Ilustration by Trey Smith
“Can we do the interview like this?” Tommy Lee asks, looking up at me with big brown eyes, his head on my lap, and stubbly cheek pressed against my five-months-pregnant belly.
I say yes, we can, and go on to interview him for 45 minutes about Rockstar Supernova, the reality singing show that brought the Mötley Crüe drummer, Metallica’s Jason Newsted and Guns n’ Roses’ Gilby Clarke together in a quest to find a singer for their new band. When it was over, Lee bid me adieu, starry-eyed and satisfied. The two publicists in the room, along with Newsted and Clarke, apologized profusely for his behavior, but I assured them there was no need. It was just another surreal and comical moment in the life of a female music journalist.
The experience was one of many in my 20-year career that have made me feel awkward and conflicted about simply trying to do my job: experiences that annoyed me, but that I knew I should find flattering; that have made for scintillating shoptalk at cocktail parties; that have made some friends laugh, and some envious; that seemed funny to me, too, but now make me cringe; that have made me look back and try to rationalize my lack of outrage or action at the time. I’ve had some memorable conversations with music icons over the years, but at some point I realized I had been disrespected as well.
Backstage and beyond, women music journalists must regularly navigate conflicted feelings and complicated gray areas that we face as both critics and fans. Our profession presents us with a distinct set of challenges and unforgiving double standards as we strive to be taken seriously, particularly when starting out.
I mentioned Lee’s request in the article, but my editor changed it to someone else’s. He thought it was inappropriate to mention in the LA Times. I’m pretty sure he thought I was unprofessional to have said yes to the request. Was I?
Tommy Lee and co. at the wrap party for Rock Star Supernova (photo by Lina Lecaro)
Sure, I felt gross and fat, and, hormones be damned, the attention was kind of nice. But deep down, I let it slide because I was too uncomfortable to say otherwise. I worried more about pissing him off, and ruining the quality of the interview, than I did myself. And anyway, why not use the rocker’s baby bump fetish, or whatever, to my advantage and maybe get some good quotes out of it? I’m a pragmatist, and a forged bond with an artist is nothing to sneeze at.
But the truth is it wasn’t OK, and it (obviously) wouldn’t have happened if I were a dude. I’ve always considered myself a feminist with an unwavering belief in equality at work and in life. But looking back, I realize that on that morning, and many times before and since, I’ve accepted inappropriate behavior from male subjects and disregard from male editors because I was just grateful to be there in the first place.
It’s a feeling that was reinforced from the beginning of my career. My first major assignment as an intern for LA Weekly doubled as a crash course in rock star ego and dysfunction. I was backstage at Lollapalooza in 1993, and Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley was having a bad day: A colleague, for whom I was filling in, had written about Staley and Tool’s Maynard Keenan in an unflattering light, and Staley thought it perfectly OK to take it out on me. He continually hollered, “LA Weekly sucks!” and “Fuck all journalists!” at me, ultimately making me cry in front of pretty much the entire lineup. Keenan, whom I was scheduled to interview, proceeded to be a condescending scamp, muddling his answers so I couldn’t discern which of his words were genuine and which were in jest.
I was young, vulnerable, and an easy target—a college student lacking both the chops to recognize their behavior as story material, and the balls to write about it even if I had (14 years later, I finally had both). To this day, I can’t watch a Tool video, but I did learn to like A.I.C., having interviewed Jerry Cantrell years later, and realized that Staley was a troubled addict acting out in terrible ways before he tragically overdosed.
Backstage has taken on a sort of mythic status thanks to movies and groupie fables, and getting mistaken for a groupie is pretty much a rite of passage for most women who write about music. But on the occasion that I have been flirted with by my subject, it definitely didn’t look like Tom Cruise’s breathy seduction of Malin Ackerman’s Rolling Stone reporter in Rock of Ages.
Do some journalists fool around with or date artists they’ve met on the job? Sure, but they’re the exception. And that doesn’t make them bad writers, or “sluts,” either. But it is a risk to professional credibility that most of us aren't willing to take, especially because of how hard we have to fight for it in an industry notorious for its double standards.
Rock of Ages was a parody, but it’s far from the only exploitative portrayal of a female journalist hopping into bed with her subject. But that’s a whole other essay. Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous is the film that really needs addressing. It has some cheesy moments, but mostly it’s beloved by music critics for capturing the romance behind our profession. I enjoy it. But I’ve always wondered how it would have played out if the young protagonist had been female. Would Penny Lane and her Band-Aids have still bonded with the wide-eyed journalist, or been threatened by her? Would Lester Bangs have warned her against befriending the rock stars, or fucking them? Would the kid have gotten the assignment to tour with the up-and-coming band in the first place if he weren’t a he? I think we all know the answers.
Writing about music often begins because of a fantasy, and not just the Almost Famous rock journo fantasy. I can only speak for myself, but this job is born from an early enchantment with music, the way it makes us feel, and the way people who make it make us feel. I’m talking about youthful lust here, unrequited of course. I had a crush on Tommy Lee growing up. I had always loved the swagger and theatrical camp of rock and roll, and Lee’s lanky bod, jet-black dyed hair, and weird makeup was just what I fancied in a fellow when I was 15. I don’t think I’m alone here.
