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‘Women Who Rock’ Episode 4 Recap: “Success”



Over its first three episodes, Women Who Rock has charted the uphill battle of female musicians to earn respect and autonomy in a music industry rife with sexism and misogyny. While women were there at the beginning of both recorded popular music and rock n’ roll, they have often been relegated to the sidelines or constrained by outdated male ideas of the feminine ideal. The series fourth episode, titled “Success,” aired on Epix Sunday and finds women taking charge of their professional careers and artistic destinies.

Series creator Jessica Hopper has long been at the forefront of telling the stories of women in music. Getting her start as a rock critic, she has penned the books The Girls’ Guide to Rocking (2009) and The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (2015). A gifted writer, Hopper imbues the series with a powerful sense of narrative. Like any true music nerd, she can’t help cramming in too much information at times but given the breadth of female artistry and the enormity of their historic exclusion, it’s a forgivable sin.

When last we left off in Women Who Rock Episode 3, music videos, hip hop and alternative rock had done much to raise the profile of female musicians and show they possessed as much artistic variety as their male counterparts. The episode begins with Shania Twain, the “Queen of Country Pop,” one of the best-selling music artists of all time. Just as Madonna had weaponized her sexuality to achieve what she wanted on her own terms, Twain shocked the conservative Nashville music industry with her provocative outfits and undeniable pop hooks. Inspired by both classic country and hard-nosed female rockers, she tried playing their game but ended up rewriting the house rules, saying, “It’s almost like going to war a little bit.”

Though women were now making the music they wanted and seeing commercial success equivalent to men, the music industry still offered only limited opportunities on radio and on stage. The Lilith Fair aimed to prove audiences were willing to see more than one female performer at a time, an idea that now seems ludicrous to think otherwise. Conceived by singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan, and running from 1997 through 1999, the tour featured a diverse array of artists and was a success on every level.

Just as punk and grunge helped rock reinvent itself, a new generation of artists emerged near the turn of the century to reclaim soul and R&B from the exacting perfection of 1980s hit makers. Most prominent among them was Macy Gray, whose raspy vocals and iconic personal style helped make her 1999 album On How Life Is a multi-platinum debut. Gray notes she was initially signed by Atlantic Records but was dropped after getting pregnant, saying, “That’s not what A&R guys look for.”

This leads to a discussion of motherhood, a situation with unique challenges for female artists. Success as a musician has always meant time away from family due to the demands of personal appearances. For mothers, the literal life makers who spend the better part of a year carrying their children inside them, this absence is particularly heartbreaking and produces a field of conflicting emotions. Like many of the subjects covered in the series, it merits a deeper examination and would make a compelling documentary on its own.

As the new century emerged, the Internet and portable recording software would put the means of both production and promotion at people’s fingertips. By leveling the playing field, the new technology provided opportunities previous generations of musicians simply didn’t have, especially marginalized groups, such as women and people of color. Syd, A.K.A., Syd tha Kyd, embodies this new generation. A singer, songwriter and producer, she learned how to record on GarageBand and uploaded her tracks to MySpace to launch her career.

The past decade has seen the rise of female superstars like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, whose talent and acumen has enabled them to affect both musical and industry change.  At the same, the only limits for young artists such as Billie Eilish are their imaginations. As Pat Benatar says of Eilish, “the progress that I see is that it probably never occurred to her that she couldn’t do it. That right there is everything.”

Thorough, insightful and compelling, Women Who Rock will appeal to anyone who loves music. If I have any quibbles, it’s about who was and wasn’t included, though that’s a matter of personal taste and not historic omissions. Hopefully, the series is the first of many which explores women’s musical stories in depth.

Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.





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