Women Who Rock: Portraits of Courageous Heroines

  • 03/22/2019
  • Melina Paris

By Melina Paris, Music Columnist

Visiting Evelyn McDonnell at her quiet home nestled close to Cabrillo Beach, one may be surprised to find a trailblazer in San Pedro with a comprehensive publishing career recognizing women recording artists.

She is the editor  of Women Who Rock, a pivotal book of essays and striking illustrations, by women, of more than 100 female musicians who have made a sonic imprint on our lives. McDonnell, who also is director of the Loyola Marymount University journalism program, has devoted her career to the topic of women musicians.

This release isn’t the McDonnell’s first foray in documenting musical greatness. She released Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways, a book that posed the question of why the Runaways didn’t become one of the greatest bands of all time.

McDonnell has been published works in Rolling Stone, Ms., Spin, Vibe, Interview, Black Book, Us, Billboard and Option. McDonnell was once the pop culture writer at The Miami Herald, senior editor at The Village Voice and associate editor at SF Weekly. She has also written the books Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids and Rock ’n’ Roll, and Army of She: Icelandic, Iconoclastic, Irrepressible Bjork.

McDonnell noted that when she first started talking about Women Who Rock it looked like we were about to have our first woman president. She said there was a feeling that women’s voices were being celebrated. But that changed before she even had her contract in hand.

McDonnell reflected on the timing of the book idea at that pivotal moment.

“It went from being timely to being necessary,” she said.

It’s a different climate now. Trump was elected president and legislative efforts to control women’s bodies was stepped up several notches soon after. Women Who Rock was released the same week as Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault hearings ahead of his fight for confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.

McDonnell has had a perpetual interest in women musicians and issues surrounding gender and creating art, making noise, and being heard. Between McDonnell, her publisher and agent, they recognized a contemporary trend in publishing portraits of courageous heroines, like the Rebel Girls series. Realizing there weren’t heroine stories focused on music and there was a need for an update on books from the past, this project was timely.

Shocking Pynk!

Women Who Rock is served up in shocking pink.

The book covers a long chronological span that includes several genres, and unexpectedly, some obscure artists. Even if you’ve heard of someone in the book, you may not have heard their music.

“I knew as I was editing it that I was working with all these gifted writers and illustrators, that it was a very special experience,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell was pleased that Women Who Rock has illustrations in ink, paint, pencil and digital color rather than photos, making the book unique. It captures the idea that both the essays and the art are portraits. They are the writers’ and the artist’s interpretations of the musicians. Under that shocking pink, the book’s illustrations are pictured on the hardcover. They have gotten some criticism on the velvety, embossed pink book cover. McDonnell noted it’s particularly from older women as opposed to the younger women,  who are “raised with that consciousness—acceptance of femininity and acceptance of the pink.”

“I have seen that generational divide over the pink,” McDonnell said. “It’s “pynk” as Janelle Monáe did in her song, Pynk. That song captures the whole thing of celebrating women in this extremely provocative way.”

There is the sense upon seeing the book that it has finally arrived. There are so many women artists now. Women Who Rock is an honest appreciation of them and all of their highs and lows — what made them who they are from Bessie Smith to Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell to Pussy Riot to Lauryn Hill. The compendium contains more than 100 essays, all written by female journalists, musicians, DJs and poets, capturing each artist and placing her in the context of her genre and the musical world at large. McDonnell said there was a need to connect them to the women that came before them.

“Hopefully, we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel, in terms of problems women have [experienced] in music or of them thinking that they are the first person to do this,” McDonnell said.

As McDonnell wrote in her introduction, the women in these pages have persisted against all odds, rape, bad contracts, sexual exploitation, addiction, anorexia, corrupt managers, suicide, domestic violence, prison and murder. These are recurring motifs.

“We can learn from the women who have come before us and pioneered,” McDonnell said. “Because there is a tendency to try to turn powerful women, creative women into lone wolf figures.”

She thinks of it as a tactic of the patriarchy, giving the example of the recent remake film,  A Star Is Born. McDonnell was struck by Lady Gaga being the only woman in the entire film.

“It’s unbelievable … as if she just sprang out … she doesn’t even have a mother,” McDonnell said. “Her girlfriends are drag queens, they’re men. She’s this singular creation, literally made by the man, Adam’s Rib… it’s so biblical.”

She is not discrediting the individual efforts of women and their singularity but, McDonnell noted, they’re part of a community, and history and a lineage and most women recognize that.

Since Women Who Rock was published, a political action group has been formed. McDonnell never thought that this was going to be one of the results. It’s called Turn It Up. It’s a Times Up, Me Too, 50/50 by 2020 (50/50 male/female at every level across organizations and pay parity by 2020) political-action group of women, or female-identified, musicians and DJs, journalists, scholars, and engineers. The goal is to raise awareness of women who work in the music industry and to gain parity for them. The group will have workshops and events, such as letter-writing campaigns that point out to local media companies how they could involve more women.

McDonnell and four Women Who Rock collaborators held a panel discussion March 5, at Loyola Marymount University. They discussed the role of politics in music, which the panel asserted unanimously, is tied together. Even though women still must fight to be heard, the take away was that progress is happening, gatekeepers are evolving (bookers and promoters), many of the millenials will not frequent clubs that don’t book female bands, and there is more inclusion for everyone, including non binary artists. There are new paths forward for women, which McDonnell further elaborated on. It was never in her mind to create this activist group and community but it is beyond her expectations, which were to just turn people onto a bunch of artists and music that they didn’t necessarily know.

McDonnell believes women are increasingly going to control their own music. They will be mistresses of their own destinies, not just be the singers or producers but that they will handle all the aspects of their music making or that when they work with men, they will work as collaborators, not the “quintessential Svengali relationship.”

“Or, it can go the totally opposite way, where we’re just going to have these idealized hologram pop stars that don’t actually exist in our pure projections of, someone, mostly male fantasy,” she said. “It might be the two extremes. In Japan there’s already pop stars who actually do not exist. It’s like a pure fantasy creation.”

It won’t be the male musician having to rescue and turn the female singer into the star. McDonnell said women will have their own agency. She referred to A Star is Born again, saying she actually did like the movie but if she thinks about it abstractly, the entire message is wrong.

“Shouldn’t that storyline progress?” McDonnell said.

The Friends of Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is hosting a book signing March 31 at 4 p.m. to celebrate the release of Women Who Rock.

Details: www.populismblog.wordpress.com

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Melina Paris

Melina Paris is a Southern California-based writer, who blends her passion for writing and connecting people to their local community into pieces centered music, cultural events, the arts, and most recently, the intersection of art and social justice.