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A New Canon: In Pop Music, Women Belong At The Center Of The Story

Why make a list of the greatest albums made by women? To start a new conversation, and to rewrite history.
Chelsea Beck
Why make a list of the greatest albums made by women? To start a new conversation, and to rewrite history.

A few years ago, my friend Jill Sternheimer and I started a conversation one night while driving around the streets of New Orleans. Both of us are music nerds, and we regularly attend the kinds of musical retrospectives that have become common in this age of historical exploration via tribute shows and historical playlists. Jill, in fact, often organizes such shows at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, where she is the director of public programs. I sometimes write about them, and often ponder how music history's being recorded and revised in the digital age. Why, we wondered, was the importance of women so often recognized as a trend instead of a source of lasting impact? We came to a conclusion that, in 2017, will likely strike no one as a surprise: that the general history of popular music is told through the great works of men, and that without a serious revision of the canon, women will always remain on the margins.

This is a truth reinforced in many different ways: by the shelves weighed down with books about Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, while only one or two about Aretha Franklin or Patti Smith sit nearby; by the radio playlists that still only feature women once or twice every hour; even by the "classic rock" T-shirts on sale at big box stores, inscribed with the Rolling Stones tongue and Led Zeppelin's blimp but not Heart's swirly pink ticker. Since I became a music critic in the 1980s — my first big pieces for my local music rag were about the Go-Go's and Joan Jett — I've often written about women in music as a category as well as individually; often in these assignments, I've been asked to consider women's music-making as a trend, as something unusual rather than central. My intrepid peers who've authored histories or edited anthologies on the subject (most of them women, though some are men) have sought to correct the assumption that rock, soul and hip-hop's most worthwhile stories, images and sounds are generated by men. Back in the 1980s, in my college women studies classes, I was taught to be suspicious of the pervasiveness of the "pseudo-generic man" — the assumption that a male perspective can stand for all perspectives. Today, myriad identities across the gender spectrum flourish within our shared social media spaces and the conversations generated there. Yet in popular culture, and especially in music, the pseudo-generic man still rules. Writing about gender still feels necessary to me even as our definitions shift. I'm officially tired, however, of writing about music that recognizes women when gender is the topic, but when music itself is the topic, almost always returns its focus to men. Talking about this problem with Jill and then with several of my colleagues at NPR, I began to wonder if focusing on what women have done in music, instead of constantly remarking that wow, they exist, might be a way to begin correcting this pattern.

What you see before you is a list that I hope will be read as an intervention. Nearly 50 women who play a role in NPR compiled and voted on this list. It features albums by artists who identify as female — including some by mixed-gender bands, like Fleetwood Mac and X, that, in our view, relied on women's creativity for their spark. These albums were released between 1964, the year The Beatles invaded America and set in motion what can be called the "classic album era," and 2016, when Beyoncé arguably ushered in a new period with her "visual album" Lemonade.The point is to offer a view of popular music history with women's work at the center. The list does not represent an "alternate history." It stands for music history, touching upon every significant trend, social issue, set of sonic innovations, and new avenue for self-expression that popular music has intersected in the past fifty years.

Lists have their limitations. It's arguable, in fact, that beyond getting the groceries, lists are fundamentally lies. They reflect unconscious biases and whispered compromises; they solidify beliefs that may seem relevant in the moment, but become incomprehensible to the next generation. They are also arguably anti-feminist. As Robin Morgan wrote in the anthology that helped define feminism's Second Wave, 1970's Sisterhood is Powerful, "The women's movement is a non-hierarchical one. It does things collectively and experimentally." In music, lists are what comes after an experiment — the experiment of listening itself, alone and then together, of sharing music and arguing about it and realizing how an artists' personal expression might be a listener's personal (and political) one too. A list says no to the possibility that any other list on the same subject might be valid. It forces authority.

Or does it? Another way to look at a list is as the beginning of new conversation. One is still needed when it comes to women's place in music history, despite decades of efforts by feminist historians, critics, activists and musicians themselves. For the past half-century — the period that this list roughly covers — most mainstream musical "best" lists feature startlingly few women, especially in their top ranks. Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, compiled in 2003 and updated in 2009, includes no women in the Top 20. Pitchfork's "People's List," a reader-determined Top 200 list spanning the publication's lifetime, included two bands with women in its Top 20. Recent lists by publications ranging from SPIN to Entertainment Weekly, Time and NME showed similar results. And the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has never remedied the problem of significant female underrepresentation in its ranks.

