In ‘This Woman’s Work’, famous women write about the soundtrack of their lives

Author’s portrait Kim GordonStatue of David Black

In music, men have been gatekeepers since time immemorial, making judgments about good and bad, high and low, promising or hopeless. This also applied to pop music: the boys decided what was hip. Although there are fortunately exceptions, most stars, DJs, producers and music critics are men. They determined the male-dominated musical canon.

Who has read the texts with which This woman’s work, essays by women on music, was announced, would think that the book is about fighting for a place for women in the musical ape-rock and not getting deserved honor and fame. But that is not what the authors are talking about. Perhaps a book of sixteen high-quality essays by and mostly about women is itself a defiance, but the pieces themselves are not about deprivation or denial.

These Anglo-Saxon-speaking writers, from the very young to the seventies (unfortunately their ages are not mentioned, which would have been interesting given the time frame they paint) describe the soundtrack of their lives, the melodies that colored their youth, the rhythms to which their thoughts and feelings arose, the sounds and idols that guided them in choices in their work, relationships and identity.

The compilation was compiled by Kim Gordon, co-founder of the rock band Sonic Youth, and Sinéad Gleeson, an Irish writer and music journalist. The editor’s contributions are not among the highlights of the book, but they managed to assemble an impressive line-up: acclaimed authors such as Rachel Kushner, Margo Jefferson, Anne Enright and Maggie Nelson.

In the essays that have stuck with me the most, the music has the role of emotional conductor. Music takes you back in seconds to where you never wanted to be or where you never wanted to be back. For never-traceable happiness or wondrous revelry, for the most romantic, joyous, most painful, embarrassing and saddest moments and phases of life.

Fatima Bhutto, a child of Pakistani parents, political refugees emigrating to Syria, developed in her childhood in the country a longing for a country she had never known, but would one day grow if the dictatorship was ousted. Her father turned The Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding gray, the song of a man far from home. Together with Harry Belafonte, they sang ‘daylight come and me wanna go home’. At home there were also Pakistani folk songs and sung poems, banned by the dictator. ‘Tyrants hate music because, for all their power and violence, they can never, ever control what is beautiful.’

Sinead Gleeson, author.  Photo: Bríd O'Donovan Statue Bríd O'Donovan

Sinead Gleeson, author. Photo: Brid O’DonovanStatue Brid O’Donovan

In a funny, poignant essay, Leslie Jamison traces her own evolution into the woman she is today—successful author, single mom—through eight mixtapes she’s made or received from others. She discovers that for years she had no taste or preference of her own, but conformed to those of the admired men, first her brothers, later her lovers, whose approval she demanded. Shortly after her divorce, she and her young daughter end up in a cramped apartment in Brooklyn, where they are quarantined due to Covid. In that isolation, she shakes off the male-dominated past and the eternal sadness of rejection. She makes a new mix and dances around the room with her daughter. Love was where I always wanted to be. I was obviously already there’.

Music offers a form of grief. In the moving essay by Zakia Sewell, the child of two parents who made music together, an old recording of her singing gives the young adult daughter her mother back. Sewell’s mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia shortly after Zakia’s birth; she was often absent. On that tape, she sounds happy: ‘The voice of someone I lost a long time ago, before I could understand what I had lost.’

The most poignant essay is by Yiyun Li, a Chinese-born American writer. She tells how, alone in the car, she loudly sings communist propaganda songs from her childhood – an embarrassing form of melancholy. She talks casually about her son Vincent, who especially loved musicals The miserable. Victor Hugo’s book became his favorite book. Then she writes like a sledgehammer that Vincent suddenly died one day. The musical and the book lost their luster, were charged. Li concludes: ‘Art is no more than a symbol, a placeholder for life. (…) You are not fighting with the symbols, but with life itself.’ This collection is brilliantly written about this symbol.

Sinead Gleeson and Kim Gordon (eds.): This Woman’s Work – Essays on Music. Translated from English by Janine van der Kooij and Petra C. van der Eerden. Nijgh & Van Ditmar; 288 pages; €22.50.

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