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Black Sky Thinking

Women Of Their Word: The Reality Of Being A Female Music Writer
Jude Rogers , May 4th, 2022 09:42

There is more extraordinary music writing by women than ever before, yet female writers are still facing a host of barriers that their male counterparts are not. From online abuse to tokenism from editors, Jude Rogers recounts the realities of her life in journalism, and her hopes for the future of the industry

Jude Rogers portrait by Brian David Stevens

In 2022, lots of women are writing books about music and getting them published. I am one of them. Another one of them, tQ regular Jennifer Lucy Allan – whose paperback about the music of the coast, The Foghorn’s Lament, is out now – messaged me recently to share her excitement.

“Honestly, having your book, [Sinead Gleeson and Kim Gordon’s co-edited anthology] This Woman’s Work, and Kate Molleson’s [Sound Within Sound] in front of me all at once is quite a rush,” she said. I agree. In my office, I’ve also got Arusa Qureshi’s Flip The Script, Vashti Bunyan’s Wayward, Adelle Stripe’s Ten Thousand Apologies, Caryn Rose’s Why Patti Smith Matters, P.P. Arnold’s autobiography, and a new edition of Pauline Oliveros’ Quantum Listening (with a new introduction by Laurie Anderson). I’ve also got Danyel Smith’s Shine Bright: A Very Personal History Of Black Women In Pop on pre-order, and can’t wait for Laura Barton’s Sad Songs and Cosey Fanni Tutti’s Re-sisters.

“What a brilliant time for women writing about music,” Jen added. “Wish we could all do one of those Vogue specials with the fold-out covers where we could all put fancy togs on for a Leibovitz photo shoot.”

I knew the ironies that pulsed behind this conversation. A few days after Jen messaged me, I went shopping – not for a posh frock to wear while I reclined against some speakers, but for basics around the usual rollercoaster of freelancing and childcare. A music magazine sat proudly on the stands, celebrating a big birthday. Of the twenty names on the cover, only two of them involved women. Both were at the bottom of the page, in the smallest cover lines.

Another music magazine had four women on the cover in quick succession last year: a cause for celebration. But the only active artist among that number, who had released seven albums by this point, had to be bravely introduced to the canon via an editor’s letter.

It’s strange. It’s not that women don’t sell music magazines. Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush had copies flying out of the newsstands when they were on the covers of The Word magazine, my alma mater as a rookie journalist, in the early 2000s. Male domination of editorial teams doesn’t have to be ruinous for women’s careers either if they actively try to make changes. My all-male colleagues at Word gave me reviews of Brian Eno and Paul Simon reissues from the off, and later cover interviews with the likes of Paul McCartney, Robert Plant and Paul Weller. I thought was standard, until I found out that it wasn’t (Word folded in 2012).

Nowadays, I mainly write about men for the Observer, which is staffed exclusively by women, and this website, who have given me time with Noel Gallagher, Blur, Michael Rother and Clint Mansell – artists I have never interviewed elsewhere – while also supporting me to write about misogyny, domestic abuse being used as a marketing strategy, and the rawness of music-making in motherhood (God bless their hearts).

In the last decade, there are also many more women writing and producing great pop culture journalism online, plus a female editor at Pitchfork. Still, the space for female writers in the traditional printed space remains limited, and the subjects they get allocated are slim.

I was once told there wasn’t much work for me at a music title because there was barely enough room for the work of another female writer. At another time, I was criticised for writing like another woman, purely because I liked writing about music and memory. One of my contemporaries and I also joke about how often we get offered the same female singer-songwriter – we’ll know the other’s phone will ring if we can’t do it. (I rarely get offered this person’s rough male equivalents.)

A big US female critic told me this also happened to her and another female colleague often. How shit it is that we are still considered interchangeable, like similarly painted horses, grinning benignly, on an awful carousel.

It’s not that we don’t want to interview women at all. Quite the contrary. We just don’t want to interview them exclusively. We yearn to be given the men that usually get lumped with the same men, who could do without another afternoon bantering in the pub, getting their egos stroked like small puppies. Wouldn't it be more entertaining for them to get a more surprising set of questions, and get their ego roughly pricked?

I wonder if part of the problem is that women are often seen as not being as available for interviews as men – when many of them are. In other situations, arrangements are not adapted to suit women who have dependents to care for in family life. I concede I have been offered work with outlets that admit they need more women to write for them, only to turn them down, but for good reasons. I can’t afford to take five days off to go on tour with a band for a fee that ultimately works out as less than the minimum wage, despite the magazine's cover price being much more than it used to be – and I also don’t want to be away from my child for that long.

I know some men in my field that also struggle with the conundrum of childcare. There are so many more that don’t seem to have to think about that conundrum at all.

As this is starting to sound like a rant, I’ll tell you why I’m writing this now. When I was writing The Sound Of Being Human last year – my book about how music shapes our lives – a theme kept emerging that I hadn't planned to address. My book seemed to unconsciously be about the raising-up of female experiences, and their importance to the understanding and appreciation of pop music.

