I am a feminist. I am a rock ‘n’ roll fangirl. These two identities, which some see as at odds, are in fact deeply entwined in me.
Music made me the women’s liberationist I am.
Rebellion—in life and in artistic representation—wasn’t easy to come by in Wheaton, Illinois, the small town where I grew up. White, Republican, evangelical and dry—alcohol sales being against the law—mine was a community where good girls didn’t, and football-playing, Jesus-fearing Protestant boys inherited the earth. The soundtrack of my childhood was classical music; my unironically unhip parents managed to avoid Elvis and dodge the British invasion.
Then, like a sucker punch to the status quo, came rock ‘n’ roll. Back when radio ruled—yes, kids, there was such a time—the song that changed my life was “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones. It floated out of our car stereo during a family vacation to the Rockies, a freaky, minor-key hybrid of disco, rock and blues. “Miss You” isn’t just about a person or place. It’s a track about existential longing. Something vital and ephemeral is being missed: A better place, a bigger world, a different way of being. Implicit in all that musical longing was the rightness of rebellion.
And this is where fandom and feminism intersect: in that moment when a song opens our eyes to that fact that where we are isn’t where we’re supposed to be. Perhaps Ellen Willis, The New Yorker’s first female rock critic, put it best: “Insofar as it pitted teenage girls’ inchoate energies against their conscious and unconscious frustrations, (music) spoke implicitly for female liberation.”
For a long, long time it was lost on me—maybe it needed to be lost on me—that my perception of self was being shaped through songs written by men, largely for men, and most often about women who seemed to exist to meet a set of male needs. Listening to the Stones, or Bowie, or the Clash, a rebellious girl hungry for the kind of power not afforded me in my repressed and repressive world, I wanted to be the subject of my life. But in the music I loved, girls were objects: lusted after or longed for. Boys, armed with agency, were the ones who did the longing. Which made a track like “Miss You” a great song—a transcendent song—and kind of a drag.
Reconciling myself to that tension has been a lifelong struggle. Who would I be without rock ‘n’ roll? Wait. Who would I be without rock ‘n’ roll?
Today, almost forty years to the day after “Miss You” was released, the classic rock ‘n’ roll formula—broadened to encompass rap and hip-hop—too often stands. Contemporary music and the “male gaze”—the act of depicting women from a masculine and heterosexual point of view—still go hand-in-hand. There are, of course, brilliant exceptions, mostly in indie rock, where female- and non-binary-fronted bands (Waxahatchee, Diet Cig, La Luz and The Raveonettes spring to mind) are making some of the freshest, fiercest music going.
But according to findings in “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?” a 2018 study published by University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, more than ninety percent of Grammy nominees in the past six years have been male, only twelve percent of songwriters are female and a minuscule two percent of music producers are women.
Equally troubling, during a #MeToo moment when sexually predatory men in Hollywood and the media are finally being held accountable, is that the music industry has failed to have its own wide-scale reckoning. Which begs the question: Does contemporary music have a woman problem? Or is it a women problem?
Against this backdrop, I sat down with three Chicago music-industry veterans—Shawn Campbell, Jill Hopkins and Andrea Troolin—for a freewheeling conversation about being raised on rock ‘n’ roll, navigating the male-dominated music business, what’s different about the Chicago scene (or not) and what it takes to turn a passion for music into a lifelong profession. All while retaining one’s feminist cred. (Anne K. Ream)
Shawn Campbell is a radio true believer who knew what she wanted to do from the time she was ten years old. She’s worked at an array of radio stations in and around Chicago and founded CHIRP—Chicago Independent Radio Project—in 2007. She’s currently the station’s general manager.
Jill Hopkins is the host of “The Morning AMp,” Vocalo’s news, culture and talk show. Jill has been singing for different bands in Chicago, including Girl Group and Cooler by the Lake, as well as her current group, the name of which is not suitable for public radio.
Andrea Troolin is the founder of Ekonomisk Mgmt, a full-service artist management firm based in Chicago and Brooklyn. Andrea manages Andrew Bird, Tift Merritt, Shara Nova and other artists.
