Summer 2001, late night, at a sidewalk café in my hometown with a table of friends, one of whom was then dating the bass player of one of my favorite bands. The bass player was nice, genuinely so, and funny, and we were all a little drunk, I think, and somehow I got to talking to him about writing.
I’d finished a draft of novel, a deeply adolescent relic full of punk rock teenagers in abandoned houses, and I was drunk enough to tell him his band’s music had been a huge influence on my writing. This is pretty dumb thing to say unless you’re talking to Patti Smith or Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan. Maybe Wu-Tang Clan. Maybe Elvis Costello. Musicians use words in different ways than writers do if they even use them at all. And when I said I wanted to write a book that read the way his band sounded, I wasn’t talking about the lyrics.
He was sweet enough to tell me he was flattered. In fairness, a babbling, slightly star struck twenty-five year old woman being all, “you know that part in that song when there’s this weird polyphony thing going on for a second and the distortion hits and suddenly it’s like wall blows off and for a second or two it’s like you’ve got this discordant symphony doing fugue stuff and your hackles kind of rise when you listen to it because holy shit. Well, I want write a paragraph like that” was probably not the weirdest thing he’d ever heard from a fan.
Later, when we were walking back to the apartment, I flashed on a thing I’d read years before about the author Rick Moody, an outspoken Feelies fan, trying to press a copy of his first novel into the bands’ hands because he felt like their music had been so important to his writing. And I remember cringing for him, as I imagined the band’s probably tepid Thanks, dude, because I could imagine myself doing the exact same thing and it was excruciating.
My friend William, also a musician and a good one, listened to me go on about it for a while and opined that it might be easier to write noisy songs as opposed to trying to write fiction that somehow simulated the experience of listening to noisy songs. This was also flattering, though obviously bullshit, as William had observed my attempts to play guitar and was well aware of my limitations.
I had written one song that I kind of liked. It didn’t have any words, but with a little imagination, I could close my eyes and strum the chords and think it sounded a little like Versus. Back in the winter, William told me to send it to him and he would mess around with adding other instrumentation. “You don’t have to do anything fancy. Just a four-track. Whatever.”
I didn’t have a four track or whatever, so I called around and one of the Brians had a recording setup in his basement apartment. I made him swear he wouldn’t laugh and drove over. I didn’t have a case, so I seat-belted the guitar in the backseat and slid picks into a powder compact. Brian spared the commentary and sidelong glances when I plugged in to his amp, and sounded so big that I blushed, both thrilled and embarrassed. We recorded a half dozen versions. Afterwards, I slid the cassette tape into an envelope and mailed it.
William had joined a band by that point, and somewhere in the shuffle of recording an album and going out on tour, my tape disappeared into the ether. I wasn’t mad about it. I was honestly a little relieved. William was one of my best friends. I respected his taste and talent. He was one of the few men, in those days, that never condescended to me when it came to music. I don’t I could have survived it if I thought he was patronizing me or my dumb song. And it took a lot of magical thinking for me to think he wasn’t .
After the night with the famous bassist, I started messing around with the song again. My friend Kim and I drank a bottle of wine one night after her kid went to sleep and decided to start a band. She would play bass because she had one and her name was Kim. Art Night, intermittently in town that summer from Chapel Hill, would play drums, despite not having drums or even really knowing how to play them. We would be called Hot Bedlam because we all loved a dumb pun.
Kim suggested we have an actual rehearsal over at her ex’s house. He was also in a touring band, spending the summer on the big-panted, mall punk festival circuit . We three reverse Eurydice-d into the underworld, where Kim’s dreadlocked Orpheus had left all his gear—amps, mics, drum kit, whole shebang—in the egg-crated practice space of his basement. It smelled like sweat, stale beer, pot smoke, and boys. We smelled like goddamn fairy princesses. I played Kim my song. We spent a couple of hours trying to play it together, and it felt revelatory. At the end of the after, Kim told me she’d learned the bassline to “Dirty Boots” and maybe we should try to cover it.
“I’m not sure I have the right equipment to do the guitar part,” I said, and recalled hearing a dude at a club years previous make almost the same comment when being shitty about the all-woman band on stage. Girls lack the right equipment to rock, right? I wasn’t using equipment as anatomical shorthand. I just meant I had a dirt-cheap, secondhand Mexican Fender, a practice amp my old roommate stole from the music building of my high school, and almost no skill. This wasn’t about being a woman or internalized misogyny, and everything to do with, me, like, not having the chops.
Kim’s ex came back from tour before we had a chance to practice again and raged when he head we’d been in his practice space. “Fuck him,” said Kim. “We don’t need his stuff anyway,”
Actually, we did, because we didn’t have it. And we probably weren’t destined for stardom. Kim and I were in our mid-twenties. I had a full-time job. Art Night had college two-hundred miles away. Kim had a kid. And aren’t you actually a writer, anyway? Hot Bedlam R.I.P.
Still, it was encouraging that we’d actually practiced. I’d been in a lot of we should start a band conversations over the years that died on the vine long before anyone ever picked up an instrument. We’d discuss band names, wax poetic about what we’d like to sound like (usually several stories above our skill level, which was, approximately sub basement), and experiment with band logo typefaces. I’d sit up late trying to remember guitar chords and be all, do you think we should try to write a song? And they’d be like, you know, the band thing is a joke, right? I mean, we are definitely not good enough to even try to be real.
I did, I guess, but I also didn’t. Why did it have to be a joke? I remember all the way back in high school, when one of my classmates and I would play Liz Phair covers on hand-me-down acoustic guitars that we’d automatically cede to the boys once they entered the room. They were better than we were because they’d been playing longer, but mostly they were more confident because the girls in the room always let them play.
