Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Amy Raphael: Grrrls: Viva Rock Divas

Reading a book about contemporary music that is twelve years out of date is an interesting experience. Amy Raphael’s Grrrls: Viva Rock Divas is a collection of interviews first published in Great Britain under the title Nevermind the Bullocks: Women Rewrite Rock. Because of this, there are several segments dedicated to groups that are not as well known in the States, such as Echobelly, Huggy Bear, and Sister George. As both titles indicate, the book presents itself as a study of women in rock, but there’s very little study and not all of those profiled can even be categorized as working in rock, such as Bjork.

The better segments of Grrrls are the interviews with Courtney Love of Hole, Tanya Donelly of Belly, and Liz Phair. They wander off-topic – it would be nearly impossible not to do so at some point or another – but the reader comes away with a strong impression of a strong relationship between these women and their music. Love’s segment is the first in the book. Her segment is the longest in the book, owing largely to the fact that she had two interviews instead of one. Both interviews took place a few months after the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Many of the interviews allude to Cobain’s death in some way or another. The grunge and Riot Grrrl movements were too intertwined for it to be any other way. Love mentions Cobain a few times, but for the most part she steers away from the subject and focuses on her own music rather than her connection with Nirvana. As a whole, Love comes off as reasonably well-read and intelligent. However, the span of twelve years never seems as poignant as when Love says “I’ve got the Madwoman under control and I don’t know how I had the good grace to get that, but I did. I will die before I go mad.” The Love of 1994 is a very different creature than the Love of today, who is dismissed as a joke by entertainment media.

Tanya Donelly focuses on her own songwriting, her relationship to music, and (most importantly) her role as a woman in the music industry. Her segment is only a few pages long and is very on-message. The low page count isn’t surprising. Donelly admits she finds it “incredibly hard to trust people,” leaving her segment one of the two least confessional and most relevant in the entire collection.

Liz Phair ends the book on a high note. Like Donelly, she gives away little about her personal life and talks about her relationship to music, her songwriting, and performances. She illustrates how different it is to be a woman in the industry by relating her experiences with sex as a marketing tool and how her groupies aren’t “those who want after-show sex.” She has the honor of having the very last line in the book, a fine example of the precarious position women in music had in 1994: “I told Matador to watch out for repeat writers that might be psychotic.”

As the book progresses, the segments become shorter, creating the impression that Raphael was losing interest in her project and/or her subjects and was trying to finish up as quickly as possible. The segments highlighting Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Ellyott Dragon (Sister George), and Huggy Bear are poorly executed. Kim Gordon, while being hailed as “the godmother of alternative rock” and “the original Riot Mom,” is barely given time to open her mouth. Her interview is only a little longer than the introduction. Raphael is content to praise Gordon, but doesn’t give her much time in which Gordon can talk about herself as a member of Sonic Youth. Ellyott Dragon’s chapter is interesting for highlighting what an anomaly Dragon is – a lesbian Israeli ex-corporal who happens to also be involved in the alt-rock scene. Her narrative is the only one to explore lesbianism juxtaposed with alternative music, but the latter is briefly addressed, keeping the focus on the former. This is an interesting concept, and I would encourage anyone to write a book on the subject (hey, there’s an idea!), but it is distracting from the work as a whole.

Huggy Bear’s section is the only one to highlight an entire band. This interview is a definite, glaring break with the pattern of the book. On top of that, not all members of Huggy Bear are female. This is the most disjointed section – there’s some music, some books, some feminist theory, and a sprinkling of nonsensical sentences written without any sort of context scattered throughout (“Joan of Arc. Angela Davis. Elizabeth Tudor. Sarah Bernhardt. Martha Reeves.”). This last element is reminiscent of the school notebook of an angsty teenager, covered in “deep” quotes from all kinds of sources.

Grrrls certainly has shining moments, but they are unfortunately outnumbered by the book’s shortcomings. The meandering quality of many of the chapters leaves readers wondering what the point of the book is, exactly. It appears that Raphael didn’t so much interview these women as turn on a tape recorder and let them babble. The end result closely resembles a record of what goes on in a psychiatrist’s office when the doctor is seeing patients who are in love with their own voices. This sometimes pays off, but the overall effect is often sloppy. Raphael may have done this on purpose, believing that a strict tape-to-page transcription would render a more authentic experience, but all of the segments would have done better with editing to keep them on focus.



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