Anne K. Ream is a Chicago-based writer and the author of “Lived Through This.” The founder of The Voices and Faces Project, a global storytelling project, she is a contributor to “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan” and the creator of A Rock Shock to the Status Quo, the concert to end rape.
Anne: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you each first know you wanted to make music your career?
Shawn: I’m one of those weird people who always knew what I wanted to do. I was a radio listener my entire life. There was never a time that I didn’t know Beatles records. My mom played them every day, from the time she brought me home from the hospital. In my family we weren’t musicians, but the radio was always on in the car. I used to tape songs off the radio. You know, sit around and wait for the song to start, hoping [the DJ] wouldn’t talk.
So I thought, what a cool job to be on the radio and get to play music. And I went to school for it, and then got into commercial and ultimately non-commercial radio. And that’s where I’ve been for the last, close to twenty years.
Jill: I’m fairly similar. We did have a few musicians in my family. My uncle was a musical theater guy. He’ll never say that out loud—he’s a tough guy. But my aunt and uncle had a theater company starting in the late 1960s that everybody in the family just kind of worked in. So there was always a lot of performance going on. I come from a long line of fairly dramatic people. [Laughs.]
And then after high school, once I moved to Wicker Park and started working nights at bars and restaurants, I would just walk into the Double Door. It didn’t matter who was playing, I would just go to see a show. Or I’d wander into Subterranean or get on my bike and go to the Hideout or something. But it didn’t even occur to me until I was in my thirties that I wanted to make a living as a radio personality. So I went to broadcasting school when I was, like, thirty-four years old…
Anne: In Chicago?
Jill: In Chicago. And the path that they kind of tried to lead everyone into was either super-top forty, whatever Clear Channel is doing or sports radio; or if you were lucky enough to be bilingual, they were pushing the La Ley-type stations. And then I discovered CHIRP and then Vocalo. Since then I’ve been working really hard to make sure that nobody knows that I’m just learning on the go.
Anne: And that you’d do it for free.
Jill: Don’t tell them I would do it for free. I have a mortgage now!
Andrea: I always liked music. I got my first job at Burger King because it was the only place you could work when you were fifteen in Minnesota where I grew up. And I had to buy records, so I started working to feed my record habit.
And then I went to college and did college-radio DJ stuff. I think most people in the music business all do college radio at some point. And then I started a little record label in the mid-nineties and put out my friends’ bands, because I had all these, like, really talented friends and nobody was doing anything for them.
So I started pressing seven inches, and was in a band myself, and eventually got hired to work at Rykodisc, which at the time was the biggest independent record company. And I was an A&R person, so I got to scoot around and check out bands. It was like a dream job when you’re in your twenties. And then I signed Andrew Bird, and after a while I left to become his manager. And I’ve been doing that ever since, adding other clients along the way.
Anne: I want to circle back to something you said, Jill. Did your musical tastes shift when you moved from the South to the North Side of Chicago?
Jill: Yeah. Growing up on the South Side, every party you went to had house music or just great soul music. And then I kind of rebelled when I got a little older and started almost exclusively listening to rock music. There would be some—I mean, luckily it was the early nineties, so you couldn’t get away from hip-hop even if you wanted to. When I moved [to Wicker Park] there was always something going on, and I discovered music in a way that I don’t think that young folks these days even really understand. We didn’t have SoundCloud or Spotify. You had to leave the house to hear new music.
Shawn: You had to work harder.
Jill: You really did. And it was fun. I made a lot of terrible choices along the way, musically and romantically, but it all worked out. [Laughs.]
Anne: That’s the next roundtable: bad romantic choices aided and abetted by good music. One of the things that I love when I’m at a place like the Hideout is that it has its own gravitational pull, separate from the artist playing on any given night. Meaning there are people who go to Chicago music venues to see a specific band or singer, but there’s also that awareness that you can roll the dice and just show up at certain places and accidentally see the show of your life.
