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One of my favorite movies is "Almost Famous," Cameron Crowe’s film about William Miller, a young writer who lands his first big story for Rolling Stone, and his experiences on the road with an up-and-coming band in the ’70s. Many girls I knew idolized Penny Lane, the golden-haired “band-aid” who enchanted the rock stars. They wanted to be her.
Me? I wanted to be William Miller.
Though I’d written seriously since high school and college, I never considered pursuing a career as a freelance music writer until only a few years ago. I accepted that I would never fit in with my fellow indie journalists because, frankly, I couldn’t connect with their music and preferred the sounds of my parents’ generation, no matter how uncool it was.
As a writer, my “beat” is not so different from William’s: I regularly cover and interview artists like the Beach Boys, Graham Nash, Ray Davies, the Zombies, and other legends of the 1960s and ’70s. I'm living the dream I’ve fantasized about since I was 11, and never take for granted the unforgettable moments I’ve had with a who’s who of rock history.
I always knew my 20-something status would set me apart. Since the early days, I’ve often been one of the youngest people in the audience at many shows, and had more than my share of gray-hairs poke a finger in my face, demanding to know how I could possibly be interested in “their" music.
Perhaps it was the ageist assholes that completely distracted me from remembering that I am also a woman, and, oh yeah, women can’t write rock.
Recently, a review I wrote about the Monkees’ latest tour went viral, garnering around 9,000 shares. I’ve written popular long-form for print before, but this was my first time witnessing the madness in real-time.
As I reveled in the shock and excitement of my article blowing up, I did the thing writers are never supposed to do -- read the comments. Most of them were glowing, and I felt touched that my words resonated with so many people. Then, I began to notice a strange trend.
“This guy was at the same show as me!” said one guy on Facebook. “He is spot-on!” proclaimed another bro on Twitter. My first reaction was, “Who the hell are they talking about?” Then it dawned on me that they were referring to the author: me, non-ambiguously-named Allison. Apparently ignoring my name at both the top and bottom of the article, not to mention my picture, they instead assumed that the author of this “spot-on” article was a man.
I wasn’t surprised.
Classic rock, generally speaking, is a sausagefest of dudes who compete to out-deep-track each other with the gusto of Spanish bullfighters. Throw a woman who “thinks she knows something” into the mix and the patronizing “sweethearts” and “honeys” come out as a reminder that this is an elite clubhouse with a big ol’ “No Girls Allowed” sign.
But even knowing this to be the way of my world, I was still slightly taken aback when comments like these popped up on my actual article:
"I also wanted to mention that this was a well-informed, insightful article. I was a little shocked to see it written by a young girl instead of some older person."
"Older person" = "older MALE person."
"Really well written piece. It's refreshing to read a female voice that isn't trying to mine humor from her relationship woes or talk about everything as it pertains to her sex life."
So, to translate, if no one notices the byline on my pieces and finds them insightful, intelligent and historically accurate, it is assumed I am a man. Because I don't go on at length about which band member is the cutest and had the best hair and clothes, and how funny and sweet they are, I am stripped of my gender. Which, by the way, if I wanted to spend 2,000 words talking about their looks and personalities, is 100 percent within my right and should have no bearing on my credibility or character. But because I “nobly” avoid mixing my hormones and sex life into an article about rock music, I am at best a man, at worst a revolutionary female who's overcome her womanly handicap.
I earned a master’s degree in Music Business from NYU and have been working within the industry since I promoted my first concert at 16. Over the years, I’ve spearheaded record labels, worked in marketing for world-class music venues, traveled all over the world on documentary film shoots, and supported a variety of artists. Writing is not only an extension of my love of music, but also the business behind it.
It’s no secret that music and entertainment are still primarily Boys’ Clubs, even though there’s also a substantial number of women managers, lawyers, agents, publicists, and historians. Not to mention those early industry pioneers, music journalists, and editors like Jane Scott, Gloria Stavers, Lillian Roxon, Lisa Robinson, and so many others who staked a lady-claim to rock writing long before I was even born. Even the fictional Penny Lane was herself at least as dedicated to the music itself as she was to the musicians she adored.
Yet, those same musicians still pawned her off to Humble Pie for a case of Heineken. I’ve pitched stories I’ve agonized over for weeks, choosing just the right words to convince an overtly male-dominated magazine that I, a woman, was worthy of ink, only to have the editor praise my idea, then turn around and give it to one of his bro staffers. And, somehow, this is preferable to being ignored completely by male editors.
I really don’t mean to turn this into a man-bashing free-for-all, nor do I want it to sound like there’s anything wrong with being a musician’s partner, or even a groupie. Everyone is entitled to play her own role, but automatically dividing all women into one of the former two categories is the same as saying there are only two kinds of musicians onstage: guitarists and drummers. Forget the bassists, keyboardists, percussionists and vocalists, along with the agents, roadies, tour managers, technicians -- all of whom could be women.
And in fairness to my wonderful colleagues, I should add that I regularly write for a blog of mostly male staffers, and there’s never been anything but mutual respect among us. Artists, also, could generally care less about a writer’s gender; more than once, I’ve been told that my interview has been a favorite or a contender for most-thorough in all of their 40- or 50-plus years in show business. Not “for a woman,” but for anyone.
Recently, Playboy classified Neko Case as a “woman in the music industry,” to which the enraged Case tweeted back “IM NOT A FUCKING ‘WOMAN IN MUSIC’, IM A FUCKING MUSICIAN IN MUSIC!”
“Women in music” could easily translate to “woman in sports,” “woman in business,” or, archaically, “woman in the workplace.” You’d never read the sentence “men in music.” We’ve always had to justify our expertise and interest in things that, on some made-up principle alone, aren’t women’s territory. My mother, a hardcore football fan, sees female sportscasters like Erin Andrews and wishes she could have had that opportunity, but, “That wasn’t the way things were done back then.” And apparently, for a lot of people, they still aren’t.
A few years ago at the mostly male-dominated Fest for Beatles Fans, my (female) Beatles historian friend established a panel solely so five or so of us women could establish some sort of voice for ourselves and prove that we’re more than just gushing, fawning fangirls; we know our stuff just as well, and, in some cases, better than men on other panels. After last February’s New York Fest, a male colleague of mine remarked that the women’s panel was the only one he saw that didn’t devolve into a pissing contest, and the only thing that, for him, justified the price of admission.
Though we make strides in leveling the playing field between women and men, the old stereotypes are still dying a slow and painful death. If we’re backstage, we’re automatically girlfriends or groupies; if we’re in a record store, we’re shopping for our male partners; if we’re obsessed with a song, it’s because of a breakup or crush on a boy, not because of a sublime guitar riff, unworldly harmonies or mind-blowing arrangements. Our emotionally-inclined minds aren’t developed to grasp practical or theoretical musical concepts.
But, as thousands of women prove every day, we do know music and we do know writing and we do know business and we do know sports and on and on. And even though William Miller might be a boy’s name, not all William Millers are men.