I don’t usually directly respond to articles written by other women who write from a place of feminism. I don’t like a lot of the infighting that goes on amongst feminists, the ‘is she a good feminist‘ and ‘can she be feminist even if she says she isn’t‘ and ‘can she be a feminist and also sexy‘ etc etc blah blah blah. I disagree very much with the article I am about to discuss, but this will not be an indictment of the writer. Instead I just wanna tell a sort of cautionary tale, in the hopes that we can continue to have thoughtful discussions that go deeper than a click bait headline.
That being said, the title of the article in question is:
Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways Systematically Erases Women in Music
Ok. So. That’s a lot. It’s a big claim. And our author tries hard to back it up. Reading it, however, gave me the distinct impression that she had a pretty big issue with Grohl to begin with (“Grohl has shown himself increasingly to be not much more than a rock and roll formalist, the type of man who is a dying breed”), and wanted to write about her dislike of both the series and the director in a way that seemed important. She claims, “Sonic Highways is meant to reflect Grohl’s own fandom and musical upbringing—but it also positions itself as a type of definitive oral history of each city’s music scene.” I object! Sonic Highways is Grohl’s pet project, an obviously self serving adventure that he wanted to take his band on, and film and sell to HBO. Each episode ends with a Foo Fighters music video, with the lyrics displayed on the screen. It’s not exactly Ken Burns, but I’ve found it pretty entertaining. I don’t think he makes any claims that it serves as a Definitive Oral History. It’s just him talking to people he thinks are cool, and allowing the places he visits to directly influence his new songs.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that it is a history of sorts. I have only watched 3 of the 8 episodes, but I can remember women in each episode. The last episode I watched, set in Nashville, shows women ruling the day. He talks at length to Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris, and motha fuckin’ DOLLY PARTON herself. The 2nd episode in DC features Amy Pickering, and our author does acknowledge that: “Amy Pickering, who headed up punk band Fire Party and started the scene’s legendary “Revolution Summer” essentially in solidarity with apartheid protesters, gets a decent amount of airtime, but mostly about politics (and, at one point, the camera cuts in to her convo with Grohl for the sole purpose of showing her laugh at a joke Grohl makes).” Is it just me, or does that parenthetical aside just reek of disdain. That aside is also a pretty big assumption about a directorial choice, meant to undercut the presence of a woman when she claims there are none. She goes on to mention female bands, mostly from Seattle, that she feels Grohl was remiss in leaving out. But it’s his show, for his personal fun. He interviewed who he wanted. I mean, sure, he could have tried to pick a few more ladies, I guess. But not only are there enough that I myself didn’t notice any dearth (and I love finding and pointing out misogyny/gender issues/sexism, let me tell you, I basically live for it), but the project just isn’t about that and I don’t think it needs to be. She also says: “As Sonic Highways tells it, women’s involvement in American music has been cursory, at best, with a the amount of women musicians allowed to speak in any given episode topping out at around three, regardless of how prominent these women might be. Furthermore, no women of color have a chance to speak in any of the seven episodes that have aired (the eighth and final episode, set in New York City and at least touching on hip-hop, airs Sunday, and will hopefully remedy that).” I do not concur. I do not feel he portrays the women he includes as cursory to the main story, and 3 in an episode may be enough if you know how many men there are by comparison and how the screen time divides (I don’t, but if you need to delve this deeply and use math to prove your point then the phrase ‘Systematically Erases’ doesn’t apply. Also Dolly Parton counts as like 10 women cause she is effing amazing so in that episode there are like, 13.) I do agree with her observation about racial diversity; the majority of the folks interviewed on screen are white. But not everything is going to be a bastion of diversity when someone has their own agenda. So yea, he is choosing these specific stories, because his experience has been informed by these folks. And again, since he isn’t making claims about this documentary being all encompassing, I think the observation ‘diversity is scarce’ is fair, but find the vitriol confusing.
I don’t want to be an apologist for stories that lack diversity, and that is not my intent. Here is my issue: There are lots of super real and present issues that women continue to battle against on a daily basis. Sexual violence, the wage gap, reproductive rights and more are pressing and current and painful, and they are systematically supported by a culture that still doesn’t truly believe that sexism is real. And you know what, the erasure of women from history and culture is also real and painful, and in it’s own way a form of violence. I completely acknowledge that. And if Grohl had said ‘I am making a documentary about all the most important people in music organized geographically’, then the conversation would be different. But this is just some fan shit he’s doing. He wants to talk to people he thinks are cool. And some of those people, I would argue a fair amount, are women. I think we also have to remember that he grew up in a culture that downplayed women’s role in the culture, and downplayed their talents beyond beauty. So if his influences are mostly male, this is not entirely his fault because his experiences don’t happen in a vacuum. Neither do our own. And this article with it’s sensational title is NOT HELPING the cause.
This headline, and her whole tone, I just feel they don’t create a productive piece. While sexism and misogyny continue to be pervasive and harmful, we must be mindful of the claims we make. It’s not fair, but it’s true. If we cry wolf, or get our facts wrong, then we leave ourselves open to criticism from folks who don’t want the world to change (Jon Stewart addressed this brilliantly last night, after he himself made an on-air mistake #worththewatch). If we blow our righteous anger load on stories that aren’t deserving of it, then our righteous anger becomes a joke. We become caricatures, the silly/emotional/hairy/angry feminazis they claim we are. The burden of proof is still, unfairly, on us. And this article doesn’t meet it.
But this isn’t a trial, and if this author sincerely feels this way about Sonic Highways, then she has every right to express those feelings. I still think the headline is over the top, but maybe that’s the editor, and indeed that’s how the internet journalism game is played. In this case, I agree that we disagree. I urge you to check out the docu-series and judge for yourself. Are women given enough camera time? Does it matter in the context of this project? Are you inspired to create your own series dedicated to women in these places, in these historical spaces? Because I wish, rather than yell at Dave for being a “rockist-Dad”, that she’d just told us more about the bands she wished were chosen and why. Why be so antagonistic about a pet project that is not meant to cover the entire music history of each city it visits? Why not try to start a discussion instead of scold the front man of a band you so obviously find repulsive and dated? For example, lets talk about why there aren’t more documentaries directed by women or minorities, specifically telling stories that have been left out of the mainstream canon? I would love to see more women helmed projects about women in music, or more black directors telling stories about black music culture. If we diversify the people in charge, the resulting stories will be ever more unique and diverse, and more voices will be heard. Why isn’t this happening more? Is it happening at all? How can we help these story tellers to create and release their projects? Sometimes, I think it can be helpful to tone down the rage and just ask some questions.
**Sometimes rage is completely the acceptable response, and women are completely capable of feeling and harnessing anger, and we should when it’s needed. I just want us to use all the tools we have, thoughtfully, with an eye towards education and inclusion.