Jill: In Chicago there are still free shows, and there are still DIY spaces and things like that, but I remember making friends with doormen on the spot, so I could sneak into a place. I feel like people, when I talk to my interns or whatever, I think that the hunger for that is there, but it’s kind of this overarching millennial problem, where you’re overwhelmed with choices and underwhelmed with money.
Shawn: My sense is that the relationship that people have with music has changed, and I think it does have to do with ownership and the idea of physical things versus everything being available at your fingertips digitally.
If I’m going to your house I’m going to look at your books and I’m going to look at your music collection. And now that everybody has divested themselves of their physical music collection, unless they happen to be a vinyl collector, I can’t go and look at your music collection and instantly have some sense about who you are.
Anne: The other day, with someone not young enough not to know about this, I brought up liner notes. They didn’t know what liner notes were! For me, liner notes were a sort of rock ‘n’ roll bible. But to some millennials it’s sort of, well, liner notes, physical CDs—that’s messy stuff that gets in the way. They don’t see that as part of the experience of loving music. They almost see it as a barrier to the experience.
Shawn: When I was doing college radio I would sit and read the liner notes for every CD. That was how I learned about everything that I was playing.
Anne: Andrea, you have a really strong indie client roster—artists and bands from Chicago and beyond. How do you choose who you want to represent?
Andrea: I have to be able to imagine them performing at Carnegie Hall when they’re eighty, and if I can’t then they’re not for me.
Anne: Well, that’s a pretty short list, right?
Andrea: Yeah, it’s a tough bar, yeah. Career artists. None of the “flash-in-the-pan, and then I’m going to go to grad school” thing.
Anne: Do you ever envision a client performing at Carnegie Hall before that client can see themselves that way?
Andrea: My job is to help them see themselves there. And maybe that’s a little extreme, but that’s kind of the thought process I go into. I’m looking for someone who will always be making music.
Anne: How do your female clients feel about where the music industry is today?
Andrea: Oh, I think they all see how the music industry is not favorable toward women’s success. They’ve all felt it much more acutely than I have, because they are the ones performing, they are the ones getting their picture taken. They’re up there.
We talk about it all the time. For my clients who are women over forty, you get into ageism and a whole bunch of stuff. But you can also have a hard time finding partners to work on a particular female client who is totally bad-ass, but not brand-new; labels just want something new. So if you’re a woman and four albums in, or if you’re one of my male clients and, like, fifteen albums in, how do you keep people excited?
I think that the music business is better at giving men the room to just be who they are, to create their thing. And I think for women it’s a lot more of “It’s got to be this to be good.” And I think it comes very naturally to women to multitask. More women that I know than men can do eight thousand things at once, so it’s a little harder to put them into a box. And the folks I work with are less inclined to be penned in to a certain genre or a type anyway.
I think a lot of women are sort of like that. Part of the challenge of marketing them, and getting them out into the world, is their kind of multifaceted-ness.
Jill: I think that male musicians, as they get older, have this kind of unspoken permission to grow into, like, an eccentric old man. And I guess that’s true in society at large. They’re allowed to just kind of outwardly express that they’ve stopped giving a fuck.
And in their creative output I think men are also allowed to get weird, in a way, as they age. I hope beyond hope that St. Vincent gets to age like David Byrne. I hope that people still want to hear the weird stuff that she puts out in thirty years.
Shawn: I actually have this issue about female fandom even aside from being a female artist. It is always hard to be a woman music fan, but it gets harder the older you get, I think, because it’s like there’s less and less legitimacy to it.
Men get to be fans for their entire lives, whether they are music fans, or sports fans, or car-racing fans. Being a fan is just a meaningful part of what it means to be male. But for women, it seems like when you get a little older and you’re still passionate about it you get viewed with some level of suspicion.
Jill: This music fandom thing is really interesting. If any of us were to have a conversation with a stranger about how much we like “The Great British Baking Show,” that wouldn’t be a weird thing.
Andrea: I actually could talk about that. I love that show.
Jill: I could also talk about it. [Laughs.] I have lots of feelings about Paul Hollywood. But, you know, the old thing where there are these memes going around of a woman wearing a Ramones T-shirt, and it’s like, well, she’s clearly just wearing it for fashion.
