You know that feeling when you are confronted with something so ridiculous and enraging that you’re weary just thinking about commenting on it? That’s how I feel about the ludicrous statements made recently by Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner. However, comment I must.
If you missed it: speaking to the New York Times about his new book, The Masters, Wenner was asked why it only contains interviews with white older men such as Bono and Bob Dylan. To be fair, these lads are in the top echelons of the music world. They’ve contributed to musical and cultural change and they’re touchstones for a number of generations. So if Wenner had said “Well, I might write books about other musical masters, but I’ve picked these guys because they’re meaningful to me and I want to pay tribute to that”, then fair enough.
But he didn’t. Instead, Wenner unwittingly showed the music industry’s not-so-hidden dark side when he was asked about why, in the book’s introduction, “you acknowledge that performers of colour and women performers are just not in your zeitgeist”. Wenner replied that “insofar as the women, just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level”, while black musicians “just didn’t articulate at that level” of master. The reaction was swift. Wenner apologised. He is now paying the price for his words.
The interview made me wonder whether the meaning of “master” and “articulate” had suddenly changed, but it also made me think back to being a teenage music fan. It was all about learning who the “masters” were and understanding who I was “supposed” to listen to. Needless to say, most of those people were white men. I dutifully followed the rules, but soon chafed against them. Sure, these guys made great music, but where were the missing women? And were women really not capable of making legendary music because we had, I dunno, breasts?
My male friends who were into music were generous with their enthusiasm and fed me mix CDs reflecting our interests. Let’s not talk too much about the guys I did have “interesting” music discussions with at parties. But there were signs that in the wider music world, girls like me were treated as a minority both in terms of listenership and in making music.
When I started DJing, smartarses asked me questions like “what label were Nirvana on?” Years later, while DJing with a friend, a guy shouted “take ‘em off!” at us. It felt like at some point I’d always be reminded of my place. And yet I feel guilty that my experience has been a piece of cake compared with other women.
When Glastonbury Festival 2023 had three male headliners, organiser Emily Eavis blamed it on a “pipeline” problem, which points to serious roadblocks for women progressing in the industry
In my teens, I also noticed how few women were in prominent acclaimed rock bands. You could often find a female bassist, but it seemed that once a woman played bass it became an “easy” instrument and thus you could never be considered talented at playing one. Funny, that.
So from the late 2000s on, I breathed more easily as more and more women cropped up in bands and the music media. Today, we really are in a different place than we were 20 years ago. In terms of music sales and fandom, women are claiming their place at the top of the biz.
Taylor Swift is one of the biggest acts in the world and is beloved by people across genders, genres and age groups. Boygenius is a supergroup that unites young, middle-aged, straight and queer fans. From Cardi B to Nicki Minaj, women are leading the pack in rap. Young female and non-binary musicians are blooming across the Irish music scene. Meanwhile, organisations such as FairPlé and Why Not Her? are keeping gender equality in music on the agenda. In some ways, this is the sort of aware and evolving music landscape I yearned for as a teen.
But Wenner’s comments betray the fact that things have evolved only so much. Case in point: when Glastonbury Festival 2023 had three male headliners, organiser Emily Eavis blamed it on a “pipeline” problem, which points to serious roadblocks for women progressing in the industry. A 2021 survey, Gendered Experiences of the Irish Music Industry, found that 59 per cent of women surveyed said it was often assumed that they did not write their own music, along with other depressing gender-based experiences. The music industry hasn’t even had a MeToo moment, though some individuals have spoken out about sexual misbehaviour at the hands of high-profile musicians.
Lurking beneath it all is the sense that the forefathers of the music world that Jann Wenner and his compatriots helped build – the world of Rolling Stone and Springsteen, of Woodstock and groupies – are still trying to keep women in their place. That the natural order is to bow down to the Great White Men and ensure women know they can never reach the level of master.
Rolling Stone helped to create and embed the male rock‘n’roll archetype. Wenner’s comfort in sharing his opinions shows he didn’t think they were unusual
If a gatekeeper such as Wenner feels comfortable enough to say that Joni Mitchell of all people, with her deeply-felt, intricate songs, is not “philosophical” or “articulate” enough compared with Bono or Dylan, that’s a red flag. His comments about black musicians, when – in just one example – the blues was crucial to the development of Wenner’s beloved rock’n’roll, beggar belief.
Wenner was of a musical generation that saw their ideas as sledgehammers for smashing up a dreary culture. He once was all about forcing change, but he hasn’t moved with the times. That said, he wasn’t a paragon of feminism either: Rolling Stone helped to create and embed the male rock‘n’roll archetype. Wenner’s comfort in sharing his opinions shows he didn’t think they were unusual. Lord knows what the dinner-table chats are like when he and his powerful music industry pals meet up.
The reaction to Wenner’s comments must have taken him by surprise. But at least the outrage indicates that it’s not acceptable to say what he did. But it never was, was it? It’s just that now if it happens publicly, you’ll pay for it. We’ll have to presume that the quick response from his peers wasn’t just based on social media outrage, but on understanding the reasons for that outrage. There won’t be further change without that crucial piece.
Ultimately, Wenner’s comments leave us with several questions: what makes a master anyway? Who’s been deliberately left out of the musical canon? And what traditions can we discard as music progresses? He left that sledgehammer aside years ago – time to pick it up and smash the old, tired tropes and values that hold back music fans and musicians from progress.