This included my passages about pop magazines. At its commercial height, Smash Hits was staffed largely by women and featured women often on its covers, like my beloved Neneh Cherry, without sexualising them at all. (Cherry is acclaimed now more than ever. Where the hell is her magazine cover today?) I wrote about Eddie Holland's reliance on women's experiences and narratives to inject empathy into his greatest lyrics for Motown. I wrote about the theatrical scenes of Kate Bush's Before The Dawn show delving deeply into the sensations and terrors of being a mother. I had pitched to write this before but never had a commission accepted. Now it was my time to let it all out.

I have always written emotionally and personally about music over the years, but I have often felt, deep in my bones, that that focus is wrong, or that it’s too – I hate to say it now - too female. I am now nearly 44 and have to tell you I no longer give much of a shit about that. If writing about music when you're an adult is just about gazing up at people you’ve put on a pedestal, and being snobbish about what you’re allowed to like, then you're wallowing in a stunted early moment of adolescence. Also, if writing about music doesn’t involve the communication of joy and sharing pleasure at regular intervals, then – and I won't mince my words anymore – what is the fucking point?

In my book, I realised I could dig deep into the neuroscience, anthropology and sociology of music without letting go of the connections to people and memories in my world that brought those songs to life. It wasn’t weak-willed of me to remember my grandparents when I heard the first bars of ABBA’s 'Super Trouper': it was about remembering their presence and power in my life, and how they made things feel true. Admitting that the song that made me implode more than any other was the Flying Pickets’ 'Only You', a song adored by my late dad, felt honest and humbling. I loved songs like these occupying chapter titles just like Talk Talk and Shirley and Dolly Collins. Although, if we’re honest about how music affects us, this is how this stuff works.

I also enjoyed writing about my lust for Michael Stipe in my mid-teens. I did worry that such confessions could compromise my reputation as a professional, objective critic, but then I batted this stuff to one side. I realised that recounting my real-life interview situation with him – again for a piece for tQ – revealed truths about the schism between being a music fan and being a music writer that few people in my position will care to admit, let alone explore.

I also wrote about the songs that accompanied my short flings and longer relationships – like Tindersticks’ 'My Sister' and Kenickie’s 'Come Out Tonight' – and stated how songs turn the messy emotions of love into something important, not inconsequential, that allow us solid moments of empathy with others and profound understanding. I also went back to the music that reminded me of my two pregnancies, one of which finally ended in the ladies’ bathroom of London bar The Social, before Pavement’s 'Shady Lane' carried me back into the room, and held me tight.

Towards the end of my first draft, I also realised that I had to go into more detail about being a female music journalist and talk about how angry men had been about my opinions of music. I recounted someone – and I only loosely paraphrase – who wrote a blog saying that they wanted to kick me so hard in the cunt that they would rupture my uterus. My crime: my piece about a Bruce Springsteen indie pop covers album had been topped by a headline that included the word “twee”.

I’ve also received at least thirty emails since 2007 about a blog I wrote at the height of early comment culture excitement saying Jeff Buckley was overrated. My blog’s tone was ill-advised, admittedly, far too try-hard, but the abuse I’ve had since is more pathetic than that. You were just in love with him and couldn’t have him, barked one responder at the time, his words landing dully on the tarmac of the internet's gnarly playground. “What the fuck have you done with your life to be so incredibly disrespectful to a wonderful musician?’ started an email about it a little while later – thirteen long years. "Either quit being a journalist or find a new fucking job,” the irate one continued, barely taking a breath to consider the time that had passed. “People like you make me sick to my fucking stomach. I wish nothing good for you." It pains me to add that every single message I have received on this subject has been sent by a man.

I suppose these men feel intensely bonded to the musicians they’re defending, but they react as if any criticism, even from years ago, is tantamount to severe injury. Or perhaps it’s much simpler than that: they’re just not used to women voicing a slightly different opinion to them, or telling a slightly different story.

Some people will never like my style, and that's absolutely 100% fine. What’s not fine is that so many female writers like me experience similar treatment on social media, or experience similar attitudes from editors – although I hope this continued rush of music books by women starts to cut through. Perhaps we'll finally be allowed into those closed-off arenas. Perhaps even the most impenetrable territories will slowly become welcoming.

Until that distant day that I still can't quite countenance, I will dream of Jen’s utopian magazine cover. I’ll let the image of so many of us female writers having fun – lounging around, with smiles on our faces, Smash Hits-style, in boss threads – linger long in my mind.

I also know a new generation of women is following writers like me who are squarely in midlife. If they embrace their enthusiasms with joy, rather than sink themselves simply in seriousness, they will make the future of music writing bright. They’ll be writing all the cover lines, dictating the narratives in their 21st-century equivalents of bold, punchy typefaces. I pray to them being listened to by everyone, properly, at full volume, embracing their similarities and many differences, having a ball.

The Sound of Being Human: How Music Shapes Our Lives is out this week, published by White Rabbit. Read Quietus editor John Doran’s Twitter review of it here