From Led Zeppelin to Nirvana, the term “rock ‘n roll” is practically synonymous with masculinity—rarely is the genre readily associated with even the heaviest woman-identifying hitters. But maybe that’s more about historical bias than anything else. Think about it: If white dudes are the ones penning the history of rock, maybe other white dudes are the musicians they’re more inclined to focus on. That’s exactly the basis behind The Women of Rock Oral History Project—a collection of interviews conducted by Tanya Pearson and backed by Smith College. In what started as a passion project, Pearson has now amassed over 30 interviews with powerhouses like Lydia Lunch, Alice Bag, and Donita Sparks. The aim is to change the way we think about the culture of rock by calling attention to the women, trans, and queer people who have consistently been major players in the genre—and breaking up an age-old boys club in the process. The project will take on IRL status January 11th at L.A.’s Zebulon, where Pearson will be hosting a fundraiser whose lineup will. not. quit. On the docket: panels featuring Julie Cafritz (Pussy Galore), Patty Schemel (Hole), Alice Bag, and Phranc, to name a few, along with live performances from those names and more. We sat down with 36-year-old rockophile-turned-documentarian to talk about faking it till you make it (where “it” is an interview with Veruca Salt); chicks with dicks and other non-binary folks who make you want to redefine “woman” altogether; and the perils of hardcore fangirling that any rock historian worth her weight has gotta wade through on the path to setting the record straight.
Tell us about the project.
It’s a collection of digital interviews and written transcripts housed at the Sophia Smith collection at Smith College, which is one of the oldest women’s history archives in the United States. What I never wanted to do was start a collection like this and have it just sit in the archives, so whatever interviews I have permission to make public, I upload for fans, researchers—pretty much anyone who’s curious. I’m an oral historian by trade, and these interviews range anywhere from an hour and a half to five or six hours. My goals was to give anyone who identifies as a woman in music the same kind of care and attention that men in rock have been given by journalists and scholars. The interviews aren’t strictly about what bands they’ve been in; they’re full personal and professional biographies. We start at the very beginning: Where did you grow up, where were you born, what was your family like. Music is of course a part of that, but the interviews go well beyond questions about music.
What was going on in your life that inspired you to jump-start the project?
I was working on my BA at Smith, taking a class on the history of censorship in the United States. I wanted to write about three female-fronted rock bands—L7, Veruca Salt, and The Breeders—that were big in the ‘90s, but that fell outside of the riot grrrl category. I found that women were retrospectively getting lumped into riot grrrl or, if they didn’t fit into that category, were just kind of getting left out of the ‘90s rock narrative altogether. So I started doing research on L7, and I was disturbed by the lack of information I could find online about them. It’s not like they were some underground band; they were huge. I had already conducted some oral history interviews for the archives, so I decided I was going to just ask some women if they would let me interview them, and I would start an oral history collection. The work is personal to me; I’m fully invested in it, and I even consider it activist work because I’m pushing back against this male-dominated history.
What did you have to do to get the project off the ground?
When I decided to do the project, Veruca Salt had coincidentally just gotten back together and were on tour. So I went to Boston, waited outside after their concert, and just said, “Hi, I’m Tanya, I curate the Women of Rock Oral History Project”—which didn’t exist yet—“and I’d love to schedule an interview with you.” And then I gave them these business cards I’d just made. They both said yes and were really excited, and I was like, Oh shit, how am I going to get to Los Angeles—I don’t have any money; I don’t have a camera, I don’t have anything. So I did like four or five more interviews on the East Coast—Lydia Lunch, Kristin Hersh [Throwing Muses, 50FootWave], JD Samson [Le Tigre], and Mary Timony [Helium, Autoclave, Wild Flag]. When I finished those, I went to Smith to apply for funds for airfare, etc. to get more interviews done. Then I went to the director of the Sophia Smith Collection and was like, “Hey, I started this oral history collection, and it would be really great if Smith could get behind it to give it a sense of legitimacy.” Luckily she thought it was a great idea and said yes.
Especially in those early days before you had backing, how were you getting these huge names on board? Like, did you just cold email Lydia Lunch?
