Oh, the Unbelievable Shit You Get Writing About Music as a Woman

There's a blog goin' round the bend lately that's got people talking: A woman named Sarah O'Holla has a tumblr devoted to going through her husband's record collection, reviewing every single album to get to know more about it (and him). She's not a music critic; she's a librarian who waxes earnest/sarcastic about the records while her dude, husband Alex Goldman, who owns 1,500 LPs, offers context. I am not shocked that she's reviewing 1,500 records; I'm in awe that dudes aren't giving her a bunch of terrible shit for it. In fact, many are actually into it.

For the record (har), I, a woman, am way into it, premise-wise. It's cool to show an interest in things the person you love loves, and also, because records. I had a boyfriend when I was in junior high who owned 500 records, and I credit him for a significant part of my early musical education. It happens.

But as someone who also wrote about music professionally while female, I can't help but notice the jaw-dropping difference in response to a woman who sits down to riff on music as an admitted outsider being greeted with an enthusiastic thumbs-up by dudes, VERSUS being a woman who sits down to riff on music as an insider and being greeted with a shit-fuck-ton of vitriol by dudes. The latter experience would be mine. But more on that in a waxy minute.

Much has been made of the gender politics of both the setup and the response to O'Holla's endeavor, which is called "My Husband's Stupid Record Collection." Amanda Hess wrote an excellent piece at Slate offering some great context:

O'Holla's blog blew up this week, earning praise from a colleague of Goldman's at NPR, the music writers at Gigwise, and proud record snobs on Twitter. But as more and more outsiders engaged with O'Holla's project, some women felt like they were becoming the butt of the joke. Flavorwire's Judy Berman initially appreciated the blog's charm, but then, "as acquaintance after acquaintance—almost all of them men—enthusiastically shared the blog, I noticed a more powerful, gendered slant to their appreciation of it," she wrote. The "subtext couldn't have been more clear: The people who love music, are frighteningly knowledgeable about it, and accumulate enormous record collections are dudes."

Indeed they (often) are. And but nobody loves to tell you all the fuck about music like a dude with a bunch of records, trust. So O'Holla may not have gotten direct shit, but in a way, she got shit for not getting shit if that makes sense. Because what O'Holla is doing fits really perfectly into a very traditional notion about how men impart knowledge to women, especially music. That is, we are cool with dudes teaching women things and we love when they are eager students. We are less cool when women are doing the knowledge-dropping with anything like authority. This is not her individual fault or anything for wanting to review some records, but the response is useful and emblematic. Because it was endearing when I wanted to consume my boyfriend's record collection at 15 and liked being quizzed on singles and trivia — but when I later covered music for years for the alt-weekly in Nashville at 28 as the local rock scene there simmered up, I got an unending stream of shit for daring to write like I thought I had something to say that mattered in the slightest. (Yes, this is true in many ways for any woman who writes anything on the Internet, but especially in male dominated fields.)

Rock scenes in particular can be dreadfully sexist: Bands and the clubs they play in and the bookers and the sound guy and the managers and the journos and the true fans and even the dude taking door, well, these are all usually dudes. If you're a girl in this scene who isn't clearly a musician (and even sometimes when you are), it's typically assumed you are a groupie type looking to hook up or some dude's girlfriend. And both of those things will get you asked to sell merch and load gear on the reg.

I've been in situations where people simply would not acknowledge that I did the job I did. A band once put me on the list to see their show and then scowled at me to get them water while they set up, as if I were supposed to "earn it." Where dudes standing in a circle busting out the rock talk refused to include me. Where if they did include me, it was a hostile attempt to quiz me on records to "prove" I had the right to talk about a band. Where guys clearly didn't know how to process the fact that a woman was going to review their band, much less if it were critical. Where when I admitted a love for some obscure band, it could be cute but not serious, a pathetic attempt to be cool. And yet, this, and the male freelancers I edited who might bristle at an edit or question when I possibly could have seen that Pavement show because they assumed I was younger than I was, all seemed relatively benign compared to the shitstorm of online comments.

This is the top shit I got writing about bands, not even remotely exaggerated in the slightest for comic effect:

Shit #1: You don't know what the fuck you are talking about because you are a woman.

Shit #2: You mentioned details that were also about something other than the literal sound of the music, like how the performers acted, dressed, or looked, and how the music was received. This makes you a fraud and a whore.

Shit #3: You criticized my band. You are a whore.

Shit #4: You said you really liked another band. You are a whore who wants to suck that band's — and probably all band's — dicks. (All bands have dicks, FYI).

Shit #5: You don't even actually like music, you are just a whore.

Shit #6: You actually like the music too much. Whore.

Shit #7: You have not heard every record ever recorded. You are an ignorant whore.

Shit #8: You have fucked (or want to fuck) everyone in every band you have ever covered.

Shit #9 (personal fave): You want the entire rock scene pointed at your face like a trembling bukkake.

Yes, everyone gets shit online for writing. But do dudes get this kind of bukkake shit?

"I've never had anyone associate anything I've written with bukkake," says a dude who writes about rock I know, Matt Sullivan. I asked a handful of such dude rock-writing friends about the worst shit they got and for what. Sure, music insiderism always means accusations of "poser" will fly — it all comes with the the territory, and I'm used to it, and often it's even quite funny. But their responses are noteworthy because vitriol at men seems far less likely to even consider sexual promiscuity as a basis for the dismissal of your arguments.