Those lists are roosters that lay eggs. What came first, the idea that men make more historically significant music than women do, or the institutionalization of a group of albums men made? Because the vast majority of lists extend from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to Thrillerto Nevermindto OK Computer, with something by Joni Mitchell or Aretha Franklin showing up around No. 30, the paradigms that define greatness remain masculine at their core. This means that The Beatles represent modernity instead of Nina Simone, and Bob Dylan stands for poeticism made populist while Mitchell or Franklin only do so secondarily. It places Nirvana and Pearl Jam at the center of the 1990s rock renaissance, never suggesting that Alanis Morrisette or P.J. Harvey belong in that same spot. It maintains the notion that hip hop's golden era belonged to rappers like Biggie and Tupac instead of Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill. It obscures the fact that contemporary country's biggest influence is not Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard (or even Garth Brooks), but Shania Twain. It makes it difficult to see that Jay Z still has a major career as an artist mostly because of Beyoncé.

Affirmative action offers one possible corrective to this skewed view of the musical past, and present. (As Rhiannon Giddens says, the past is always present.) Why not remake those old lists and up the numbers of women on them? The problem is, once a canon is formed, it gains an aura of immutability. To significantly alter it requires a shift in perspective beyond the simple mandate to adjust the numbers. If this were not true, then at least one of the endless array of lists generated in print, on television, in film documentaries and on the Web would have an album by a woman at the top. None has. Furthermore, there have been only scant numbers of lists focusing exclusively on albums by women.

In building a new canon, Turning the Tables contributors kept wide parameters. We left room for acknowledged rock-era classics as well as pop hits dismissed by others as fluff. There are debuts here that changed music's game, and one-offs whose impact mostly affected small communities. There are works that speak strongly and directly about women's experience, and ones whose makers have sought to erase the boundaries of gender. The original list of nominees was more than 500 albums deep, assembled by all of the voters who participated and presented without bias to the whole group.

Our voters participate in the culture of popular music in different ways, and that's one reason this list, while canonical, is also very diverse. Some are critics who engage in daily conversations about issues of musical taste and legitimacy. Others are radio producers or hosts regularly working with musicians and incorporating music into NPR coverage. Still others are the 21st-century version of old-fashion DJ's, absorbing new music every day to create a listening experience that extends from pop history and pushes it forward. Voters also range in age from their 20s to their 60s. The very different ways these women engage with music has made for a list that reflects widely held ideas about what is canonical, but which also challenges them.

The list's top artists are both expected and, especially in their rankings, a surprise. Albums placed far apart from each other on other best lists relate to each other in interesting ways when they appear consecutively, telling stories that cross regional, generational and style divides. It will surprise few readers that Joni Mitchell's universally lauded Blue is No. 1 on our list, but that it nearly tied with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hillsays much: The latter album spoke to a different generation about love and independence, and women's proper place within a changing culture, in ways very similar to its forebear. Nina Simone, currently enjoying a renaissance spurred on by black feminist reconsiderations of her work, strongly secured the third spot. Four and five continue this trend of intergenerational exchange, with Missy Elliott's Supa Dupa Fly, which anticipated the electronic thrum of 21st-century pop three years before the millennium, standing just ahead of Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved A Man, which in the 1960s shaped the sound of soul.

From these guaranteed picks, able to be heard differently when placed so close together, the list opens up in myriad directions. Where Did Our Love Go?by the Supremes, which set records in 1964 and, along with albums other girl groups like The Ronettes, sits just a few spots away from Lucinda Williams's Americana masterwork Car Wheels on a Gravel Road — an album for which she might have been (but of course, wasn't) dubbed a "new Dylan." Labelle's Nightbirds, as accomplished and adventurous a funk album as anything the group's friend George Clinton made, rests near Kate Bush's art rock epic Hounds of Love. The supreme jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald may have never shared a spot on a list with hip hop globalist M.I.A. or punk instigator Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, but considered together, the ways they pushed the limits of language and voice tell a story of women speaking back against the limits of propriety. It's fascinating to think of the challenges Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes has made to the blues and classic rock forms that inspire her, in light of the ones avant-gardist Diamanda Galas, just steps away from her here, made to art song.

Why create a canon of women's works at all? A scene from Joni Mitchell's days in Laurel Canyon, which would soon motivate her to record Blue, proves illuminating. Mitchell was working with David Crosby on her first, self-titled album, and they'd frequently attend parties at the houses of friends like Cass Elliott or the screenwriter Carl Gottlieb. Gottlieb later told music historian Barney Hoskyns that Crosby would have Joni wait in another room after they arrived. At a lull in the conversation he'd tell the crowd that he wanted to introduce someone. Mitchell would emerge, play a few songs and retreat. "She goes back upstairs, and we all sit around and look at each other and say, 'What was that?Did we hallucinate it?" Gottlieb said.

There were women at these parties, but most of the rising stars gathered in those jacaranda-filled backyards were men. Some soon became Mitchell's collaborators, some lovers — Graham Nash, James Taylor, Jackson Browne. They heard in Mitchell something they hadn't heard before: her unique guitar tunings, turning folk music toward jazz; her lyrics, often sharper in detail and riskier emotionally than their own. She really was an exception, the genius whose Blue, inspired by this period of her life and issued in 1971, tops NPR's list of 150 greatest recordings of the classic album period.

