Perfect Sound Forever

Vivian Girls

Photo from Vivian Girls' MySpace page

It's A Man's Man's Girl's World
The problems of male feminism in rock criticism
By Ethan Stanislawski
(February 2010)

When the Vivian Girls' self-titled debut came out in 2008, it received an instant rush of hype in the music press. It got rave reviews by the Onion’s A.V. Club, Pitchfork, and Prefix (where I was writing). The album trickled up to the print press. Veteran music critics like Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, and Rob Sheffield were singing the praises of the album just as equally.

The difference is the terms of this discussion: after the de facto breakups of Le Tigre and Sleater-Kinney, critics everywhere have been looking for a band to take the legacy of the riot grrrl movement in a new direction. For critics old enough to remember when the idea of having women in punk bands was shocking, let alone bands with clearly defined political stances, the void left by those bands was noticeable, even if the need to replace them was classic fodder for trend spotting.

Because the Vivian Girls was an all-female band, and because the band was named after a controversial artwork by Henry Darger that addressed childhood female sexual abuse (artwork that nearly made me vomit when I saw it on display in New York), you'd encounter quotes like this:

"This Brooklyn trio captures the inherent power of burgeoning female sexuality better than any group since X-Ray Spex, and its performances at South by Southwest last March were searing." - Jim DeRogatis, Chicago Sun-Times (December 2008)

"On a song like [‘Where Do You Run To?’], they almost seem haunted walking into this new world or this new love and finding out what it means. You know, young women walking into the adult world and having all of their innocence corrupted by it"- Greg Kot, Sound Opinions (October 31, 2008)

"I hadn't made one of these history-of-punk compilations for a while, and the thing that jumped out at me this time is how virtually everything I put on there post-Nirvana was female: Outside of Pavement and "Fell in Love With a Girl" (which is half-female, come to think of it), it was Scrawl, L7, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Hole, Sleater-Kinney, Ladybug, She Mob, and the Vivian Girls. That's probably not a surprise to anyone who was following closely through the '90's, but some of these songs I discovered well after the fact, so I've just personally come to the realization that males should never be allowed to sing punk rock again. Women add beauty, sadness, reverie, and lots else that might not have worked so well for Slaughter & the Dogs, but now seems like the only way to do it." - Phil Dellio, Pazz and Jop 2008

Meanwhile, I found myself "discussing" the Vivian Girls within the confines of the Internet comments and forums of Prefix Magazine, mostly in response to a now-notorious interview where the Vivian Girls derided "normal people who go to bars with their co-workers at eat at Applebee's." The video drew the ire of many fellow Prefix writers, though I found it kinda funny. What bothered me more was their immediate apology, which seemed to take away from all the edgy qualities the band had been praised for having. A classic comment comedy pyramid skewered the band even further, leading me to publish a comment published right under Dellio's that seems completely regrettable today:

"The Vivian Girls give themselves that band name, but then apologize profusely as soon as they piss off anyone. If 'Where Do You Run To' wasn't so damn good, this band would be dead to me."

Come July, things had come crashing down to earth. The self-titled debut had already been featured on some best indie albums of the decade lists, drawing a few more flashes of controversy. After the hype had died down and I had done more homework, I found myself interviewing Cassie Ramone at Pitchfork Festival 2009 (or as she was identified by the band's publicists, "the blonde one.")

I knew I was in a dubious position. While I didn't want to do an ambush interview, I definitely felt I had to ask some hard questions that I perceived critics as shying away from (forgetting that I had read an interview on the same subject in Venus Zine). I also knew that if Cassie were to ever call me out for being a male and asking these questions, I'd have no response.

I was expecting a lot more of an attitude from Cassie when I interviewed her, but what I found was something much different: a timid young woman in her early twenties, clearly exhausted from a day of interviews and trying to get ready for performing, picking at the grass of Union Park. I asked my questions, got the answers I was mostly expecting, and overheard the Vivian Girls' PR rep mention that he's told Cassie she should get tougher in interviews.

Ramone gracefully declined being called the successor to the riot grrls, "Certainly the riot grrls inspired us to start playing music, but we're not a riot grrl band ourselves. It is an honor to be mentioned in the category as those bands." As for the name the Vivian Girls, Ramone responds: "we're not a Darger concept band. We thought it was kind of a neat concept." In terms of the band's appeal from a sexual versus a musical standpoint, Ramone responded, "Ideally, it would be all about the music. In this day and age, you can't deny that image plays into a band's hype, but I often wish it was something people could overlook. A lot of the band's naysayers use our image to dismiss us, which I think is pointless."

As for the "coworkers" interview, which Ramone described as the "biggest nail in our coffin," Ramone argued that "of all the interviews we did, it was clear that Sterogum took the one that could be seen as the most offensive and put a headline over it 'Vivian Girls hate your co-workers,' which isn't what we were saying. People started treating it like it was our manifesto."

Only after the interview did I realize a lot of truths about the Vivian Girls that I'd been ignoring for the past year: that the discussion of the band, by critics, fans, detractors, and publicists had been dominated by male critics, including in discussions with a feminist angle. And as much as it had irked me, it was undeniably much easier for me to identify "Cassie Ramone" when she was described as "the blonde one."

