Ann Powers is the chief pop critic for the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, and Tori Amos: Piece By Piece (with the artist), the co-editor of Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap, and the guest editor of Da Capo Press’ 2010 Best Music Writing" anthology.
In support of the Da Capo project, Ann Powers managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on the visibility of women in the marketplace, the legacy of hip-hop, and the influence of Robert Hilburn.
At what point did you realize your penchant for writing? What led you down the path of pop music criticism?
I got the writing bug in the fourth grade when a poem of mine was published in the school newspaper. Music criticism came a little later, when I was in high school. In some ways, it was a classic of “those who can’t do, write” – I enjoyed singing and playing guitar but didn’t have the stamina to make music-making a career. In reality, writing was my real gift, and as soon as I figured that out I never looked back.
In October 1999, you co-edited an anthology entitled “Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap.” What major obstacle do you think female artists have overcome this past decade? And what major obstacle do you think female artists still need to overcome this current decade?
This decade is a pop decade – dance-oriented music and sweet love songs (or dirty sex songs!) top the charts. Artifice and affect are in, roughness and “authenticity” are out. Women in music have always been associated with pop – with prettiness, theatricality, melodic hooks and dance beats. So it’s a great time for women. Another way to look at it would be to flip the script: women have achieved more parity in the marketplace and in the public square, and therefore a “feminine” sensibility is dominating – at least this corner of – popular culture.
As for the obstacles – women still don’t have a lot of pull as music industry executives, and the fact that the music business and the tech business are merging means that the production and distribution of music now often takes place in another male-dominated sphere. There are more women instrumentalists getting visible work now, but the big stars are still all singers. They are songwriters, too, at least – Taylor Swift’s firm ownership of her whole creative process, for example, is one reason she’s an emblematic figure representing where women are in pop right now. And to succeed, they still need to conform to a certain standard of beauty and sexiness. Even Jennifer Hudson, with that great voice, felt the pressure to lose weight.