Rock and Roll is Dead
August 28, 2010
Midway between Ottawa, Canada, and Ithaca, New York, we stop to buy gas. In the truck stop parking lot, I see an elderly woman getting out of the driver’s seat slowly, limb by limb, the way a jellyfish might squeeze itself through a narrow break in a coral reef. She’s at least 75, and her legs shake slightly as she maneuvers them onto the street, but she still has that kind of awkward languor about her, that same animal grace. It’s like she’s moving perfectly normally, and instead, the whole world around her has slowed down. She’s wearing a big blue jean jacket with an American flag patch sewn onto the shoulder and “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS” emblazoned in gold lettering on the back, and a skirt with a bold floral print, and socks adorned with pink and red hearts. Her mouth is a thin, taut slash of bright red lipstick gripping the end of a cigarette. I pass her as I walk into the building—moving in another, faster system of time, like one star passing a planet light years away.
Inside the truck stop, it smells like old hot dogs and gasoline. The guys browse the contents of the tiny magazine rack, which seems to be mostly made up of porn. I see them poring over the cover of a magazine with a naked woman on it, and look away, instinctively feeling that this is not my scene. However, my curiosity gets the better of me, and I walk closer to see what’s going on. My suspicions are confirmed: There’s a naked woman on the cover. But it turns out that I’m wrong in assuming the guys are looking at porn, because the magazine is Rolling Stone.
After the guys have gone back to the van, I peruse the pages of the latest edition. I see a lot of photos of guys playing guitars, and ads for guys who play guitar featuring other guys playing guitars, and a photo of Lady Gaga wearing pasties and not much else. I begin to feel increasingly alienated by this magazine. Once again, I’ve got a suspicion that’s rooted in the back of my mind—that the issue will not contain a single image of a woman holding an instrument of any kind. Perversely, I want to see if I’m correct. The sensation of knowing what I will find is already sad. It’s like discovering a letter in which the guy you’re crushing on declares his love for some other woman, and still, inevitably, reading the whole thing down to the last painful line.
Of course, Rolling Stone contains only one image of a “token” woman holding an instrument. It’s Taylor Swift, dressed in a diamond studded ball gown, holding a matching silver diamond acoustic guitar. Good for her! As America’s large-scale concert industry pretty much collapses around her feet, she’s single-handedly (okay, alongside Justin Bieber) holding down the fort. Other than Taylor, the closest thing I can find to a woman with an instrument in Rolling Stone is a tiny photo of Cat Power holding a microphone at Lilith Fair, the image wedged into a short write-up way at the bottom of the page. There is also a photo of two women in their late thirties or forties called the Wilson Sisters, one of whom is holding something that looks like the neck of a guitar down below her waist. The guitar itself has been cut out of the photo. Besides them, and Lady Gaga, and the naked, airbrushed star of True Blood on the cover, who incidentally, is pictured with a guy grabbing her boob, I can’t find any other women in the whole magazine. This means that Taylor Swift, Cat Power, and the Wilson Sisters are not only the only women that Rolling Stone depicts as musicians, but also the only women that Rolling Stone depicts as wearing clothes.
I know that the magazine industry is failing and is doing everything it can to sell copies, and I know that it’s not easy to come up with content that will sell, and I know that sex sells, and that pop music in its purest form has a lot to do with sex, but dammit, Rolling Stone, can’t you try to be a little more fair to us? We are, after all, people too. We have purchasing power. We buy magazines. By we, I don’t just mean feminists, but women. We deserve to buy into this glorious image that you call music these days just as much as straight males do. We deserve to see ourselves as present in pop culture in some capacity that does not totally dehumanize us, and overly sexualize us, and turn us into objects for the straight male consumer to ogle. And since there are women fucking DOING incredible things in the music scene these days, we deserve to see images of women DOING things, alongside men, and not just passively posing, semi-naked, for those men’s titillation. Got that? Okay!
Feminists have been railing against the images of women in magazines for ages. But the thing is, it’s become such an old story that people frequently forget how vital the issue is. Nowadays, most adult women know that photographs of women in magazines are airbrushed into perfection, and some feminist organizations have started bugging the media about the unhealthy images of women that appear in the pages of magazines, but the magazine industry has largely failed to respond to feminist challenges of its content. Why is this important? I mean, why is it important that girls and women be able to open a magazine and see pictures of women doing things? Why is it so vital that media portray women as participants in culture? Well, let me tell you a little story.
