At the Women Who Rock (WWR) unconference, there was an altar set up honoring women. It was a powerful representation of what WWR stands for. WWR, like the altar, honors women who achievements would be lost if not for the efforts of WWR members documenting and archiving their work. The altar honors all those artists who have never made it big and have been ignored by the mainstream narrative. An example would be Memphis Minnie, who wrote the song “When the Levees Break” (Davis, 160). Her song was popularized by Led Zeppelin. The song has become one of Led Zeppelin’s best known songs. The mainstream narrative focuses on Led Zeppelin’s version because of their “Rock God” status and mainstream appeal. The mainstream narrative mentions Memphis Minnie in passing as the writer, but it glosses over her version of the song. Led Zeppelin took credit for the song and robbed Memphis Minnie of the fame she was due for writing the song”(Davis, 160). The WWR Altar is meant to honor women like Minnie and to remember their accomplishments were even if no one else does. This reflects the WWR’s mission for the unconference. The unconference displayed the impact women have in many styles of art. WWR provided a venue for women to display their talent and receive exposure they do not get in the rest of the art industry. It is important that WWR continues its mission to promote and archive women in music and in other arts. Without it, a critical part of our understanding of rock history would be lost.
Many of the artists who developed the sound of rock n’ roll are ignored by the mainstream narrative of rock history. It pays lip service to the blues and gospel, but ignores people who were involved in that type of music. It paints over Big Mama Thornton and Sister Rosetta Thorpe, so people might think Elvis came up with “Hound Dog” all on his own. The people will have no idea about where the song is coming from.
This reminded me of a conversation I had at the mix market with Alaia d’Alessandro. She was one of the volunteer coordinators for WWR. We talked about her project Phonic Earth. She went to places like the Faroe Islands around the world to understand how the people in these places experience music. Alaia wanted to know whether people in various parts of the world experience music differently. She had to study the culture and interviewed people in the music scene to get a better understanding of why these people have a certain taste in music. If she just listened to the music alone, Alaia would have no background to glean any insights from her research. In the same way, there needs to be an archiving of the lesser known artists who have been washed out of the main rock narrative. They might not be as famous as other artists, but their music provides valuable insights into where rock music came from. Not just the riffs and the licks, but also what themes and issues caused rock to be formed? By largely cutting out and summarizing the history of “pre” rock n’ roll, the rock narrative leaves substantive gaps. The mainstream story of rock becomes hollow.
That hollowness not only threatens our understanding of history but our understanding of rock music’s ethos. Rock is often seen as a mode of expression where people have equal rights to be individuals. This was certainly touted in genres like punk. The Hollywood punks bragged about their scene being an equal society. When Alice Bag spoke about the Hollywood scene and said “a common assertion ….that East L.A. punk developed after the Hollywood scene became closed and unwelcoming” (Habell-Pallan, 249), her remarks were attacked and called “punk revisionism.” Even the punks would not show acceptance to a narrative other than the one they crafted. The Hollywood punks wanted to be known for their equality, yet they did not give others the right to critique them. Instead of accepting the critique, they attack those who do not hold to their train of thought. It puts into to doubt how much individualism is really respected in the music industry. The rejection of certain people from the rock narrative because they tell a story you do not like damages our view of narrative. It seems to lack legitimacy.
A true rock narrative cannot ignore an artist’s contribution because it does not seem to fit in with the narrative. Though not every musician or artist is an innovator, every musician or artist contributes to the narrative with their work. Every musician wants to leave their distinct mark on the narrative. To remove someone’s work from the narrative is akin to denying that person existed in the narrative at all.
It is similar to the ancient Mexican theory of death. As told by Jacque Larrainzar at the unconference, the ancient Mexicans believed that everyone died three times. The first two deaths had to do with the corporeal body, but the third death was the memory of the person. The memory a musician leaves behind is their music. That is their legacy. By appropriating it and ignoring it, it is like taking the memory away and in a way, destroying the musician’s creative essence. The musician is eventually forgotten as one of many. It is soul crushing.
WWR is great as it recognizes those who would otherwise be lost in the noise of big rock groups. They have created a new archive, separate from the one that is so common in the mainstream. This allows them to take control of the narrative being told about contemporary art and music. No longer is the narrative just about the bands that make it. Though they do hold a place in it, WWR acknowledges that these people are standing on the shoulders of hundreds of smaller groups who have slowly transformed the musical landscape.
WWR acknowledges groups from many genres and displays in their archives a more complete picture of the transformation of music. The mainstream rock narrative has many holes and one might be confused about how there suddenly so many genres of music. The more inclusive narrative, created by WWR, leaves no doubt in your mind how a genre like German electronic metal might come to be.
It is important therefore to support the efforts of WWR and those groups like it. They ensure that people will not be forgotten in the ever increasing narrative that is popular music. However, it is more than that. WWR shows a greater respect for creativity and all types of art. The members strive to make a community where a person can be truly individualistic. You are not expected to think the same way as anyone as long as you show respect to everyone. The WWR unconference gave off a true rock ethos and developed a narrative that anyone can be a part of. Though, the artists showcased were women, the vibe was not just empowering women but to everyone who came to experience it. I feel that if nothing else, the WWR’s most important role is supporting the talents of individuals. Giving artists a sense that there is truly a community behind them and that in the end, their talents will not have gone to waste.
Picture 1: honor, homage, for women
Picture 2: archiving, necessity, WWR
Picture 3: sugar skulls, death, heritage
Picture 4: alternative, spirituality, creativity
Davis, Erik. “When Mountains Crumble to the Sea” pg 161-163
Mahon, Maureen. “Listening for Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton’s Voice: The Soundof Race and Gender Transgressions in Rock and Roll” pg 3.
Habell-Pallan, Michelle, “Death to Racism and Punk Rock Revisionism.” pg 249.