This month’s column tackles the subject of female jazz criticism, and especially the lack thereof — not a new issue by any stretch, but one worth considering anew. I’m not going to rehash my argument here, but I’d like to expand on one aspect of it. What initially motivated the column was the recent publication of Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, which I urge any reader to purchase, like, now.
Perhaps you were a New Yorker reader during Willis’ tenure as its first pop critic; maybe you know her work as an intellectual touchstone of the feminist movement. I’m afraid my own familiarity with her work was fairly cursory before the 2007 EMP Pop Conference, which featured a panel dedicated to her work. The panel was moderated by Daphne Carr, series editor of the Best Music Writing anthologies; among the speakers were Robert Christgau, my former editor at the Village Voice, Sasha Frere-Jones, Willis’ successor at the New Yorker, and Ann Powers, Willis’ worthiest spiritual heir. Each panelist attested to Willis’ fierce integrity and independence, and the stealth enormity of her influence. (“People thought she was shy,” said Christgau. “She wasn't shy. She was thinking — and ignoring you.”)
The publication of Out of the Vinyl Deeps has been hailed, rightly, as a major event in music criticism, and the more I dug in, the more I wondered why we have never had Willis’ like in the jazz realm. (For what it’s worth, Willis herself was left utterly cold by jazz. Nobody’s perfect?)
This isn’t to diminish the work of contemporary journalists who happen to be female; see my comments about Lara Pellegrinelli and Jennifer Odell in the column. What I’m talking about is a female critic with a bully pulpit: a Mary Giddins, if you will. Odell, for instance, is a regular contributor to DownBeat, but she isn’t a featured reviewer: the Hot Box (hold your snark, please) is still an inveterate boy’s club.
As I propose in the column, there’s intrinsic value to the vantage of a fearless female critic like Willis. I’ve already put forth some hypotheticals. Here’s another one: my column appears in the same issue of JazzTimes as a profile of trumpeter Nicholas Payton. As you may have read, Payton’s big band features a laudable male-to-female ratio, without making a big deal of it. At the same time, Payton seems positively tickled by the premise of his recent mixtape, Bitches. Have we seen a well-considered review of Payton recently from a female jazz critic? (Seriously, I’m asking. The comments are open.)
But let’s not get it tangled: the primary role of a female jazz critic is the same as that of her male counterpart. It’s not as if her core function should be to redress gender biases or sniff out traces of misogyny. At the same time, the particulars of a woman’s perspective can be invaluable, and they’re what we’ve been missing. I keep returning to the lesson of Willis’ writing, which cedes no authority even in the act of opening itself to personal scrutiny. In the column I refer to one of her emblematic pieces, about Creedence Clearwater Revival. Willis begins by sketching out a scene: alone, feeling down, she finds therapy in dancing to CCR’s five albums, one after the other. (See the image atop this post.) It’s hard to picture, say, Christgau describing such a tableau; that act of physical embodiment is coded as essentially female. But look how much clarity Willis then wrings out of her analysis:
Fogerty understands the importance of personality, just as he understands—better than any other American songwriter—what rock-and-roll music is about. Yet he had avoided the obvious image-making ploys—freakiness, messianism, sex, violence. Instead, he projects intelligence and moderation—not the sort of qualities that inflame either journalists or fans. His political lyrics are pithier and more compassionate than Dylan’s but so unpretentious and well integrated with the music that they often remain unnoticed. Paradoxically, Fogerty’s humanism—for that is what it is—is also one of his strengths and is probably the main reason I have come to prefer him to Mick Jagger. Jagger’s male power trip is alienating, and the fact that he obviously doesn’t take it all seriously only makes it worse; at some point I discovered in myself an unsuspected frustrated need to know that there was a human being under all those layers of irony. The fact is, I like John Fogerty a lot more than I ever liked Jagger, and, for whatever reason—maybe just because distance gets lonely—that is more important to me than it used to be.
Word. So where to go from here? First, the Ellen Willis Tumblr. Next, you should know about the 2008 anthology Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies, on Duke Univ. Press. And here’s hoping for a modicum of public discussion. Pellegrinelli, for one, has promised a reply on A Blog Supreme; I told her to pull no punches. Stay tuned.