But everyone eventually outgrows their rock star crushes, and for music journalists, it’s mandatory. A former attraction to an artist might color a perspective, but it rarely affects reviews for professionals who actually get paid for their opinions. A shitty performance is a shitty performance, and a crappy album is still just that. Critics simply can’t not call it like we see it, and when interviewing stars face to face, that kid with the crush is right where he or she should be: in the past.
My peers, regardless of gender, rarely want to admit to these intimate, complicated dynamics for fear of undermining our credibility, but it’s disingenuous to deny them. And as Clover Hope points out, that's finally starting to change. Sexual attraction is relevant to rock n’ roll, and to pop and most other genres too, particularly when the artist wants it to be.
What’s sad is that women in particular must make extra efforts to hide the giddy fan inside in order to be taken seriously as journalists, or risk being reduced to an unprofessional groupie stereotype. It's hard to imagine a woman writing Ernest Baker's Drake profile without being accused of trying to sleep with him. It’s assumed that our interest in music is more about image than it is the actual creative product, and that’s just not true.
What is true is that women are conditioned, and even encouraged, to participate in the more superficial aspects of music fandom when we’re young: to be screaming, crying, poster-kissing “fan-girls.” But female obsessives’ interest in music runs as deep in terms of sonic structure, tone, mood, and inspiration as it does for anyone of any gender. We can also be into the fashion, culture, spectacle, and allure surrounding an artist. These things aren’t mutually exclusive.
When I started out, I thought that I needed to hide my interest in the latter in order to be taken seriously. Not only that, I thought I needed to suppress my own personal style for the same reason. Whenever I was on the job, I left my signature red lipstick home in the Caboodle, never wore my wavy red hair down, and went with safe black T-shirts, blouses, and shift dresses for interviews and meetings with editors.
Sometimes, as in the case with Tommy Lee, dressing conservatively didn’t do me much good; Other times, like when I interviewed Gene Simmons for Rolling Stone in 2000, it might have worked too well. We were on set, taking a break from the filming of a TV pilot he was producing at a club brimming with busty blondes. I simply could not keep the Demon’s attention. Getting him to focus on our interview and answer my questions was like pulling teeth. He went from inappropriate to downright ick while we spoke, repeatedly referencing “blondes with big tits,” and interrupting me to flirt with a few of the most Barbie-esque in the room. I was annoyed, but I laughed it off, and never mentioned his lasciviousness in the piece: This was Obscene Gene—what else should I, or anyone else, expect?
And that’s just the problem. The quality of my interview and my own personal comfort should have nothing to do with what I wear or how I look. Chrissie Hynde’s recent victim-blaming statements were horrendously off-base, but she was right about one thing: Women are judged, far more than men, for how we look and dress, and we’re also blamed for the consequences. I learned that from experience. Most women do. I dressed down to interview Simmons not because it seemed more professional, but because I’d rather have an imposing figure like him ignore me than come on to me. And for many women in music, it often feels like those extremes are our only options. In professions like journalism, clothing and looks are often less about how attractive you are than how hard it appears you're trying to be attractive (note Ackerman’s half-hearted attempt with smart girl glasses and buttoned-up shirt in Ages).
The worst part? Sometimes it’s other women judging the book by its cover. In photo pits, festival press tents, media junkets, office environments, and especially backstage, I’ve felt it—not so much by exchanged words, but lack of them. I’ve tried to fight it, striking up conversation. Now a lot of us do by banding together and taking conversations to the web, as well as IRL.
Social media and the internet aren’t just connecting us, they’re giving us the opportunity to express ourselves however we chose, even if it’s in unconventional ways that go against everything I thought I knew about seeming professional. These days, owning one’s sexuality in words or dress can be a feminist act, too. It’s true for female musicians and writers alike. By the same token, those of us who have no desire to do so can call out the old school, misogynist mindset that makes sex and gender more important than it should be in the music world. Adolescent crushes aside, sometimes it’s just not about that.
Writers and bloggers are now brands, and brands are as much about the package as they are the product. From my perspective, that’s not necessarily a bad thing: The new young crop of women journalists covering music, entertainment, and pop culture don’t have to contend as much with the old groupie paradigm. Today’s new media outlets create a platform for women music writers to be personalities in their own right, with their work earning fan followings of their own via Twitter and Instagram followings. This has its own set of challenges of course, but navigating the transition can be freeing too.
Online forums, media mixers, and entire conventions created just for women writers have provided a great place to support and offer each other opportunities as well. More importantly, they’ve provided a place to share triumphs and frustrations like I have here. Young women trying to negotiate difficult situations like the ones I encountered starting out have the benefit of their seasoned sisters’ wisdom and encouragement to not take the bullshit anymore. These outlets have helped many of us realize that we’re more alike than not, and that the power in networking with each other is boundless.
Female writers, just like female musicians, are clearly still fighting for our place in the music world. Self-doubt still creeps in. Editors sometimes don’t reply. Many still favor male writers, and now that I’ve been doing this for so long, there’s ageism to contend with. But despite lower pay rates than when I started, I finally know my worth. I know I don’t have to look or act a certain way, or keep quiet about anything inappropriate that happens to me in order to stay respected as a journalist. I can wear red lipstick and a mini skirt, and I can take selfies backstage at a concert if I so desire. I can also stand up for myself and get pissed off—in person or in print—if I so choose. I can call shit out, and I can say no. And I can still be grateful to be here. Maybe more grateful than ever.