‘There’s so much to negotiate really’: The Raincoats’ Gina Birch on overcoming Jann Wenner-style patriarchy

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Randall Roberts
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The Raincoats

This week, while much of the music world has been discussing the blowback from Rolling Stone cofounder Jann Wenner’s confounding interview with David Marchese at The New York Times, we’ve been absorbing deeply satisfying conversations with musicians who, despite not being one of the seven aged white men in his book The Masters that Wenner has deemed musical philosophers, offer more insight into rock and roll than a dozen Bonos.

Those who haven’t read it, Wenner at one point responds to Marchese’s question about why he only included white men as “masters.” His response: “The people had to meet a couple criteria, but it was just kind of my personal interest and love of them. Insofar as the women, just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level.”

Offering any sort of counterpoint to such a ridiculous series of statements seems equally ridiculous, but it’s worth noting that in its prime, Rolling Stone had a virtual monopoly on covering popular music in the post-Beatles 1960s, one that it maintained for more than a quarter-century. There’s a reason why artists such as Betty Davis, Judee Sill, Roberta Flack, and Karen Dalton languished in obscurity while Wenner-approved men such as Pete Townshend, John Lennon, and Mick Jagger were “masters.” Notable artists? Absolutely. But come on.

What does this have to do with us, deep listening and hi-fi culture? Historical correctives such as Wenner revealing his true nature not only offer insight into the ways in which tags such as “genius” can be tossed around, but presents an opportunity to advance more honest stories and narratives whose magnetism is self-contained and doesn’t need propping up by self-appointer arbiters. It also offers a deeper foundation when listening to music. You hear things differently when you understand the circumstances in which it was made.

“Everywhere you looked the world was wrong for women. There wasn’t this lovely place you could go to. The world was wrong, and so you had to fight for your space.”

Here’s the Raincoats’ Gina Birch, for example, speaking with Aquarium Drunkard about being in a punk band in the late 1970s.

At that time, I started to try and read certain books on feminism. I think I got the wrong ones because they seemed so depressing. My friend Helen says that when she discovered feminism, everywhere you looked the world was wrong for women. There wasn’t this lovely place you could go to. The world was wrong, and so you had to fight for your space.

Growing up in a patriarchal society, you kind of take a lot of that on as well. You have to shake off some of that, because underneath it, there’s little bits in your head, saying, are you sure? Should you? And then if a woman engineer turns up, how do you feel about that? If somebody suddenly says there’s a woman doing your sound or there’s a woman engineering this DJ, you say, well, okay. You have to process what that means and how that impacts on you. That’s in the late 1970s.

Birch then focused on the confusing messages that patriarchal publications like Rolling Stone in the US, and NME and Melody Maker in the UK, sent out into the world.

There’s always this kind of adjustment and checking yourself and working out what it’s all about and fighting, and yet trying not to be…You knew that a lot of feminism was being attacked and undermined by the patriarchy. Kind of making it sound bad like, you know, oh my god, hairy legs! Men had hairy legs. And what we wore and how we were and whether we were ugly. And oh, they hate men, and all of that. You’re trying to negotiate all that as a young women. I was a young heterosexual woman, who, of course didn’t want to be hated by boys. There’s so much to negotiate really. It was a daily negotiation.

Here’s Erykah Badu speaking to Vulture on creativity. (Wenner never interviewed Badu.) Interviewer David Marchese — who’s responsible for the Wenner interview — asks Badu what she’s working on.

Badu: Maybe I’m humming or primal wailing or tribal moaning. You know, I haven’t written anything in five years.

David Marchese: You mean no new proper songs? You did put out that mixtape a couple years back.

Badu: That’s right. If I’m not inspired to write, I don’t. Whether it’s me as a singer or a dancer or a writer or a painter or a filmmaker or on Instagram or a mixtape, everything I do is coming out of a real need. I think Joni Mitchell is the one who said that singing, laughing, and crying come up out of the same need: to get stuff out. I just haven’t had anything to say. I can’t really force it. If I did, what I’d be saying wouldn’t be coming from an honest place. Or maybe I’ve said all the things I feel like saying.

Did somebody say Joni Mitchell? Here’s how Mitchell was treated by the press when she was coming up, as written by Jack Hamilton in this story in the Atlantic.

Writing about Ladies of the Canyon, the New York Times reviewer declared himself “hopelessly in love with Joni Mitchell.” Praise went hand in hand with sexist condescension, and worse. “Joni Mitchell’s particular triumph is that girl singers or girl artists of any kind who have really gotten at what it is to be a woman can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” wrote a male reviewer of her first album, in 1968. In 1971, Rolling Stone dubbed her “Old Lady of the Year.” In 1972, the magazine prominently featured Mitchell in a crude chart of rock stars’ relationships, romantic as well as musical. (The Hoskyns anthology includes a grotesquely lewd review of a 1976 Mitchell concert from Swank, a porn magazine.)

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