Happy first week of January, all! A lot has happened since I last wrote in May (oof). I took and passed my second (oral) exam, which was a big relief, and which means I'm officially a Ph.D candidate. I'd been both dreading it and excitedly awaiting it, and I'm happy to say it was much more exciting than dreadful! I had actual fun, as I'd been assured I would, and I learned a lot. It really is pretty fabulous to sit in a room with mentors whose work and ideas you so admire, who admire yours right back, and discuss ideas and questions.
I'd been working pretty intensely on my prospectus in the weeks leading up to the exam, and I wrote and rewrote it over the summer and fall. It's now been passed on to my committee members' desks for final approval. I'm really proud of it. I've included the intro below, but the quick version is that I'm retelling a version of rock history that puts the influence of sixties girl groups at the center. A central part of my project is disrupting the dominant narrative in rock critical writing (from both academic and popular directions) that is (mostly) written by White men about (mostly) White men. I'm interested in the impact the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Chiffons, the Crystals, Cher, Lesley Gore, and the Shangri-Las (as well as Carole King) had on the Beatles, George Harrison, the Ramones, Lauryn Hill, Amy Winehouse, and Beyoncé. Most of the women holding up Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, for example, were Black or biracial, yet it's the questionable Spector who gets most of the credit, even today. I'm hoping to help change that.
Over the summer and fall, I started the intro chapter (sort of a fifties girlhood overview using some novels and film) and the second chapter (Ronettes, Shangri-Las, and Ramones). I'm currently drafting my first chapter, on the Ronettes, Shirelles, Beatles, and Harrison, a draft of which I'll have to my advisor by next month. As part of today's writing (and while I will away a proto-cold), I'm spending a couple of minutes thinking about what it's been like to write this stuff, and what some of the processes are that I want to prioritize going forward. (It will come as no shock to comp/rhet people that, though I'm writing an American studies dissertation, I am also one of you.)
This seems obvious, but I'm (re-)learning that my most important and effective motivator is excitement. If I can get even half excited about the book I'm holding or the documentary I'm looking at or the questions I'm writing down, I can stay full steam for longer. Same goes for anger - and there's a lot of that in the sections where I'm reading books about the birth of rock written by White men who are really only interested in thinking about White musicians. (Some of them published their books very recently, too.) In this coming age of a sexual predator and his White nationalist cronies scamming their way into the White House, I'm even more proud than I thought to be writing something that gets openly angry about White male misogyny in pop music realms.
Another thing I've been noticing and re-noticing is the importance of memoir to the stories I'm telling. Four of my subjects - Ronnie Spector, Carole King, George Harrison, and John Waters - wrote memoirs, and I'm also drawing on memoirs and memoir-critical works by the Supremes' Mary Wilson, Margo Jefferson, Susan Douglas, and Wini Breines. Spector's book - with its brief but dazzling preface by Cher - is so fascinating. She starts right in talking about race and what it was like to be biracial in 1950s Washington Heights, Manhattan, where she didn't feel completely accepted by anyone. Spector's memoir is beautifully told, and so little attention has been paid to it outside of newspaper book reviews. Will she ever get read at the volume of Springsteen and Richards? Maybe not, but you never know.
I'll be back with more in a couple of weeks!
Here's the first couple of pages of my prospectus:
Working Title: Unsung Heroines in Black and White: Sixties Girl Groups as Inspiration [and their Boy Imitators] (1961-2016)
"Men are on their way out, right?" - Prince Rogers Nelson, from a 2014 Rolling Stone interview
Sixties girl groups have never been sufficiently appreciated by critical communities, whether academic or popular. The history of rock and pop is so much more complicated, in terms of both narrative and influences, than the story that gets told (mostly about White men and their use of Black sounds and tropes). When Todd Gitlin (1987) lends his attention briefly to music in his classic history The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, he reads the fifties through a certain kind of urgent, masculine sound that he contrasts with "obsolete pop sounds" (41). When it is examined at all, girl group history gets framed by and about men (and often it’s men doing the framing). Their influence on others, in particular, is undersung and read in terms of other women. I want to go against the grain of a typically gendered critical reading and spotlight that importance by tracing the influences that girl groups had on (mostly) White male bands and artists.
Despite their apparent rule-following as archetypes of a coiffed, skirted, harmonizing, (supposedly) lovelorn and loyal fifties femininity, the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Chiffons, and the Crystals were influential in ways that should earn them more cultural credit, along with compatriots Cher and Lesley Gore. Other than the Shangri-Las and Gore, all of these groups were formed by Black and/or Native women. In this dissertation, I'll show how Black girl groups (and one White one) are sublated by the rock, punk, and retrospective satire of White boys and by the soul, pop, and hip-hop of women of color. Ultimately, I want to trace a revised history for rock 'n' roll with girl groups at the heart, and consider what kind of affective and lyrical responses their influence draws out.
The artists I consider as having been influenced by girl groups are the Beatles and George Harrison; the Ramones; John Waters; and Lauryn Hill, Amy Winehouse, and Beyoncé. I'll link them together in four chapters, all of which require a crosshatching of history and influence and affect and memory. Since the majority of the women I am considering are Black, undoing the erasure of Blackness and working against misogynoir will be the backdrop for most of my analysis; the female inheritors I have chosen have not all received enough critical due themselves from rock critics or the academy, and also because this story vibrates with the power of women of color. Of my subjects, the Beatles and Beyoncé are the most represented in course syllabi and academic analyses; the rest are nearly as absent from view as the girl groups who inspired them.
Secondarily, I will argue that girl groups powerfully enact a kind of post-adolescent female connection that all of the artists who follow them draw from in some way. The connection thrums with quiet power even in a male-dominated era and industry, creating ripples of quiet rebellion in a context of restriction. This quiet rebellion and loud closeness is what the Beatles and the Ramones openly drew from, what Harrison forgot to remember, what John Waters twisted, and what Winehouse, Hill, and Beyoncé re-imagined in the context of individuality. Cher is a liminal figure of influence: she's both girl group adjacent herself and also a responder to the kinds of stories and images their work embodied and occasioned. Beyoncé is a culmination of the sorts of connections and rebellions the girl groups began, remaking her growing corner of the world of entertainment in the image of (problematic) female empowerment.
Another story that I want to subvert in this project and in my classroom is the mostly male-dominated bent of the many History of Rock classes in colleges across the country. Most of the public syllabi I've been able to find are for classes taught by men. Steve Morse, senior rock critic for the Boston Globe, teaches an online class called "Rock History" at Berklee College of Music that includes "Emergence of Female Stars" only as the last item of a long list for the first session, titled "Dawn of Rock & Roll." Morse doesn't name any women until Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin. John Covach, professor of music at the University of Rochester, teaches a massive online open course at Coursera.org, "History of Rock, Part One," the general description of which only lists male artists. Cher is one of the few women that he mentions by name, but along with Sonny and in a clause with Spector.