Shawn: Yeah, where did you get that, Urban Outfitters?
Jill: I remember this guy that I ended up dating for about a second, he was wearing a T-shirt of a punk band that I liked, and I just said, hey, nice shirt. And he grilled me about it for ten minutes. And I still slept with him. What is wrong with me? [Laughs.]
Anne: He didn’t believe you really knew the band?
Jill: He didn’t believe it. And I couldn’t tell if it was because it was a punk band and I was a girl, or it was a punk band and I was black, so… I got that coming and going.
And I’ve played in groups with all women, and we’ll walk into the venue in matching outfits with someone with the saxophone harness around their neck and somebody setting up at the bar or whatever will say, oh, you guys are in the band? No, we’re all wearing matching outfits and this saxophone is just for decoration.
Anne: As I’ve grown older and thought about the lessons I learned about gender norms and expectations through the bands I listened to, I can more clearly feel that tension. The way we see the world, and the way the world sees us, is so shaped by the stories told in these songs. And those rock archetypes: man as singer, girl as admirer, are pretty embedded in our collective consciousness.
Andrea: Well, look, Prince was our sex ed. That was where you learned about all the good stuff, it all came from Prince, pretty much. He was really bringing sex to the forefront with his lyrics in the eighties. The music happening at that time, all of New Wave—which is very gender-fluid—it was everything. And you grow up with that not really being that weird. Nobody blinked an eye.
Anne: I remember the first time I heard “Darling Nikki.” It was such a relief that someone was singing about masturbation like it was almost a neutral—something no different than reading a magazine or walking to work.
Jill: And because he was using the actual word. I mean, you listen to Little Richard songs, or whatever, and he’s clearly talking about sex.
Anne: In code.
Jill: Yeah. In code. If you’re intelligent, you know what he’s talking about, but when you’re a small child, it’s just “a-wop-bop-a-loo-lop, a-lop-bam-boom,” like it doesn’t mean anything.
Andrea: Yeah, I remember “Darling Nikki” being a song that you talked about with your friends, but it was like, oh, you can’t play this when my parents are around.
Jill: It was the weirdest thing, because that was—like, the dirty parts of pop culture never made my mom blink an eye—but I wasn’t allowed to watch “You Can’t Do That on Television” because it was gross. [Laughs.] I’m like “I can listen to this David Bowie album all the way through?”
Anne: It’s interesting that you bring up David Bowie. “Ziggy Stardust” is my favorite album of all time and Bowie has given me more joy than any other artist. But I work on gender-based violence issues, and recently I had a really heated discussion about reconsidering Bowie’s legacy during the #MeToo moment, and whether we ever can—or should—separate the artist from the art. I don’t know if anyone else at this table has struggled with that.
Jill: Shoot, I’m a hip-hop fan. [Laughs.] I grew up in the eighties and nineties. I’m a staunch feminist. I love being a woman and I’ll come to the defense of any woman. I’ve cut R. Kelly out of my life and made some really pointed decisions in a lot of ways. But if I’m in a club and a certain kind of song comes up, I’m yelling out “bitches” and “hos” with everybody else. And it’s a problem that I look at in myself and I strive to be better.
This is something we all have to think about, that people have been thinking about this whole time. It’s a really personal thing for a lot of people. Why do I cut out R. Kelly and not Ice Cube? Why do I cut out one artist over another? Is it the quality of the music? No, because R. Kelly wrote some jams, that’s undeniable. So did Dre and NWA and Ice T. I don’t have a concrete answer for how I pick and choose. It’s situational sometimes. And you know what? It kind of fucking sucks that we have to think about that. It’s really unfair that we, as women or as feminists and allies to the cause, are forced to make that decision because people were either too misogynistic to not write songs like that, or too lazy to come up with better content. And now the onus is on us to—
Andrea: To filter it out.