But there's also something off and sadly typical about this scene. In it, the female musician is a dream, a surprise and a disruptor. She can claim the center of attention, but her rightful point of origin, and the place to which she returns, is a margin.

Now consider another scene, this one presented by the literary scholars Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their 1979 study The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination. They recognized that women had, for a century, been reading an alternate history of literature into existence, a "canon that lived in the mind of every femme moyenne intellectuellewho spent her girlhood avidly devouring the classics of female imagination produced by Austen and the Brontës, Mary Shelley and George Eliot, and yes, if the girl liked poetry, Emily Dickinson." Gilbert and Gubar's scenario of women trading worn paperbacks back and forth and having long discussions about Pride and Prejudice in comparison to Wuthering Heights doesn't isolate any one female writer as exceptional, instead placing them in dialogue with each other in ways that change the idea of what great literature can be. Acknowledging only women writers, this vision might be viewed as extreme, a form of separatism that as isolating in its own way as keeping the best female artist at a gathering in a separate room. Yet when feminists like Gilbert and Gubar did create new canons of women's literature, in books like the 1986 landmark Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, it changed the game. More books by women were taught in college courses. Some titles lost to time, like Kate Chopin's The Awakening, were rediscovered. Arguments about these new canons ensued, and resulted in more change, including greater acknowledgment of women of color and women writing beyond North America. The changes stuck. A 2011 study found a direct correlation between the publication of the anthology and greater gender balance among authors considered central to world literature in general.

The process of canonization — literally, of compiling lists of the greatest or most influential works within an art form — is always controversial. Many musicians despise lists and other anthologizing efforts that threaten to freeze their work within hierarchies. This is doubly true for many women, who fear that being honored as the best within their gender simply marginalizes them further. "Just another book about women in rock!" Kathleen Hanna shouted in the song "Crochet," recorded under the pseudonym the Julie Ruin. "You killed the thing." The feminine-product sponsored special events feting hot "divas" or "women who rock" that fill our television and computer screens often seem like little more than marketing ploys presenting woman's work as a perennially new sensation, packaged with little historical context or real thought. Being "lumped in with the women," as Mitchell herself has often described it, can feel like winning a plastic trinket that, in the real scheme of pop history, feels like second place.

It's a dilemma. Defining women in music as women both makes their work more visible within a male-dominated milieu and potentially reduces their value. One reason for this may be a very deep belief that underlies much more than the status of women in music: the idea that men "do," while women "be." This distinction is at the core of the conventional gender binary. Women are linked to the natural and the timeless, while men innovate and make history. Men build civilizations and create great works, while women animate spaces and connect people with their nurturing souls and alluring energy. These associations may seem outdated, but they underpin the ways in which male or female greatness is discussed and defined, in music as in the larger culture. Think I'm wrong? Google "Beyoncé" and "force of nature," then do the same for Drake.

Women may be acknowledged for creating great works of art — Blue,for example, is one of those albums that always shows up on the lists that otherwise feature ninety-five per cent male-generated music. Even so, when they're celebrated more generally, it's usually for their existential qualities — their great voices, their glamor, their sexiness. "The sky is blue, the grass is green; Aretha Franklin is the greatest singer to ever live," read a recent celebration of Franklin's genre-defining 1967 soul album I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You. While the article focused on the album, Aretha was mostly lauded as a presence almost beyond description, comparable to God.

Contrast this with the many recent dissections of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, with their detailed descriptions of how the band developed the album's concept, explored new recording techniques, and set pop history on its head. "Sgt. Pepper, more than any other single work, was responsible for generating the aura of artistic legitimacy that would institutionalize the presence of rock music in the mainstream of modern culture," wrote Jonathan Gould in the New Yorker. The Beatles did something important historically. Aretha Franklin did too, but she's more often celebrated as a miracle. (Mea culpa: I've done the same thing within my critical writing, once basing an essay about Franklin around the opening line, "She manifests.")

Because the notion that women "be" still influences the way we think about female artists, they've mostly been canonized as personalities or essences, not makers of things. The concept of "women in music" operates in the mainstream as a celebration of the ineffable feminine, endlessly redefined yet somehow still clichéd. It's an endless replay of that trick David Crosby devised for Joni Mitchell, of her just appearing, like magic. The problem is, magical beings can't achieve a solid footing in the real world.

What we hope to do with this list is stimulate discussions of women in music focused on what they make — recordings — instead of how they are perceived as being. The albums named here sparked historical trends, spearheaded sonic innovations, and shaped the lives of listeners and the works of artists who followed. The women who made them claimed authority as producers, bandleaders and songwriters. They collaborated with men as equals — not simply serving as "the face" and "the voice" of the hits they made, but co-writing them, even if sometimes that authorship came in the way they played instruments or turned a phrase. These women need to be acknowledged for their vision, not just for their charisma — for the notes they hit and the melodies they charted and the beats they pioneered, for the stories they told and are still telling, every time we really listen to them.

You can read NPR's list of The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women here.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.