Rewriting Music History to Include Women

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When I started working on my first book, “Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound,” I spent countless hours wandering the music section of the library, searching for clues, a little inspiration, and a quiet distraction from my impending deadlines.

To my delight, there seemed to be titles related to even the most obscure subjects, from biographies of jazz and blues musicians to collections of critical essays, historical album charts, and memoirs. To my frustration, these shelves seemed to be filled almost exclusively with books written by male authors, most of them white.

I will be honest. I faced some wicked imposter syndrome when I tried to put pen to paper for the first time. I opened a new document on my computer and labeled it THE ACTUAL BOOK.doc. It would be the place where I would put the good writing, the actual writing — my book-level stuff, which would be 10 times more excellent than anything I had ever written before. I didn’t add anything to it for four months.

Part of the problem, in hindsight, was that running my hands across all those spines in the library stacks was not helping to convince me that my work belonged on those shelves. To combat that, I checked out every title I could find by the women historians, journalists, and critics who have written brilliantly about music over the past several decades. I thumbed through them every time I lost my way.

I started with a public radio legend: the longtime host of NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross, who published in 2004 a collection of her favorite interviews in a book called “All I Did Was Ask.” Studying transcripts of her interviews reminded me that the best questions are often the simplest, and the result of close listening rather than wordy, over- explained questions.

A well-timed “How come?” or “Why not?” can loosen up even the most media-trained celebrity.

Another essential collection was “Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap,” which rounds up pieces from more than 60 women. One of the editors of that collection, Ann Powers, has been something of a guiding light for me throughout my career. Her latest book, “Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in

“American Music,” reiterated what I heard her say once at a journalism conference — the job of a critic isn’t to say whether songs are good or bad, but to place what we are hearing in context.

The Twin Cities-born, Chicago-based critic Jessica Hopper has also been another major influence. Her 2015 book, “The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Rock Critic,” was like a gauntlet being thrown down. “This book is dedicated to those that came before, those that should [have] been first, and all the ones that will come after.”

I carried that dedication with me like I was on assignment.

Then there are the women who are writing about music here in Minnesota. Although only a small number have published books so far, the work has been remarkable. Memoirs by Michelle Leon and Laurie Lindeen illuminate the necessary and untold stories of the all-women bands (in their cases, Babes in Toyland and Zuzu’s Petals) who had as much of a role in building our rock scene as the oft-celebrated men.

The tireless historian and KFAI DJ Cyn Collins, author of “West Bank Boogie” and “Complicated Fun,” has been an inspiration to me, reminding me that I am not alone in my endeavors.

I wrote my first book as a way to elevate the voices that have not been historically included in canonization of music. “Got to Be Something Here” primarily focuses on the African American community members who helped lay the groundwork for Prince, and who persevered through discrimination and racism to build a scene.

By the end of that research and writing process, it was evident that my purpose as an author is to seek out the important figures who are not included in other texts, and to amplify their stories. It is an honor to join in the work of all those who came before me — and all the ones who will come after.

Andrea Swensson (she/her) is an author, music journalist, and DJ at 89.3 The Current, where she hosts “The Local Show” on Sundays, at 6-8pm.