Anne: It does feel like there must be some sort of formula there. Maybe it’s me wanting to protect the music that I love, but I feel like you do look at context and social mores at the time, and consider the life output of the artist more broadly. Still. I have this one book of classic rock essays, “Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy!”—
Jill: Oh, that’s a great book.
Anne: Yeah, I love that book, right? But there’s a really troubling profile of an early Led Zeppelin tour in there. And another super-troubling essay about Iggy Pop. Now, these articles focus on events that occurred decades ago. But there is no time when the misogyny being written about can ever be seen as okay.
Jill: There are still people who are super-uncomfortable with how quickly the world is changing around them, and you’re just like, man, we’re just trying to make things right. We’re trying to erase past wrongs here, and make it so that everybody who wants to participate in this art form can do so and be safe and not feel taken advantage of.
It’s one of the things that bothers me the most about people who are against this whole #MeToo thing. The only thing that we’re trying to accomplish here is safety and equality. We’re not telling you not to talk to women. We’re not telling you not to flirt. We’re just trying to move through the world like you do.
Shawn: It shouldn’t be intimidating.
Anne: Or seen as radical.
Shawn: And I think sometimes when you push a little further on that conversation, when some men are like, well, what are we supposed to do, never ask anybody out ever? And then you push a little further and they say, well, am I not supposed to say inappropriate things to people at work?
Jill: No, you’re not. [Laughs.]
Shawn: Yeah. You’re not. You should not be doing that. And, then some guy says, “You don’t want anybody to have any fun.” Well, everybody wasn’t having fun.
Jill: And maybe there were some people pretending to have fun because the opposite reaction would have caused at best ostracization from whatever scene we were in, and at worst some dude fucking killing me in a public place. We’re just trying to make it safe and inclusive. I hate that it threatens people, I really, really do. Because we’re not asking a whole lot.
Anne: Andrea, as someone who manages music and is the person in charge in a lot of situations, is there a way for you to know—when you’re sussing out who you’d like to have a working relationship with—if someone is the kind of guy who is who he is no matter who’s in the room?
Andrea: I can work with anyone. I mean, I’ve been in those situations where you know it’s time to like exit stage left. You can tell when you’re holding back the boy party a little bit. And I just excuse myself. But I deal with pretty-well-behaved people, on the most part. And the people who I would be reprimanding in my mind are not people that I’m necessarily in a position to reprimand.
For my whole career I’ve tried to blend. I put on a persona when I’m going to work or when I’m in a high-stress situation. When I was a talent scout I went out to shows like five, six nights a week. I’m out at the bar watching live bands. I’d go out all the time by myself. And it didn’t bug me. But you just build these kind of protective barriers around yourself, just, again, for safety. You’re just like, I’m out, and it’s 12:30am, and I have to get to my car, and I have to drive home, and I have to—you know, all that stuff.
Anne: So how do you feel about the fact that you have had to do that?
Andrea: Look, I mean, if I’m going to sit around and resent it all day I’d be real busy. I’d rather channel that energy toward my female clients who I see getting the short end a lot of times. That’s how I rectify the situation. I try and work and give women an edge up. I spend my energy trying to get better at what I’m doing so I can help other people get better at what they’re doing.
Anne: Everything we’re talking about that characterizes the music industry also characterizes—to some degree—the culture we are in broadly. But it does feel like there is a way in which some aspects of the music business are particularly resistant to change. The whole “sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, we break things here” vibe.
Shawn: Well, one thing that is interesting to me in Chicago—and with the women around this table, especially—is how many of us have started our own things. We’re not, for the most part, working within an existing structure. We are people who started our own companies or organizations. I think it says something about how hard it can be to change organizations that you’re in, and that maybe it’s easier to just go on and do your own thing and build a structure that you believe in rather than trying to change somebody else’s.
Jill: Yes. And it’s kind of great that in 2018 we have the technology at our fingertips to kind of, you know, put out a record. It’s actually the one thing that the music industry has on the big Hollywood machine: the relative ease of being able to just say fuck it, I’m just going to do it myself. Living in Chicago is really a privilege in that way. You could throw a rock out this window right now and hit, like, five guitar players on the way down.
