When Tanya Pearson was an undergrad at Smith College, she wanted to write a paper about representations of women in 1990s rock media. Then she encountered a problem: Even among bands who were well known in that era, there was a dearth of research material. Pearson decided to change that. She’s the founder and director of the Women of Rock Oral History Project, a grand-scale attempt to document the histories of musicians whose contributions are often omitted from mainstream rock narratives. The project is housed at Smith’s Sophia Smith Collection, but the videos are available to all via the Women of Rock website.
An L.A. fundraiser for the project will take place on January 11 at Zebulon in Frogtown, with panels and live performances.
“The project was born out of frustration,” says Massachusetts-based Pearson by phone. It’s a frustration perhaps shared by others who have scrolled through Wikipedia entries or various music-scene histories and wondered, where are the girls? The Women of Rock Oral History Project helps rectify this. Since it’s part of a university collection, it has the credibility needed for source citations.
Work like Pearson’s helps fill in the gaps for the interviews that were never conducted, the stories that were never told and the lives that were never explored in mainstream press and academic circles.
“It’s the documentation at the hands of rock critics, rock writers and scholars—that’s the reason that it’s not more a part of the overarching history of rock ‘n’ roll,” says Pearson. “That’s what’s frustrating to me, the cultural context that a lot of male writers and scholars use when they’re analyzing and writing their books and their articles on rock music. The cannon on rock music as it exists, and rock history as it exists, is one-sided and therefore false. It’s been constructed in a way where women don’t fit neatly into it and so they get left out a lot.”
It’s taken the work of women to even kickstart a change. In recent years, a handful of trailblazing female artists, including industrial music progenitor Cosey Fanni Tutti and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, have released memoirs. More recently, Orange County-based author Stacy Russo compiled the oral histories of women from the Southern California punk scenes in the book We Were Going to Change the World. Pearson’s project is wider in scope, but follows a similar philosophy: It’s women telling their stories for themselves.
For Pearson, Women of Rock has become a labor of love. She began the project in 2014, while still at Smith, and is continuing it while working on her PhD at University of Massachusetts Amherst. A book based on the oral histories is slated to be published by University of Massachusetts Press in 2021. Grant money and self-funding have helped get Women of Rock off the ground, but Pearson is also actively fundraising through the website and events to keep the project going. The Zebulon event isn’t just a fundraiser, but a chance for the public to engage with the project. “It’s the public aspect of public history,” says Pearson. “I never wanted this to be a collection that sits in an archive and that’s it. That’s what the events are for.”
So far, Pearson has gathered 30 oral histories and a portion of that collection is already available online. She has interviewed No Wave icon Lydia Lunch and L.A. punk pioneers Phranc and Alice Bag as well as Brie (Howard) Darling and Alice de Buhr of the all-female ’70s rock band Fanny. She has collected histories from Gail Ann Dorsey, best known for her long tenure as a bassist in David Bowie’s band, and former Hole drummer Patty Schemel. Also included are artists who made their marks in the 21st century, like JD Samson of Le Tigre and Mish Barber-Way of White Lung.
It’s a project made not just for the fans, but for the artists. “She’s saying, hey, these people deserve to be noticed too,” says Azalia Snail, L.A.-based solo artist and half of the indie duo LoveyDove. Snail was interviewed by Pearson for Women of Rock and will be part of the January 11 event.
“It tracks all the eras of our lives and all the spheres of our lives, in other words, giving somebody a real oral history of our lives,” says musician Julie Cafritz. “That sense of here’s an artist and there are lots of factors that shape them as an artist, beyond what kind of amp they use, has really not been given to women.” Cafritz rose to underground acclaim in the 1980s as guitarist Pussy Galore and later played as part of Free Kitten. She too was interviewed by Pearson. Massachusetts-based Cafritz will be heading to Los Angeles to participate in the January 11 event.
Ultimately, in collecting the diverse stories of women who make music, Pearson helps disproves the myths and stereotypes that have perpetuated gender-based coverage of rock. A major lesson from this project, she says, is that “there is no one main cohesive, essentialist kind of experience that all women have.”
Women of Rock Oral History Project: Los Angeles Launch Party features Patty Schemel, Kristin Hersh, Alice Bag, Phranc, Julie Cafritz, Cynthia Ross, Allison Wolfe, Alice de Buhr, Neon Music, Brie (Howard) Darling, Michelle Gonzales, Kat Arthur, Azalia Snail and Mish Barber-Way; Zebulon, 2478 Fletcher Drive, Elysian Valley; Thu., Jan. 11, 7 p.m.; $10. womenofrock.org/la-fundraiser.
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