Sullivan:

Probably just online shit about stuff I wrote about Ted Nugent. Oh, the singer in F.U.C.T. really hated that thing I wrote where I made fun of a bunch of band names. One of the guys in his crew tracked me down as we were setting up for a show and told me that I needed to send an email apology because the guy was threatening to kick my ass.

Adam Gold, Nashville music critic and Rolling Stone contributor:

Yeah, death threats from Adam Lambert fans. Oh, and [redacted] from [redacted] tried to get my address from [redacted], so he could come over and kick my ass.

From Nashville Scene music editor, D. Patrick Rodgers:

Hmmm. Well, many years ago, I did a piece on this band and I really tore into 'em. Shitty comments and all that…they definitely were like, "Oh, you probably drive a fucking Prius and listen to Animal Collective, fucking hipster." And it's like, "Man, I WISH I drove a Prius."

Seth Graves, rock writer and other stuff:

There was a lot of suggestions that I should give up writing and go back to work at my daddy's BMW dealership. And because punk rock was a subject of my piece, my "punk credibility" was attacked ad nauseam. Hot Topic jokes and accusations of buying my records at the mall and all that. My daddy definitely does not own a BMW dealership, BTW. A barbershop would've been more apropos.

Hey, being called a hipster does not feel good (LOLOLOLOL), but death threats are nothing to scoff at. And to be fair, guys online didn't always call me a whore. Sometimes I was a slut. And sometimes I wasn't doing all this writing to suck dicks but to get fucked anally, for instance.

I tell these stories to illustrate the context in which some professional female critics work, and the challenges they face trying to prove they deserve to even talk about music in the first place. The women still standing in the ever dwindling, still dude-centric world of rock crit — the Annie Zaleskis, the Ann Powers, the Maura Johnstons — are nothing short of complete badasses to me, for their knowledge and talent but also their stick-with-itness (to say nothing of their massive record collections). And when they react to retrograde perceptions of women in any form as incapable music critics, I totally get it:

This is why it's not really about Sarah O'Holla at all, though I certainly sympathize with how she feels post-scrutiny. And in her defense, I want to say something: Coming at music like you don't know dick about it (pun intended) is a valid way to approach it. It's not traditional criticism, but it's useful. I've always hated the sense that there is only one way to talk about music. Decades of male-centric rock criticism — the obsessive, cataloging, record-collecting, liner-notes driven, grading variety — reminds me that we could use more writing that approaches music innocently. Too often, we forget what records are for anyway — cleaning your house, getting ready on Saturday night, going out for drinks, FUCKING DANCING. This is anathema to the traditional critic, who couldn't give a fuck what you play the record for, but this is why most people don't give a fuck how a record has been reviewed, either. Critics often appear to write to other critics, and that is why criticism often deserves every punch in the softballs it gets.

I bow to Christgau and Marcus like the rest of 'em like a good girl — but nothing made me want to write about music more than Rock She Wrote (co-authored by Ann Powers), the collection of decades of visceral, real-time, reckless first-person female takes on records and shows by people like Kim Gordon and Patti Smith. Buy it.

And as a counter to O'Holla's version of writing up records you've never heard, check out Anna Minard's "Never Heard of 'Em" column at The Stranger, which approaches records as a curious outsider: Anna Minard claims to "know nothing about music." For this column, we force her to listen to random records by artists considered to be important by music nerds.

Most people think art should be accessible, not to be put on a pedestal or pinned down or traded like baseball cards, but to be experienced viscerally. And so of course Minard feels the same sense of "doing it wrong" that plagues O'Holla's efforts.

I am not suggesting that this is a uniquely female way to approach music. I'm not saying women don't love liner notes and cataloging and trivia and record collections in temperature-controlled rooms. I have more records than my husband, who was in a nerd rock band and was also an audio engineer. I'm saying when women come at something men have traditionally left them out of, they can bring new insights and attitudes and considerations that expand the body of work in useful ways and that should not undermine anything. (See: Martha Gellhorn and war correspondence). This shouldn't be a criticism or "wrong" way to write about music.

Funny enough, the other day I heard about this feminist punk band blowing up called (wait for it) Perfect Pussy. In a recent interview with the singer Meredith Graves, I learned that she's also written about music, and she confirmed the same frustration with the same old insular way of writing about music that I grew up with and tried to deviate from:

Do you enjoy writing about music? 
Sort of. My favorite magazine has always been Maximum Rocknroll – I've been reading it since I was 12. But some of the people that review records for Maximum lived for that punk thing of, 'I know more about music than everybody else.' The only way you can review music is by saying it sounds like this band, then you get the fucking record and it doesn't sound anything like that. I want to hear, 'I listened to this record and it made me go out into my garage and eat half a box of ho hos and smash stuff.' That will get me to listen to a record. I think there needs to be a shift in music writing. Actually, no. I think everyone should be able to write about whatever they want, but I would like to see more people writing about music that write about it differently. I just want to hear about how the record made you feel.

Image via Ramona Kaulitski/Shutterstock.