Shawn: I grew up in a super-small town. I grew up in a farm town with seven-thousand people: Mendota, Illinois. Yeah. And I guess I just always knew that I wanted to get out. There were certainly not a lot of examples of people doing creative work there.
Anne: When you think about music—especially, I think, rock ‘n’ roll—a huge percentage of the canon is people who are in places they want to get out of.
Jill: The whole career of [John Cougar Mellencamp].
Anne: Well, a lot of music, and certainly a lot of fandom, to use your word, is a reaction formation against where we are. You hear a song and the song is this tug.
Shawn: Well, that’s interesting, too, because I think then we’re back to the problematic male artist thing, your Robert Plant, your Mick Jagger. I feel like, as a female fan, when you look at those artists, you don’t look at those artists as a woman thinking about how you would interact with them. You’re Robert Plant! You’re like no, I’m the one on the stage, I’m the one with power. I mean, at least that’s been my feeling. I think in the absence oftentimes of female artists up on the stage, as a female fan you identify with the male artist.
Anne: Do you feel that, Andrea?
Andrea: Not really, no. When I go to a concert, I don’t really put myself in the artist’s shoes. But I know what you’re talking about in terms of the power transfer, the energy transfer. I’m just not likely to do that with a male performer. I think more so when I see a band like Bikini Kill.
Jill: I love going to a show where there’s a woman on stage with all of the confidence of any given man that I’ve ever seen on stage. I always instantly find myself saying, this is my new favorite artist. I’m going to buy everything. Courtney Barnett, I’m going to buy everything that you ever put out. Rhapsody, I’m going to buy everything she ever put out. Because if I don’t buy a Vampire Weekend CD, Vampire Weekend is going to be fine.
Anne: I worked on a project with the Coalition for the Homeless in Chicago where Patti Smith did a benefit concert, and I was literally weeping during that show because she was simultaneously melodic, powerful, compassionate and over sixty years old. It made me feel so hopeful.
Jill: Was this at the Park West, by any chance?
Anne: Yes, yes.
Jill: I was in the front row of that show!
Anne: I was a few rows behind you.
Jill: Patti Smith is somehow both the embodiment of punk rock and the embodiment of hip-hop at the same time. There’s a lot in the DNA of rock ‘n’ roll that’s, “I want to get out of this place, there’s better out there.” And it is the opposite of a lot of hip-hop songs where it’s like I don’t want to get out of this place, I just wish this place was better, and I’m talking about all of it. I’m not going anywhere. I just wish that these particular things weren’t happening. And Patti rides that line.
Anne: Since we’re talking about an artist who grew up in Chicago, and then made her name in New York: What is different about the Chicago music scene versus the scenes in New York or L.A.?
Jill: Chicago’s got your back if you fail in a way those other places don’t.
Shawn: I think it’s just easy to hunker down and do your work here. It’s kind of the quintessentially Midwestern thing. And I think that’s conducive for more opportunities for women, certainly.
A place like the Hideout, they sponsor just great audiences, and great crowds, and really help build a community that you want to be a part of. And that’s happening all over the place in this city, not just at the Hideout. That’s just a good example. But I think more spaces of good things happening is conducive for art for everybody. But they also tend to get a little extra leg up to the ladies.
Jill: And in Chicago nobody holds it against you when you show up on stage wearing snow boots and a flannel. But if, oh, God forbid you show up to a show in, you know, Echo Park [laughs]—in L.A.—and you don’t look stunning, that’s going to be a demerit.
Shawn: And there is some cross-pollination between genres and things, which I have always thought was cool in Chicago.
Jill: There’s no shortage of great female MCs out there, but hip-hop still remains very, very much a boys’ club. And Chicago is at the forefront of the hip-hop conversation globally these days, and there’s… you know, most of the female artists that kind of work within the hip-hop idiom also are singers.
I think that women in hip-hop have to be a lot more diverse in their skill sets than men have to be. If you are a male MC, nobody expects you to sing the hook as well. If you’re a woman MC, you better be able to carry a tune because somebody’s going to ask you to, and you’re going to have to do it. Which, in my book, makes us more valuable as MCs, because we bring more to the table.
