Interview: EVELYN McDONNELL / Intervju z Evelyn McDonnell


Evelyn McDonnell is associate professor of journalist at Loyola Marymount University. A former pop music critic for The Miami Herald and music editor for The Village Voice, she has been writing abour popular culture and society for more than 20 years. She is the author o four books: Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways, Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kid's and Rock'n'Roll, Army of She: Icelandic, Oconoclastic, Irrepressible Bjork and Rent by Jonatan Larson. She coedited the anthologies Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Roc, Pop, and Rap and Stars Don't Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. She Lives in Los Angeles.

I'm really glad you edited great book about women in popular music. You name it Women Who Rock. So, my first question is all about this particular book; how did you approach to the subject matter? How many moons were there, before we can finally read this important book?
I developed the concept for Women Who Rock in collaboration with my editor at Black Dog & Leventhal, Becky Koh, and my agent, Sarah Lazin.
The main ideas were there from the beginning: a history of female-identified musicians told through original essays about key figures over a century, all written by women and illustrated by women. We realized the last book similar to this, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Women in Rock, was more than two decades old and needed some serious updating. It took a year to gather and edit all the essays and artwork, and another year for packaging and printing.

The concept of „women who rock“, which we all know, is not a new phrase, and which is, as you wrote, the phrase fully problematic even at the most semantic level - but we felt, had a simple, direct power. Women.Who, Rock. I must admit, that I have some doubts about the word „rock“. These days. Since I write about popular music, and specially about women in this field of art more than 30 years, I often question myself about the term rock; rock nowadays is different from the rock of 60, 70..etc... You use rock as a verb, not a noun... Can you, please, tell me something more about this issue?
I agree that rock has come to signify a white male appropriation of music often based on the work of black and female artists. I write about this in the intro and in the piece I just wrote about the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. I call it »the manhandling of music history.« But rock is a word that comes from gospel, blues, and soul, and I want to reclaim it. I think it still holds power as a verb. Also, »women who pop« just doesn't have the right feel!

How difficult was making a list of artist? And how hard for you, was not to mention, for example The Slits (Ari Up, Viv Albertine), for me, for example (I miss them so much) The Raincoats (Ana daSilva, Gina Birch); excellent Delia Derbyshire, a true pionir, or even some French power women, such as heroine Juliette Greco, icon Francoise Hardy, Brigitte Fontaine, Italian Gianna Nannini..., German Nico, Dagmar Krause...?
Narrowing down the list was definitely the hardest part. I had to kill a lot of my own babies, cutting my personal favorites. I did sneak the Slits into the intro. And there was supposed to be a Nico essay, but it didn't work out. I tried to select women who could stand in for an era, genre, movement, or geography, and mention as many other artists as possible in the interstitial sections, the intro, and in the essays themselves.

Ellen Willis first book is named after a The Velvet Underground song („Beginning to See the Light“) and since then many female critics emerged. Yet, they are sorely under represented in many anthologies and histories, accounting for only four of fortysix contributors to the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock&Roll, five of eightyone to the Penguin Book of Rock&Roll Writing and no contributors (but one coeditor, Holly George Warren) to the Rolling Stone Album Guide. What are your thoughts about that?
It's ridiculous and shameful. Women have been complaining about it since the beginning of rock criticism. Patricia Kennealy wrote about it in the early '70s and so did Ellen Sander. And of course, I wrote about it in »The Feminine Critique« in the mid-90s, and Ann Powers and I created the anthology Rock She Wrote to show that there were other voices out there, and to preserve them.

„I'm a girl see and my eye zeroes in on boy beauty,“ wrote once Patti Smith in the Edgar Winter review. As in her music, Patti Smith created new possibilities for rock writing. Writing about rock as culture, or as a myth or as a society or whatever else matter. What is your „start“ position while writing about the subject?
First, Patti was my first major inspiration in almost everything. I like to bring in all angles if possible: literary/mythic threads, sociology, musicology. And personal.

What do you think... are there different approach in writing about popular music regarding gender or let's say, do women write and feel differently about the subject? You are co editor (with great Ann Powers) in a amazing book Rock She Wrote; an excelletn book by women, who write about rock, pop, and rap. Love this book so much; and there are answers about this issue; but I want to ask you, Evelyn, nowadays in 2019, are the unsung, unwritten, hidden women issues still there?
Thank you Varja for the kind words. It's better than it was. Ann has achieved unprecedented success, which she well deserves. There are powerful female editors and writers at many prominent publications, including The New York Times and The Guardian. But it's still woefully unequal. The LA Times just added a male editor to its all-male music criticism staff; shame on them. When will there be female editor-in-chiefs at Rolling Stone and Pitchfork?

