The best books about women in music
Music critic Danyel Smith’s latest whipsmart, Shine Bright: A very personal story of black women in pop, is a masterful examination of black female artists who have indelibly shaped American popular music. Paying homage to the music that “strengthened” her through her toughest times growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s through her career as a music journalist, Smith offers an accurately written investigation into the Dixie Cups, the Sweet Inspirations and other women. who paved the way. Legends such as Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson also make appearances, as moving personalities who represent the challenges black women continue to face in the music industry and how they are reclaiming their struggles. to fuel their art.
Batteries on batteries on batteries. That’s how music books exist in my house. Books are my friends. Some of them are even written by my friends. I’m a longtime music writer and editor and the host/creator of the Spotify Original podcast Black girl songbook—a show centered around stories of black women making music of all kinds. So, yes: my typically neat, citrus-scented space homes pile on tottering, seemingly disorganized piles of tomes about musical life – sound and fury.
A look at a dining room shelf reveals Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz by Stewart Nicholson and Her Name Is Barbra: An Intimate Portrait of the Real Barbra Streisand by Randall Riese—both from 1993. I also see Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap (1995), edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers. I myself have an essay in there, about beloved rap duo Gang Starr. My Friend Benjamin Meadows-Ingram’s 2015 Diary of a Madman: The Geto Boys, Life, Death, and the Roots of Southern Rap is next to The Supremes: a saga of dreams, successes and betrayals Motown of Mark Ribowsky, who is next to the prescient Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America (1992) by genius music and cultural critic Greg Tate. I see too Book of ego trip rap lists (1992), co-written by a genius collective that includes my husband Elliott Wilson. It’s a stack. All are worth your time. It’s the women’s books, however, that shine. Each spine is a little marquee, tempting me to relive the stories and the soundtracks over and over again. Let’s take a look at some other stacks.
Why Solange Matters (2021) by punk rocker Stephanie Phillips is as much a shimmering slice of biography as it is a challenge to bravery. Liner Notes for Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound (2021) is by Daphne Brooks of Yale University. I can hear her voice in my ear when she writes about “the long-standing tendency of pop music writers to think in hagiographical terms of…’queens’ (so many queens!)…who dazzled and destroyed the audience. from one generation to the next.” 2021 by Dawnie Walton The final revival of Opal & Nev it’s fiction, but history, but journalism – check it out for yourself. Clover Hope, author of The Motherlode: Over 100 Women Who Created Hip-Hop (2021) written as the gloriously nerdy former XXL, VIBEand Billboard editor that she is, and Rachelle Baker’s illustrations look, cooler than we’ll ever be.
At Kathy Iandoli’s Babygirl: better known as Aaliyah (2021) terrified me – of my own grief. I’ll read it when I feel really, really strong. I can’t wait to jump in Celia: my life by the late Celia Cruz (2004), Shout, Sister, Shout! : The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle F. Wald (2007), and Carefree: my life as a suitor by Chrissy Hynde (2015) because I need to know even more about my favorite: “Brass In Pocket” from 1979. Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington by Nadine Cohodas nods, just like Miss Rhythm: The Autobiography of Rhythm and Blues Legend Ruth Brown (with Andrew Yule, 1996).
Always in sight
Josephine by Joséphine Baker with Jo Bouillon (1977) is necessary, just like that of 2004 Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams by Tammy L. Kernodle. And while the fact that Patti LaBelle’s enlightenment Don’t Block the Blessings: Revelations of a Lifetime (1996) ends with a quote from Sojourner Truth is wildly awesome, it’s Me, Tina: the story of my life by Tina Turner with Kurt Loder (1986) which stuck deep in my mind. Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne’s performances as Tina and Ike Turner in the 1993 film version What’s love got to do with it– are so iconic, and the former Anna Mae Bullock is such a revered figure, Me, Tina now functions as some kind of yellowed manuscript of an alternate universe. I feel Loder’s deadpan, trustworthy energy on every page. I can almost hear Turner’s blood rushing. I feel his tears and his ambition. by Karrine Steffans Confessions of a Video Vixen is deeply traumatized, but in 2006, when rap was enjoying one of its best years, Steffans shook the world with the hardcore intimacy of her life stories. There’s also the bodaciously crafted Rihanna’s Bookpublished by Phaidon Press in 2019, and 2006 Dirty Blonde: The Diaries of Courtney Love.
My Holiday Obsession Slight Billie
I start here with lady sings the blues by Holiday with William Duffy (1956) although in real life I started as a child with the 1972 film lady sings the blues with Diana Ross in the Oscar-nominated title role. I was too young to witness any heroin addiction, but film is a big part of why I love music and movies – and Billy Dee Williams. In the book, however, it’s Holiday’s written/spoken voice that seduces: melancholy, fearlessness and insecurity. A counterpart is that of John Szwed Billie Holiday: the musician and the myth (2015). He writes about Holiday’s relationship with the media and reviews the book lady sings the blues. There’s so many things, but right now, aside from his music, I’m in the 1998s Blues Legacy and Black Feminisms: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday by Angela Davis (1999) and Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon by Donald Clarke (1994).
My tactics are constantly changing. I cut back, I add. I lend (rarely!). I use my batteries for fun, for inspiration and for research. I’ve read books by and about women who make music – especially black women – not just because they’re under-celebrated and under-questioned, but because they’re the most interesting and most influential. We must know more and anticipate more, because we must do more, only to receive less credit and compensation. We are voice, story and prose. We sing truth to power.
And I didn’t even mention my stacks of Da Capo Hurry Better Music Writing collections or Alice Bag’s 2011 Violence Girl: East LA Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Storyor 2020s She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh, or More Myself: A Journey by Alicia Keys, with Michelle Burford (2020), or the imposing 1992 I Hexed You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone, with Stephen Cleary. My batteries are leaning! They are not dusty, however, they shine. And to quote the late great Luther Vandross, there can never be too many.