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Women who write, part 2

To their credit, Powers and McDonnell don't overtly endorse any one particular point of view in the book. But the aesthetic they embrace -- of empowerment through expression, and of the personal as political -- is deeply rooted in a kind of feminist thinking that can and does transcend gender. It's a point that anchors Powers's conclusion to the book. "Some of the women in our book don't believe it should make any difference whether you're a man or a woman," she admits. "And I don't think gender is the only dividing line. Identity exists as a web with all these different lines and strands. It's sticky and it's got holes in it."

McDonnell adds that she's "wary of labeling types of art by gender because that can be a kind of sexism. As a woman I'll probably have a different experience writing about the Rolling Stones, just because of the way they might treat me or the kinds of concerns that I'd have. But my concerns wouldn't necessarily be the same as Karen Durbin's in the piece she wrote that's in the book."

McDonnell's also wary of suggestions that women critics ought to maintain a kind of gender loyalty, although she does argue for a certain primacy of gender issues. "I get flack about betraying my gender whenever I criticize a woman artist, but I don't want to feel I have to champion every woman artist. I get people criticizing me for being too content-oriented because I'm too focused on seeing everything as related to gender. But I don't believe you can separate content and form."

Neither Powers nor McDonnell is comfortable endorsing a singular feminist perspective. Some of the most compelling opinions expressed in Rock She Wrote are from women cutting against the grain of what one might expect to be the standard feminist line. Cultural critic bell hooks takes Madonna to task for exploiting black culture, and fiction writer Mary Gaitskill rationalizes her lust for Axl Rose in a piece that was originally published in Details. Powers and McDonnell can even find themselves on opposite sides of the fence, as they do in the argument over the artistic and sociological merit of Grammy Awards champion Alanis Morissette.

"I think her anger is really packaged," explains McDonnell. "She's phony, which makes her very non-threatening to men. Most of the critics who like her are men who want to be behind the strong- women-in-music trend but are too freaked out by Kathleen Hanna or Courtney Love. Even when Alanis is angry at men she's still completely dependent on them, whereas Kathleen Hanna is not."

Powers responds, "I don't hate Alanis Morissette because I don't find her particularly revelatory. But I figure if we're going to have a Barbie Doll star, better to have an angry Barbie Doll star. I mean, I went to see her perform and I saw the entire audience sing every single word to `You Oughtta Know,' and I'm sorry but that song says something that I wish I'd known how to say when I was 14. People can learn even from banal sources."

One thing Powers and McDonnell agree on is that the women-in-rock trend has been good for women on rock. "I spent years writing about all kinds of music," McDonnell points out, "and it wasn't until I started writing more about gender issues that I started getting more play. I almost felt that people weren't interested in what a woman had to say about music in general, or about boy bands, but there was interest in what I had to say about women."

Powers confirms that "things have gotten better in the past few years. One thing we discovered in our research is that women writers have been asked to write about women in rock. It's the brilliant and creative idea of editors who think, `Well, it's a woman artist, let's get a women writer.' But I do think that's provided an open door, or maybe just an open window, for women writers to crawl through. We almost called the book She Climbed in Through the Bathroom Window."

Regardless of how they're gaining entry, women are continuing to make inroads into music criticism. And, perhaps more important, feminist points of view are now impossible to ignore. But both Powers and McDonnell are only cautiously optimistic. As Powers puts it, "Education is really important and the fact is that music and journalism classes are being destroyed in the schools. So we can sit here and talk for hours about how things are getting better and doors are opening, but the nation we live in just isn't paying any attention to its culture right now -- and that sucks."

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