The World Doesn’t Need More Female Music Critics

We’ve got plenty of them already—and it’s time we acknowledge they exist.

June 03, 2015

Last week, I noticed an article from The New Yorker popping up all over my Facebook feed. The piece was called “The World Needs Female Rock Critics,” and it was accompanied by an illustration of a woman’s tattooed torso, setting pen to paper at a writing desk. It’s a personal essay by Australian music critic Anwen Crawford—a staffer at The Monthly, and the author of the 33 1/3 book on Hole’s Live Through This—and if you haven’t already, I recommend reading it right now. Pegged to the publication of Pitchfork senior editor Jessica Hopper’s new book—a tome of published essays and profiles with the very attention-grabbing title, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic—it explores women's long struggle for visibility and recognition in the field of rock criticism, even though we’ve been helping to pioneer it from the start. By way of an explanation for the title of Hopper book—which admittedly, she writes, is “more provocation than statement of fact”—she reminds us that while The New Yorker’s first-ever pop music critic was the late, great Ellen Willis, Out of the Vinyl Deeps, Willis' first book of essays, didn’t come out until 2011, five years after she passed away.

If you are a female music critic—or a female musician, or any female or woman-identifying person involved in music for that matter—you’ll probably find that a lot of the scenarios she describes feel all too familiar. In one particularly touching passage, Crawford remembers decorating a high school folder with pictures of her favorite musicians, then having to prove to a skeptical male classmate that she actually knew who Björk was. “The record store, the guitar shop, and now social media: when it comes to popular music, these places become stages for the display of male prowess,” she writes. “Female expertise, when it appears, is repeatedly dismissed as fraudulent. Every woman who has ever ventured an opinion on popular music could give you some variation (or a hundred) on my school corridor run-in, and becoming a recognized “expert” (a musician, a critic) will not save you from accusations of fakery.”


She’s right: just as many female producers still struggle to be recognized as the architects of their own music, a lot of us female critics came up feeling like we had to work extra-hard to prove that we knew what we were talking about. Long before I even entertained the idea of becoming a music critic, I definitely experienced my own version of the Björk sticker story many times over while working as a college-aged clerk at defunct New York record store Kim’s Video (you can read about it here). Still, now that I am fortunate enough to be able to call myself a working journalist and editor, I have to say that there was something about Crawford’s piece that that made me feel a little crestfallen.

I work at a music publication that hires lots of female writers, with a full-time editorial staff that I wouldn’t hesitate to describe as “female skewing”; we even have a female editor-in-chief. To get here, I’ve put in about seven straight years of uninterrupted work—first as a blogger running my own blog, then as an unpaid freelancer, then as a part-time editor, and finally, four years after I started, as a full-time editor at my favorite music magazine; along the way, I even went to grad school for journalism, coincidentally, for the very same cultural criticism program that Ellen Willis founded at NYU. It’s always seemed to me that in order to break into a male-dominated industry, I’d have to push myself to be the best writer that I could possibly be; between the necessarily high standards I set for myself and the increasingly punishing rhythms of publishing in the internet-era, the pace has been pretty unrelenting, to the point where realizing my dream of becoming a music writer has often seemed synonymous with putting a lot of other aspects of my life on hold—how could I even begin to think of starting a family, and taking care of someone else, when I barely have time to do my own laundry?

I’m definitely not alone: even now, as I write this, I’m sitting in a room with four other female music writers, all with their own stories of how they got here, and the sacrifices they’ve made along the way. This is where Crawford’s piece, heart-felt and well-intentioned as it is, gets a little frustrating: rock does have female critics, and pop music at large has even more. I am a member of Binders Full of Women Music Writers—the music-specific offshoot of the larger Binders Full of Women Writers Facebook group, founded by Toronto-based writer Anna Fitzpatrick as a private forum where female journalists and authors can talk shop and network—and as of this writing, there are 439 professional female music writers in there and counting. Our little lane of the publishing world may still have a long way to go before we can call it an equal opportunity playing field, but undermining the progress that has been made since Ellen Willis and Lilian Roxon’s time—and the hundreds and hundreds of women who have stepped up to the plate, often following their example—doesn’t help our invisibility problem; in fact, it only exacerbates the feeling that our words and our efforts haven’t amounted to very much. At worst, it sends off the message that we simply don’t exist, which I doubt is how Willis and Roxon would have wanted us to feel. Or Hopper herself, for that matter, which is probably why she included the following disclaimer in the introduction to The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic: “The title is not meant erase our history, bur rather to help us mark the path.”

I would be remiss to imply that Crawford has painted a portrait of female music writing that begins and ends with Willis, Roxon, and Hopper—she names brilliant and established female critics like Ann Powers and Caroline Coon as well, along with a smattering of other thinkers working in the fields of academia and memoir. Citing the words of Jessica Hopper, the article even makes a nod to the younger generation of internet-bred writers to which my colleagues and I belong. As Hopper noted in a recent interview with the Hairpin, online publishing has given rise to ‘this ferocious crop of really opinionated young writers writing about race, gender, queerness, the body—people coming in with a pretty immaculately formed critical framework.'" But Crawford doesn’t name any of us—or even any of the publications that we work for—and words like “ferocious” and “opinionated,” when not expressly elaborated upon, can come off as suggesting the same “naivety” and “amateurishness” that female music writers have been contending with for decades. It’s that old “fakery” problematic once again, needling itself into the discourse without us even realizing it.

Last month, tired of hearing people in the industry say they “didn’t know any writers of color,” T Magazine associate editor Jazmine Hughes and freelance journalist Durga Chew-Bose took the matter into their own hands and created the Writers of Color list, an open Google doc full of names that editors can access next time they’re looking to make a new hire. The list was a pretty instant viral sensation, and there are 849 writers on there to date. After reading the New Yorker piece—and because Binders Full of Music Writers doesn’t make its roster of talent available to the wider public—I realized that there should probably be a female music writers list too. Maybe Crawford doesn't know who we are because we’re still not as visible as we should be, but there's nothing shameful in reminding the world that we’re here, and that we have names. You can enter yours here. And if you're an editor, you can view the complete list here.

The World Doesn’t Need More Female Music Critics