Original artwork by Ben Walant
This interview appeared in our Spring 2015 quarterly issue. You can sign up for our free digital subscription here.
Elizabeth Wollman is a professor at Baruch College whose research focuses on rock musicals, adult musicals, and the relationship between gender stereotypes and rock radio programming. Wollman's latest book, Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013.
Rare Candy: We recently did an interview with an artist who goes by Eskimeaux, and given your interest in gender stereotypes in rock I’m interested to hear what you think of it. The artist is explaining why she self-identifies as “bedroom pop” rather than a rock musician:
“I feel like rock is always a very male-driven genre, so if I were to claim that I’m in a rock band, people would expect it to be riff-y and like… a man with a ham sandwich in his mouth or something.”
Would you agree with Smith that rock today is a primarily male-driven genre?
Wollman: Historically, it is. Without question, rock has been associated with traditional, Western, even White masculinity. But I’m dismayed to hear her say that because while I would argue that the entire history of rock music is unquestionably masculinist, in the 90s the Riot Grrrl movement propelled the genre to open up and be less gender-associated. I suppose though that when you’re getting down to it, the historic dichotomy was that women made pop music and men make rock. And she’s sort of owning that and reappropriating it but it still sort of dismays me to hear it, since it means that nothing has changed very much.
RC: There has, it seems, been a rise in prominent female-led indie bands, from Courtney Barnett to Angel Olsen to Mitski or Speedy Ortiz. But speaking to that, another band we spoke to (Palberta) expressed their frustration with the fact that “all-female” is still seen as somewhat of a genre in itself. Yet there are also still female rock musicians that aren’t clumped together with six other musicians on the cover of Time in some sort of “Yay Women!” issue, that are respected as rock musicians.
Wollman: I suppose the “Yay Women!” period was in the early 90’s when suddenly the media said “Oh hey, there are some women here playing instruments, isn’t that awesome.” That felt kind of new, and it certainly dismantled certain assumptions about the history of rock music, but at the same time I cringe when a gender or a color is trendy. Something like “It is the time for black people,” or “It is the time for women.” I do that things feel less condescending in that respect now.
RC: You once said that “Rock revels in its authenticity, in it’s ability to express the ‘real’ whether social, emotional or personal.” You then went on to expose the ideological superiority rock feels over pop because while pop is made out to be intentionally commercial or commodified, rock is supposed to be “authentic.” When we talked with Brooklyn band Bodega Bay about this, they felt it to be especially true for American acts as opposed to British acts, who they felt to be more conscious of the artifice of performance and more likely to put on a stage persona.
Wollman: There is a cultural difference, but do keep in mind that Led Zeppelin came out of England and were “authentic” to the point that they stole material — actually ripped off songs and called them their own. Artists that you’re referring to, like Bowie, are coming from a very different space. When it comes to authenticity, a lot of it comes from the Romantic Era, and a lot of it comes from the Blues Era. There’s the whole myth of Robert Johnson: “He sold his soul to the devil, became the greatest player on earth, and then died.” There were a whole bunch of British musicians, mostly guitarists — Zeppelin, Clapton, for instance — that gobbled that [myth] up and said “this is authenticity.”
It’s interesting, I have a friend who’s in the industry and we manage to talk music pretty well — industry people don’t usually understand what I do. But what’s fascinating about this friend is that he really knows how to “talk the talk.” I’ll ask him how he’s doing and he’ll say something like “Yeah, I’m just kicking it man.” He has absorbed this “authentic talk” that you get when it comes to posing and keeping alive the idea of rock music “keeping it real.” There’s a very long history of that. [...] Essentially the rockism debate is the argument that pop music has been valued incorrectly because there has been so much inadvertent attention given to what is “authentic.” Meanwhile the musicians that were posing as authentic were stealing the music of guys who had actually made it years before. It’s a sham. The rockist debate, Sasha Frere-Jones and all of these new critics that are coming along and saying “No, no, pop music has been seriously devalued it’s time we start looking for things other than authenticity.” The woman you interviewed who said that she refuses to affiliate with the idea of rock, that’s actually maybe in keeping with that argument, but again, I don't know exactly where she’s coming from.
RC: There does seem to be a recent hyper-awareness that we’re being sold a product, that rock is just as commodified as pop.
Wollman: For the longest time it was about becoming extremely successful, but making it look like you were not interested in financial gain. Or becoming successful, but at the same time suffering a lot and saying to your fans “I’m just like you guys, the industry is making me do this.” Which, arguably you could even accuse Bowie of. Bowie had a very developed ability to do what he wanted, but was an industry baby at the same time. He was artificial in his own way, but somehow managed to function as someone who was in fact not at all artificial. His artifice was his medium, it became very hard to cut through, and I think that there’s much more of an interest now in being a little bit more transparent.
RC: One last question — what is your definition of pop music?
Wollman: Pop music is anything that is mass mediated and recorded for commercial, popular consumption.
RC: That’s a pretty good answer.
Wollman: Well, I teach this.