Kind of, yeah. I would just go online and follow trails—sometimes I can find personal email addresses, other times I find the contact for a publicist or manager. With Lydia, I got in touch with her manager when I knew she was going to be on the East Coast. Lydia was the first interview I did, actually, which was terrifying. Now she’s one of my closest friends. But yeah, I’m more of an “ask for forgiveness, not permission” kind of person.
You’ve touched on it a little, but talk about why there’s a need for this kind of project.
Rock history and the rock canon—especially when you look at pop culture in general—have been constructed by white men for the most part. So we have this male-dominated historical context when we talk about rock music, and that kind of narrative and the people who perpetuate that narrative, like journalists and scholars, further an inaccurate and false history that marginalizes women. I’m not the first person to ever do oral histories or interview women in rock music; there are tons of women I look up to—artists and rock critics who have written great oral histories about specific genres in rock music. I’m trying to make a collection that is not genre-specific, that represents rock as a whole. I’m really interested in going back as far as I can, interviewing women who were active in the ’60s and ‘70s, because once they’re gone, those stories are lost forever. I want scholars to use these interviews and include these women when they’re writing their books on punk history, etc. I want people in media to write about rock music in a different way.
On a more personal level, I’ve been in bands since I was 13. These are interviews and documents I wish had existed when I was that age, when and it was so difficult to find info on these women. Lydia Lunch, for example, I heard her on Death Valley 69 and tried to find out who she was. It was so hard to find a full history on her life, who her influences were, or even what bands she was in. So part of it is wanting people to have what I didn’t have—this opportunity to know who their predecessors are.
One thing that I find draws me to women artists—of any medium really—is the level of intimacy they bring to their work, which I personally have never seen paralleled in the art of heterosexual men. Do you see that, or anything else unifying, in the music of the people you’ve interviewed?
That may be the most interesting and complex question anyone’s ever asked me. With some of the people I’ve interviewed, the act of picking up an instrument and joining a band, even some of the descriptions of the songwriting process—there’s an intimacy there, a vulnerability, because it all takes so much more effort when you’re a woman to put yourself out there in music. I want to be careful though about how I answer this because—I’m thinking of some of my interviewees in particular—they wouldn’t even want to answer a question like that. To them, it was their job and they loved playing music; gender was never an issue. So I’m always wary of lumping anyone into one category.
Yeah, I mean, the question itself brings up an issue that may never be resolved even amongst feminists: Are women the same as men, or are we different but equal?
Totally, I mean that was such an issue for me when I was naming the project. I didn’t know what the fuck to call it. I didn’t want to call it “The Women of Rock Oral History Project,” but what else do I call it? I can’t call it the “Non-Cis Male Oral History Project.” So now I have a title with this enormous disclaimer, and I’m hoping that the interviews I do reflect on the kind of project that it actually is. But even the categorization of women in rock would be less of an issue if we assigned men to those same categories. Like, when I talk about men in bands, I say, “men in rock,” or I’ll say “male-fronted rock bands.” It’s not so much that the category “women in rock” is problematic—it’s that we don’t assign those same categories to men; we just call men in rock, rock. Like that’s the norm.
Actually, a trans man who played in some bands I really liked wrote to me on Instagram wanting to be part of the project. He had recently transitioned, and I obviously didn’t want to assume that a trans man would want to be a part of something called The Women of Rock Oral History Project. I explained that it was just a name, and that I’d love to interview him, but I would understand if he didn’t feel comfortable. He still wanted to do it though! So I want this work to also expand the definition of what it means to be a woman. Miss Guy agreed to be interviewed—he’s a cis male who performs in drag a lot. He was like, “I never hid my dick, but I always felt like an honorary woman of rock, and I was happy to do the interview.”
It’s so interesting to think about blurring those lines within the genre of rock ‘n roll because rock itself has been used as a tool for normalizing misogyny and objectifying women. What do you think rock ‘n roll would look like on a larger scale if women and trans people were more widely recognized as the face of rock ‘n roll?