Shawn: More versatile.
Jill: But like with the world watching Chicago’s music scene, we’re so lucky that the women who are making music here are as outspoken and as, you know, willing to hold each other up as they are. I feel like everybody that comes through our station to talk knows each other. You’ll say oh, we had so-and-so in yesterday. Oh, good. I was texting them on the way in.
Male Chicago hip-hop artists—and I certainly am not trying to generalize here—but from what I can tell, when they’re talking about what’s wrong with things, if it’s not a party track and it’s just here’s some problems, either they’re talking about the world at large, or their city, or they’re complaining about a woman.
When women are making a track that is talking about what’s wrong with something, by and large they’re talking about what’s wrong with being a woman. And it doesn’t necessarily have to do with a particular man or their dating life or anything like that. It is, “This shit is hard. I’m just trying to make my way in the world, and here are all the obstacles that are coming at me.” It’s not necessarily about the city. It’s about what’s wrong with the patriarchy.
Anne: Does the new music you hear today still feel relevant in the way it did when you first became a fan?
Jill: It’s very strange. You blink and all of a sudden nobody’s marketing to you anymore. Nobody’s writing pop songs that you can identify with as a woman.
And you spend a couple of years just, like, shaking your fist at the sky, and then you’re like okay, well, I guess I’ll just go back to this Tracy Chapman album. [Laughs.]
Anne: You played Tracy Chapman on Saturday, Shawn!
Jill: This is the third Tracy Chapman conversation I’ve had this week, and I love it.
Shawn: I was just going to say, I played “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution” the other day on my show.
Jill: Oh, man. Well, the writer Britt Julious, who I love, wrote a piece for—I want to say it was for Noisy or Broadly, one of the Vice properties—about “Fast Car” and how it was really integral to her growing up, and how there’s a generation right now of queer black women who see this as—
Shawn: Their song. Their anthem.
Jill: Yeah, it was the first thing that they could ever really identify with. And I said: is Tracy Chapman the Bon Jovi of queer black women? [Laughs.] Because “Fast Car” is basically “Livin’ on a Prayer”—
Shawn: Slowed down.
Anne: Except it’s good.
Jill: Yeah, except it’s good. And pop music, especially at that time, and especially now, wasn’t… When we have these conversations in 2018 about the working class, here’s what we’re not talking about: black people or women. And Tracy Chapman was like hey, I work in a shitty factory, I don’t have any money. The only good thing in my life is this woman who allows me to be sleeping next to her. Can we just get the fuck out of here? And you don’t get a resolution at the end. You wonder what happened to these two people.
Shawn: Yeah, no, that’s absolutely true. I think one of the things I was thinking about as you were saying that, though, is—what’s interesting is I think pop music in particular, though, has moved away from being a reflection of people who are in these tough situations and they’re kind of the underdogs trying to get out, and has moved to being the triumphant over-class. It’s all about kind of consumerism and I’ve got the right brand—
Andrea: I’ve arrived, so I’ve got a big party I can throw.
Anne: Well, even—and I would prefer that we have it instead of not, to be clear —but you think of the Taylor Swift or Beyoncé brands of feminism, and there’s a message of empowerment, but it begins and ends with them being really attractive and stylized individuals. And feminism is most vital when it’s not individual, but collective. And thorny and messy.
Shawn: Right. And even if you don’t want to—I mean, even if lyrically, even if lyrically your lyrics aren’t super-serious or socially responsible or what have you, there should be a place in pop music for a woman who wants to dress like Drake, in nice khakis and a sweater. What if you don’t want to be sexy?
Jill: Is that even allowed anymore?
Author: Anne K. Ream
Anne K. Ream is a Chicago-based writer and the author of “Lived Through This: Listening to the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors” and the founder of The Voices and Faces Project, a global storytelling project. She is also a contributor to “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan” and the creator of A Rock Shock to the Status Quo, the concert to end rape.