McDonnell, a pop culture writer and an associate professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University, gathered a team of female writers - from fellow journalists to punk rockers - to pen essays on 103 women who have rocked the foundations of music across all genres throughout history, starting with blues belter Bessie Smith. Each entry features an original portrait by a female illustrator and includes an essential playlist.
The book, McDonnell points out, uses rock as a verb, not a noun. "We perceive it not as a static entity, defined by loud guitars and a 4/4 beat, but as the action that defies the containing force of a label."
Shortly after the book's October 2018 release, McDonnell spoke with Songfacts about Women Who Rock and told us why the Supremes are just as important to history as Bob Dylan.
Evelyn McDonnell: In all honesty, the publisher realized it first, brought it to the attention of my agent, who brought me on board. I think I live so much in this subject that I hadn't realized how long it had been since Trouble Girls. I definitely leapt at the opportunity to write two decades of artists into the history books, and also offer a new outlook on the canon.
Songfacts: What were the criteria for choosing the 103 artists in Women Who Rock?
McDonnell: We were looking for game changers, whether they shifted the discourse – or moved the rhythm, as I describe in the introduction – aesthetically, socially, politically, or economically. We also wanted to provide representation across a range of years, musical styles, geographies, gender identities, races, and ethnicities. So sometimes we had to choose representative game changers, rather than all the artists of an era or genre.
Songfacts: I don't envy the selection process. Who was the most painful cut?
McDonnell: Oh, there were so many! For me, probably Mary J. Blige. I actively tried to find someone to write about her but failed.
Songfacts: Ali Gitlow notes Janis Joplin's reputation as being the first true female rock icon. In your mind, does Joplin deserve this title?
McDonnell: Probably. Grace Slick wasn't quite as iconic. And other artists who are in the book, such as Aretha, Nina Simone, Diana Ross, weren't identified as rock. This book argues for a more expansive definition of rock, but I would still say that that is how Janis has historically and is still generally thought of. Even Ellen Willis said it!
Songfacts: In the introduction, you wrote, "I believe the Supremes are just as important to musical history – let alone to history history – as Bob Dylan." What makes the Supremes so important?
McDonnell: Over and over, they brought the voices and feelings of young black women into homes and cars across the world, which had never been done before. They were the most successful act of the most successful black-owned record company that redefined what the Sound of Young America was: black, urban, and female. At a time when the civil rights and women's liberation movements epitomized a shift in cultural power, the Supremes broke right through that glass ceiling in their sequined gowns, singing in harmony – the ultimate show of girl power and black girl magic.
Songfacts: The book suggests the advent of MTV was particularly important for female artists. Who benefited the most from videoization at the time?
McDonnell: Well, in the grand scheme of things, Michael Jackson! Again, the legacy of Motown. In terms of women, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Joan Jett, The Go-Go's, Annie Lennox, the Bangles, Janet Jackson.
Songfacts: In her essay on Aretha Franklin, Caryn Rose claims the 1976 album Sparkle should be hailed as a classic of the era, and is as much of a concept album as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. What other underappreciated album (from any female artist) deserves more attention?
McDonnell: Ann Powers argues for Donna Summer's The Wanderer and Cats Without Claws in her essay in the book. I would point out the very first Julie Ruin album (1998), which Kathleen Hanna recorded by herself. Or, an artist that is not in the book but I wish we had included, Rebelution by Tanya Stephens. Also, Jet by Katell Keineg.
Songfacts: The Go-Go's hit #1 with their debut album in 1982, making them the first and only all-female group who topped the chart with songs they both wrote and performed. Why hasn't this feat been replicated in nearly four decades?
McDonnell: Because the music industry is run by men who marginalize and pigeonhole women. Rock radio has a long history of allowing only one female artist to penetrate its playlists at any one time, effectively keeping women off the charts. As we see in A Star Is Born, labels groom women to be pop stars not rock musicians. I think men are also afraid of women who band together and therefore employ a divide-and-conquer mentality to isolate and disempower them. That's how Kim Fowley tried to control and contain the Runaways. Kim Gordon called it Fear of a Female Planet.
Peter Asher, who took home the trophy in 1990, thinks technology could help. "Unlike the old days when you couldn't even try being a producer without a budget and a studio, let's hope there are a million brilliant women sitting at home on their laptops making incredible music, which is about to take over the world," he said in his Songfacts interview.
As Linda Ronstadt's producer, he saw the dismissive attitude many men in the control room showed her. "There was, particularly back in that era, an element of, 'Don't you worry your pretty little head about that, I know what's best,'" said Asher. "Linda knew a lot and was not given credit for it."
As for Cole, she had a great experience working with producer Kevin Killen on her first album. She took what she learned and produced her next one, This Fire, herself, earning the Grammy nomination. For Cole, Kate Bush led the way, specifically her Hounds of Love album. "I would turn over those cassette tapes and LPs and CDs and it would say, 'Produced by Kate,' and it made so much sense to me because the music was unusual, it didn't sound like anything else," Cole told Songfacts. "It wasn't some star producer dude coming in Svengali-like and dealing with the young female artist. No, it was Kate expressing her truth, not only in the songwriting but in the production, in the sounds. Her hands were on that console.
I loved it and she gave me hope and motivation to do that myself, except I was in an American climate of big labels and it was difficult to achieve. I just had to continually self-advocate and work hard, nose to the grindstone, and make a good piece of work, under budget, in a very short amount of time. I did it and it went on to be successful, thankfully, so I could continue self-producing, because that freedom was vital to me as an artist."
McDonnell: The book certainly does not argue that gender is a genre. But I do think one task of feminist scholarship is to raise awareness of women whose work has not been properly acknowledged, and since there is a long history of music journalism and history being written by men to the neglect of women, we still periodically need to assert our own history. Once women regularly account for half of the nominations and inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then maybe we won't need to claim our spaces. But we're sadly a long way from that moment.
Songfacts: Some historians mark Buddy Holly's death as "the day the music died" and the British Invasion as its resurrection. What crucial musical moment of that five-year period is ignored by what you call "white men's history."
McDonnell: That is totally white man's history! It leaves out doo-wop, Motown, and the girl groups – i.e., music by people of color and women. It's kind of like saying Columbus discovered America because there were no people here before the Europeans – it's a colonizer mentality.
Songfacts: Who is the most transformative woman in rock of the last 50 years?
McDonnell: Aretha Franklin.
Songfacts: David Hepworth, author of Uncommon People: The Rise And Fall Of The Rock Star, told us the era of the rock star is over and cites Kurt Cobain as the last rock star. What are your thoughts?
McDonnell: How could that be true when Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde are still alive?
November 13, 2018
Check out these interviews with some women who rock:
Vicki Peterson of the Bangles
Amy Lee of Evanescence
Charlotte Caffey of The Go-Go's
Rickie Lee Jones
Get Women Who Rock on Amazon
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