- A Spy in the House of Love
What is a feminist pop critic? like any ideological stance, this one is made to be fussed with, stretched out, sent to the tailor for a refitting. We might, however, be able to agree on a few fundamentals. To be feminist is to value the experience and potential of women; to be a pop critic is to take seriously those voices springing from the street and passing through the industry's hit-making machinery, which many people consider "mere entertainment." So both roles involve challenging and changing the position of what's been marginalized—for feminists, women, their status and contributions, diminished within a sexist society, and for pop critics, the "termite art," as Manny Farber famously called it, that's been dismissed and derided within a social construct that privileges the well-endowed institutions of "high art" over more spontaneous sites of expression, or baldly commercial ones.
For both feminists and pop critics certain tasks are fundamental: reclaiming lost history and unacknowledged pioneers; championing contemporary figures otherwise overlooked by the mainstream; noticing patterns that reinforce negative perceptions; and speaking truth to the powers-that-be who've trivialized, repressed, or otherwise wronged the parties we champion.
Realizing what the pop life and the feminist life shared is what made me able to conceive of myself as a feminist pop critic in the first place. The late, great Ellen Willis—the most significant feminist critic of rock's classic era who was a columnist for the New Yorker from 1968 to 1975—always talked about both music and politics in terms of the power of pleasure. Willis believed that individuals and then communities and eventually society could be enlightened by the "ecstatic experience" of visions expressed through music's rhythm and noise and that such [End Page 40] joy might lead us to create different ways of loving and of sharing power. She called her kind of liberation, danced to a soundtrack of Creedence, Janis, and the Velvet Underground, "the dream, at its most apocalyptic, of universal love."
Such kiss-the-sky ideals led me to march in the streets in support of Queer Nation in the 1980s and dance in the clubs as the utopian-perverse underground stars of homopunk and proto–riot grrrl held court. Later, in graduate school, I discovered texts like Kathy Peiss's "Cheap Amusements" and Angela McRobbie's "Feminism for Girls" and started to grasp the connections between the way pop culture was always getting pushed outside—left to the inner sections of newspapers, unfunded by arts grants, flourishing in moldy ballrooms and sooty clubs—and the marginalization of those people of color, women, Jews, and young people so frequently behind its innovations. I also discovered how generations of women had, like me, found a sneaky path into autonomy and self-possession within these "cheap amusements."
And yet as a forming feminist pop critic I also faced an almost insurmountable contradiction. The surging catharsis of rock and soul and hip-hop freed me, but the fantasies and patriarchal home truths they expressed—and arguably, their very structure as an enclave of male heroic self-expression—put me back into a cage. What was the first caveman lyric I sang along to? I'm not sure. It was probably the Rolling Stones, surreptitiously discovered at the house of a family for whom I babysat. "Good-bye, Ruby Tuesday, who could hang a name on you." That mysterious feminine ideal seemed to me to embody total freedom, but what was she escaping, evading? Maybe the very same voice who sought to define her, Mick Jagger's voice, as he discarded Sweet Lady Jane and bought and sold Brown Sugar. The paradoxical reality of the woman who finds herself through rock or soul or hip-hop is that the music offering escape is also an implement of violation.
This isn't the music's fault. It's our messed-up, puritanical, phallic, virgin-whore-worshiping communal nightmare of a sexual psyche that bubbles under those songs, giving them their energy and their poison. From its gestation in the fancy houses of New Orleans and the barrooms, juke...