When I was fourteen years old, my friends and I discovered women’s magazines. Fascinated, we poured over the images of slightly older teenage girls doing what teenage girls are supposed to like to do—shopping, dating, dieting, dating, and shopping. Reading the magazines always brought on a kind of nausea, an awful sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that made me feel like I was sitting on an airplane and powerless to stop it from dropping out of the sky. For some reason, the feeling was addictive, and I always came back for more: All the candy-colored costumes, that shiny lip gloss, that bright future that the magazines promised us within their pages, and time after time failed to provide. I was pretty much in an abusive relationship with magazines. And why? I guess I was optimistic. I was looking for some kind of validation, as all teenagers are, when they are growing up. I was looking and looking for a picture of a woman who looked like me, a slightly older teen who I could identify with, a person I could see myself becoming when I grew up.
Did I find that person in a magazine? Of course not! What I found was hundreds and hundreds of denials of my self, and hundreds of disappointing statements about what women are supposed to be—statements which I immediately internalized, and which my brain chemically converted into ten years of serious anxiety and depression. In all those years, did it ever occur to me to open a copy of Rolling Stone? No, of course not, because I knew, even from looking at the cover, that Rolling Stone was not for me. The idea of Rolling Stone conjured up images of Mick Jagger stroking a phallic guitar and wearing a ridiculous hat, or of the guys at guitar center with their long grey beards and their technical talk about digital effects pedals. There were no pictures of women with guitars on the cover of Rolling Stone. There was no one in that magazine who looked like me. I knew from which scenes I had been excluded.
A few months ago, I had a talk with a friend named Emily, and she told me something about her life that has stuck with me for a long time. The conversation came up after somebody tweeted something about me and my performance during Pitchfork fest. “Saw Titus Andronicus,” wrote the dude. “They still have that girl trying to play guitar who can’t play guitar.” The nausea in my stomach that appeared suddenly resembled the sinking feeling I had discovered in looking at women’s magazines as a teen. Although I know, as a performer, I’m subject to bad reviews, and people are not always going to like what I do, this guy’s comment had a definitively sexist ring to it. “Why is it,” I asked Emily, “that women who try anything at all seem to be subjected to unfair amounts of criticism, just for trying! It’s like society is encouraging women not to put themselves out there! What on earth is wrong with trying something and struggling with it, and not being perfect? Well, nothing! Except if you’re a girl. Then you have to be perfect, and perfect by standards that men get to set and enforce. And if you’re not that, then people think you’re nothing at all.”
Emily responded with a story about her life. She stated that she’d been confused as a teen too, and didn’t really know where she fit in. Then she discovered independent music. For her, the music was important; she later became a music reviewer, and still has an impressive knowledge of indie rock. But for her, the music was something more; indie rock was a gateway into a way of thinking about the world—a kind of independent viewpoint that allowed her to approach our culture from a critical perspective. Today Emily is an activist who fights to empower urban communities. She is interested in history, and wants to change it, and knows that, if she tries hard enough, she can. I identified with this story, because independent music did the exact same thing for me. I remember discovering my sister’s CD’s by Liz Phair and Bikini Kill, and listening to them, and feeling like some secret knowledge was being conveyed to me by a neural network buried deep within my brain. Although I didn’t quite understand what Liz Phair was talking about when she talked about sex, I knew what she was talking about when she talked about power. I knew about the image of a girl washing dishes in a frat house, and standing way too tall for her height. Listening to punk and rock and roll and indie taught me that there were scenes outside the mainstream—that there was a secret history hidden beneath the surface of the America we learned about in school, and it made me want to become a part of that secret world, to stand alongside those female superheroes who were so strong and brave they might as well have been from another planet. I remember the first time I read a zine, which my sister had hidden in her top desk drawer, and found—yes—a real interview with Liz Phair. How honest her comments made her seem! I aspired to be that honest with myself one day.
