Reading "The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock" reminded me of an experience from my college days -- and not just because so many of its essays read like academic theses. When I was a senior, I was asked by the women's studies department to sit on a panel about Greek life on campus. The idea was to show the freshman women how happy and well adjusted we "independents" were, and thus dissuade them from going through sorority rush.
There was one problem. "I did rush," I told the event's organizer. "I can't tell them not to. I was a Theta for a month before I quit."
"They don't need to know that," she told me. "I'm having a hard time finding people that would make the right impression. You have to do it."
Why did "The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock" dredge up these uneasy memories? Maybe it's because there's an unsettling willingness on the part of the collection's editors to spin doctor any details that could jeopardize the book's larger (and largely legitimate) thesis -- that women have always been a formidable, if unacknowledged, force in rock 'n' roll history. Similarly, the more than 40 women writers who contribute essays to this collection are eager to clean up history's dirty little details.
According to Diane Cardwell, in her contribution to the chapter on "Sparrows and Powerhouses," Diana Ross never sold out by dressing like white stars, as she was often criticized for doing in her heyday. She was being subversive by intentionally "out-whiting whitey." Ann Powers tells us that being a groupie was never about putting yourself in a subservient position to male musicians. It was a rebellious act against authority that planted "the seeds of womens' liberation." And if Tammy Wynette encouraged women to be submissive with lyrics like "Stand by Your Man," Holly George-Warren explains, her real-life example (i.e., ditching four husbands) "more effectively and positively influenced her listeners than the compliant words to songs that attracted their attention."
Not surprisingly, the best essays here are the ones that ignore the assignment -- and in some cases, the essay format -- altogether and stick to the music, offering biographical information only where it informs each woman's development as an artist. (Terri Sutton's quest to distinguish Janis Joplin the singer from Janis the legend, for example, results in a telling 12-part kaleidoscopic view of her various roles.) And the contributions that detail the impact of music in the writers' own lives are ultimately the most compelling: Kathie Dobie's account of how she had been labeled a slut as a young teenager living in white suburbia, but found salvation in the overtly sexual music of Chaka Khan; Ariel Swartley's disconcerting discovery that ever since Joan Baez, America has been strangely receptive to women revolutionaries -- "especially if [they are] young, beautiful, and from a well-connected family"; and Donna Gaines' bold admission that the market-fabricated girl groups of the '70s have always been her biggest influence, even if "the whole thing was just false consciousness ... They've helped make me the woman I am."
The writers here -- all of whom have had far more interesting things to say elsewhere -- have a harder time assessing the full cultural impact of contemporary women musicians. Essays on Liz Phair, Courtney Love and P.J. Harvey (written by Lorraine Ali, Katherine Dieckmann and editor Barbara O'Dair, respectively) -- easily among the most interesting phenomena rock 'n' roll has seen in years, regardless of gender -- are disappointingly ambivalent, raising more questions than they answer. But the most egregious error of "Women in Rock" is that it makes reading about women rockers about as interesting and visceral an experience as watching slides in an art history class. O'Dair is right in stating that "radical feminism created the undercurrent that the bad girls of rock are now riding." But if making rock 'n' roll sound boring is what the Rolling Stone editors call progress, then they can keep it.