In 2014, Tanya Pearson started an oral history project with which I became instantly obsessed. Women of Rock is a site devoted to hour-long interviews with as many woman-identified rock ‘n’ rollers as possible. It’s a truly impressive roster that includes Alice Bag, Bibbe Hansen, Lydia Lunch, Shirley Manson, Phranc, and about 40 more so far.
Pearson is pursuing a Ph.D. in History at the University of Massachusetts. She doesn’t need the academic cred, but it’s a detail that highlights her main mission: to legitimize the contributions of women-identified people to rock ‘n’ roll music and to rock criticism. Well, I obviously second that motion, so I was immediately all-in upon finding out Pearson was finally doing a book: Why Marianne Faithfull Matters.
Then I found out the book was going to be published by the University of Texas Press (UTP) and I was doubly excited, having already massively enjoyed their publications on Madonna, Chrissie Hynde, and Vivien Goldman. Let me make as bold and confident a proclamation as any mediocre man ever has and say: UTP has done more for the history of women in music in the last few years than any other press on the planet, including those whose sole focus is on music history.
UTP’s American Music Series, edited in part by the great Jessica Hopper, includes histories of women in county music and memoirs by female singer-songwriters. Their Discovering America Series includes a history of Harry Belafonte written by a woman. Their Music Matters Series, edited in part by Evelyn McDonell, includes examinations of Marianne Faithfull, Solange, Labelle, Lhasa de Sela, and Karen Carpenter. The series has only published eight books so far and five of them are about women!
If that exclamation point seems too precious, here’s a fact: women have not yet risen above the outrageously low bar of simply counting how many women-identified people in music history are considered worthy of being a series editor, or being published, or being the subject of a publication. The majority of these UTP books—by women, about women, but in no way meant or marketed exclusively “for women”—offer a well-balanced combination of the personal with the scholarly.
I’ll let part of Pearson’s introduction do the talking on the value of this hybrid style: “Rock history falls into the same trap as other histories, placing emphasis on ‘valid,’ quantifiable historical evidence and dismissing memory, memoir, biography, and experiential history as both frivolous and dangerous to the canon. Memory is the Yoko Ono of scholarship” (1-2).
Now is a good time to mention that Pearson is hilarious. She’s as deadpan a punk cultural commentator as Eileen Myles or Fran Lebowitz or Virginie Despentes. Pearson speaks with the bleakly comedic instincts of a recovering addict, and her never-ending story of sobriety is one of the things that drew her to Faithfull’s music in the first place. Faithfull is most often dismissed as a sad-sack, which Pearson emphatically proves is not the case both by examination of her work and by rumination on the author’s own fandom of it.
The other mistake people make—the people that know even less of Faithfull’s material than those who apply the label of sad-sackery—is to center an interpretation of her entire history on the four or five years in the late Sixties when she dated Mick Jagger. This is despite the fact that her best work didn’t start coming in until after she got sober over three decades later. Pearson’s wit is repeatedly devastating on this issue and the way it connects to the larger challenges of representation for women in music:
“This inability to locate her begs the question, how do women achieve historical longevity in a culture that doesn’t value them or their artistic output? Whose dick do you have to suck to get some respect as an artist? I mean, if not Mick Jagger’s, then whose? Show me the dick” (157-8). Just…wow. Yes! To get millennial on you for a moment, I feel so seen by this dick joke. Another time I laughed out loud, when regarding “the drug-addled Saturday Night Live performance that everyone worried would ruin Faithfull’s career,” Pearson’s entire footnote 85 pages down the road simply reads: “It didn’t” (91, 176).
Fans of Faithfull will find so much to love in this book, and it will surely convince those who don’t know anything about her beyond the label of “Jagger’s pathetic, junkie ex-girlfriend” that Faithfull’s enormous body of work is worth a proper listen. But the true joy of Why Marianne Faithfull Matters has relatively little to do with its specific subject and everything to do with the voice of its author.
Pearson deserves the widest possible audience and her mission to make rock music more inclusive deserves expansive, expensive support. She is analytically lean and self-aware where most rock critics are bloated and self-indulgent. She is organically super funny where most rock critics are cocky showboats. Did I mention she’s also the drummer for a cool, drag-infused punk band, Feminine Aggression? The world badly needs more feminine aggression and Tanya Pearson is doing the work. She sucks no dicks and I respect her immensely.