10 Great Books about Music by Female Writers


Earlier this week the folk over at Pitchfork published a collection of their favorite music books. It’s a pretty comprehensive list, encompassing everything from Mötley Crüe’s tragicomic memoir The Dirt to Jon Savage’s erudite punk tome England’s Dreaming. We couldn’t help noticing, however, that of the 60 books on show, precisely one was written solely by a woman (along with a couple where there’s a female co-author, and one anthology of women writers). We’re not suggesting that Pitchfork has gone out of its way to exclude women — the fact is that, sadly, like much of the music industry, music criticism remains very much a boys’ club. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re entirely blameless. Here are ten great books about music written by women that really should have at least merited consideration.

Kristin Hersh, Rat Girl

Here at Flavorpill, we heart Kristin Hersh (especially when she tweets nice things about us). We also loved her 2010 memoir Rat Girl, which was based on the diaries she kept during a particularly tumultuous period of her life — specifically, late 1985 and early 1986, when Throwing Muses’ career started to take off, but Hersh herself was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and also gave birth to her first child. Her writing is full of the dramatic energy that characterizes her songwriting, but it’s also funny and self-effacing. Rat Girl does a beautiful job of capturing the runaway train of adolescence, the feeling that you don’t know where you’re going, but you can’t stay where you are.

Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution

There was no more vivid demonstration of the ongoing interest in riot grrrl culture than the launch of this book at Bruar Falls in Brooklyn last year. We were lucky enough to get there early and get a seat at the bar; by the time author Sara Marcus got up to speak, the place was so packed that you could quite literally barely move a muscle. The book itself has enjoyed similar interest and acclaim, its exhaustively researched and vividly recounted history of the riot grrrl movement earning a string of good reviews and the wholehearted support of one Kathleen Hanna.

Patti Smith, Just Kids

One of the more acclaimed memoirs of recent years, and one that deserves every word of the praise that’s been showered upon it. (Apparently you can win a National Book Award and still not earn a place on Pitchfork’s list.) Smith’s story of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe isn’t just a music memoir — indeed, it ends just as her musical career starts to take off — but its plentiful insights into the psyche of one of our most enduringly brilliant musicians makes it pretty much compulsory reading for anyone with even the remotest interest in her life and work.

Geeta Dayal, Another Green World

Continuum’s 33 1/3 series is another one where female authors are largely conspicuous by their absence — of the 83 books in the series, we count eight with female authors, which makes for a better ratio than three out of 60 for Pitchfork’s list, but still doesn’t exactly make 33 1/3 a bastion of equality. Happily, one of the eight is Geeta Dayal’s masterful take on Brian Eno’s ever-wonderful Another Green World.

Amy Raphael, Never Mind the Bollocks: Women Rewrite Rock

A staple on the bookshelf of ’90s teens who liked grunge, former The Face editor and current Guardian critic Amy Raphael’s 1995 book (published in the US as Grrrls: Viva Rock Divas , for some reason) is a series of interviews with a heap of ’90s luminaries like Kim Gordon, Courtney Love, Kristin Hersh, Liz Phair, and Björk, along with other contemporaries who time has sadly already begun to forget (Huggy Bear, Echobelly, The Raincoats). The interviews are presented as monologues, with Raphael largely staying out of her subjects’ way, deftly drawing anecdotes and insights out of them and then allowing them to express themselves.

Kandia Crazy Horse, Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock ‘N’ Roll

Perhaps the most pernicious myth about female music writers is that they only write about female musicians. With Rip It Up, Village Voice critic Kandia Crazy Horse explodes that particular misconception along with plenty of others, tracing the continuing influence of black culture on rock ‘n’ roll and exploring the way that, curiously, a genre whose roots are in the blues, and whose great guitar hero (Jimi Hendrix) is black, has nevertheless become a largely white proposition. The book encompasses a series of interviews with and treatises on everyone from Slash to Venetta Fields, from Lenny Kravitz to Vernon Reid, the unifying theme being that they’re all “blacks [who] play their own music, the music they invented — i.e., ‘rock ‘n’ roll.'”

Holly George-Warren, Public Cowboy #1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry

Similarly, Holly George-Warren’s subject matter over the years has been diverse and constantly fascinating, from photo books on punk and (shudder) The Grateful Dead to volumes on the Wild West and Hollywood. Her best music-related work is probably her exhaustive biography of the Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry — it’s a beautifully written and extensively researched treatise that’s a fascinating portrait of the music industry in the 1940s and one of its most charismatic performers.

Sherrie Tucker, Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s

While we’re on the 1940s, this is a fascinating account of girl groups from the era before girl groups as we know them today came to exist. Tucker’s book catalogs the largely forgotten history of the era’s female jazz musicians. Given that its author is an academic, it’s perhaps no surprise that the material is presented in a scholarly, sober tone, but that doesn’t make it any less involving.

Amanda Petrusich, It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music

Even Pitchfork’s own writers can’t make their list, it seems, although this book has polarized opinion somewhat — people who liked it loved it, and people who disliked it hated it. Petrusich’s writing is certainly an acquired taste, but either way, the concept behind It Still Moves is an interesting one — it’s sort of a hybrid travelogue/history lesson, an exploration of what constitutes “Americana” and what might continue to do so into the 21st century. The writing’s perhaps a little too self-consciously florid at times, but Petrusich’s genuine affection for her subject, and her encyclopedic knowledge thereof, shine through.

Poppy Z. Brite, Courtney Love: The Real Story

This is a book pretty much doomed a priori by its title — after all, the only person that really knows Courtney Love’s real story is Courtney Love, and we’re not entirely confident that even she’s got it completely straight. But still, this 1998 biography gave the idea of narrating the life of one of our more enduring, fascinating, and polarizing cultural figures a decent shake. Brite’s friendship with Love clearly influences her version of her subject, which is the main criticism that’s been thrown at this book — but then, if you’re going to write about someone, it’s helpful to know them, and even when the stories start to sound awfully like Courtney-sanctioned revisionism, they remain fascinating for precisely that reason. Whether you prefer Brite’s largely Courtney-approved story or Melissa Rossi’s Goldman-esque unauthorized hatchet job Courtney Love: Queen of Noise is a matter of taste — we suspect that if you could somehow take the two and blend them, you might end up with something that vaguely resembles the truth. Or maybe not. Really, we’ll never know.

To learn about more great female music writers, check out our list of 33 Women Music Critics You Need to Read.