I was kind of talking about this with someone the other day. The ‘80s came up, and we were talking about Lita Ford [The Runaways] and Janet Gardner [Vixen]. That was a time when rock music was pretty explicitly misogynistic, and to participate in that culture or to be a successful working musician, they went along with that image: shredding on guitar (and then there’s the whole thing about the guitar as phallus), and the leather pants with big hair. But it’s also cyclical. You go from the ‘80s to the ‘90s. On the whole, the ‘90s was a great decade for women. But then you go to the 2000s, and you get the angry white male in the baseball cap, like Korn and Limp Bizkit. So I feel like that cycle happened because, like you said, rock music is inherently misogynistic. Women get certain amounts of space in certain points in time, but they are never able to achieve the kind of longevity that men have been able to achieve.
In terms of what rock would look like—it would be better. I mean, that’s true, and also sarcastic. But beyond that, it would just be more accurate and representative of the culture. This myth exists that in certain points in history, women and trans people were making more music, but the fact is that there has never been a shortage of women, or queer, or trans people making music. The problem lies with documentation and who gets remembered; right now we have this androcentric, one-sided narrative. People bitch about revisionist history, but Jesus Christ—mainstream rock history is revisionist history. Talking about the achievements of white men is revisionist history. As a historian, I have a responsibility to represent the women and trans people who have been major players and progenitors in their scenes. They weren’t just sitting on the sidelines—they were actively participating. But as time goes by retrospectively, it’s the historians and journalists who are at fault for not properly and adequately documenting all of those participants. They choose the same ones: Courtney Love, Kathleen Hanna, Stevie Nicks, Joan Jett, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith. It’s not that those women don’t count; it’s just that there were a lot more women involved. If rock history adequately represented women, trans, and queer people, rock would be better, but it would also just be right. It would be accurate.
In the interviews you’ve conducted, have there been themes or patterns that jump out to you as being distinct from what we hear in canonical rock and roll histories?
Everyone’s opinions are really different, but one common theme in all of the interviews—whether with women, trans, or non-binary musicians—is that they have to be more vigilant at all times, super self-aware. Gail Ann Dorsey said in her interview that you have to be better, faster, stronger. Like the meme that’s been going around that says something about being as confident as a mediocre white male. Some women I’ve interviewed have never had an issue with their gender as musicians, so I don’t want to lump everyone into that, but having to work harder has been an overarching theme.
What’s been most surprising for you in documenting these oral histories?
I’ve been surprised by how different everyone’s perspective is. How individual their experiences are. When I started doing this, I mistakenly assumed that all of these people would have more in common. I grew up learning the same histories everyone else learned, so I mistakenly believed there was a comprehensive “women’s experience,” which is just not true. I noticed that if I knew I was interviewing a lesbian, gay, or queer person, I was asking similar questions, assuming I would get the same kind of answer. But that was totally not the case. Now I try really hard not to assume anything before I sit down with someone.
How has this project inspired you professionally?
Ten years ago, I thought I would be an English teacher or something. I never imagined I’d be doing this; it just sort of happened. I graduated with my Bachelor’s in 2016 and wanted to see if I could figure out a way to keep this going. I was working a day job, trying to get a magazine or something to fund it, but nothing panned out. I pretty much went to grad school because I knew I could do this full time and get funding for it. The decisions I’ve made in my life have been based around: How can I afford to keep doing this for the next year? For the next two years?
You’ve interviewed so many amazing people. When you look back on all those moments, which stand out to you as being the best of the best?
Patti Schemel was definitely a favorite for me. I used to listen to her in my basement with headphones on and teach myself to play the drums. She didn’t come out [as gay] until I was older, but you know, it takes one to know one. I remember loving Hole and just waiting for Patty Schemel to say she was a lesbian because if she said it, then I could feel better about myself. I remember when she came out, how important that was for me. In her interview, she talked about Phranc, The All American Jewish Lesbian Folk Singer [Susan Gottlieb] being that person for her. So that was a big deal for me.
Another favorite was Veruca Salt. They didn’t realize I’d been a fan—their concert was the first one I went to without my mom, and I knew all their b-sides. So in the interview, they would talk about all these songs, and (it’s so embarrassing because it’s recorded in the interview) I would be like, “Oh, I know that.” And when they were surprised, I was like, “Yeah, I was in the fucking Veruca Salt AOL chat room.” It’s so weird being an adult now and talking to these people. It gets normal in some ways—I’m not star struck anymore, but I do get really excited. These were people who meant so much to me for so long—it’s a serious privilege to get to share their stories with the world.