The danger of gender-based criticism

One of my longstanding biases, shared with other male critics, is a tendency to align gender and analogies. I’m working on it. Liz Phair must come up when reviewing Speedy Ortiz — why not Luna, particularly the Luna of Penthouse, telling smart stories about romance over drinks in riverfront studios? I mentioned Sheryl Crow when I listened to Courtney Barnett, but at least I mentioned a pop influence. Alex Chilton’s Like Flies in Sherbet haunts Waxhatchee’s Ivy Tripp. And don’t dare suggest male acts don’t boast female antecedents — unless, of course, you’re gay. Don’t bother making crossgenre analogies either (Tinashe and Homogenic-era Bjork sound like obvious soul mates; so does Maxinquaye for that matter). Well I remember the ruckus when Juliana Hatfield suggested in a 1993 promotional interview that women have difficulty playing guitar because their smaller fingers aren’t built for it. Only Bonnie Raitt, she said, had overcome this limitation. No one suggested we should change the design of guitars; instead, letters to the editor used the women-can’t-be-soldiers defense.

Annie Zed addressed it in Salon. Jill Mapes’ piece, similar in approach, contains this paragraph:

I hate to say it, but maybe the emotional complexity that has been used against women throughout history is actually working in their favor right now, as more women than ever find their place in rock. Or maybe it’s mere coincidence that all of these albums have at least one moment that recalls the relief of discovering a complicated feeling given a proper name in another language.

The discovery of a complicated feeling colored my response to Pretenders, Debut, Dig Me Out, and janet. What distinguished them weren’t just unexpected reactions to familiar scenarios, as if the scenarios were cut glass awaiting reassembly, but that they shriveled whatever else was in my CD carousel, like all good art. To suggest a difference isn’t to carve a space apart from the mainstream — it’s to say, “This belongs because it expands the mainstream this much more.” Growing up in a city that revered Expose and Gloria Estefan, I laughed at the idea of a Women in Rock issue — when haven’t they mattered?

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