great writers to write about subjects they’re passionate about. I wanted diversity in age, race, geography, too.
How long did it take to put the book together?
I started talking over two years ago, before the 2016 election. The book was conceived in one environment and I handed in the manuscript before the #MeToo movement; it was published in yet another environment, during all the controversy of last week and the confirmation proceedings.
How did you come up with the list of artists you cover in the book, as well as the writers who would write about them?
In terms of subject, I came up with a list of over one hundred artists. We decided we wanted an editorial board, and initially, we had a group of a dozen writers who helped me decide which artists we had to include. I reached out to some writers whom I knew and some I had been reading and watching grow as writers. I asked them if them if they’d like to write for the book, and I asked them to come up with a list of ten artists they wanted to write about. I then made a kind of Venn diagram of my original list and the writers’ lists, and many of the artists overlapped and we included them. In some cases, multiple writers suggested artists that didn’t appear on the original list, so I considered those artists and found someone to write about the artist. Becky made the decisions about which illustrators would work on which subjects.
What was the most challenging aspect of pulling together the book?
The choosing we had to do. Having to eliminate artists that mattered to me or to history. I didn’t want to have too many artists from one decade or one genre.
Who are your models for writing about music?
Ellen Willis — I’m teaching her essay on Janis Joplin next week, as a matter of fact — Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Patti Smith, Simon Frith.
If you had an opportunity to have lunch with three authors, living or dead, who would they be?
Patti Smith, John Steinbeck — who despite his bad reputation right now, I still consider a great writer, Toni Morrison; that would be an interesting lunch!
If you had an opportunity to have lunch with three artists, living or dead, who would they be?
Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Nina Simone. Wouldn’t that be a conversation?
What are the challenges women in the music industry and women writing about music face today?
The good thing about today is that there are ways for women writers and musicians to get around the monolithic structures that kept many women off of radio or out of publishing. The music industry overall is still not the best place to be a woman, but it’s probably better than it was. It’s the same with music magazines. However, now if I want to write about music, for example, I don’t have to depend on getting the piece published in a magazine; I can just publish it on my blog. I might not draw as many readers, of course (laughs), but I can put my writing out there. The playing fields are not as level, but they are not as steep as they were.
What will readers be surprised to learn from the book?
I think there were some artists who weren’t obvious choices. We wanted to write about people who didn’t hit the charts but made an impact in their world. Commercial success is not the be-all. Artists such as Ana Tijoux, the Chilean rocker and rapper, or the Bronx-based hip-hop, punk group ESG, or The Cramps’ guitarist Poison Ivy. I hope people will discover artists they’ve never heard of.