In September, I finished NPR’s Greatest 150 Albums by Women. A project that took me two months to finish. I heard Ann Powers discussing the project with Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition on the drive into work in late July. I’ve never been so excited to open Spotify upon arriving at my desk.

Powers has always reminded her male counterparts at NPR Music of women’s contributions to the field, regardless of genre being discussed. In her piece that accompanies the list, she laments that women making music continues to be regarded as a trend–how she has been asked to write pieces that promote this view since the 1980s. Indeed, just last week, St. Vincent said in an interview that “What’s it like to be a woman in music?” is one of her top two most hated interview questions. As if it were something new, a dog walking on two legs.

It’s bizarre, don’t you think? Women have been performing music for centuries, not to mention that the first music many of us remember hearing is our mothers’ singing.

 

My methodology for this survey (someone give me another degree already) was to

  1. Tell everyone about the list on Facebook.
  2. Review the entries from bottom to top, lamenting artists who were left out (Marina, it’s always you), and giving myself a high five for recognizing artists and albums already on there.
  3. Starting at 150, add each listed album to a playlist and listen after reading the paragraph explaining how it made it to the list.  
  4. Fall in love with some albums. Remember every word to past soundtracks of my life. Discover that I could read Audie Cornish and Neda Ulaby write about music forever.
  5. Revel in these women’s voices and stories. Hope that this brings about a cultural shift in storytelling.
  6. Share the playlist with you.

“The point is to offer a view of popular music history with women’s work at the center,” writes Powers. “The list does not represent an ‘alternate history.’ It stands for music history, touching upon every significant trend, social issue, set of sonic innovations, and new avenue for self-expression that popular music has intersected in the past fifty years.”

Women have always been telling our stories, making meanings, and doing the kin work required to keep families and cultures together. We have always toiled alongside men. This list seeks to make sure we don’t forget it.  

But, naturally, instead of weaving more women into the NPR music discussions, this list was squeezed into a 41 minute episode on the All Songs Considered podcast described thusly: “Five journalists join forces to unpack NPR Music’s ‘Turning The Tables’ list.” Not even close to enough information to compete with the preceding 43 minute episode about DJs Stretch and Bobbito. But, then again, these male DJs “helped launch the careers of artists like The Notorious B.I.G, Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem and more.” So, you know, don’t forget the men!

It’s like when Project Runway does the episode on plus size clothing but you never see plus sized models at any other point in the season. They exist, but as a minority. This is a Very Special Episode of All Songs. We’ll return you to your regularly scheduled programming next week.

I was reminded of this lack of women at the (turn)table during a recent episode of All Songs in which four men discuss songs that should be discontinued for good. I am happy to report that they did not suggest ending any songs by women. But, I wondered, is this because they just didn’t think of it? Or is it because we just flat out don’t play songs by women frequently enough to be considered overplayed? Have we ever given women their due? Will we ever? Or now?

The failure (refusal?) to give women a platform made me think of the #MeToo campaign, with its aim to provide a space for survivors to speak up and remind (inform for the first time?) that we ought to be included. We’re giving everyone a sense of the shit we put up with every day, but haven’t we always done this? Listen to music by women. Haven’t we been telling you about it from the beginning?

These two words over and over on your timeline are a peek at what women have discussed amongst ourselves–and sometimes with you–for years. It’s when we start a conversation on a walk to work by telling our mothers that you were just hollered at. It has soured the day and now the conversation with her because “Are you wearing a short skirt?” No, mom, I’m a professional. And also, no, that’s not the point.

The point is that you think things will get better for those who come after you. That you forget how easily your heart can break when you read delicately open their “Don’t Touch Me” box to share their quietest painful secrets to say what we trudge through every day. That it can happen to anyone, young and old and and rich and poor and straight and queer and fat and average and good and bad and perfect.

Somehow you hope that you are living at the worst possible moment for this. That it wasn’t as bad for your mom, and it won’t be worse for your daughters. Because, this, you can take. It’s only catcalling, and you can hollaback. He’s only asking you to smile. You can grimace as terribly as possible and make it through this and more. Much more.

We continue to do the kin work here. Someday, we hope, we won’t have to work to claim our basic humanity.

There are women everywhere on this 150 Albums list who have to confront difficult choices, who are being told to live differently. “In my opinion, you’re on the wrong track. / We’ll always love you, but that’s not the point,” The Roches sing in “Hammond Song” to their sister. (It’s the second song on the playlist, and the first to bring me to tears.) Women are always being told to do, by people aloud and mores unspoken. “’Lauryn, baby, use your head,’” Hill quotes at #2 on the list. There is always a choice to follow the course, to remain silent.

The glory of this playlist, of course, is that these women have survived, as evidenced by their singing their pain. They have chosen to speak up and out. Through the magic of recorded music, their response and survival can be played over and over again, for time forever. For women and listeners everywhere and always. They have poured themselves out for our benefit, that we may learn from their struggles. All we have to do is listen.

Because they, too. Of course.

What comes after any admission, we hope, is a release. Now, she is free of a shame that should never have been borne. Freedom from that strife.

And yet, since we are women, on to the next one.