There's a myth about music critics, that says they are frustrated wannabe musicians, performers. Do you agree and what is your opinion about that?
There are critics, including myself, who wish they had the talent, luck, and/or connections to make it as musicians, but fortunately we realize our limits and choose to honor music in another way. I think most critics, and I also include myself in this group, are writers first and foremost. Many critics have absolutely no interest in being musicians at all.

A lot of people don't approve the duality in music, in art… There is no such as man or women music, literature, film…they say... What can you say about this distinction?
I don't like to think of gender as a genre. There's a world of difference between the sounds of Patsy Cline, Celia Cruz, and Bikini Kill. But I do think gender is one aspect of our humanity, and that great art is rooted in our humanness. It shouldn't be denied, but it shouldn't be categorized either. I don't believe in »women's music.« I don't really like the phrase »dad rock« either (though at least it's kind of funny).

But what was first, for you personaly, love for music or the urgent need to articulate your opinions about scene, music? Tell me something more personal about you and your love for rock music and the position women have in this art?
I would say love of music came before writing for me. I loved to listen to the radio and to records and to sing and dance along when I was very young. I tried playing guitar, piano, and viola all by the time I was a teenager, and finally realized my talents lay elsewhere – in writing. And since I loved to read as much as I loved to listen, I also began writing at a very young age. Fortunately, I found out I was pretty good at it.

All this years you have interviewed a lot of women in popular music. Which are your favourites? Who has been the most interesting or the most impressive and why?
It was a thrill to meet Patti Smith and be the first person to interview her when she came back from her semi-exile in the 90s. She was very warm and open, and I was quaking in my boots. I will never forget that. One of my favorite all-time interviews was the first time I interviewed Chrissie Hynde, for Creem magazine. She drank a lot of tea and basically talked for three hours and was funny and vulnerable.

What makes a good interview? Is the interaction between the journalist and the artist important? How do you transmit a feeling about music or lyrics, what is very difficult to explain, to the media (newspaper, TV)? What are your inner tricks for writing?
A good journalist has to be a good listener. It can help to reveal something about yourself, to gain a subject's trust – but don't just talk about yourself. I've seen reporters do that. I usually mull an article over in the back of my head, even in my sleep, before I start writing. Then I find that when I actually sit down at the computer, there are already ideas wanting to come out.

Times they are a changing; internet now offers new means of exchange between artist and fans and a lot of freshest, new rock writing can be found on music sites all over the globe. What do you think about that; what can you, or for instance, your role at a University, or as a editor do? And what do you think about rock music nowadays and rock writing?
The internet has lowered the barriers to participation for all kinds of cultural production, and I think that's great, especially for those who were kept out before, such as women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, etc. You can become a known writer now without having to break into that rock-crit boys club. But it's not perfect. The algorithms are still largely written by men, and I think they can present a new barrier for women.
The new opportunities do allow more room for creativity and for personal voice. I honed my craft writing for the alternative press, so sometimes I feel like I fit right in, and can also apply what I have learned to my teaching. The big problem today is there is so little editing. Editing can be a barrier, but good editing helps a writer say what they want to say more clearly. I try to teach like an editor. And of course, I am editing books.

Who represents your music inspiration and whom would you like to talk but you did not succeded yet?
I already said my initial inspiration was Patti, though so many artists have inspired me since. Springsteen was almost as important as Patti, and I have yet to interview him. I'd love to interview Janelle Monae.

You are the author of four books . Why do you relay on these specific artists and multi talented performers?
They all had stories that needed to be told, and had not really been told yet.

And at the end…what are your future plans? What are you writing just now? Who are female musicians your prefer listen this days? What's new in Los Angeles these days…?
I have a few ideas for my next book, but haven't chosen one yet. I am editing the Music Matters series for University of Texas Press, which is a lot of fun. I love helping writers get book deals and helping artists get the respect they deserve. I love Janelle Monae and Beyonce and Brandi Carlile. There's a great LA band that's 3 women called Feels, kind of psychedelic sounding. I'm stoked that Bikini Kill and Team Dresch are playing shows again.

You are associate professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University. What are your themes at University?
I mostly teach journalism, particularly journalism and new media and arts and culture writing.

Evelyn, is the future Female?
I'd be happy with equity; I don't need supremacy.

at the top: Tim Maxeiner
below: Lucretia Tye Jasmine

(Rock Obrobje, May 2019)

Varja Velikonja