What we’re doing when we exclude women from rock and roll, and from the sense of rebellion that rock and roll promises, is disallowing women that independent perspective. We’re never giving them the chance to think critically about the world, and about the systems that oppress them. When we take women out of the arts, and take them out of art’s ability to critique the way things are, we’re making sure that women keep swallowing the status quo, day after day, and it’s the status quo that keeps us down.
When I went to Japan, I met a woman named Ayumi. She worked a boring job as a secretary in a big office, and found her life to be unfulfilling at best. One day, she saw a certain photograph—that is, the photo of Kathleen Hanna on the cover of a certain CD in which Ms. Hanna wears a pair of short shorts, and spreads her legs wide in a V, and screams into the microphone as if her voice is a laser beam about to destroy the earth. That image was all Ayumi needed to change her life. She quit her job and started her own magazine, about female musicians, and then started her own record label releasing music by Japanese girls bands, and then started a blog, and began running her own shows and events. That picture seriously changed her life, and when I heard this, I was not shocked, because, all the way across the world, at the same time, that picture changed my life too.
This is why it’s important for the media to portray women who are powerful, women who are confident, and women whose actions are culturally significant. It’s not just because of what these women are doing, it’s because of what these magazines are failing to do. The mainstream media is failing to allow girls into its cultural castle. It’s keeping girls on the outside, and alienating them, when it could be—with a single image—changing these same girls’ lives for the better. Does a business have social responsibility? Well, it doesn’t have to, if people will buy the magazine anyway. But what if we decide not to buy magazines that don’t portray women the way they really are? There are countless magazines out there that portray women in a positive light. Try Venus Zine, for women in indie and DIY culture, or Bust, for fashion shoots that feature women of all different shapes and sizes, or Bitch, for articles written by women for women about women’s issues. Or better yet, check out the zine table at your local punk show, or read some blogs, and find out what women are self-publishing these days.
This is not an article about Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone is not guilty of anything, except of being complicit in a larger system that governs the way our country exists. But Rolling Stone, at its purest form, was meant to be about rock and roll, and rock and roll is about rebellion, and if we let that spirit die, than we are missing out on everything the genre has to offer. Are we going to patrol the borders of American culture so as to admit only straight, white males? Or are we going to open our culture up to challenge oppressive systems of race and class, and privilege, and gender, and sexual orientation? This is what rock and roll was meant for, and what the spirit that captures the collective imagination of youth can accomplish, if it is funneled constructively into the future. How many things can you get young people excited about these days, besides music? What else breaks the apathy of large crowds and causes them to dance together, and sing the same words, and not want to fight everyone who’s different from them, for once? If our culture’s “rebellion” actually belongs to those in power, and continues to belong to them, then it’s not a real rebellion at all anymore, and therefore rock and roll is dead.
Is it so wrong of me to want to believe that the spirit of rock and roll is still alive, and that all those 1950’s teenagers who became infatuated with the Beatles, and that before that, America’s blues and gospel traditions, and after that, Riot Grrrl in the 90’s, all meant something in the sense of a grand historical continuum—that they were leading our country somewhere, and not just entertaining the crowds as the whole damn ship began to sink. What is there left for us to do, and for that old lady at the gas station who has probably lost a son in Iraq, when the economy is failing and our education system sucks, and the media is dying, and we’re all escaping into a parallel universe online—what is there left for us to do but try to right the wrongs that have befallen us. What does some magazine’s airbrushed idea of beauty have to do with that old woman’s life, and what does it have to do with mine?
To me, that crazy old lady is America. She’s may be old and poor, and she may be struggling to move, and she may have lost her sons to that war we’re always fighting far away, but dammit, she’s still got that feisty, red-lipsticked mouth on her. She’s a rebel through and through. She doesn’t give up.
What on earth are we doing with ourselves, with our culture, making sure that women are not going to reach their potential, and that at least half of the country’s populace is not going to attain the American dream? This is an article about America as it exists today, and if we exclude women from our culture, from our opportunities, and from our collective conscience, then our country is going nowhere fast. The cycle through which those in power remain in power and exclude the dis-empowered from the system is no longer viable. It is now vitally apparent to me that, unless we let everyone participate in this country equally, then we are all going to fail.