My initial response to learning that Jessica Hopper would be directing and producing the new four-part Women Who Rock documentary series for EPIX, which debuted 10 July, was: duh. This monosyllabic grunt was first and foremost an affirmation that nobody is more qualified to make this thing than Hopper. Because she cares. But also because she has the chops, learning whatever she learned as a music critic for Spin and the Chicago Tribune, then as music supervisor for This American Life, then senior roles at Pitchfork, then editorial director for MTV, much of which she poured into her memoir (Night Moves, (2018) and a collected works (The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (2nd edition, 2021). So yeah, like every other girl who ever wanted to write about music and be taken seriously, I can say Hopper is one of my heroes. Of course, she’s the one to get for this cool profile project on the history of women in music.
But the other sentiment behind my “duh” is the more riot grrrls one. The one rolling its eyes and saying of course these industry rocker dudes got the only one of us who has made it to the top lately, of course, they still think four hours is long enough to cover all of the women in American music history, of course, Beyonce and Taylor Swift won’t make time to be interviewed for this, of course, of course, of course. It is maddening to have to keep explaining that women’s lives matter—that we are full of creative genius, musical talent, savvy business sense, charismatic stage presence, and everything else that men give themselves credit for while dismissing any woman seen pulling hard on her own bootstraps.
Occasionally, the privileged and powerful nudge aside their gatekeepers and throw us a bone. Women Who Rock is such a bone. First, I’ll analyze why the bone is delicious, then more importantly for those of us used to making the most of any scraps we get, I’ll recommend some ways for us all to gnaw on it.
Each hour-long episode is a foray into a different historical period focused on profiling a handful of iconic female musicians who were most prominent in the culture of the time. Rather than use a boring voice-over, the series operates by direct interview quotations so that the cacophonous effect is more like the oral history of the 1996 anthology Please Kill Me than any Ken Burns fare. Except one by one, all of the women interviewed clearly seem to agree on the fundamentals of how they were treated and what their work meant.
It’s electrifying to watch Nona Hendryx of Labelle wax poetic about the merits of Chaka Khan only to cut away to Khan waxing poetic about Mavis Staples, and then cut to Staples just laughing and smiling like it was no big deal and thank the lord we made it here. All of these female musicians are workhorses like Ricki Lee Jones and here they are sitting in an overstuffed chair, still doing the work of talking about the music they made. This is not always easy to do. You will see Joan Jett’s eyes get glassy with tears when she is thinking about what she endured to break into the music business when she was just a kid. Hopper’s camera lingers there a moment, at a distance, never pushing Jett to divulge the sensational stories she’s kept locked up inside.
The first episode, covering the 1950s and ’60s, and the second episode, the ’70s, do a particularly strong job not only of mapping the network of women in music during these decades but also contextualizing the important role played by music within the larger stream of historical events such as the civil rights movement. The interviewees mostly seem like the type that don’t usually offer public commentary—such as Pat Benatar, Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads, and Nancy Wilson of Heart—so their value here is particularly strong because fans of those musicians sometimes live like camels on whatever little quotable nuggets do see the light of day – they make it go a long way. Where the series makes use of obvious moments in the music history of these women, it takes pains to at least offer a different angle or an alternate take of the track so that it’s difficult to say whether any moment of the footage in the series has truly ever been seen before.
The total effect of all these experienced and thoughtful women, both in front of the camera and behind it, is refreshingly smooth and every bit as slick as any music documentary airing on HBO or VH1. Kudos to EPIX for snatching up such a solid series, although the eye-rolling grrrl inside me wants to know whether Hopper pitched it only to them for reasons related to better creative control, or whether the bigger channels stupidly passed on the series. The decade-by-decade chronology of the episodes makes it easy to anticipate when your favorite performers will pop up, though part of the charm is being surprised by which musicians are big fans of which other musicians.
I’ll be interested to see whether a series like this can net just as much interest from men as it does from women, and will look forward to hashing out its role in the “chick flick” debate once the viewership stats start rolling in. Where in our culture will this terrific documentary series circulate? I have a few suggestions that all amount to this: Women Who Rock should be taught in high schools and colleges. The language and content are entirely appropriate for young teens, nothing too vulgar, and no glorifying of any drug-addled or sex-addicted rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Here are a couple of ways teachers can use this series in their classrooms.
One, any professor of film, music, or pop culture who is trying to capitalize on the bandwagon of ’90s nostalgia should get this while it’s hot. Even the non-’90s episodes feature commentary from the likes of Shania Twain and others who were huge at that time. If you have students riding high on a weird decade where they weren’t even born yet, they will thank you for this one. Two, this is an awesome way to introduce the idea of an oral history project. It sure beats interviewing grandpa about his military service record again. Three, this is a master class for film students interested in effective montage sequencing as Hopper toggles between interviewees and historical footage without losing the context or momentum of either. Four, at the end of the semester in high school, when students have taken their Advanced Placement exams and state testing and are now just sitting there looking busy until the last bell rings to usher in their summertime, this is an actual educational series that most students wouldn’t gravitate toward on their own. Women Who Rock nevertheless accomplishes many curricular goals in the humanities.
I’ve learned a lot from Hopper in the two decades that I’ve been following her work. Women Who Rock is an excellent vehicle for passing a lot of what Jessica Hopper has learned about women in American music along to the next generation.