I got back home that day, and talked about this with a friend I was staying with, a radical feminist who loves Le Tigre (except for "My Metrocard"), Liz Phair (except for "Flower"), Sleater-Kinney, and L7. The realization about the Vivian Girls that had taken me a year to figure out had been obvious to her from the start.

I emailed Jessica Hopper, critic for the Chicago Reader and recent publisher of The Girl's Guide To Rocking about her perception of the attitudes of male critics. "I think it's difficult for many male critics I read, especially, younger, college-aged dudes and older critics working at newspapers, to see that they often judge women's work differently, discuss looks, are often more amazed at them having any virtuosity, make a bigger deal of size and age (no one ever prefaces a critique of John Fogarty or some Strokes' dude's solo album by saying even at his age he's looking great, or he's still got it, or he's skinny, greasy, handsome, etc.)."

While less extreme than in criticism of other art forms, the dominance of male voices in music criticism isn’t new. Even though music criticism came of age in the wake of women's liberation in the 1970's, and its core founders include Ellen Willis and Patti Smith, the dominance and misconceptions of even politically sympathetic male voices tend to draw the most attention.

Ann Powers noted in the anthology Rock She Wrote that while "rock criticism as a literary form arose amid the tower-toppling sixties counterculture, and gained full force simultaneously with feminism's second wave," several pieces in the book "expose the way rock boys shut girls out of their creative tree houses." Georgia Christgau noted that she was the only female Creem writer whom the male writers hadn't slept with, and Robbie Cruger echoes the boy's-club attitude at Creem. Daisann McLane's feminist-angled profile of Heart led to one of the many controversial firings by Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone. Much to the ire of Courtney Love conspiracy theorists, DeRogatis' obituary for Kurt Cobain noted that such conspiracy theories had arisen within hours of reports of Cobain's death.

In August, The Vivian Girls' second album, Everything Goes Wrong, came out in October. As the Internet hype cycle goes, it was rather predictable. Despite featuring an overall improvement in songwriting that Cassie Ramone had promised in July, Everything Goes Wrong didn't have a song like "Where Do You Run To?" or "Tell The Word," and its intentionally lo-fi production was still a barrier to entry for many. Kot said on Sound Opinions that he liked the Vivian Girls' follow up even more than the album he included in his top 5 last year, yet it didn’t crack his top 20 list two months later. He champions his list as being purely about personal taste and not being politically correct. Less than eighteen months after 500 copies the Vivian Girls' self-titled debut was released on vinyl in Brooklyn, the band's support had peaked and plummeted. It'd be difficult to go back to being a house party band, but a lot of the higher doors of rock fame had already shut.

In other words, the Vivian Girls were subject to the same boom and bust hype cycle that has plagued a number of bands hyped on the Internet in recent years. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Black Kids, and the Long Blondes all had wildly celebrated debut releases, followed up by less stellar follow-ups that returned the bands to relative obscurity. The difference with the Vivian Girls is that the hype cycle had taken on a feminist narrative, and if the peculiarities of the Internet are distinguishable in any way, it's in the dominance of male voices and the brutal takedown of any claims of sexism.

This fall, I attended the release of Girldrive, a road trip book by Emma Bernstein, a former college classmate of mine (who committed suicide in 2008), and Nona Willis-Aronowitz, daughter of the late Ellen Willis. Kathleen Hanna was in attendance, and she was thrilled that such a book was based on "actually listening to women." In the concluding passages of Girldrive Bernstein noted that the iconic images of On the Road, like several American images, were tied to misogyny (recalling Le Tigre's "misogynist!" "genius!" chant in "What's Yr Take on Cassavetes"). Raised on the Upper West Side by second-wave feminists, I had no problem declaring myself a feminist through college, but it wasn't until later that I saw the inherent limits of calling myself a feminist while being a male. Outside of family and friends, I may have been the only straight male at the Girldrive reading, and while Willis-Aronowitz said she was happy to see straight guys there, I definitely felt out of place.

That was probably for the better. As Hopper noted, "I mean, how to explain to men the blindness of privilege, right? Women critics and feminist critics, we're constantly called into these gender debates to dutifully explain how we are being mistreated, ignored, denied. It gets old."

More importantly, I think was the realization that some male critics go their whole lives without realizing that there are some aspects of feminism that males just can't discuss. Many of my favorite critics, such as Robert Christgau, Jim DeRogatis, Lester Bangs, and Greg Kot all have contradicted themselves due to that same confusion, and the perpetual dominance of males in discussion of feminism was no better in the 1970s or 1990s than it was in my internet forum discussions in 2008. If nothing else, I was lucky to have this realization at twenty-three, before spending my entire life dominating discussions in the same manner.

Hopper gave me the best advice I've heard on how to review female musicians, advice that seems so simple it easily gets overlooked: "When you write something about a female artist, reread your draft and think, 'Would I say this about her male peers? Am I holding her to different (higher/lower) standards? What are the things I am assuming about gender here? And examine and learn from that."

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