“We’re not good enough for anyone else to hear us,” my classmate would say And I knew she was right. But the boys weren’t really good enough either. They just weren’t afraid of being imperfect. They could be slobs and fuck-ups and the world would still mostly tolerate their Dinosaur Jr covers. If we were anything less than fantastic, they’d discount us as worthless, at best, a novelty, a chick thing, lacking the right equipment, if you know what I mean.
I tried to write something about this when I got hired to write record reviews online, a few months after Hot Bedlam’s one and only rehearsal. My editor sent the new record by a band I liked, a band of mostly women. I didn’t have that much to say about the record. It was catchy. It wasn’t terribly different from their first album. The site I wrote for was then known for its long, digressive reviews. I needed to fill out the word count and it is infinitely easier to somehow talk about a record anecdotally than it is to describe the way a thing sounds (name drops and free verse adjective collage the angular fuzzed out worn out boot-tread howl of sonic negation echoing through a wasteland of broken guitars, like the Stooges met Suicide in a no-wave alleyway and had a fist fight with early New Order or whatever). So, I wrote about how the only thing I could imagine worse than being a woman and artist and utterly discounted by men, (and the women that only men to be arbiters of taste) was to be a woman and artist just patronized and condescended to. Look at you. A woman! Making music! Isn’t that just the cutest!
Unfortunately, when I tried to put this down in a record review, I sounded like an asshole. I sounded like I was saying something about equipment. I sounded exactly like one of the dudes I was trying to school.
The review must have gotten a lot of hits, because my editor responded by sending boxes full of records by women for me to review, with the expectation that I could go all swaggering I’m not going to give you a pass just because you’re a girl without criticism because I was a girl. The more negative the review, the more people read it, so I wrote a lot of negative reviews. I got some attention for it
The internet still felt reasonably innocent then, so I never worried that message boards devoted to hating me because I didn’t particularly care for an album would devolve into doxxing and death threats. I did, however, get one note that really stuck with me. It was a young woman, a guitar player and songwriter I’d reviewed, who wondered if I knew how hard she’d worked on the record. I know my songs aren’t perfect, but this isn’t exactly easy. I’d like to think I’ll get better. But there was nothing constructive in that review you wrote. It was just mean.
Was I mean? I called William, but he was on tour. And why do I need him to tell me whether or not I’m being fair to another girl. I came home that afternoon and sat on the futon my roommate left behind when she moved out. I plugged my guitar into the broken practice amp and spent the evening playing every song I knew (about twelve). I thought about writing that guitar player back, and telling her what she likely already knew: I’m not-so-secretly envious of you. I’d much rather make the thing than try to evaluate how well someone else made it. People are listening to you. They are paying attention to the art you make. Do you have any idea how cool that is?
“I think I’m bad at record reviews for the same reason I never went in for guys in bands,” I tried to tell Cranberries and Art Night. I had way too much residual sawdust and greasepaint in the blood to be content in the wings, endlessly supportive, watching someone else’s show. It wouldn’t be long before I’d see the seams in the songs, before I’d start taking them apart, before I’d think, I could do this or maybe, I could do this better, even if I couldn’t really do it all.
They nodded, undoubtedly thinking I was a slave to ego. They weren’t wrong. “But why is that such a bad thing?”After all, Cranberries dated a guy in a band for years and years. And she had a killer voice, gorgeous and raw, the kind of voice that could give you goosebumps if you just happened to hear it when you passed by an open door, infinitely more powerful than his would ever be. I couldn’t figure out how it didn’t eat at her that she was the girl sitting on the amp and never the one standing behind the mic. All those practices she watched. All those shows. I used to fret about it. I even tried to get her to join another fake band with me. She left after one practice, for fear that she was offending her boyfriend. I was almost more furious thinking about it in retrospect, like, don’t you know how good you are? Don’t you know how magnetic?
She swore it didn’t bother her. I didn’t believe her
I was increasingly sure, though, that I shouldn’t be writing record reviews. “I’m worried I’m not being constructive,” I told William, when he came back from tour.
He didn’t say pop music criticism is not a writing workshop. I’m not sure ‘constructive’ is part of your job description. He did tell me I’d reviewed a band one degree of separation from his own. Which was weird, but not, like, “uncomfortable weird.”
“I don’t know how to respond to that,” I said.
I really didn’t. And that was the reason I gave when I wrote my last review a few months later. I have too many friends. I have too many friends dating musicians. I have too many friends working for record labels. I don’t know how to do this without it turning personal. So thank you for the opportunity, but
The truth is I quit because I was tired of being mean. I quit because I didn’t like having my opinions repeated back to me by assholes. I quit because I didn’t like feeling, increasingly, that I was the vehicle through which men could be snide and condescending about women in music while patting themselves on the back for being progressive enough for finding a woman who would do it for them. I quit because I wanted to have constructive conversations about art with other people that made it. I quit because I still wanted to write things that read like my favorite band sounded, not things about why my favorite band disappointed me by not sounding the way they used to.
A few weeks ago, someone sent me a Washington Post story about a musician, a woman whose music I adore and have for decades. The article ran in 2013, years after I stopped appending music critic to my resume. I hadn’t read it at the time. But the writer quoted me in it, a snarky line taken out of context, from a review of a 2002 record I liked. The musician was understandably defensive about the stupid and callow way I characterized her music and what she’d been trying to do.
I cringed and put on a recent record by the musician. I thought, I should write her a fan letter. I should tell her the truth, which is that I’m sorry about my asinine review and my season or two trying to convince people I was any good at being a rock critic. I’d tell her that I’m not-so-secretly envious, that I’ve written reams to the soundrack of her music, that I would give anything to write a paragraph that sounded like one of her songs.
And the beat goes on.